Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

‘Hidden Figures’ book is a story that takes off for many

The next time you go to an airport to catch a flight somewhere, take a break from your laptop or phone to look, and I mean really look, at the airplane that just rolled up to a nearby gate.

Once upon a time, a plane would have discharged a flight crew and passengers who were all white, all dressed up and all certain that America was the greatest nation in the world, and that the apartheid that existed in the South was the only thing that stood between us and Communism.

Today, people of all races, creeds, colors, national origins and political views not only fly the planes, but fly on them. Many see diversity as a strength, not a weakness of America.

But, just for today, look at the plane. Look at the wings. Why are they attached to the plane that way? What are those things on the wing? Why are the wings swept back like that? And who designed that tail? Why does it look that way?

The movie “Hidden Figures” is mostly the usual Hollywood treacle with a strong dose of truth, I must say, but in the book you get the whole story in all its glorious and challenging complexity.

The story by Margot Lee Shetterly is partially her own. She returns to her hometown in Virginia and her parents talk about the people in her community. Nearly all of them worked for NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, at the Langley Research Center, and their stories are the heart of “Hidden Figures.”

The conquest of the sky was fairly easy compared to winning the battle for equality. Virginia was a state that fought integration and equality between the races with every fiber of its being, and its politicians were determined that black people would always ride in the back of the bus, be educated in their “separate but equal” schools and eat in their own cafeterias.

But the federal government’s installations did offer a bit of a refuge.

It was a product of necessity. During World War II, NACA desperately needed smart people, and the country’s white population simply couldn’t provide enough trained mathematicians to do all the calculations needed to improve American aircraft before they left for combat in the skies over Europe and Japan.

More out of that desperation than a desire to make a social statement, NACA’s managers began recruiting blacks to work at Langley as “computers,” the people who did the engineers’ math and helped figure out how to squeeze every ounce of performance from an aircraft.

From “black colleges” in the region, they flowed into Langley, filled out forms, swore a loyalty oath and sat down at desks in the segregated West Area Computing Unit, and they saved the world for us.

Before American planes went to war, they went to Langley to be “cleaned up.” The process involved vast amounts of math as well as the removal of bumps and other interruptions to smooth airflow that could slow an airplane down or cut into its maneuverability.

The “computers” had to navigate a society outside the gates of Langley, and often inside, where Jim Crow was worshipped above all. Many engineers didn’t care what color the “computers” were so long as the numbers were right, but plenty of white workers resented having black people around, and outside the gates the rule was segregation, all the way, forever and ever, world without end, amen.

The end of the war seemed to mean the end of good times for the black computers, but then the advancing technology and the needs of the Cold War intervened. While some left Langley to navigate the segregated higher education still in force for more advanced degrees and in pursuit of goals such as becoming an engineer, many stayed and found advancement as their managers realized their worth and rewarded their skills and motivation.

Computers often left the West Unit to work directly with engineers on projects such as improving wind tunnels, developing and improving the delta wing, developing and improving swept wings and many, many more aviation areas.

As the Space Age dawned, some moved into the rocket teams that were forming and began looking at orbits, trajectories and the effects of heating on re-entry.

Sputnik was a shock to the system, and the work picked up dramatically as the nation pondered the Soviet challenge. One evening in 1958, the workers left their offices and slide rules at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and returned the next day to a new agency: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

NASA was pushing the envelope, as the test pilots would say, but for blacks at NASA the biggest challenges were not just at work. Virginia fought integration, as mentioned above, and even after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision some school districts resisted integration to the point that one Virginia school district even shut down its schools for several years.

One white parent insisted to a newspaper reporter that she’d rather have her children grow up ignorant than have them sit next to a black child in a classroom.

(Florida, another big NASA site, had its own issues. Manatee County did not integrate its high schools until 1969, and only then after fights and race riots.)

Just as today people might declare, “Free health care, then free housing, then Communism,” back then people said, “Integration, then Communism.”

But the “hidden figures” kept on calculating and kept on making progress. The technology advanced, and so did their skills. They loved their work, they loved America and they loved NASA and its missions.

Author Shetterly had to work hard to get these stories out, and some of them still haven’t been told. Many years have passed, most of those whose efforts got us into space have passed on or are in the realm of very old age, but those who are still around remember the days when they were young and doing the math that made our nation great and proud.

Today, segregation is part of a shameful past that is still so hurtful to many people. The “hidden figures” had to fight for something white folks take for granted: the right to go to school and get the best education and training, and to live where they wanted to live. Nearly every step of the black folks’ lives had to be taken carefully, and in trips through the Jim Crow South to visit friends and relatives they had to be careful not to anger a white person or persons on the way. The result could be fatal.

The movie, of course, is the usual Hollywood stuff, but it has its value. If it encourages people to pursue their goals and dreams, it will have done its job.

I would more highly recommend the book over the movie, though, to get the full flavor of the accomplishments of the “hidden figures.”


February 18, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” takes on, defeats stereotypes

A couple of years ago, I wrote a very critical blog post about a book, and the author actually responded.

The author had appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and I lambasted the author and host Terry Gross because I thought the story the author was telling was a complete whitewash. The author had spent time in prison and had read lots of books. He had dealt with the fact that his father was an immigrant by becoming a drug addict and committing strong-arm robberies in New York City.

Now he was “reformed,” he said.

I called B.S. on it all. Negative biographies have been all the rage for the past decade or so, and the “up from the gutter” narrative seems to require drug addiction, crime and more without any consideration for the victims of the author’s past behavior.

In reading “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance, I finally realized that this was a story of someone who should be admired. He grew up in the most unstable of families, in an area of the country where poverty is endemic and even the “good economic times” aren’t so great, and with a drug-addict mother who repeatedly goes into rehab, recovers for a time and then relapses, and a rotating array of men who take up with his mother, and comes out the other side determined to rise above his upbringing.

Vance should be a positive role model for everyone regardless of race or color. He had a vast amount of help, though, and he admits that for all the government programs that try to mitigate the poverty and its negative effects, without a grandmother such as his in your corner, you might not win in the end.

She’s a “hillbilly” of the old school, Vance notes, but she moved out of Kentucky with her husband as a young woman to Ohio, where the husband went to work in a steel plant. This was back in the day when a man with little education could take a blue-collar job, stick with the same company for 30 years, and build a life and living.

She has lots of regrets, and this grandmother admits to making a horde of mistakes. Vance is drawn to her despite her toughness (and maybe because of it), and she pushes him to greater achievements. Her lack of education motivates her to push Vance to get an education. When he can’t afford the university, he joins the Marine Corps and achieves success there, then leaves and goes to college on the GI Bill.

One of the best stories, though, is about how he was going to take an advanced math class and needed a $180 graphic calculator. He didn’t have the money, he recounts, and tells his grandmother he’ll have to pass on the class. Somehow, she comes up with the cash, buys him the calculator and then makes Vance bust his ass in that class.

She wants her money’s worth, she tells him in ways that go beyond words. Vance doesn’t disappoint.

Wherever Vance goes, and whatever he does, it’s clear that his grandmother is the North Star who guides him toward success. He wonders at times what his life would have been like without her insistence that he do his best.

Unlike those who think education just gives people ideas above their station, Vance’s grandmother tells him those folks are idiots. She’s so plain-spoken as to be very un-politically correct, noting at one point that her daughter, Vance’s mother, could have done better than trying to kill herself with the family’s new car. She drove it into a pole in a suicide attempt, Vance recounts, and his grandmother notes that it was a waste, and if she really wanted to kill herself, she should have just asked to borrow one of her mother’s guns.

This plain-spoken determination might seem a bit shocking to many of us, but it’s part and parcel of the life the “hillbillies” lead. Opinions are held, strongly and – Vance notes – even when they’re wrong and disadvantageous.

As for the term “hillbilly,” it is to most of us a very pejorative term and one I would avoid using, but Vance uses it and almost embraces it to define a sense of self, family and community even in the midst of terrible circumstances. These folks are pretty strong when you get beneath the surface, I say, and remember that in the main industry of Appalachia, coal mining, it was not uncommon for labor disagreements to be conducted with weapons, and sometimes automatic weapons, borne by police and others in authority and aimed at not only men but women and children.

That breeds a toughness that we city folk will never know, and I admire it.

Vance is a man after my own heart in so many ways. He’s probably the only U.S. Marine to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11 and not get married and have several children during his enlistment. It’s not like in my day, when women and their parents seemed to prefer that their daughter marry federal prison inmates instead of people in the military.

But Vance is so focused that it’s scary. And he’s not alone. He tells the good, the bad and the horrible of how life can turn out, as layoffs destroy the community that the emigrants from Kentucky built in the Rust Belt, and how they battled to survive.

The scourge of drug abuse nearly destroyed their families and their futures, but Vance tells of people who emerged from high school drug-free, went to college or into the service, and eventually went on to great careers or came back to try to rebuild their communities. Beneath the photos of the drug addicted are the regular folks who go to work every day and try to build something against the odds.

I had one worry as I read “Hillbilly Elegy.” It was that Vance’s grandmother was such a force in his life. She helped him with her letters when he was in Marine basic training and his tours overseas. What would happen when she died? Would Vance revert to the way so many others had been?

As it turns out, his beloved grandmother’s death while he’s in the Marines doesn’t divert him from the right path. He mourns and then continues on, finishing his Marine service, readjusting to civilian life and attending college. After graduation, he goes to Yale Law School, though his biological father dismisses it as the “liberal” thing to do. He doesn’t care.

Today, J.D. Vance is married and a successful man working for a capital management company out west.

His story is an indictment of the many efforts to “help” the poor and white working class, and the allure of some political candidates who want those votes, promise much and deliver little.

Ultimately, Vance is saying, you have to go out there, find the best mentors you can and do the work.

That’s a great lesson for everyone, and I highly recommend you read this book.


November 6, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pat Conroy wore the ring, and much more

Pat Conroy died Friday night, after my newspaper was put to bed.

I wanted to cry.

The son of the man who inspired the book and movie “The Great Santini,” the product of a military childhood and a military academy, who rejected the military but loved the men who defended the nation.

The son of the man who was so abusive, Conroy said once in an NPR interview that whenever the family moved to a new house his mother would have him look for hiding spots for when the “Great Santini” came home drunk and wanted to beat his wife and kids bloody and senseless, just for the hell of it.

I read Pat Conroy’s books when I was in the Marines. “The Lords of Discipline” touched me in so many ways. People keep talking about “The Prince of Tides” in Conroy’s obits, but it’s his book about “The Institute” that really got to me. It’s a tale of betrayal and stunning hatred and racism, and about a boy growing to be a man.

The betrayals are astonishing and maybe a bit overwrought, but hey, Conroy was the man who lived the hell and made the good money, so we can allow him a little leeway.
Plus, as he said in a memorable speech at his alma mater, the Citadel, He wears the ring.

After “The Lords of Discipline” was published, he said in his first speech at The Citadel in a long, long time, in May 2001, he had about as much chance of speaking there as Saddam Hussein or Jane Fonda. We writers like to settle our scores in the things we write, and you all know that I have settled plenty in my writing about the Postal Service. Except I didn’t hide behind fiction. I named names and described crimes and incidents in the post office that will never go punished.

Even then, the book hit close to home.

In his books “My Losing Season” and “The Death of Santini,” Conroy takes you into a family in which there is no fun in dysfunction. Pat recounts a beating from his father in which his mother coaches him on what to say in the emergency room.

On another occasion, at an awards ceremony for high school sports his father wrongly accuses him of playing a practical joke on another student and beats him bloody and senseless in the hall, in front of all the other people there.

Pat gets his rescuers off his father, they get into the family car and his father continues to beat him while driving them home, and after they get home.

Another trip to the ER. Another excuse.

And yet, there was a man – flawed though he was – who wanted to understand his father and his father’s rage that often flowed toward his wife and children.

In the book “The Great Santini,” the son says before the funeral of his father, who died after he crashed his Marine F-4 jet because a ejecting from the doomed plane might have sent it into a populated area — that in spite of everything he wanted to join the Marines, become an officer, graduate from flight school and come home as a Marine 2nd lieutenant with wings over his breast pocket.

Pat Conroy believed in the power of words over the power of fists. In “Lords” he is taunted because he’s majoring in English at the Institute, and because he plays basketball. Read that book and the description of the last game his character plays, a multi-overtime game against another military college that takes every last ounce of his strength and power.

OK, many of his books are overwritten. The critics will always have their say. I say, give the man his due. He wrote from a broken heart about a broken family and the broken lives it yielded. I nearly cried at the end of the nonfiction “The Death of Santini.”

The father, the monster and destroyer of his family and his youth, who drove away everyone, eventually dies. Still and all, the father says he made Robert Duvall a great actor in the movie version, though he insisted to the end that the beatings and all were just the product of a son’s overactive imagination.

Even at the end of “The Great Santini,” the son comes to understand the father amid his determination to never be that father.

Pat Conroy was imperfect. He drank too much. He ate too much. Some in his family said he remembered too much and wrote too much down.

That’s the thing about writers, and I include myself in that category. We see and hear too much, read too much into it, and then put our business on the street for all to see.

In August 1978, I was at a little place in South Carolina, you might have heard about it, called Parris Island. Platoon 2066 was doing the obstacle course one fine morning and those of us who were “eyeballing the area” could see that there was a large group of civilians watching us go through our ordeals.

I heard that they were cast and crew members of the movie “The Great Santini,” which was shooting in nearby Beaufort. They had come to see Marine training.

I fell from the ropes and into the water that day, and I sometimes wonder if Robert Duvall saw me fall. Or Pat Conroy. Or Blythe Danner. Probably not.

Hollywood had to tone down Conroy’s book to get military cooperation for it to be filmed and shown on military bases.

Pat Conroy is at peace now. I will miss him, but I will be sure to remember that when I do my next writing project that no one is feared more than the writer with the facts.

He wears the ring. He can say what he wants.

March 5, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Back in Robert Caro’s able hands

I’ve begun Robert Caro’s latest book, “The Passage of Power,” and a few pages in, I’m completely hooked.

This is the latest, and next-to-last, volume of Caro’s biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and it’s bound to be a classic.

I have the previous three books, “The Path to Power,” “Means of Ascent” and “Master of the Senate,” and I can say it lives up to those books. Let’s hope Caro finishes the final book in his “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” series soon. I know how it ends, but he’s such a great writer I want to know more about LBJ.

“The Passage of Power” arrived on my Kindle today, and I’ve only read the beginning of the first chapter, but already I can see that LBJ, the man who rose from nothing to the heights of American power as Majority Leader in the Senate, has hit a roadblock as vice president under President John F. Kennedy.

He’s frustrated, powerless and ridiculed by the Kennedy team, and he’s even denied the right to fly on Air Force One. But one day in Dallas, he’ll come into his own, and what he believes is his birthright.

Caro calls the years before Johnson ascends to the top office the years of humiliation for Johnson. It’s not hard to see why.

Please, Mr. Caro, write fast and I’ll buy your book, just as I bought this most recent work, albeit on my Kindle.

May 1, 2012 Posted by | Politics, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , | Leave a comment

Simple solution makes audiobooks accessible

I have a giant list of books I want to read, but have so far lacked the time to read them.

Soon, though, I will be spending five hours a day in the car and I know that I can’t spend all that time listening to satellite radio and NPR podcasts. My thinking was that I’d get into audiobooks. By downloading them onto my iPhone, I could then listen to the books I’ve been wanting to read.

There was a problem, though. You have to go through all sorts of software gyrations with your library system to get them downloaded, and then have to make changes to your settings in iTunes, some of which basically erase your iPhone.

My iPhone 3Gs is set up the way I want, and my efforts to make audiobooks usable on it accidentally erased my ringtone, ELO’s “Telephone Line,” and caused other problems. Also, thanks to me ripping a lot of CDs, I have very little space left on the device.

Initially, my plan was to buy another device and I had begun pricing them. They all were recommended by the library and as compatible, but the pricing was a pain to me. I saw devices running around $50 to $60, and thought that it was just too much for a small device that might have one or two books on it at a time.

I had almost given up when it hit me. I have a device that might be usable: my old first-generation iPhone. It was in the storage unit awaiting transport to the house in the Ellenton so it was still accessible. On Thursday morning, when I first got the idea, I drove over to the unit to drop some items off and load my telescope for transport to the house. I found the old iPhone, its cradle and charger, and soon was planning what I’d do with it. The battery was very, very dead, but I knew a few hours on charge would revive it. The old iPhone’s USB cable has actually been used in the car to connect the new iPhone, but I could repurpose it until I can buy a new one. In any case, there is an audio cable input that offers fewer features but works fine for listening to stuff.

I decided that I would use my new laptop to synchronize the audiobooks, so I wouldn’t have to mess with the settings on my regular PC. Soon I was installing software and on the laptop and reading instructions. Nothing is every simple with technology, that’s for sure.

The book I had chosen was Pete Hamill’s “Tabloid City,” and I had checked it out for just seven days – a mistake I have rectified for the future – but could not get uploaded. It took some work, but eventually I got it uploaded to the old iPhone and on the way back to Gainesville last night from the house in Ellenton, I listened to the book being read.

The old iPhone has been erased and has a vast amount of space for books now.

People often are criticized for keeping old stuff and old technology. I could have thrown out the old iPhone when I got the new one, but decided that it wasn’t taking up that much space. Fortunately, my “pack rat” tendencies have paid off and saved me money. Best of all, the old technology has a lot of good years left, and it will be put to good use.

It just goes to show, sometimes the old stuff is still useful, if you just think about it and devote some time and effort.

February 24, 2012 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pondering the end of print media

With my cable TV off and no ability to record programs, I’m left to DVDs and the videocassettes in my possession that still work, though I can use the rabbit ears on the TV if I’m really desperate.

In any case, of late I’ve been doing a lot of reading. In addition to recently finishing Stephen King’s novel “11/22/63,” I’ve been downloading library books on my Kindle and passing them to my laptop. I’ve also been nosing around in my complete New York Times DVD archive of front pages (up to 2008).

My other favorite places to explore the past are my DVDs of the complete Rolling Stone magazine archive (up to 2007) and The Complete New Yorker DVDs.

Though print is far from dead, I am worried because at some point, everything will be virtual and online, and then where will people find out what the big news was? The permanence of print comes to the fore when you read the front page of the Times (or any other newspaper) for Dec. 8, 1941. The newsmagazines of the time also had intense coverage of World War II, and not in what I call “History Channel time” but in the real time as people lived it.

In the New Yorker, I watched the war unfold, with information and misinformation alike in its pages. After the shock of the attack on Pearl and the Japanese offensive through the Pacific, including the fall of the Philippines, people were frustrated. Why weren’t we hitting back at the Japanese? After Germany declared war, why weren’t we hitting back at Germany?

The reality was that it took time to crank up industry and get it moving toward war production. People were needed to serve in the military and work in the factories, and it took time to get them set up and organized. It may seem that the men who filled the recruiting stations on Dec. 8 set off immediately for training, but that’s not true, I read once. Military camps and bases had to be built, training cadres organized and civilian educational facilities converted for military training use.

I learned all about that reading the media of the time. It’s amazing that much of it is online or in electronic format now, so the technology that will kill print helps to preserve past printed material for interested folks like me to learn.

But when print is finally supplanted, how will people know what was the big story, or even the little story? More fascinating than the big war news of battles are the little stories of life that never get into those documentaries about the home front in the war. But they’re there in the magazines of the time, if you’re patient enough to find them.

Maybe someone will preserve the websites that we’re generating like mad to keep people informed. I hope so. Eighty years from now, I’ll be gone but I hope some of my work will be preserved online, so others can see the perspectives of this age, and not filtered through a popular source like the History Channel.

January 18, 2012 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The news business, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Game of Thrones’ may be next ‘Sopranos’

When HBO premieres a new series, inevitably the network devotes months to teases.

Back when “The Sopranos” was still in its run – I think it was in the fourth season – HBO began teasing a new series: “The Wire.” We all know how that turned out, and “The Wire” is acclaimed as one of the greatest TV series in history.

Some time back, I began seeing teases for something called “Game of Thrones.” It looked set in times past, and while I had enjoyed the epics “Rome” and “Deadwood,” I thought it was just a bit too, well, juvenile for my tastes.

I set my TiVo to record the season, but since I’m deep into “Treme” and “The Killing” on AMC, never watched the first three episodes I recorded, then deleted them.

So one night, I was sitting home bored and decided I wanted to give “Game of Thrones” a try. But of course I had to start from the beginning, but there were no episodes coming up from the early season.

Then – face palm! – it hit me that I have On Demand, and HBO on Demand.

There were those missed episodes, and I have watched the first seven of eight, as of this writing, and will watch No. 8 tonight before bed.

I have to say this: “Game of Thrones” may be the best series HBO has done since “Deadwood.”

And Ned Stark is the closest I’ve seen to Tony Soprano.

As the hand of the king, Stark rules his little corner of the world and you can see the years and the stress in his face. I won’t go into detail, but someone spared no expense in making this series. Visually, it’s spectacular.

But I always get back to Ned Stark, whose travails are what drive the show. The Lassiters, who appear to be the bankers and moneylenders, are into their own deals, and King Robert, who’s mortally wounded on a hunting trip, is someone who loved his booze, his blood sport and his women, but was less interested in keeping the budget balanced.

I wish I had started this series from the beginning, but I’ll be back to it when its second season airs. In the meantime, on to episode eight!

June 10, 2011 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘The Wire’ just as good as ever

The wonder of DVDs is having your favorite shows on call, and for the past few weeks I’ve been re-watching “The Wire.”

David Simon and Ed Burns’s classic series about the decline of the city hasn’t lost its edge, and I watched the first two episodes of season two, “Ebb Tide” and “Collateral Damage,” with a feeling that I was seeing them in a new light.

The first season of “The Wire” is great, the second is awesome, the third is amazing, the fourth redefines episodic TV and the fifth hit so close to home for me.

Watching Jimmy McNulty at work, “giving a fuck when it’s not (his) turn,” you can’t help but admire the artistry in the second season. His main goal is to screw over Col. Rawls and Sgt. Landsman by dumping 13 (actually, with the “jumper from the bridge” who turns out to be one of the girls from the boat, 14) stone whodunits on the homicide squad, and Cole, the detective forced to take the case, is just “collateral damage.”

But then Landsman takes the 14 dead girls from Cole (played by the late Robert Colesberry, one of the producers) and drops them in the laps of his “two best detectives,” the Bunk and Lester Freamon. Their moans of dismay as they realize that McNulty has indirectly screwed them makes me joyful. Seeing those two actors in “Treme” has really inspired me to re-watch their work in “The Wire.” I keep waiting for Bunk to whip out his “’bone” but that never happens in “The Wire.”

It’s true, they don’t make TV like that anymore. What’s left are police procedurals and medical procedurals and law procedurals that all begin to sound alike. “The Wire” has a unique voice and I bet 100 years from now, people will be watching the show and learning about life in the early 2000s.

If you’ve watched “The Wire” too much, here’s my Top 10 List of Things That Indicate You’re a Real “Wire” Fan.

10. You call school district headquarters “the Puzzle Palace.”

9. You call refueling your car, getting money out of the bank, etc., “the re-up.”

8. You say “Indeed, it do” when you want to indicate that something is true.

7. You describe being in trouble as “fucked up the ass with a coconut.”

6. You refer to younger co-workers as “hoppers.”

5. When you go to the cafeteria at work, you call it “taking a re-up from the tower stash.”

4. You call women “shorty.”

3. You talk in circles in your car or on the phone.

2. Whenever you hear “The Farmer in the Dell,” you’re tempted to look for a guy in a trenchcoat carrying a big shotgun, and want to shout, “Omar comin’!”

And the No. 1 way that you indicate you’re a fan of “The Wire”:

  1. When you see a police car, you’re tempted to shout, “5-0! Shut it down!”

If my reader(s) have any other ideas, I’d love to hear them. Meanwhile, episode three of season two is calling to me.

July 1, 2010 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Young Stalin’: Portrait of the dictator as a young man

Simon Sebag Montefiore has told the story of Stalin’s life in power in “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,” and his second foray into the life of the Soviet Union’s dictator is just as fascinating.

Indeed, after reading “Young Stalin,” I checked “Red Tsar” out to re-read it.

The opening of archives across Russia has led to some amazing revelations about the former USSR and its leaders. Josef Stalin’s young life had been chronicled before, of course, but Montefiore explodes the lies and apocryphal tales, many told by Stalin himself, to get at the truth of the man.

The son of a brutal, alcoholic shoemaker, Stalin emerges from the tumult of Georgia (recently in the news for its fight and short war with Russia) to create chaos, whether it’s in the oil refining realm or in the streets of his city, where he planned bank robberies to fund the Party.

Stalin the revolutionary leaves sons by various women across the crumbling Russian empire, intrigues with – and against – Lenin, and endures exiles (from which he repeatedly escapes) for his many crimes against the Czarist rulers of a nation.

Why was Stalin so brutal? Why did he inflict so much suffering on his people?

A reading of “Young Stalin” is an exploration of how one man can control a whole nation of hundreds of millions of people, and continues to influence events to this day.

January 17, 2009 Posted by | Vinny's Book Club | , , , , | Leave a comment

Books bring comfort in tough times

This edition of my book club isn’t about a specific book, but books in general.

It’s true that I have stopped buying books and turned to the public library for the latest tomes, but I do have the comfort of many books that I’ve bought over the years.

A neighbor walked into my house one day and noticed something that you apparently don’t see in houses nowadays: several bookcases with books on every shelf. I am a bookish fellow, which usually scares people away, and those shelves are all full, and some are doubled up.

I can’t help it; books are a passion for me. Sure, I watch TV and have a small DVD collection of good movies and episodic TV, but my books are my pride and joy.

The first hardcover book I bought was “The New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony,” and other notables in my collection in include Will and later Ariel Durant’s epic 11-volume work, “The Story of Civilization” (I bought it in hardcover from a book club back in the 1980s), and books that I took home from my last newspaper job. In the latter case, the books editor received books and put them on a giveaway table after she was finished with them.

When I moved from my house in Lake Worth in 2001, I dumped a large collection of “Star Trek” novels, something I regret to this day. In my house moves, most of the stuff that goes is boxes containing books, and in my garage are stored a few more books.

Some were bought on a whim, some were for a serious effort at self-improvement, and most were for entertainment. They’re not on the shelf to impress people, but to show that I am a man of words.

No matter what happens, those books will stay with me forever. When I die many years from now, I hope there are still libraries, and that they will accept donated books, so someone else can have the pleasure I have had over the years.

December 22, 2008 Posted by | Vinny's Book Club | , , , , | Leave a comment