book reviews, sports

A review of Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics by Bela Karolyi and his ghostwriter, Nancy Ann Richardson…

The women’s gymnastics competition is over at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. For the first time in many years, the last name “Karolyi” was not part of the Olympic action. Although I have never been the slightest bit gymnastically inclined myself, I’ve watched the sport since the late 1980s. In those days, Bela and Marta Karolyi were super hot gymnastics coaches who were known for guiding athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to global stardom. By 1991, the Karolyis had added the teenaged phenom, Kim Zmeskal, to their stable of amazing gymnasts. In those days, it seemed the Karolyis could do no wrong, even if behind closed doors, things were not as they seemed.

I just finished reading the book Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics. This book, published May 31, 1994, was probably mostly written by ghost author Nancy Ann Richardson, but it’s Bela Karolyi’s life story, such as it was at that time. In the 90s, most of us either didn’t know or turned a blind eye to the abuses suffered by women gymnasts, particularly at the elite level. The Karolyis, while controversial, were also very charismatic people. And so, it made sense that Bela would share his story to the masses. As it’s written in this book, the whitewashed version of Bela Karolyi’s tale is the stuff of which American dreams are made. It would take many years before more of the truth about the Karolyis started to leak out, and their motives and methods were questioned.

I picked up a used copy of this book a few months ago. At the time, I also purchased Kerri Strug’s book, Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. Both Bela’s and Kerri’s books are out of print, so I had to wait for physical copies of them to reach me. Kerri Strug was one of Bela’s gymnasts, and she’s best known for sticking her second vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she was badly hurt. In the wake of Simone Biles’ controversial decision to withdraw from most of the Olympic events in Tokyo, there’s been a renewed interest in Kerri’s famous Olympic story. Consequently, I’ve noticed a lot of people hitting my review of Kerri Strug’s book, which I wrote in April of this year.

Kerri’s book got to me much faster than Bela’s did, and as I recall, I managed to read it within a day or so. It was an overwhelmingly positive book, even the parts about disgraced former physician, Larry Nassar, who was there to help Kerri after Bela carried her off the floor following her historic vault. I think I actually meant to read Bela’s book first, and threw Kerri’s into my Amazon cart as an afterthought, not realizing that Kerri Strug would be remembered at this year’s Olympic Games. But as it turned out, Bela’s book would prove to be less interesting and relevant than Kerri’s book is, especially in 2021. Kerri Strug is now relevant, while Bela Karolyi no longer is.

Feel No Fear begins with a story about the 1979 Gymnastics World Championships, which were held in Forth Worth, Texas. At the time, Bela Karolyi, and his with, Marta, were the women’s gymnastics coaches in Romania. They had brought a young team of gymnasts with them to Texas, along with Nadia Comaneci, who had recently gotten back into shape after having been “kidnapped” from Karolyi’s tutelage and “trained” by less oppressive coaches in Bucharest. Nadia had injured her wrist, and Bela had dressed the minor wound the night before, but a Romanian official– Bela’s nemesis– had spirited Nadia away to the hospital. There, doctors had supposedly done a surgical procedure on the injury, numbing and heavily bandaging it, and effectively rendering Nadia useless to the team. Bela was, of course, livid, but at the time, he was subject to the whims of government flunkies who did the bidding of Romania’s dictatorial president at the time, Nicolae Ceausescu. The Fort Worth story isn’t resolved until later in the book.; it serves as a hook to get people invested in Bela’s story.

After setting up the scene, Karolyi’s life story starts at the beginning. He was born in Romania on September 13, 1942, the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife. He also had an older sister. Karolyi mentions that his paternal grandfather was a very gregarious Hungarian man who liked parties and pretty women. His grandmother was a very stern German woman. Karolyi, who thinks he’s a bit like his grandfather, explains that his grandparents split up, and he was denied much of a relationship with his grandfather. Bela laments that he never really got to know the man, especially since his father was more like his strict and apparently humorless and demanding German grandmother.

Bela Karolyi’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an engineer. But Bela was more interested in sports. Bela’s interest in sports and lack of affinity for the sciences caused friction in his home. When Bela decided to study physical education instead of science, his father threw him out of the family home. Bela Karolyi had to live by his muscles and wits to get through university. He pursued sports with a passion– hammer throwing, handball, track, and boxing, specifically. He had to take a gymnastics class as part of his studies and apparently hated it, at first. But then he met Marta, who had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married.

The story/legend continues, much as I’ve seen it depicted in movies like Nadia

I watched this movie on TV years ago. It was made in 1984. Kerri Strug wrote in her book that she watched it many times. Nadia herself once said that this movie was “pure fiction”, but Bela Karolyi’s book indicates that this movie is pretty accurate. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Karolyi explains that he found the Romanian regime oppressive. He was constantly at odds with government officials, who wouldn’t let him run his program without interference. In 1981, having been forced to lead a team of Romanian gymnasts, including Nadia Comaneci, on a U.S. tour, Bela and Marta Karolyi, along with the team’s choreographer, Geza Poszar, decided to defect. They lost their minders in the busy streets of New York City. At the time, the Karolyis didn’t speak English, and they only had one of Marta’s aunts to help them assimilate. Their young daughter, Andrea, was still in Romania, and they weren’t sure if they’d ever be able to get her out of there. They had no home and no money. Still, through apparent grit and determination, the Karolyis were able to claw their way into the U.S. gymnastics scene, and they went on to create a “powerhouse” of women gymnasts.

Karolyi writes a bit about some of his more famous American clients, to include Dianne Durham, one of the first Black elite gymnasts. Durham recently died, and her first name is repeatedly misspelled “Diane” in the book. He includes comments about Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, and her mother, Phoebe Mills, Chelle Stack, Brandy Johnson, Rhonda Faehn, and Kim Zmeskal. I found this part of the book interesting, although I also thought some of his more candid comments, particularly the negative ones, were kind of telling. I remember reading an unofficial manuscript Chelle Stack’s mother wrote about working with Bela. It seems there wasn’t much love lost there.

Throughout the book, Bela Karolyi comes off as passionate, dedicated, and even kind. He includes several well known stories about how he achieved the American Dream. Some of the stories are kind of funny, like, for instance, his tale about how, when he was learning English, he thought the term “son of a bitch” was a compliment. Karolyi is supposedly an animal lover who loves dogs, and thought it was a good thing to be called a “child of a dog”. He writes that he’d actually wanted to be a veterinarian, but lacked the political and social contacts in Romania to achieve that dream. Physical education was actually Karolyi’s second choice of a career.

This generous, humorous, and gregarious side of Karolyi’s was also the public persona most people saw, especially when he was on television. However, in the wake of the gymnastics scandal of a few years ago, we found out that this was mostly a facade. Gymnasts like Dominique Moceanu have spoken out about Karolyi’s methods, which were said to be abusive and even sadistic. In fact, just this year, there was a book published in Romania called Nadia and the Securitate, which includes information about Bela and Marta Karolyi. It was written by Romanian historian, Stefjarel Olaru, and based on interviews with Romanian gymnasts and records kept by the Securitate (Romania’s secret police during Ceausescu’s reign). The gymnasts reported that the Karolyis beat and starved them, and in fact, Comaneci supposedly attempted suicide by drinking bleach when she was fifteen years old. She reportedly was happy to be hospitalized for two days, because it meant she didn’t have to go to the gym.

I remember reading this article. It made Nadia sound like a bulimic tramp.

I remember in March 1990, an issue of Life Magazine came out. Nadia was on the cover, as she had recently defected from Romania, just weeks before the Ceausescu regime fell. I recall reading that article in the library at Longwood College (now university), shocked by the negative way Nadia was portrayed. She reportedly had bulimia and was “narcissistic”, although it later came out that the much older man who had helped her escape Romania was actually holding her captive. Nadia revamped her image and is now married to fellow Olympic gold medalist gymnast, Bart Conner. But I clearly remember that in the early 90s, Nadia was depicted as some kind of “euro trash”, while her former coach was supposedly the greatest gymnastics coach ever. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t always trust what you read.

I think Feel No Fear is basically well-written. The ghostwriter did a good job making the story sound like it came directly from Bela Karolyi. There are two photo sections, which include old photos of Karolyi and his family. Those photos might have even been worth the price of the book. However, I think this book is largely whitewashed PR, which depicts Karolyi in an undeserved flattering light. I notice that Karolyi is quick to take credit for successes and just as quick to deflect blame when things go wrong. There’s no question in my mind that many of Bela’s methods were extremely abusive, even if the Karolyis did produce some champions. I wonder if the fleeting fame of a gold medal is worth a lifetime of psychological and physical trauma. I suppose I’d have to ask Karolyi’s former gymnasts about that. Karolyi himself is reportedly now suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

I did find Feel No Fear to be intriguing reading, although perhaps not in the way Karolyi had intended it to be. It’s especially interesting to read about Karolyi’s methods in the aftermath of Simone Biles’ decision to look after her own mental health and well-being over taking one for the team. Biles was one of Larry Nassar’s many victims, and she has suffered incredible stress. Not only was she under tremendous pressure to perform perfectly at the Olympics this year, but she’s also had to contend with her brother’s serious legal issues, which only now seem to be rectifying. I think if Bela or Marta Karolyi had been coaching this year’s gymnastics team, Biles would have been under insane pressure to perform, even if it meant seriously injuring or killing herself. As the world witnessed back in 1996, Bela Karolyi had no problem spurring his gymnasts on to fame, even when they were seriously hurt, as Kerri Strug was. Yes, she stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t tragically permanently injure or kill herself on live TV?

I don’t think Feel No Fear is widely available anymore. I do think it’s worth reading, if only for historical purposes, and if only to demonstrate how much bullshit the U.S. gymnastics machine has been peddling for so many years. Joan Ryan’s 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, is the first one I remember reading that shined a light on just how abusive the sports of women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating can be. It’s taken over 25 years for people to realize how right Joan Ryan was, especially in light of Larry Nassar’s abuses. Remember, Nassar was regarded as a “nice guy”. Gymnasts trusted him because he was “kind” and gave them food and comfort, while coaches like the Karolyis (and others) would scream, throw things, starve them, and even beat them to get results. That trust set them up for even more egregious abuse.

The Karolyis defend themselves.

I, for one, am glad to see this sport evolving, and people like Simone Biles, who is unquestionably extremely athletically gifted, showing everyone that there’s more to life than winning… and more to gymnastics than competing at all costs. I hope she’s able to continue to usher an end to the abusive era in which Bela and Marta Karolyi encouraged and participated. I admire the Karolyis for their ability to get out of Romania and succeed in the United States, but I do not appreciate the unethical manner in which they achieved those dreams– by abusing impressionable and ambitious young women (and their parents) who simply wanted to win at all costs.

As for Feel No Fear, I think it’s a well-polished and whitewashed version of the Karolyi legend. It’s an enjoyable enough read, if you don’t know anything about gymnastics or the truth regarding the Karolyis. But I think anyone who knows anything about elite gymnastics during the Karolyi era is going to see this story for what it really is… well-formed and highly polished bullshit.

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healthcare, LDS, movies

Repost: Do they have “good” hospitals in Romania?

Last repost for today… I wrote this post on April 11, 2018. It’s part current event/LDS church rant, part movie review. Romania has surprisingly excellent films. I should probably watch a few today, since it’s cold and rainy outside.

This morning’s post comes courtesy of a news report I read about a Mormon sister missionary in Romania.  Sister Jacie Robinson was supposed to come home to Utah from Romania today, but instead, she’s in a hospital.  On Friday of last week, Sister Robinson fainted.  It turns out she has encephalitis, which is a brain infection.

I don’t know how this young woman got her infection.  It’s my understanding that encephalitis can come on very suddenly.  I have heard of LDS missionaries getting sick or injured while in the field, due to being exposed to danger.  It does not sound like that’s what happened in this case. 

Someone on RfM posted about Sister Robinson, wanting to know if Romania has “good” hospitals.  To be honest, I’ve never visited Romania; however, I did go through a brief Romanian film phase.  One of the movies I watched was a “black comedy” from 2005 called The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

A trailer for the Romanian film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

I was intrigued on several levels by The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.  First off, I spent two years living in Armenia, which is a former Soviet republic.  Although Armenia and Romania are very different places, they do have some similarities, even in this era of post communism.  Secondly, I studied public health in graduate school, so although I myself almost never visit doctors or hospitals, I do find healthcare interesting, especially in the international arena.  
Some time ago, I rented The Death of Mr. Lazarescu from Netflix and spent a couple of hours watching it.  The film is in Romanian, but it has English subtitles.  The subtitles force you to pay close attention.  The film is billed as a “black comedy” and some parts of it are truly funny, but in reality, it’s a very sad and sometimes poignant film.  It doesn’t just apply to Romania, either.  

The film in its entirety.    

For those who would rather not watch the film (which I do recommend), here’s a basic synopsis.  Mr. Dante Lazarescu is a lonely widower who has three cats and a bad headache.  He calls an ambulance on an old rotary style phone, even though he doesn’t think the headache is serious.  When the ambulance doesn’t come, he asks his neighbor for help.  The neighbors give him some pills for his nausea, reveal him as a drunk, then help him to bed.  The neighbors call again for an ambulance.

When the ambulance arrives, the nurse on board suspects the old man has colon cancer.  She calls Mr. Lazarescu’s sister and tells him she should visit him in the hospital.  She then gets him into the ambulance and the nurse, the old man, and the driver spend the rest of the night going to different hospitals around the city, trying to get Mr. Lazarescu admitted.   

As the night progresses, the old man’s condition worsens.  He loses the ability to speak coherently and wets his pants.  Even though he’s very ill and needs treatment, no one wants to bother to examine Mr. Lazarescu.  He keeps getting shuffled from one place to the next.  He finally gets an operation to remove a blood clot, but the doctor quips they’ve saved him from the clot only so he can die of liver cancer.  

As I mentioned before, I honestly don’t know about the quality of Romanian hospitals.  I did see a few interesting comments on the YouTube videos I posted.  I did have a couple of colleagues who experienced Armenian medicine in the 1990s.  While it wasn’t deadly for them, it was not like what we in the United States are used to.  On the other hand, people in places like Romania probably don’t go bankrupt when they get sick, either.  

I think The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is worthy viewing, if you can stand the dark humor of it.  Some people might find it depressing.  I thought it was an interesting film.  Actually, Romania has put out some great movies in the past couple of decades.  I’ve watched three or four of them and been impressed by their quality.  If you have the patience to read subtitles and enjoy foreign films, I’d say your time will be well spent watching a couple of Romanian flicks. As for Sister Robinson, I hope she makes a full and speedy recovery.  Encephalitis is scary business, no matter where you are!

On another note…  

Bill is trying to arrange for some time off at the beginning of May so we can take a much needed break from Germany.  Actually, I don’t mind Germany… I just think Bill needs a breather.  Work has been rather stressful for him lately.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of The Pharmacist of Auschwitz: The Untold Story by Patricia Posner

Another book review repost. This one was written May 27, 2017. It appears here as/is.

For some reason, I often read about the Holocaust during the late spring months.  It was definitely true when we lived in Germany the last time.  It’s been true this year, too.  Maybe there’s something about the sunny weather and warmer temperatures that make me want to read about the grotesque history of Naziism and Hitler’s Final Solution.  I don’t know.

I just finished Patricia Posner’s fascinating book, The Pharmacist of Auschwitz: The Untold Story, which is the remarkable tale of Victor Capesius, a Romanian man who served as the chief pharmacist at Auschwitz during World War II.  Posner’s book, published in January of 2017, apparently breaks new ground with a story that, until now, had not been widely reported.  Having finished reading it this morning, I feel like I learned a lot by reading this well-written and solidly researched book.  It was particularly interesting because I happen to live not too far from where Victor Capesius eventually settled after the war.

Dr. Victor Capesius was an ethnic German who was born and raised in Transylvania.  He studied pharmacology, married his wife, Fritzi, who was also from Romania, and had three daughters.  Eventually, he started working for Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company.  Capesius dispensed medications, but he also sold them.  He did business with people throughout Europe and was well-liked and regarded.  Then, in 1943, when he was 35 years old, Capesius joined the Nazi SS.  He was sent to work at Auschwitz, where he quickly rose the ranks in power to become the chief pharmacist.

As chief pharmacist, Capesius had many duties.  Some of his work involved providing medications to people who were sick– those people being other officers and their families.  He was also in charge of procuring and dispensing Zyklon B, the deadly cyanide based pesticide that was used to murder Jews in gas chambers at death camps around Europe.  Another one of Capesius’ duties was to help select Jews arriving at Auschwitz for the gas chambers.  Apparently, Capesius wasn’t happy about having to participate in selections, not because he was morally opposed to it, but because he didn’t want the extra duty.  Like Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” who capriciously chose who lived or died, Capesius decided whose lives would be spared and who would be gassed within an hour or two of arrival at the death camp.

Because of his work as a salesman and pharmacist, it wasn’t unusual for Capesius to see people he knew arriving at Auschwitz.  These were former friends, colleagues, and customers who had known him as a kind, friendly person.  When the prisoners saw Capesius’ familiar face, they trusted him.  They had no way of knowing that this man they had once regarded as a friend, or at least someone worthy of respect, was making the decision to exterminate Jews.  Sometimes Capesius would spare people he knew and send their families off to be gassed. 

Capesius was also notorious for stealing.  He stole the belongings of the arriving prisoners, many of whom had stashed their valuables in their luggage, thinking they were simply going to be working for awhile.  The pharmacist also stole dental gold from the corpses.  He stockpiled these treasures and, once the war was over, used the booty to establish a comfortable life for himself.  After World War II, Capesius moved to Göppingen, a town not far from Stuttgart, and started a successful pharmacy.  Eventually, his wife, Fritzi, and daughters Melitta, Ingrid, and Christa, were able to leave Romania and join him in Germany.  Capesius and his colleagues had pretty much reintegrated into German society after the war and the government seemed content to simply whitewash the past.

Twenty years after the war ended, Capesius and his cronies were brought to justice by a very determined prosecutor.  Against the odds, the men were tried and most were found guilty and sentenced to prison.  Sadly, the sentences they received for their crimes were ridiculously light.

Patricia Posner’s book is a very interesting read.  But more than that, it’s a cautionary tale that Americans should expose themselves to, especially given our current government situation.  Victor Capesius was once a fairly decent person.  Once he was given unconditional power, he underwent a metamorphosis into a monster.  And then, when the war was over and he went back to his regular life, he wanted to bury the past and not be held accountable for his crimes.  It seems that many Germans were content with simply forgetting about the horrors of the Holocaust.  The same thing could happen in the United States if we’re not careful.

Capesius died in 1985.  He was stripped of his pharmacy degree, but he still owned his home and his business, which he ran even after he was convicted of war crimes and served some time in a German prison.  His wife, Fritzi, died in 1998.  His three daughters went on to earn high level degrees and launched successful careers in Germany, attending schools very close to where I’m currently living. 

Another aspect of this book that I found interesting is Posner’s discussion of the company I.G. Farben, which was a conglomerate of several German chemical and pharmaceutical companies, a few of which are still operating today.  I.G. Farben consisted of Bayer, BASF, Hoechst, Agfa, Chemische Fabrik Griesheim-Elektron, and Chemische Fabrik vorm. Weiler Ter Meer.  At the beginning of the 20th century, German chemical companies led the world in the production of synthetic dyes.  The word “Farben” in German means colors.

I.G. Farben had a pretty dirty history.  The company used slave labor provided by prisoners from Auschwitz to produce its products.  In fact, when it became clear that there was a need for more prison labor, the company was even responsible for the construction of the Monowitz concentration camp, which was a sub-camp of the Auschwitz concentration camp system.  It was named after the Polish town where it was located.  Prisoners at Monowitz were used at I.G. Farben’s Buna Werke industrial complex, where synthetic rubber was made.  The prisoners were starved and sickened and they could not work as hard or as efficiently as the regular employees, despite being threatened with beatings.  Prisoners who died while working were dragged back to the camp at night by their colleagues so they could be properly accounted for.  Female prisoners were forced to work as sex slaves at Monowitz’s bordello. 

I.G. Farben cooperated closely with Nazi officials, producing goods used by the Nazi regime.  The conglomerate also owned the patent for Zyklon B, which was invented by a Jewish-German Nobel Prize Winner named Fritz Haber.  Zyklon B was originally intended to be an insecticide, but it was very effective for killing people, as well.  I.G. Farben profited directly from its use as a murder agent in the gas chambers.

After the war, the Allies considered I.G. Farben to be too morally corrupt to continue operating.  Indeed, since 1952, the conglomerate ceased any real activity and remained a shell of a business.  However, legally, the conglomerate still existed until just fourteen years ago.  And most of the individual companies that were involved with the conglomerate are still operating today. 

I highly recommend Patricia Posner’s book for many reasons.  I think it’s a good reminder of what can happen when good countries fall victim to bad leadership.  Greed, corruption, and hatred can cause a decent society to fall into moral bankruptcy. 

Certainly, anyone interested in the history of the Holocaust will find Ms. Posner’s book a great read.  She provides plenty of sources for additional reading, so the especially curious will find a rich supply of information.  Yes, the subject matter of The Pharmacist of Auschwitz is horrifying and depressing, but it’s a cautionary tale to which we should all pay heed.

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book reviews

Repost: My review of Under A Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania

And finally, one more reposted book review. This one was originally posted on Epinions.com in 2013; then it appeared on my old blog. It appears as it did on May 31, 2015, which is when I last reposted it.

I recently downloaded several books written by people who lived through post World War II communist regimes. Last week, I reviewed a book about a woman who saw firsthand when her homeland, Latvia, was overtaken by the Soviet Union. Today, I’m going to review Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania (2010), a book by Haya Leah Molnar, a Romanian Jewish woman who saw Romania turn communist after World War II. I decided to download this book because it got very good ratings on Amazon.com and I love a good true story.

Eva’s story

Haya Leah Molnar explains that she grew up the much beloved only child of Romanian Jewish parents, who called her Eva Zimmermann. She lived with her parents, grandparents, and an aunt and uncle, all of whom had escaped the Holocaust. Her family was very anti-communist, but were unable to leave Romania due to the travel restrictions imposed by the government.

Though Eva’s family is Jewish, they hadn’t shared the faith with her and she didn’t know she was Jewish. At the tender age of seven, Eva finds out about her religion, but doesn’t understand what it means. Though her family loves her very much, they don’t help her understand Judaism. Her father makes some vague references to his experiences during World War II, but Eva remains confused about what makes her different.

As Eva grows older, she joins the Young Pioneers, a group for all youngsters that teaches them how to be good communists. A non-Jewish couple is moved into her family’s home, which makes it difficult for them to speak freely with each other. Eva’s father, a photographer, doesn’t feel free to practice his craft. In 1958, Eva learns that her whole family has applied to immigrate to Israel, which they consider their true “home”. Eva and her family endure interviews with government officials, give up all their worldly possessions, and must travel a less desirable route to Israel.

My thoughts

I was surprised to find out this very well-written and complex book is marketed to young readers. It’s an easy enough book to read and understand; in fact, it reminds me a little of The Diary of Anne Frank. But it just doesn’t strike me as adolescent literature. I’m 40 years old and I found it very relevant and interesting reading, certainly appropriate for adults to read and enjoy.

Parts of this book are funny and charming, while other parts are sobering. One part is gruesome, as Eva relates the story of how two Nazi officers her mother’s family had been forced to house had saved them from being killed at a slaughterhouse. Reading that account was alternately fascinating and horrifying, as it also cast a rare positive light on Nazis. It was interesting to read that bit about Romanians during the Holocaust, since I had read a lot about Jews in other parts of Europe during World War II.

Eva mentions the Securitate, Romania’s secret police force that terrorized Romanian citizens during the Ceausescu regime. But she never mentions Ceausescu or really explains what the Securitate is, other than to infer that they kept everyone in line. I would think that young people who know nothing about World War II or communism would benefit from discussion about what it was and how people lived.

One thing I didn’t like about this book was the rather abrupt ending. Toward the end of the book, Eva explains how she and her parents took a train into Bulgaria and her father realized he had left his camera behind. He needed the camera to make a living, so he went back to get it. Eva and her mother ended up waiting for her father to return; then they took a ship from Istanbul to Israel. That part of the book seems a bit rushed and I was surprised and disappointed when suddenly, the book was ending. I would have liked another chapter or two about how Eva and her family settled in Israel.

Overall

This is a great book for adolescents and adults. I would highly recommend it to those who are interested in memoirs about life during the communist era in Romania. I would caution parents about that one gruesome passage about the slaughterhouse, though it wasn’t as graphic as it could have been.

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book reviews

Repost: Nadia Comaneci’s Letters to a Young Gymnast…

Here’s another reposted book review, this time about women’s gymnastics. It was originally posted August 22, 2016, and appears here as/is.

I was only four years old in 1976, when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci became the first female gymnast to earn perfect 10s on her Olympic routines.  I grew up loving horses, not gymnastics.  I have absolutely no talent for gymnastics.  I’m not very coordinated and could never so much as turn a cartwheel.  I didn’t start watching the sport until 1988, when I was 16 years old and started noticing American athletes like Phoebe Mills and Kristie Phillips, both of whom are my age.

Nevertheless, I heard a lot about Nadia Comaneci when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s.  I grew up during a time when a number of European countries were Communist and closed off from the rest of the world.  I was always fascinated by what was behind the Iron Curtain.  I even lived in the former Soviet Union for a couple of years right after it fell apart.  As I started to become interested in watching gymnastics, I also became interested in Romania, which has been a source of so many great gymnasts since Nadia’s day.  Thanks to YouTube, I have been able to watch Nadia as a gymnast in her prime.  Even today, forty years after her victory in Montreal, I still think she is one of the most beautiful athletes I’ve ever seen.

Bear in mind that the floor she’s tumbling on is not nearly as springy as today’s floors.

Maybe it was the Rio Olympics that made me finally decide to read Nadia’s 2003 book, Letters to a Young Gymnast.  I’ve had it downloaded for awhile, though.  I finished it last night and I have to say, Nadia’s story is really fascinating.  The book is written as if she’s corresponding with a young person who has written her letters.  She refers to her unknown correspondent as “Friend” and makes it sound like they have been corresponding for awhile.  She writes about what it was like to train with Bela and Marta Karolyi when they were young coaches in Romania.  She explains things that a lot of young people of today would not understand because they are not growing up in a time when so much of Europe was cut off from the Western world.

For me, reading about Nadia’s experiences living in Romania under Ceausescu are fascinating.  I have done quite a lot of reading about Romania in the 1980s.  I’ve even seen some Romanian films; there are some surprisingly interesting movies coming from Romania, a country I haven’t yet visited but have always found intriguing.  Like a lot of Americans, I had seen the dramatized 1984 movie about Nadia’s life called Nadia.  Based on Nadia’s book, the movie did get a lot of the basic stories right, though some of what was presented as factual in the movie was not quite correct.  Nadia tells her story from her perspective, which for me, was very illuminating.

Nadia post defection.

I liked that Nadia addresses the way the Karolyis have been criticized by Americans for being too strict and abusive toward their athletes.  Nadia explains that she never saw the Karolyis as abusive.  She lived in a country where people had little food because their dictatorial leader was exporting everything that was produced in Romania.  Because she was an athlete, Nadia and her teammates ate very well.  They were taken care of much better than most of their countrymen.  It wasn’t until she was a young woman in her 20s that Nadia began to experience what life was like for ordinary Romanians.  In fact, in her case, it was somewhat worse because her coaches defected.  For several years after the Karolyis left Romania, Nadia was under constant scrutiny by the Securitate (Romanian secret police during Ceausescu’s era).

When it became clear that Nadia’s gymnastics career was “over”, she was treated more like everyone else.  When she turned twenty-five, a large chunk of her meager pay was withheld by the government because she was childless.  Imagine that.  She was being paid about $100 a month and a lot of that money she never saw, all because she had not produced any babies for the state.  Nadia writes that during Ceausescu’s era, women were ordered to have children.  Fetuses were considered state property.  Most women under age forty-five were escorted to doctors every three months to see if they were pregnant.  Nadia writes that she never had to go, but other women did.  More babies were born, but there wasn’t enough food for them and their mothers were not getting proper care during their pregnancies.  Nadia even references an excellent book about Romania during the Ceausescu regime, Red Horizons by Ion Pacepa.  I read that book myself several years ago and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about what life under Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu was like.

I remember back in 1990, I read an article in Life Magazine about Nadia’s daring defection from Romania.  She and a group of other Romanians decided to flee the country in late November 1989.  I was then a senior in high school.  No one in that group had any idea that there would be a revolution within just a few weeks and the terrible Ceausescu regime would dramatically fall apart.  Nadia writes that she was going crazy in Romania, working a boring desk job with barely enough money to eat and heat her home.  She wanted something more and knew she was unlikely to get it in 80s era Romania.  So she decided to leave.

I distinctly remember reading the article in Life, which was entitled something along the lines of “Fall From Grace”.  It basically portrayed Nadia as a cold hearted slut.  The author wrote about how Nadia was dressed, with too much makeup and short skirts.  I remember the writer’s insinuation that Nadia was bulimic.  She wrote about how Nadia ate from her companion’s plate and then disappeared into the bathroom, coming back smelling “sickly sweet”.  Here’s a link to an old article from People magazine that depicts her in much the same negative way.  And it seems that Nadia’s story has also been “told” by actress Katie Holmes, who may have some things in common with the gymnast.

Nadia explains that during that time immediately after she defected, she barely knew any English and had dressed the way people in Europe were dressing at the time.  She was ignorant about the local mores and did and said things to make her look unappealing to the American public.  I think part of her problem was the fact that she had little experience dealing with Westerners and didn’t know much English.  Part of the problem comes from the fact that she is apparently very introverted and doesn’t show emotion to others.  She initially came across as cold and unfeeling, which doesn’t appeal to a lot of Americans (even though she notes that Americans are generally a lot less physically affectionate than Romanians are).  I think that many Americans didn’t know what to make of Nadia back in 1990… and poor Nadia was dealing with some pretty significant culture shock.  Aside from that, her country was in chaos.  She’d risked her life escaping Romania, not knowing that had she waited a few weeks, she probably could have left with less drama.  But then, maybe if she’d done that, her story would have ended differently.

Nadia Comaneci has been married to fellow gymnast and Olympian Bart Conner for over twenty years.  I always thought they made an interesting couple.  Bart Conner is very friendly and extroverted.  He’s been a gymnastics commentator and always comes across as super people oriented.  Nadia, on the other hand, seems much more reserved and mysterious.  I enjoyed reading Nadia’s perspectives on how her relationship with Bart Conner bloomed into marriage.  They now live in Norman, Oklahoma and run a gymnastics school.  They have a son.  Nadia is a naturalized American, but she has kept her Romanian citizenship.  She loves Romania and, apparently, Romania loves her right back.

Anyway… I did very much enjoy Letters to a Young Gymnast.  Perhaps this book is even more interesting to those of us who remember when Communism was a reality in many more countries than it is today.  I would definitely recommend this book, not just to young readers, but to middle aged people like me.

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