Wendy and the Lost Boys

The Book of the Week is “Wendy and the Lost Boys” by Julie Salamon, published in 2011. This is a biography of Wendy Wasserstein, award-winning playwright.

Wasserstein grew up in a wealthy Jewish family with a mythmaking, high-pressure mother. Born in 1950, Wasserstein had four older siblings. As an adult, she followed in her mother’s footsteps, carefully orchestrating public relations for herself. For much of her life, she denied the existence of an older brother who was mentally challenged and sent away to a home.

A large number of women of Wasserstein’s generation were fighting for gender equality. She realized that she was attending the wrong college when her classmates at Mount Holyoke knitted sweaters in class and obsessed over getting engaged instead of planning their careers.

Wasserstein became famous through making connections with powerful people she might not have met had she not been born to an upper-class family.  Nevertheless, it took her several years to find herself; all the while her mother was needling her about her super-successful older siblings.

At one point, Wasserstein befriended New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. He found himself in a conflict whereby as Wasserstein’s friend, he was inclined to write a favorable review of her plays. A New York Times theater review makes or breaks a new production because it is the bible of theatergoers.  One review can hold overwhelming power and influence over the success of playwrights like Wasserstein.

Another factor in Wasserstein’s popularity was getting the right directors for her different works. The wrong director can spell doom for a show while a different one with a certain vision can make it shine.

Read the book to learn about Wasserstein’s relationships, eventual fulfillment of her dreams and her and her family’s sad fate.

Backing Into Forward

The Book of the Week is “Backing Into Forward” by Jules Feiffer, published in 2010. Feiffer ran with a creative crowd who lived through the historically tumultuous 20th Century years of poverty, anti-Fascist and anti-Communist hysteria and wars.

As a kid, Feiffer had a passion for comic strips. He did an easy stint in the military and kicked off his career in the 1940’s working as an unpaid intern of sorts, at Will Eisner’s illustration studio.  He later graduated to submitting cartoons to the radical newspaper, The Village Voice, which, when founded in the 1950’s, did not pay its contributors. After two years of boosting readership, he finally started to get paid.

After achieving fame, Feiffer also delivered college lectures, although he himself never attended college. Nevertheless, he had political smarts, and told the students that policies in Washington were made by an old boy network that would never admit wrongdoing in crises that were handled poorly. And there were many crises in the 1960’s and 1970’s. To add insult to injury, the shameless perpetrators would simply switch government positions, except for a few who resigned to escape further embarrassment at getting caught.

Read the book to learn of Feiffer’s family life, and adult adventures creating comics and writing plays and children’s books.

Blind Descent

The Book of the Week is “Blind Descent” by James M. Tabor, published in 2010.  This book describes various expeditions in the 1990’s and later, of supercavers in their quest to find the world’s deepest cave.  Passionate expedition leaders have included Bill Stone, Alexander Klimchouk and Yury Kasjan.  The months-long trips must be meticulously planned in advance, funding secured by dozens of sponsors such as National Geographic, permission obtained by the political entity governing the cave being explored, and supplies collected and hauled into the location.

The supercavers must be very physically fit and not the least bit squeamish, as they wear backpacks weighing upwards of thirty pounds while tolerating squalid living conditions– camping for days exploring dark, narrow, muddy, wet passages hundreds, if not thousands of feet underground. They might encounter bats or spiders, and eat freeze-dried food.

The skills required for supercaving are the same as those required for mountaineering, rock climbing, space exploration and SCUBA diving. The aforementioned Stone constructed a device for SCUBA diving, called a rebreather, that allows a diver to stay underwater for hours longer than was ever possible before. Nevertheless, people have died due to the extreme nature of supercaving.

Rescuers take hours or days to arrive when an underground explorer’s life is endangered, and wireless communications are inoperable underground. There are numerous dangers, including falling off of a steep ledge, getting a slight injury that develops an infection from any of many underground microbes, getting a case of “the bends,” not to mention drowning in a flood or being buried in an avalanche. Meanwhile, the rescuers are endangering their own lives.

This book contains the suspenseful stories of risk-takers surveying the last few places on earth that have yet to be explored.

The Black Swan

The Book of the Week is “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2010. In this book, the author explains his theory about rare, unexpected events, “Black Swans”– unexpected by those affected, because human traits and uncertain situations cause people to draw the wrong conclusions, formulate the wrong predictions, and make the wrong decisions. “Black Swan events are largely caused by people using measures way over their heads, instilling false confidence based on bogus results.” The author applies his ideas mostly to “experts” who manipulate the financial markets.

While Taleb makes some good points, this blogger suspects that very few readers of this book will come away fully understanding what a Black Swan is. Taleb tries to provide several examples; his illustrations are unclear as to why one event is a Black Swan and why another is not.

One example consists of five trading managers at a European-owned financial institution who wrote a five-year plan. Having neglected to consider all possible adverse future events, they were done in by “the Black Swan of the Russian financial default of 1998 and the accompanying meltdown of the values of Latin American debt markets.” Yet, Taleb writes that the 2008 financial crisis was not a Black Swan. He says such a cluster screw-up will happen again. A Black Swan is a negative or more rarely, a positive occurrence that in general, has never happened before.

One human trait people have is that they are reluctant to attribute events to randomness. But Taleb thinks randomness plays a part in all sorts of events, including long winning streaks of investors. He even generated a computer simulation showing how it would be impossible not to have money managers who beat the market year after year– he says they did so simply by luck alone. Another reason these investors are overrated is that people hear more often about winners rather than losers.

Taleb writes, “We want to be told stories, and there is nothing wrong with that– except that we should check more thoroughly whether the story provides consequential distortions of reality… Just consider that the newspapers try to get impeccable facts, but weave them into a narrative in such a way as to convey the impression of causality (and knowledge).”

The Open Door

The Book of the Week is “The Open Door” — David R. Godine, Publisher, 1989.  This slim volume is a compilation of autobiographical passages of 29 writers recounting the context of their enjoyment of reading. Those mostly male English and American writers range from Ben Franklin to Stephen King.

W.B. Yeats relates that at the start of his formal education, his father discouraged him from reading “boys’ papers.” The reason given was that “… a paper, by its very nature, had to be made for the average boy or man and so could not but thwart one’s growth.”

Eudora Welty wanted to be poor, as were the characters in “Four Little Peppers.” She explains, “Trouble, the backbone of literature, was still to me the original property of the fairy tale, and as long as there was plenty of trouble for everybody and the rewards for it were falling in the right spots, reading was all smooth sailing.”