Aviation is truly one of the world’s modern marvels. To say that it has made the world smaller is an understatement. There is something mystical and surreal about moving through the air at 39,000 feet, at speeds in excess of 500mph. Every flyer knows that there are inherent dangers when we take to the skies. Pilots are incredibly skilled and make the experience seem like magic to those of us in the cabin. And air travel is safer today that at any point in history but there many tragedies over the years that we have learned from in order to make air travel as safe as possible. Seasoned pilots will tell you that the early days of aviation were quite dangerous and flying literally was like rolling the dice. On January 16, 1942, movie star Carole Lombard (1908-1942) was a passenger on TWA Flight 3, a flight that began in New York and had a final destination of Burbank, California. Most of the trip was routine, but a sudden change of events in Las Vegas, changed the course of history and resulted in one of the deadliest aviation accidents of the 1940s. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed full speed into Mt. Potosi, causing the aircraft to disintegrate upon impact. There were no survivors.
The official cause of the disaster is still a mystery. At the time, flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders did not exist in the form that they do now. The pilot, Wayne Clark Williams and co-pilot Stillman-Morgan Atherton Gillette, took what they knew with them to the grave. For decades, the case remained dormant but author Robert Matzen brings the past back to life in this gripping account of the life of Carole Lombard, her husband and legendary film star William Clark Gable (1901-1960) and the plane crash that shocked a nation. Matzen has visited the crash site which is still littered with debris and other grisly finds. He has reviewed thousand of pages of records including FBI files and official investigation records by the Civil Aeronautics Board (1939-1985). And what he has compiled is a thorough investigative report into the accident that rob Hollywood of one of its brightest stars.
Flight 3’s demise of the crux of the book but the author also tells the story of Lombard’s life, from her humble beginnings in Fort Wayne, Indiana to her success in Hollywood during the golden age. Matzen leaves no stone unearthed, revealing the very private side of Lombard’s life, replete with romances, tragedy and and a near-death experience many years before she met her fate on Flight 3. The author captures the aura of the golden era in Hollywood, a time unlike anything the world had seen previously. Some of the greatest names in Hollywood history appear in the story, coming into and going out of Lombard’s life as she moves through Hollywood’s upper echelon. She eventually crossed paths with Gable and Matzen provides an inside look into their marriage and the changes that took place in their lives after tying the knot. Hollywood has dark secrets and stars sometimes come with many shortcomings carefully guarded behind a thoughtfully crafted facade. Matzen looks past that showing the very human side of both. The result is an honest an intimate portrait of two stars at the height of their careers whose relationship was on borrowed time.
Matzen wrote the book in a slightly different style. In the first half of the book, the chapters alternate between Lombard’s life story and the reaction to the crash itself. Towards the middle of the book, the seam is merged and the story moves forward as emergency personnel formulate plans to visit the crash site and recover what they can. Readers sensitive to graphic descriptions of accidents may find this part of the book difficult to get through. The accident was nothing short of devastating. As Matzen explained the violent nature of the collision, I felt a chill go down my spine. I was also speechless as I read descriptions of the carnage that awaited personnel as they made their way to the crash site. At the end of the book, there are photographs included which help to give the reader a visual image of the crash site. Pictures sometimes do speak a thousand words.
Clark Gable remains one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars. But what the public did not see was the struggle he waged in the wake of his wife’s death. Matzen discusses Gable’s life after the crash and up until his death in 1960 at the age of fifty-nine. Apart from the crash, this part of the book is also a tough read. We witness the emotional and physical descent by Gable as he struggles to move on in life following the loss of Lombard whom he affectionately referred to as “Ma”. His sorrow is strong and his life was never the same again. The author focuses on his emotional state and his surprising decision to enlist in the military during World War II. Gable is a man apart and fans of the late star will find this part of the book to be equally heartbreaking.
As the book moves towards its conclusion, the author gives us yet another surprise with regards to the crash of Flight 2793 on November 8, 2007. The Cessna was a T182t single-engine aircraft piloted by Civil Air Patrol. Col. Ed Lewis and copilot Dion DeCamp. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed directly into the same mountain as TWA Flight 3. The coincidence was beyond creepy but did both flights crash for the same reason? And why did two planes, piloted by experienced captains slam full speed into a mountain that by all accounts, should have been seen? Matzen provides a very thorough and likely explanation for Flight 3’s crash and reveals interesting facts about 2793’s final moments. Perhaps the final truth will never be known about each flight but we do have an abundance of information about both crashes. They each highlight the dangers of flying at night without proper visual aids and pre-flight planning. May the souls on board of each rest in peace.
Before reading this book, I was not aware of Flight 3 and the sad ending to the life of Carole Lombard. The book came as a recommendation on Amazon and for some reason the cover pulled me in. It was truly a fascinating read and the pace of the book never let up. Matzen has done an outstanding job. Highly recommended.
If you want to learn more about TWA Flight 3, researcher Mike McComb has an informative post on the tragedy titled January 16, 1942: Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA), Douglas DC-3 (NC1946) Potosi Mountain, NV. The post includes more photographs of Mt. Potosi, the crew and some of the passengers. If you like this book, you will find the website to be highly informative and just as thought provoking as Matzen’s work.
I find that as I age, I am more focused on historical events that changed the course of America, in particular from Black Americans. It has been said that in order to know where you are going, you have to know where you come from. For millions of Black Americans, the question of identity has been a difficult one to answer. Some prefer the term African-American while others prefer Black-American. And there are some who prefer Afro-American or just simply Black. Regardless of the label, there is a shared history of pain, struggle and the never ending goal for full integration American society. Over the past fifty years, tremendous progress has been made in the United States but there is still much work to be done. But one of the greatest things about America is our ability to correct and learn from mistakes that have lingered for too long. The young generation of today lives in a world far removed from only twenty years ago. Their world is one in which technology is ingrained and life moves at an even faster pace. My father often thinks back to the period of integration and the times where it seemed as if America was going to tear itself apart. Even to him, as a kid it seemed as if the accomplishments by Black Americans over the years were just a pipe dream.
The Civil Rights Movement was a platform not just for Black-Americans but for all people that had been denied basic civil rights to which everyone is entitled, whether here in the United States or around the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has always been seen as the “leader” of the American movement. The reality is that he was one of endless figures who displayed unparalleled bravery and dedication. But he is easily the most recognizable. But behind him, was his wife Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), who in later years became even more vocal in her commitment to Dr. King’s legacy and the movement they both believed in. This book is her autobiography so that the world can learn more not about Mrs. King but about Coretta.
Her story begins in 1927, in the small town of Heiberger, Alabama during the Jim-Crow Era. Readers sensitive to the subject matter might find this part of the book a little unnerving. Although there are some low points, there are equally many high points as well and the pride and dignity with which the Scott family carried itself offsets the darker memories that she recalls. From an early age, she is independent, tough and open to change. Those traits would prove to be invaluable later in life when a young bachelor named Martin Luther King, Jr., walked into her life. It is at this point in the book that the story picks up speed at an extraordinary pace.
Martin’s story is well-known and he remains one of the most iconic figures in world history so I do not think it is necessary to go into detail about his life in this post. Plus, Coretta does that for us but not in the position of a biographer, but simply as his wife and the mother of their four children. This is the behind the scenes look into their very private life which might surprise some. In contrast to the public version of Dr. King which was cool, controlled and always prophetic, the version shown by Coretta is humble, playful, a homemaker, a prankster and a father. The movement is never far away and Coretta explains early on that they both believed that the movement was a higher calling than anything else. And each would maintain that belief until the end of their lives.
As the story moves into the 1960s, the movement gains momentum and Coretta revisits all of the critical moments that changed America. The bus boycotts, Rosa Parks (1913-2005), Bull Connor (1897-1973) and Jim Sharp (1922-2007) are just some of the events and figures that she discusses. She also discusses the much darker moments that occurred such as a the murders of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and her beloved Martin, whose death rattled the globe and changed her life permanently. Following his assassination, she became the heir apparent to the King legacy and she has never wavered in that task.
The book changes gears after Martin’s death and the focus shifts primarily back on Coretta. Her children also come into sharper focus and she discusses how each responded to their father’s death and what he meant to them. Although Martin was gone, Coretta was still in high demand and the movement never stopped. Her circle of friends and acquaintances changes slightly but the core group of support remains intact. Later in her years, she finds herself in what some would call the widow’s club but to her, it was far from that. She was a survivor of the movement who understood that death was a constant threat to anyone who dared to challenge the system.
There is one part of the book that did strike me and that was her discussion of rumors of Martin’s infidelity. Accounts of philandering, allegedly picked up through FBI wiretaps has circulated for years. It is true that tapes were mailed to their house and Coretta elaborates on what they contained. She also has choice words for J. Edgar Hoover and his bureau. King’s friend Ralph Abernathy (1926-1990) comes under fire here for his statements in his autobiography And The Walls Came Tumbling Down wherein he discusses Martin’s transgressions. Coretta remains firm in her beliefs about Martin’s actions outside the home and Abernathy never changed his position. All are now deceased, leaving us without the opportunity to clear up the issue. What I can say is that I have never seen any photo evidence of such activity and the main source for the information came from the very agency whose job it was to discredit him. I will leave the issue up to the reader to research.
Dick Gregory once said that Black History is American History. One month in February does not come close to telling the full story. But that is easily circumvented through books such as this, written by those who were present during the defining moments in the American experience. Coretta is no longer with us, but her words of wisdom and guidance remain as a light to lead us through our darkest times, some of which have yet to come. Highly recommended.
I am honored to announce that the Free Thinking Bibliophile has been nominated for the Liebster Award. Thank you to Rebecca at Fake Flamenco for her nomination. And a very big thank you to my followers for your support and feedback as this blog has grown. When I started the blog in the summer of 2015, I had no idea it would become such a big part of my life. It has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made.
The Liebster Award helps good blogs get deserved attention so more followers discover them. Lieb is the German word for kind, nice, or good. If you are unfamiliar with the Liebster Award, you can read more about it here.
Here’s an excerpt of my letter to Rebecca of Fake Flamenco:
I am honored to be nominated for the Liebster Award. Thank you for the nomination. I proudly accept it with deep appreciation and happiness. Per your request, here are three facts about me:
- Besides blogging, I am also an IT Administrator and when I’m not blogging, building, fixing and maintaining servers and computers.
- I’m left handed
- I love to travel.
Here are my answers to the three questions that you have asked:
- Which book have you read more than twice? Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”
- What is your favorite meal? Old-fashioned Dominican cuisine of rotisserie chicken with beans, rice and freshly fried tostones (plantains).
- Where in the world would you like to travel? Having seen some of the UK, the next place I would like to see is Scotland.
Blogs I nominate for the Liebster Award:
My three questions to nominees are:
- If you could meet any historical figure of your choice, who would it be?
- Which event in world history shocked you the most?
- What led you to create your blog?
Today’s post will be quite different and discuss a subject that many of us are loathe to speak of let alone contemplate . This afternoon I received the unfortunate news that a friend and former co-worker died yesterday after a short and aggressive illness. And although the two of us hadn’t seen each other in a few years, we did keep in touch and her death has been usually tough to handle. When she came to the office in 2003, she was originally hired as temporary labor. But the boss liked her so much that he offered a full-time position and for thirteen years she served as the office manager. When she left the office in 2016, it was a tough moment to get through but I understood that employer and employee relationships do not always have a happy ending. Several weeks ago, she called me randomly at a new job because she needed some advice with regards to Microsoft Office. On the phone, she sounded full of life and excited about her new job. I had no idea at the time that she was sick and about to have a battle that would eventually take her life. Her death hits home as I get older and think of my own mortality. I have become aware of the fact that my time on this earth is finite and that no one is promised tomorrow.
The news of her death opened the floodgates of memories and I instantly recalled when she first came over to introduce herself. We instantly hit it off and remained friends ever since. I vividly recall the time I helped her move after a fire destroyed her previous apartment. I vividly recall when she phoned me at 2:00 a.m. on the night of her sister’s death. I vividly recall her mother’s passing and attending the wake with my own mother. And I vividly recall how she went to bat for anyone close to her if she felt that they were being taken advantage of. She was an extremely welcoming person but could be sharp as a knife when needed. And if you looked at her, you would have no idea that she was of Puerto Rican descent. She loved her Salsa music, Puerto Rican cuisine and her beloved Motown music which she played all the time in the office. When I think of her I can truly say that the good times far outweigh the bad.
Sometimes we never know why people come into our lives until they are gone. When I look back on our friendship, she helped me grow in many ways and was always a voice of reason when I had questions about many things in life. She could be tough at times but she was always genuine. And when she loved you as a person, you certainly knew it from the big smile and hug that she greeted you with.
During our last conversation, before she hung up, she said to me “I have to go, I’m at the new job, but we’ll catch up soon”. We never got the chance to make that happen. But I do have many great memories of Christmas parties, bowling, office lunches and tons of laughs as we passed the time at the office. She made sure I knew all of her immediate family, some of whom are also deceased. Some of our friends are in our lives every day and others may drift away but when we see each other, it is as if nothing has happened. No matter how much time had passed since we last saw each other, we were still close as ever and there was nothing I would not do if she needed it. And I knew that I could count on her for the same. Tonight, as I think of her and how she affected many lives, I can take some solace in the fact that she is no longer in pain and may she truly sleep in peace. Godspeed Miriam, Godspeed.
To my subscribers, cherish those around you while you can because while death is certain, life is not. Hug each other, talk to each other and understand each other. Love is tough and it forces us to become vulnerable. But it is that vulnerability that teaches us what true love and friendship really is. And to have a friend, you first have to be a friend. We do not know when our friends will leave us, but until they do, enjoy each moment and be sure to let them know that you are there for them but most importantly that yes, you do love them. For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee (Selected from the writings of John Donne (1572-1631)).
In loving memory of Miriam Irina Burgos (1958-2019). Vaya con dios amiga.
The cover of this book is bound to cause many to do a double take. The crossing out of the word black is far from subtle, but anyone who is familiar with the late Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory (1932-2017), will know that subtlety was not in his character. He was known as a star comedian for many years but he was also a civil rights activist, nutrition guru, social critic, writer and occasional actor. His death marked the passing of a icon whose sharp wit and frankness earned him the respect of his peers and people across the nation. Published after his death, this book takes a look at the official history of African Americans that Americans have been told for more than a century. Gregory makes it clear early in the book that American History and Black History are one in the same. It is a valid point and for African Americans, the United States is the only home that many have ever known. The history that has been taught in classrooms across America continues to be re-examined in the pursuit of the truth by historians and independent researchers. The gift of the internet has allowed truth-seekers to reach audiences of monumental sizes as we step back in time to learn what really did happen with regards to pivotal events that shaped the modern day United States.
Gregory starts early in the book, beginning after America becomes a newly formed nation and step by step, he provides us with an outline of the events that took place to clarify what has been written in error. Admittedly, Gregory has been viewed as a conspiracy theorist and in some parts of the book, a few statements give credence to that. Sadly, we do not have the ability to ask him to elaborate on those statements. I did find a few comments to be in need of further verification. But the overall message of the book remains strong and Gregory presents an abundance of valid points. For those who have accepted the history presented in school textbooks, Gregory might come off as out of his mind. But if we pay careful attention to his words, he does speak a lot of truth but in a way where we can analyze things on our own and do further research. In his defense, he never claims to be the end all source for historical information. However, he was a prominent fixture in the civil rights movement and friends with an endless number of historical figures who were directly involved in the movement. He provides plenty of anecdotes about many stars such as Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), Michael Jackson (1958-2000) and Malcolm X (1925-1965).
The pace of the book is fast but steady and Gregory makes sure not to spend too much time on one subject. He discusses each topic just long enough to provided the reader with a clear picture of past events. And while I do feel that it would have been great if he had gone into more detail, that would have required a much larger book. His focus here, is plant enough seeds of doubt so that we continue to do research on our own and learn the truth about history. Gregory was brilliant both as a comedian and social critic. Part of what made him such a memorable figure was his ability to shock his audience. He pulls no punches here and makes it clear that he intends to clarify the many lies that have been told for too long.
Some of us will read this book and come away with the belief that Gregory is more of a conspiracy theorist than many thought. He does make some statements that could be conspiracy theory oriented but he never strays too far off course or makes statements that are beyond outlandish. But I stress again that this book is not the final word on historical events. The book is a good start for those who have long questioned what they have been taught. Black Americans will question their own history in a country that has a dark past with racial discrimination. Black actors, athletes, musicians, activists and authors struggled with the system of Jim Crow and acceptance in mainstream American society. But as Gregory shows us, they all had tremendous courage and he uses their stories to prove his point that Black Americans are not helpless, but strong people whose history has been ignored for far too long. As a Black American, Gregory caused me to re-examined things that I learned years ago in my own search for truth. I did learn a few things I did not know before and for other things, I have more topics to research in-depth. I never had the opportunity to meet Dick Gregory but I had seen him in interviews on several occasions. He is no longer with us but his voice remains as prominent and relevant as ever. And this posthumous release is a further testament to his colorful and influence intellect that provokes thought and reflection. Good read.
Baseball has long held the title of America’s pastime. The NBA and NFL have respectable followings of their own. However there is also the world of sports entertainment that has been made famous by the phenomenon of professional wrestling. My father has always called it “rassling” and when I walked around the house doing my best impersonations of the stars of what was then called the World Wrestling Federation (“WWF”), he always shook his head in laughter. In spite of the wisdom he possessed about the spectacle I was obsessed with, not once did he ever try to dissuade me from watching the heroes that I came to believe in. And when he and my uncle took my brother and I to Madison Square Garden to see Hulk Hogan live in person, it was if we had been transported to wrestling heaven. As I aged, my view of wrestling changed and so did the characters I found to be standouts. Among them, was Bret Hart, known as the Hitman and leader of the Hart Foundation, the heel group that had an enormous following of fans. When he retired not long after suffering a devastating concussion in the ring, I and many fans looked back on the many matches he took part in with sadness knowing he would never set foot in the ring again. I always wondered what really went on behind the scenes and when I saw that he had written this autobiography, I knew that I had to read it. And I am happy to report that the book did not let me down and it is one of the best books about the wrestling industry that I have ever read.
Those of us who are wrestling fans accept some of the truths about it, mainly that it is entertainment. But every wrestler will tell you in person that there are some parts of the industry that are very real and lives are affected. The life of a pro-wrestler is a crazy one, based on traveling over three hundred days per year, nagging injuries, backstage politics, fame, success and attempts at maintaining a “home life” while mostly away from home. The fans rarely see the sacrifices the stars make to bring joy and excitement to the millions of wrestling fans around the world. And when the show is over, some stars ride off into the sunset while others struggle to survive after stepping out of the squared circle. For Bret Hart, it is a mix of both but in ways that no one could have expected when he first started out in what he calls the cartoon world of wrestling.
As to be expected, the story begins in Canada at the Hart family home where patriarch Stu Hart (1915-2003) and Helen Hart (1924-2001) raised Bret and his eleven siblings. He takes us back in time behind closed doors to witness that daily events in the Hart household. From the beginning, he makes it clear that the Hart siblings have some serious dysfunctional relationships. Their father is a wrestling promoter and the family struggled with the highs and lows of the business. Hart is open about the times of poverty the family endured and the other times when money flowed in. Some of the Hart children sought to make their own careers but the family was a wrestling dynasty and before long, Bret himself laced up the boots and began a career that was nothing short of extraordinary.
The book is captivating from the start and Hart has no shortage of anecdotes about growing up in a large family under a man feared by anyone who dared to get close enough to Stu’s dungeon. The story flows very well and we begin to see Hart’s life taking shape. The story takes the biggest turn when Vince McMahon, Jr. enters the story. It is at this point that life is never the same from Bret or professional wrestling. McMahon realized early on that in order to pull ahead, regional wrestling promotions would have to fold and to achieve this, he purchased a number of them, guaranteeing an iron grip on the East Coast. Bret soon faced the decision that many wrestlers of his time had to make and decided to take a chance and go to work for the WWF. The book picks up speed here and the things we learn about backstage production will more than satisfy wrestling buffs. All of the big names are in the book but sadly many of them are no longer with us. But through Bret’s stories, we can revisit the era ruled by stars such as Andre The Giant (1946-1993), Bobby Heenan (1944-2017), Adrian Adonis (1953-1988) and Chief Wahoo McDaniel (1938-2002). Throughout the book, Hart never loses focus even in the midst of so many larger than life characters. In the land of the giants, he rises to the top and eventually becomes the WWF champion. His ascension was by no means easy and his relationship with Vince is examined in detail. Hart pulls no punches and thoroughly explains his view of the Montreal Screwjob, his brother Owen’s death and how McMahon handled each situation. Those two moments in the book might change the way many view the minds behind the business. Wrestling fans will be familiar with both events but it is worth reading what Hart has to say.
The successes in the ring are offset by the events in his personal life which he discusses frankly. Professional wrestling is filled with many demons and Hart was not immune, Performance enhancing drugs, pain killers, infidelity, alcohol and acts of aggression are the devil’s brew that can dismantle the life of even the strongest of the strong. Hart discusses each one and in the process reveals the many struggles that can serve as the downfall of a wrestling star. The stories are sad and in some cases tragic. One that stands out in the book is that of Tom Billington (1958-2018) known by fans as the Dynamite Kid. His story is one of the most tragic that I have come across from the crazy world of wrestling. There is more to his life that Hart could not cover but Billington’s story can easily be found on the internet. Hart was one of the lucky ones and as friends died, he lived and counted his blessings. But two events happened that forced him out of the ring and changed his life in ways he could have never imagined.
During a routine match with superstar Bill Goldberg, Hart suffered a career ending concussion. I remember the match and it was clear that Hart had been seriously injured. However, no one watching that night knew just how serious the injury was but that would soon change. Hart recalls the profound changes in his life and the excruciating effects it inflicted up his body. His life became a daily struggle to do the most mundane tasks and when things seemed to be stable, he suffered another medical emergency that completely changed his future. For fans of the Hitman, this part of the book will be tough to get through. But I can say that throughout it all, he never stops being the Hitman and the story does have its shining moments. This autobiography is a treasure trove of information about the business and it is nothing short of seductive. I literally could not get enough of the stories about the older wrestling stars. They lived wild lives but also made their names as legends in the squared circle. Bret Hart is among those that have managed to survive but he carries with him many scars, both physically and mentally from his time in the business. This is his story, one of success, fame, love, heartbreak, tragedy and redemption. And I am sure that it will leave you at times speechless and at others, cheering Hart along in support. Wrestling fans will love this book.
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll
On the morning of February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and a team of terrorist drove a bomb laden van into the basement of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. As I watched the news from across the river in Brooklyn that morning, I felt a sense of shock and vulnerability. America had been attacked. When Ramzi Yousef was captured and extradited to New York to stand trial, many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief. The Hon. Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to life with no parole plus an additional 240 years which he is currently serving at the ADX Florence Supermax facility in Fremont County, Colorado. Eight years later on September 11, 2001, America was attacked again when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the final aircraft outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The response from Washington was swift and a show of force nearly unparalleled in modern times. The mission to capture those responsible and root out terrorists, led to Afghanistan, a land-locked country in South-Central Asia. Images of U.S. troops and the enemy Taliban flashed across news screens as reports of successes in the mission to root out terror were triumphantly proclaimed. To many Americans, Afghanistan was another far away place across the world where people lived in ways that seemed to be from ancient times, going against “American ideals”. Today, Afghanistan is nearly completely forgotten by the American public. There has been no news about what America’s current role is and plans to withdraw American forces have been cast aside as yet another victim of the focus on what has become reality television politics. The story of Afghanistan and its importance to world history is often misunderstood and in some cases not even recognized. But there is far more that meets the eye and author Steve Coll explores this topic in this New York Times bestseller that tells the full story what did happen in Afghanistan between the Soviet Invasion and the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001.
If you asked a person on the street today why we are in Afghanistan, I firmly believe that many could not give a plausible answer. Washington has no official position on it. But what is striking is that for decades, U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan was either anti-soviet, anti-Taliban and in other cases, non-existent. Coll revisits each and examines the subject in detail so that we can understand how and why the U.S. attitude towards Afghanistan continued to shift. The book is primarily focused on the Soviet-Afghan war between 1979 and 1989. The conflict drew the attention and participation of multiple countries including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Central Intelligence Agency served as the main force to funnel information back to Washington and the United States found itself supporting the Mujadhideen rebels against the Soviet backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The rebels’ cause earned them support from other young radicals including a very young Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) who reappears later in the book as an arch-nemesis of the United States. The Soviet-Afghan war served as the last major conflict of the Cold War before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, history took a very different course for many reason as the author shows. And slowly Afghanistan became a pawn in a much larger chess match between more powerful and sophisticated nations.
The figures that appear in the book are numerous and keeping track of all of them is a bit tedious. But each is critical to the story at hand including the late Senator from Texas, Charles Wilson (D) (1933-2010), Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960-2013) and former Pakistan Premier Benazir Bhutto (1957-2007). All of the figures are central to the complicated web woven in the Middle East as Sharia Law clashed with modernity and oil pipelines became the target of several governments. Coll connects all of the dots in a writing style that makes the story very easy to follow. The revelations in the book dis-spell many rumors and confirm others. The volatile nature of politics in the region is on full display as each leader walks a tightrope while in office. The rise of Sharia Law and anti-modernity beliefs began to turn the tide in the Middle East from welcomed support from the west to disdain for the western way of life. Radicalism is born and as Coll moves through the second half the book, we see how Islamic extremism gained its footing while Washington was asleep at the wheel.
Osama Bin Laden held a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list for several years until his death. Even today, he is still considered one of the world’s deadliest terrorist although he did not carry out the acts himself. But as we see in the book, he was charismatic, dedicated and blessed with enormous wealth as a result of his father’s high successful and respected construction firm. He became a central figure in the new war against the west which would be waged by a new wave of committed soldiers with nothing to fear. Incredibly, while this was taking place, the response by Washington was bewildering. However, not everyone was oblivious to the sudden rise of Bin Laden and there were many officials who sounded the alarm as to what they saw as the next major threat to America. That threat manifested itself horrifically in September, 2001.
Undoubtedly, each reader will take something different away from the book. But I do believe that every reader will be confused to say the least as to what was really happening in Washington and lack of information provided to American citizens. As I read the book, I shook my head at times in disbelief. Today we can look back and ask what if Washington had stopped Bin Laden when it had the chance? Why did Washington fail to acknowledge the warning signs from the intelligence community? Some answers we may never fully know but through Steve Coll, we have plenty of explanations that will suffice for many. For those interested in learning the true story of the Soviet-Afghan war and America’s foreign policy in relation to the region, this book is a must read.
The dissolution of the United Soviet Social Republics (USSR) remains one of the most important and world changing moments in history. The lowering of the hammer and sickle on December 26, 1991, was the end of seventy-four years of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe. But the remnants of the Soviet Union can still be found today and the ghost of its founder, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), continues to haunt Russia. In Red Square, Moscow, Lenin’s corpse remains on permanent display and is maintained by a full-time staff of technicians. To believers in the old-guard and Marxism, Lenin is the eternal leader of the Bolshevik revolution. To his detractors, he was madman who unleashed a wave of terror and was outdone only by his successor Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Undoubtedly, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron grip built upon fear, intimidation and murder. But those tactics were not new methods of operation, having been in use long before he took power. During the reign of the Soviet Union, information regarding Lenin’s private life was kept secret and only the most privileged of researchers were able to see any official records. The passage of time and change in attitudes had resulted in the disclosure of Soviet records that many thought would never be revealed. The thaw which began with Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) has allowed the world to learn the truth behind the Iron Curtain. Author Victor Sebestyen has taken another look at Lenin’s life in this well-researched and revealing biography of the iconic and infamous Soviet leader.
It is not a requirement but I do believe that basic knowledge of the former Soviet Union will make the book even more enjoyable to the reader. There are many figures in the story, some of whom became pivotal figures in Soviet and world history. From the start, the book is intriguing and the author’s writing style sets the perfect tone for the book. Furthermore, at the end of each chapter are the footnotes which help aid the reader in following the narrative and developing a mental picture of the tense political climate that existed in Russia at the beginning of the 1900s.
Prior to reading the book, I had learned a significant amount of information regarding Lenin’s life but the story told here is simply astounding. Sebestyen leaves no stone unearthed, fully disclosing the sensitive parts of Lenin’s life including his marriage to Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1969-1939) and relationship with Inessa Armand (1874-1920). And as the author points out, Nadezhda or “Nadya”, was a supportive and valued voice in Lenin’s circle. Her comments throughout the book shed light on Lenin’s very private side and her commitment to the revolution and Lenin’s ideology made her a celebrated figure in her own right. She remained committed to Lenin after his death and up until her own in 1939.
Lenin’s early life is examined in through detail and reveals an interesting figure but highly unorthodox and complex. Ideology becomes a major focus of his life and his series of odd jobs come to an end when he finds his true calling as the man destined to lead the Bolshevik Revolution. But his path to get there had many obstacles along the way and it is his time away from Russia that is just as interesting as his time in Russia. As would be expected, his service as chairman is the crux of the book and Sebestyen delivers the goods. Sensitive readers should be aware that there are very disturbing events that take place and in their graphic detail here, they may prove to be too upsetting for some. But the author reveals them so that we may learn the truth about Lenin. In the title of the book, the author refers to him as a “Master of Terror”. I believe the title was earned and this book is proof of it. His deeds have been overshadowed by those of his successor but Lenin was a master in his own right and I have no doubts that Stalin took many notes. Death, deception, lies and even pilferage are part of the Soviet story, serving as pillars in the foundation upon which Lenin and his party established their system of brutality. Their acts were so surprising in some instances, that even after having finished the book, I am still shaking my head in disbelief. And to say that anarchy ruled, might be an understatement.
Sebestyen carefully follows Lenin’s rise and the formation of the Soviet Government. From the start, all was not well and cracks in the facade immediately began to form. The fragility of the coalition is on full display, allowing readers to grasp the unstable nature of Soviet politics and how quickly friends could turn into enemies. Jealousy, egos and diverging interpretations of true Marxism severed friendships, raised suspicion and helped create an atmosphere of distrust that remained with the Soviet Union for the next seventy years. And even today, Russia and the independent republics, sometimes struggle to to stand completely removed from the dark legacy of the USSR.
One subject which has always been up for debate is Lenin’s untimely demise at the age of fifty-four. His condition at the time was somewhat puzzling to doctors but all agreed that it deteriorated quickly. Sebestyen clears up a few rumors surrounding Lenin’s death but there is a slight chance that some details regarding Lenin’s death still remain hidden. However, I do believe the author presents a solid analysis of what contributed to his death based on facts and not mere speculation. Readers who are expecting to find any evidence of a conspiracy will disappointed. No such theories are presented or even acknowledged, keeping the book on track all the way until the end.
The existence of Lenin’s tomb is both a testament to his influence over Russia and his inability to envision a future without himself. He could have never imagined the heights that the Soviet Union would reach over time nor could he have pictured its downfall. I think he may have mixed feelings to know that today in 2019, people are still interested in his life, one that he was willing to devote to the success of the Soviet empire. In death, he became eternally etched into the Soviet experience and he remains one of history’s most polarizing figures. This biography is nothing short of excellent.
In American folklore, there are two families whose names are recognized as being part of what is arguably the longest running feud to have ever taken place in the United States. The Hatfields and the McCoys have become ingrained in the American experience and the alleged feud between the two families has been re-told through films, documentaries, websites and books. In 2012, the History Channel released a multi-part miniseries about the feud starring Kevin Costner as William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (1839-1921) and the late Bill Paxton (1955-2017) as Randolph “Ran’l” McCoy (1825-1914). The series is highly rated but just how accurate was it? And were the Tug Valley in West Virginia and Pike County in Kentucky, really that deadly in the late 1800s? Thomas E. Dotson is a descendant of both families and here he rescues history and sets the record straight about what really did happen between the years of 1882 and 1888. And what he reveals will undoubtedly change the way you view the “feud” between the two famous families.
Dotson takes a different approach here and instead of re-telling the story, he examines other sources of information that have been published or released that have contributed to the often repeated “official” story about the conflict. There is no official narrative here, the purpose of the book is correct information that is simply inaccurate. Urban legends and published works have led many of us to believe that the conflict began over the issue of a stolen hog from Randolph McCoy and that as a result, blood was shed in large numbers, turning the Tug Valley into a shooting gallery. Admittedly, the story is sensational and its seductiveness has allowed many to fall victim to misinformatio. However, through hindsight, Dotson’s work allows us to go back in time and take another look at the “deadly” conflict.
The amount of research that went into this book is nothing short of staggering. Dotson means business here and has had enough of the lies and omissions that have persisted for more than one hundred years. I have seen the reviews of some readers on Amazon, who complained that the author did not tell the story as it happened. However, Dotson does tell the story, just not in the conventional format. By going back and breaking down the myths, the story is re-told, one section at a time. And by halfway through the book, a clear picture of the origin of the tensions between the two families is clearly evident. The death of Ellison Hatfield on August 1, 1882 in Pike County, Kentucky, is widely accepted as the beginning of the conflict. But as Dotson shows us, the seeds of discord were sown many years before, going all the way back to the Civil War. Further, the tensions between the two were only a part of a much larger battle being waged between many high-powered figures over land, money and the settling of old grudges.
Surely, some secrets of the conflict have been lost over time as those who were alive at the time have long been deceased. But their heirs and official records that have survived, give us a clearer picture of the mindset of both families during the time and refute myths about the events that were supposed to have taken place. Dotson rectifies those long held beliefs, dissecting them like an expert surgeon. For more than a century, the alleged theft of a hog has been the referred to as the start of the troubles. But what Dotson shows is that there was far more to the story than any of us could have imagined. To the Hatfields and the McCoys that are now deceased, any notion of a feud probably would have been seen as ridiculous. To be sure, the families did have their tensions but a feud in the sense that we think of might have seemed bizarre to them.
As I read the book, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the surreal amount of misinformation that has been propagated many forms of media. Hollywood has always been known to take certain liberties with stories and Costner, while a great actor, was not responsible for every part of the production. However, I do believe that with the story of the Hatfield and the McCoys, the truth has been sacrificed for too many years while those responsible have profited greatly. And the full story of what did happen has remained hidden until now. Dotson is proud of his heritage and does an incredible job of presenting the truth while completely demolishing any perceptions that people from the Tug Valley are hillbillies obsessed with violence and illiterate. In fact, as can be seen in the book, it was the exact opposite in many places and the full story reveals a long running chest match that eventually did see a checkmate take place.
Perhaps one day, a film will be made that tells the story of the Hatfields and McCoys as it did happen, removing the fanfare and eliminating the tendencies of storytellers to embellish their accounts to be more appealing. But until then, we can rely on this phenomenal compendium that tells the truth about what may be the greatest “non-feud” in history.