Open Veins In Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent-Eduardo Galeano with a Foreword by Isabel Allende

galeanoLatin America is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.   The Iguazu Falls, Andes Mountains and Patagonia attract millions of visitors annually.  The beauty of these and other sites across Latin America stand in stark contrast to the poverty that can be found outside of major cities and sometimes within.  In between major railway stations and ports exist slums that remind us of the severely uneven distribution of wealth throughout the continent.  Speaking from personal experience, most Americans would be shocked at living conditions that still exist in Latin America to this day.   But why does a continent with a history that goes back several hundred years  and is home to beautiful people, beautiful languages, great foods and beautiful scenes of nature, continue to suffer from poverty, corruption and exploitation.

The key to understanding the current state of these and other Latin American affairs, is to revisit its history.  Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) has done just that in this eye-opening and best-selling study of Latin American history that was first published in 1971.   The edition that is the subject of this review was re-published in 1997, and contains a foreword by Isabel Allende,  a cousin of the late Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973).   On September 11, 1973, Allende died on a self-inflicted gunshot wound as opposition forces engaged in a CIA-backed overthrow of the government.  Isabel currently lives in California and is a naturalized United States Citizen.

Galeano starts by revisiting how Latin America came into existence from a continent of indigenous people to one in which Spanish is the dominant language.  The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean marked a distinctive change in the course of world history and although he never set foot in North America,  Columbus is still considered by many to be the person that discovered what is today the United States. In recent years however, the holiday of Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous People’s Day or in others not acknowledged.  In Central and South America, the arrival of the Spanish explorers would have a profound impact and set the stage for plunder, murder and exploitation that engulfed the continent.   Next to Columbus are the stories of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) and Pedro de Valdivia (1497-1553), explorers who would spend their last days in South America.    And as Galeano re-tells their stories, the reader might want to make notes of names, dates and places as the story comes together like a puzzle.

While the tragedy of exploitation and violence played out, not all voices were content with Spanish domination and the extermination of South America’s inhabitants.  Tupac Amaru (1545-1572) and Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) also appear in the book and it would be safe to say that an author would find it impossible to discuss Latin American history without recounting their extraordinary and short lives.   However their efforts proved to be ineffective against the rush of colonization that dominated the southern hemisphere.  And it is at this point in the book that Galeano turns up the heat as we learn how natural resources became a gold mine and and the populations of the Carribean, Central American and South American nearly disappeared as a result of warfare, famine and disease.  World superpowers sank their teeth into the Latin American cash machine and have never let go.

The grip of foreign control has proven to have disastrous effects on politics, producing revolutions and widespread practice of the coup d’état.   Leaders who leaned left and sought to reclaim industries exploited by foreign corporations were quickly dealt with through American foreign policy.   Those who did play the game were rewarded and tolerated through the Good Neighbor Policy and other shady practices.  The climate of distrust and violent overthrow of the government has never left Latin America.  The current events in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Argentina are prime examples of the volatile political climate that continues to exist.  And all the while, foreign corporations continue to reap enormous profits as they move around offices and politicians like pieces on a chess board.

Galeano provides a staggering amount of information in the book which is sure to shock the reader.   But this book is key to understanding why Latin America has developed so many third-world countries. It would be easy to blame those countries for their own failures.  But what we know is that after a colonizer has left the colonized, it is immensely difficult for those nations to find a permanent path of success.  This was beautifully explained by Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) in his classic The Wretched of the Earth.   The future is bleak for many Latin American nations as inflation rises and the IMF becomes more reluctant to give out loans.  Poverty continues to increase giving rise to protests, crime and strikes.  What we see today is a manifestation of what Galeano calls “five hundred years of the pillage of a continent”.

If you have never traveled through Latin America, I implore you to do so at least once.  I firmly believe that there are many great things that are unfamiliar to those who live in the northern hemisphere. I have had the privilege of visiting  Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.  Chile is next on the list.  Through my travels, I have met many people who have become a permanent part of my life and I am eternally grateful for having met them.   Galeano died on April 13, 2015 after a battle with lung cancer but he left behind important works and this masterpiece which has been translated into more than twelve languages.  This book has proven to be the companion guide every person needs in order to understand many of things that will be seen in Latin America, including the current presence of open veins.

ISBN-10: 0853459916

ISBN-13: 978-0853459910

Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield-Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria

curtisHis voice was unlike any other I have ever heard.  My grandparents, aunts and uncles played his music regularly and his songs are recognized as part of the soundtrack to the continuing movement for equality carried on through Black Americans.   His hits We’re A Winner and Keep on Pushing are some of most iconic songs from that era and a testament to the skill and passion of the late Curtis Lee Mayfield (1942-1999).   Along with his group, the Impressions, Mayfield helped redefine music as we have come to know it.  His soundtrack for Super Fly is legendary and next to Isaac Hayes, the music therein was the cream of the crop for the Blaxploitation films that became the norm for African-American stars. And although he has been gone for nearly nineteen years, his music sounds as if it were recorded yesterday.  On the surface, the beard, eccentric clothing, glasses and guitar tuned to F sharp gave the image of a musician larger than life.  But how much of his personal life do we, his fans, know? And what was the real Curtis Mayfield like?

Todd Mayfield is one of the late star’s ten children and together with Travis Atria, he tells the story of his father’s life.  Early in the book, Mayfield points out that to date, there is no biography that captures the full story.  Well that is until now.  Drawing on family history, music records, interviews with those who knew his father and his own recollections of his time with his dad, Mayfield has written the definitive biography of his father’s life that ended at only fifty-seven years of age.  I am sure that many rarely known facts are revealed in the book and the information about Curtom records and Curtis’ working relationships with other stars of that era are great material for music fans with a thirst for knowledge. On a personal note, I wonder what would have happened if Donny Hathaway had worked more with him but both are no longer around to give their thoughts.  The book is also a look back at the racial climate that blanketed the United States during the era of Jim Crow and even after the Civil Rights Movement and the later Civil Rights Act of 1964.  These events weighed heavily on Curtis and throughout the book we see how he deals with the injustice he witnesses while making hit music that would outlive him and nearly all of the greatest leaders during that time.

Although the biography is written by Curtis’ son, there is no strong bias either for or against him. In fact, Todd does a remarkable job of pointing out his father’s flaws and the times where he took the wrong path in life.  The love he had for his father is undeniable but as he points out in the book, Curtis could charm anyone but at the same time be one of the coldest people you could meet.  And like all musical genius, there is that fine line between genius and insanity. As a songwriter, Curtis composed some of music’s biggest hits, many of which are still in rotation today.  I think that if people knew just how many songs he wrote during his career, they would be speechless.  But for all of his highs, there also lows, some of which are regrettable.

I imagine that for Todd, it must have been difficult to reveal some of his father’s worst traits that remained hidden behind a carefully molded public facade. But I believe that in order to write the story of his father’s life as it should be told, he could not have done it any other way.   Drugs, domestic violence, infidelity, paranoia and selfishness were some of the many parts of Curtis, a multi-dimensional figure whose genius at music was at odds with his aloofness and vindictiveness as a husband and father.  But like all great stars, the world sometimes appears through a different lens revealing a lifestyle that is foreign to the average person.  Tours, albums, studio sessions, family demands and personal insecurities are the staples of every great artist’s life and Mayfield was no different.

Interestingly, as I made my way through the book, at times I loved Curtis and at other times was scratching my head in disbelief.  I was shocked at some of the antics he pulled and the violence that took place.  But regardless, I never lost my fondness for the man whose music I play when I am in the need for some good music that reaches deep down into the soul.  And while I wish some parts of the story did not exist, it was imperative to remember that underneath everything, he was a human being with his flaws.   As the story moves to Wingate Field in Brooklyn, there is bad omen that hangs over the book. By this point his life, Curtis had slowly begun his downward spiral and the freak accident that took place on August 13, 1990, changed his life and music forever.  The remaining years of his time on earth as told here by Todd, was heartbreaking to read. However, in spite of everything that happened to him, Curtis never lost his spirit and his positive outlook was nothing short of inspiring.  Sadly, he did not live to see his children move up in the world and keep on pushing or his grandchildren, but he left a legacy that will remain with his family and fans for life.  This is the story of the life of Curtis Lee Mayfield.

ISBN-10: 1613736797
ISBN-13: 978-1613736791

Seven Days in May-Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, II

20180528_191957Many of us believe that it could never happen here and that the United States is too stable and developed for the military to even attempt a coup.  The suggestion would be dismissed instantly by those who believe such things happen in Third World nations.  But what if it did happen in the United States? And how would the plot develop?  Fletcher Knebel (1911-1993) and Charles W. Bailey, II (1929-2012) put their minds together as they pondered these questions and others resulting in this masterpiece, Seven Days in May.  According to legend, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) liked the book so much that he allowed director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) to use the White House grounds while creating the film of the same name that was released in 1964 starring Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) and Kirk Douglas (1916-).  Kennedy did not live to see the film and his assassination was more than the writers could have imagined as they created this book.

The story is set in the 1970s and the main character is Marine Colonel Martin J. “Jiggs” Casey who begins to notice strange occurrences within the U.S. military which give the impression of the development of a dark and sinister plot that reaches all the way up the chain of command to the White House.  The President, Jordan Lyman, has recently agreed to a nuclear weapons treaty with the Soviet Union.  The military brass is beyond infuriated and a majority of the American public views the treaty as a bad idea.  And while his approval rating has plummeted, Lyman is unfazed and believes he is doing the right thing.  After a joint chiefs meeting in which Casey comes into possession of a scrap of paper left by another office, he decides to go directly to the White House to warn the Lyman of what he believes a plot to remove him from office.  And from this point on, the book picks up pace and never slows down.

Unbeknownst to Casey, Lyman had been concerned with several strange events which occurred before their meeting.   As the parts begin to fuse together, the full nature of the comes down on the oval office like a sledgehammer.  Lyman realizes what is at stake and realizes he must act fast.  His first step is to put together his team of Senator Ray Clark, Secret Service Chief Art Corwin,  White House Appointment Secretary Paul Girard,  lawyer Chris Todd and Col. Casey to construct their counter-attack.  The plot to remove Lyman is the work of  U.S. US Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, Senator Fred Prentice, Colonel Ben Murdock, Colonel John Broderick and Air Force General Hardesty,  The teams have been decided, the stage has been set and before seven days have passed, a showdown will take place but the question is who will win the race against time?

Having read the book it is not hard to see why it was a success and caught the attention of Hollywood.  It is a thriller that keeps readers on edge of their seats as they turn the page to see what happens next.  The story reads like a film and contains all of the necessary elements.  A secret U.S. air base, mysterious death, clandestine meetings and right media combine as a credible threat to the security of the United States.  And as I read through the book, I kept asking myself could this happen in America?  And are we as a nation so secure in our belief in the constitution that we could never fathom a coup taking place on American soil?  As seen in the book, the plot developed at the highest levels of government and even then many high-ranking officials were unaware of the ECOMCON project, secret base and the transport maneuvers which NORAD had no knowledge of.  Compartmentalization is evident but the game turns into a chess match and the oval office has some of the best players in the game.

President Lyman comes through as a hero in the book especially when presented with damning evidence of transgressions in General Scott’s personal life.   And even when faced with one staggering blow after the next, he never waves in his ability to see things in political terms.  And while that can sometimes be a handicap, the president is a shrewd leader whose goal is to preserve the constitution and stop the conspirators in their tracks.  He is supported not only by his team but by others who believe in preserving the government from any type of attack and those who support his presidency. And what at first seems like a big jigsaw puzzle scattered across the country, comes together revealing what had been thought of as unimaginable.

As a reader of mainly non-fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this book which provided a change from my normal pursuit of historical information.  The pace is just right and as a person who loves history, the references to past presidents and events gives the book even more a feel of authenticity.   Each of the characters are interesting on their own but fit into the story precisely.  But this is a story that I hope remains a work of fiction and not a premonition of things to come.  Much has changed since this book was published but the reality is that every president has enemies and foreign is not always looked up favorably at home.  But what is paramount is that the president remains in control of the country at all times and if needed, by all means available.  This may be fiction, but we shall find ourselves in dark times if there ever is a real life version of Seven Days in May.

ISBN-10: 0060124350
ISBN-13: 978-0060124359

Our Mary Jo-Georgetta Potoski and William Nelson

Mary JOn July 18, 1969,  Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy (1932-2009) lost control of his vehicle while crossing the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. In the passenger seat was a twenty-eight old former staff member of Robert F. Kennedy’s (1929-1968) presidential campaign and member of a group of women known as the “Boiler Room Girls”.  She was later identified as Mary Jo Kopechne.  In death she became a permanent part of the history of Chappaquiddick and a reminder of what happens when we are negligent in our actions.  Over time she has been largely forgotten, having been overshadowed by the lives of the Kennedy family.  And with regards to Chappaquiddick, she has been known as the “woman in Kennedy’s car”.  But the real Mary Jo Kopechne has an interesting story of her own that was cut short at only twenty-eight years of age.

Her cousin, Georgetta Potoski and her son William “Bill” Nelson, decided to tell Mary Jo’s story so that we finally have a complete picture of her short but dedicated life to the causes she believed in.   Interestingly the book is not just about Kopechne’s short life but those of her parents Joe and Gwen whose lives were never the same after her death.  The thousands of letters they received and kept after the tragedy help to shed light on just how many people their daughter had an impact on.  Some of the letters are included in the book.  The photos shown in the book compliment the story at hand and reveal a close-knit and happy family that believed in reaching one’s full potential and the importance of hard work.   The Eastern-European roots of the family’s progenitors remain intact and their story is similar to that of other immigrants who came to America to make a new life.

We all know how she perished but what is often left out is how she became acquainted with the Kennedys.  That part of the story is filled in here with even more information about her time with  Senator George Smathers before joining the Kennedy camp where she would remain up until her death.  There are many interesting facts that are revealed in particular how important she was to Robert F. Kennedy whom was known to all as simply “Bobby”.

Readers expecting to find anything about Chappaquiddick will be disappointed. In fact, the authors intentionally left it out of the book.  I understand their decision for the book is about Mary Jo and not about the incident or the investigation that followed.  To have included with have resulted in a completely different book.  This is Mary Jo’s story or more appropriately, the story of her life that remains unknown to most.   Her cousins have done a great to her memory by presenting this book which gives a permanent voice to the often forgotten victim of Chappaquiddick.

ASIN: B07466W8S8

Cosmos-Carl Sagan with a New Foreword by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Introduction by Ann Druyan

Sagan_Cosmos

All of us at some point in our lives, have looked up at the night sky and observed the moon and stars that compose what we have come to know as the galaxy.  This world beyond the earth remains intriguing and mysterious to mankind. The possibility of other forms of life and planets that might be able to sustain the human race have fueled the fires of exploration.  Our desire to answer many of these questions, resonates with the quest to answer the biggest questions, how and why are we here?  Religion has attempted through time to provide those answers and for many believers, the scriptures are the final word.  But for other curious minds who believe there is more than can be found in a religious text, continue to explore and learn more about the world we all inhabit and the worlds beyond.   Each comes together to form what the late Carl Sagan (1934-1996) called the cosmos.   Sagan, of Brooklyn, New York, remains possibly the greatest astrophysicists in history.  He was also an astronomer, cosmologist, astrobiologist and author.  Younger readers may recall that he is remembered fondly by Neil Degrasse Tyson, a protegé of Sagan who has hosted a show also called the Cosmos.  This book and the show explore our origins and the complicated yet fascinating process of evolution.

Those of us who are deeply religions might be initially put off by the book because of the subject matter.  Sagan does not leave anything to fate or belief,  the sciences are on center stage here as we open our minds and go back in time throughout human history.  Neil Degrasse Tyson provides a foreword and Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan provides a loving introduction.   As we begin the book, it is clear that Sagan is the teacher and we are the students with much to learn.   At times, it felt as is I had been transplanted back it time to grade school science.  However, Sagan explores material that I did not learn in school and only became familiar with as an adult. In fact, it was through Sagan that I learned the story of Johannes Kepler, who remains largely ignored in mainstream science books.  Sagan gives him a proper acknowledgment as a brilliant man whose contributions to what we know today cannot be overlooked.

Kepler is just one of many names in the book that should never be forgotten.  The path to knowledge over the past several thousand years has been long and arduous with many obstacles faced by those who dared to speak out against what was thought to be “common knowledge”. Their stories are intriguing and I wonder if any of them could have imagined society would have advanced to this point in 2018.   Perhaps they might disappointed that we have not made even further progress. Regardless of what they might believe, the fact is man has evolved drastically and what we know today is in a sense light years ahead of our ancestors.

The book is appropriately titled the cosmos and it is in this area that Sagan truly shines. Forget about science fiction films about space and shows about Martians.  Here he takes us on a voyage as we explore the known planets in our solar system.  The vivid and detailed descriptions of the planets we have named, vindicate Johannes Kepler, Nicholas Copernicus and others who understood that the earth rotates around the sun.   The amount of information that is known about the galaxy is nothing short of incredible.  And even more impressive is that there remains much more to discover.

Sagan is a good author and never lets the material become too complicated.  The information is presented thoroughly but in an easy to read format.  From the start, the book pulled me in deep an I committed myself to blocking out any ideas I may have had about the universe.  At times in the book, I felt as if I were learning science all over again in a refresher course before a highly important exam.  But this is no exam, this is our world and our role in it.  Our planet is at least four billions years old.  But if that is true, what life forms existed then and what happened to them?   And are we the only species of humans that have ever existed?  Could there be  a species on another planet in the galaxy that resembles humans?  Finally, if other species do exist,  are they aware of earth and have previously discovered out planet?  The possibilities are endless and that is what makes science so interesting and Sagan’s death a tragic loss.  Yes, science continues even though he has gone but his vision and accomplishments can never be denied. And as he firmly explains, in exploring the cosmos, we explore ourselves for we are a part of the cosmos.

I firmly believe that this book should be read by everyone.   This is the world’s history in science as it relates to the origins of mankind and our understanding of the worlds around us. Sagan is gone but far from forgotten and this gift he gave us is one that continues to give.  If you have the time and are willing, take a journey with him and explore the cosmos with a mind that is irreplaceable.

ISBN-10: 1531888062
ISBN-13: 978-1531888060

A Little History of the World-Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich and Clifford Harper

World HistoryCan you imagine several thousand years of world history compressed into three hundred four pages? Before reading this book, I certainly did not and I believe the same applies to many others.  However,  that is exactly what Ernst Han Josef Gombrich (1909-2001) has done in this history book that came into existence as a result of challenge issued to the author to write a better history book than the one he was editing at the time.  The book was written in 1935 and subsequently re-published bringing it up to date with modern history events. Gombrich never intended for the book to replace all of the history textbooks in use by teachers and professors.  However, the book does serve as a complement to dozens of study aids used by students across the globe.  Interestingly, the book is geared towards the ages of seven to nine years but I think that readers of all ages will find it to be quite informative.

The pace of the book is fast and once we get started with the history of the world we know before Christ, we embark on a ride that does not slow down.  In fact, if there is one thing about the book that I felt detracted from it, it is that the pace is sometimes too fast leaving out critical information about various topics.   One example in particular is the huge lack of information on Genghis Khan, who is mentioned in passing.  Additionally, the majority of the focus is on the Middle East and Europe thereby excluding North America, Central America, Southeast Asia, South America and the majority of the continent of Africa.  I do not fault Gombrich for the focus of the text.  If he had written about all of those places, the book would have spanned several volumes.  To appreciate what he has done here, the reader should approach the book as a quick reference guide as opposed to a sole source of historical information.

In spite of its few shortcomings, the book is a good read that is engaging, informative and contains just enough information to give it substance while warding off boredom.  Gombrich was born in Austria, lived through the rise of Adolf Hitler and left Germany  in 1939 before World War II plunged the world into anarchy.  His comments and recollections about the Third Reich are an added but small bonus.  But what is undeniably clear, is that he is a part of world history and to this day, considered one of the world’s best historians.  His only child, Richard, is currently an Indologist and scholar of Sanskrit, Pāli, and Buddhist Studies and was once the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford.

After I finished the book, I was surprised at how much material Gombrich did cover over the span of three hundred pages.  Compressing the text must have been a tedious job for even the best of editors.  Furthermore, there always exist the question of how much to add or leave out.  Perhaps no matter which way the book had gone, something would not have made the final cut.  I do believe it would have been more beneficial to have included more history about the west, Southeast Asia and Africa.   Undoubtedly it would have increased the number of pages but come much closer to a history of the world even if it is “little”.  Nevertheless, Gombrich did a more than sufficient job of taking us back in time.   And even if you are well-versed in world history, I feel that you still might enjoy this short but engaging read.  For those who have children, they might appreciate this gift more than you think.  Gombrich did not write the definitive book on world history but he did create and leave us with a valuable addition to any library.  But as the title says, it truly is a little history of the world.

ISBN-10: 030014332X
ISBN-13: 978-0300143324

A Little History of the United States-James West Davidson

US HistoryWhen I think back on the history classes I attended in elementary school, high school and then college, I remember that it seemed as if it took forever to go through any topic.  And that says a lot for someone like myself who has always loved the subject and still does.  For most people, history is beyond mind-numbing and often revisits events in the past to which most people do not give a second thought.  But as we are often reminded through history, we need to know our past in order to reach our future.  In comparison to the history of Europe, Asia and other parts of the world, the United States is a very young nation that has been in existence less than three hundred years. Incredibly, in that short amount of time on the world stage, some of the most memorable events in modern history have taken place in North America and had reverberating effects across the planet.  If we were to study American in its entirety, that would be a course that would last a couple of years at least.  But what happens when you cram that history into a book that is three hundred nine pages long?

James West Davidson has done just that in this book appropriately titled  A Little History of the United States.  Perhaps the word little is a misrepresentation here for there is nothing “little” about the material contained within the pages of the book.  The author straps us in and takes on a ride through time to revisit the beginning of America and the path to becoming a world superpower.  Critics might think that they already know the material in the book.  While it is true that many of the events will be known to history buffs and those that paid close attention in class, there is a wealth of information that is useful to others and might even be unknown to even those who are well-read. And as a bonus, a refresher never hurts.  None of the information in the book is ground breaking and can be found in other places but what Davidson has done is to compress all of those sources into one book that touches on all of the major events in American history.   But the genius of the book is that it is not written in textbook format but rather a story that just keeps going and getting more interesting as we move closer to the present.

Now that I think more about it, the book could be considered a cliff note for U.S. history.  There is never too much information on one topic but just enough to give the reader the basic facts and a picture of what happened and why.  Those who have interest in certain topics will surely find other material to satisfy their thirst for knowledge.  I firmly believe Davidson was aware of this when he wrote the book and might even expect that to be the case.  At one point, he mentions that he could not have included everything on one particular topic for the book would have been several volumes long.  I agree wholeheartedly.  Putting that aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the pace at which he keeps the reader is just right to make it through the book without any trace of boredom setting in.

As an American citizen, I am amazed at how much history of my own country that I am still learning.  I think the same could be said about many of my fellow citizens.  Harry Truman once said “the only new thing in the world is the history you do not yet know”. No matter how much we do learn, I feel that there will always be something that we have no knowledge of.   But we have the aid of books like this to help us on our journey.  Every student of American history should have this as a supplement to all of their primary books.  For now, sit back, relax and treat yourself to a little history of the United States.

ISBN-10: 030022348X
ISBN-13: 978-030022348

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