A Brief History of Time-Stephen Hawking

hawkingThe word time has many definitions, one of which is “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.”  We use time every day in a multitude of ways and without it, society would cease to function.   But is time really what we think it is?  And how does it apply to our past, present and future?   Mankind has been searching for an answer to question “why are we here?” Creationists will say that all things we have come to know are the result of divine power. Evolutionists take the side of science as facts are learned revealing yet another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is the origin of the universe.  Whichever side you find yourself on, I think we can all agree that there are many questions about our universe that have yet to be answered in the form of God or science.  Perhaps both are responsible or maybe science will one day provide all of the answers we seek.  The late Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) addressed the issue of time in this New York Times and international bestseller that helps us to understand the development of time and how it relates to our very existence.

If you love the work of Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and other brilliant minds, this book will undoubtedly deliver. Hawking was as brilliant as they come even. And even as a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease inflicted devastating changes on his body over the course of several decades, the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge continued to stay active in spite of the crippling condition.  He will be remembered as one of history’s greatest minds.  And evidence of that can be found within the pages of this book.  He takes us back to science and physics classes, reminding us of many things we probably have forgotten.   His focus however, is with the concept of time and how it relates to the origin of the galaxy in which earth exists and our existence as a species.  But before he gets to the crux of the book, he gives us a recap of the lives of those before him who left their legacy on society.   Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727) are just some of the names cemented in our minds as pioneers in the field of science.   To understand Hawking, it is first necessary to revisit the path society took to obtain the level of knowledge that we currently possess about our planet and those in the solar system.   As he moves closer to his era, the story heats up and when we arrive the concept of the black hole, the book pulls the reader in does not let go.

Hawking’s words are deep and the sections about the black hole, time arrow and time travel are sure to make readers question things that they thought they knew well.   The topics are complex in their entirety but Hawking does a great job and presenting them   so that a layman can follow along.  There are some parts which might require a re-read before the reader can move on, confident of having retained the material.  Spins, half-spins, positive charges, negative charges,entropy and anti-particles are just a sample of the concepts that readers of this book will need to understand.   At first it can seem like another language, especially to those with little or no scientific background.   Those who have always loved science and excelled in it will find these topics familiar.  The mystery of the black hole is  also demystified with a clear-cut analysis of why black holes exist and how they affect our galaxy, one of millions in the solar system.   The wormhole and supernova are also explored as well as the concept of interstellar travel.  I found the material fairly easy to follow but I am sure that the full explanation is far more intricate and probably more than my mind would want to handle. But for the purposes of the book, the author succeeded in driving home his points.

As he moves on to the time arrow, it is here that he ties everything together so that we may see how the three concepts of times we have are related and necessary for the survival and/or existence of the galaxy and our planet.  The facts about the expansion of the universe is one of the best parts of the book and cause me to re-think the origin of the earth and the future of the solar system.  Beautifully, Hawking’s work will live on forever and future astrophysicists and scientist will make more discoveries that will either confirm his theories or provide sounds reasons against them.  Whichever way things go, the end goal is finally answer questions whose answers have continued to elude us.  And I believe that would make Hawking proud as he first and foremost was devoted to science. This is a great read and when you have finished the book, you will have a better understanding of the history of time.

My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” – Stephen Hawking

ISBN-10: 0553109537
ISBN-13: 978-0553109535
ASIN: B004WY3D0O

Rowdy: The Roddy Piper Story, a Biography of Their Father-Ariel Teal Toombs and Colt Baird Toombs

rowdyHe was arguably the greatest villain in the history of professional wrestling.  His trademark shirt with the word “Hot Rod” and the red kilt he wore, made him stand out in an industry overrun with colorful character.  To his family he was known as Roderick Toombs and Dad, but to the world, he was known as Rowdy Roddy Piper.  You would be hard pressed to find any wrestling fan who does not know his name or story.  He truly was one of the greats of the industry who’s ribbing of other wrestlers and shenanigans during his famous show Pipers Pit, cemented his legacy as a legend. When he died on July 31, 2015, the world was in a state of shock. I simply could not believe the news reports.  At sixty-one, he was far too young to depart this earth and after a hard life in the wrestling business, it seemed as if his glory days were ahead of him.  His shocking death still causes fans to shake their heads in disbelief that a man so loved was taken so soon.   In all of the interviews I have watched or read with stars who knew him, not one had bad word to say about him.   He is remembered as a kind soul backstage and a man possessed with genuine and undeniable talent that helped make Vince McMahon, Jr., the legend that he is in the wrestling business. But just who was the real Roddy Piper?  And how did the world of Roderick Toombs, father and husband coincide with the public image he worked forty years to build? His daughter Ariel and son Colt took what remained of the second book Piper was writing about himself and decided to complete a biography of their father.  The result? One of the best biographies I have read about a wrestling superstar.

Piper’s story begins on April 17, 1954 in Saskatoon, Canada when Roderick George Toombs was welcomed into the world by Stanley and Eileen Toombs.  An unruly child, no one could have predicted that he would one day become a celebrity with millions of adoring fans. Because the book is written by his children and also based off his own words, there is an intimacy to the book that would be hard to duplicate by an independent biography. What we have here is the family story and it certainly is one for the ages.   To understand Piper, it is necessary to understand his background and it is laid out here by those who knew him best.  By his mid-teens, the young Piper knew the corporate world was not his calling and his decision to make his own life and not relocate one last time with his parents, set him on the long and brutal path that would take him to stardom.  And it is at this point in the book that his life picks up as he descends deeper into the crazy world of professional wrestling.

The anecdotes from his early days in the business are nothing short of hilarious. I do not think a scriptwriter could have penned better narratives.   Professional wrestling, sometimes called sports entertainment, is an often unorthodox business.  Yes, ground rules and unwritten rules do exist, but spontaneity and creative geniuses are what keep the business alive.  At times when I was reading the book, I was shocked and also on the verge of laughing out loud, even while on the subway.  His fight with Victor Bear is literally a story for the ages.  And just when you think the book cannot get any more outrageous, there is yet another story of Piper’s adventures.  From start to finish, I could not put the book down, eagerly waiting to see what where the story would go next.   It took many turns and revealed many facts that some fans may have never been aware of.  And as Piper moves through the industry, gaining fame and fortune, he also accumulates demons along the way which he was never able to completely shake.

There is one part in the book that stood out not for the length of text but because it is key in understanding Piper’s grief as friends in the business died young reminding others of their own mortality.  On July 4 , 1988, Keith A. Franke, Jr., was traveling with several other wrestlers when their van swerved to avoid a moose in its path.  The vehicle descended down an embankment before coming to a complete stop.  Franke died several hours later and his death sent shock waves through the industry.  No one could believe that the man called Adrian Adonis was gone.   Piper said that was the last funeral he went to.  He never got over Adonis’ death.  Their friendship and the haunting that Piper endured were the focus an episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories that aired in 2012 during Season 8.   In the episode, Piper reveals that his house has been haunted by Adonis’ ghost since his untimely death and that he was the person who told Piper to buy that particular house.  The show itself is chilling and we see a man carrying a life long supply of grief and torment that he is alive and so many of his friends have died in the business.  He carried that grief and torment with him until his own death three years later.

No book about Piper would be complete without the Wrestlemania stories with Mr. T, his feuds with Hulk Hogan and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka or his time in Hollywood where he became a cult icon as the character Nada in John Carpenters They Live.  The dark side of the wrestling business is also discussed and Piper never holds anything back.   His injuries, car accidents, substance abuse and mental state are all on display showing the reader the agony in his life off-camera.  In the last few years of his life as his body breaks down from forty years of abuse, the realities of his life style come crashing home.  Nonetheless he did not stop doing what he loved, living up to the name “Hot Rod”.  If you are or were a fan of professional wrestling and have fond memories of the era when wrestling giants ruled the industry and the names Hogan and Piper were household items, then this is the book for you.

ISBN-10: 0345816226
ISBN-13: 978-0345816221

Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger-John Beineke

Dillinger1At the height of 1930s era crime and depression, criminals that under normal circumstances would be looked upon with scorn, became larger than life iconic figures whose daring bank robberies and shootouts with policy became stuff of legend.  The brazen thefts in the middle of broad daylight accomplished with the use of the Thompson Sub-machine Gun (Tommy Gun) and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) catapulted America into a new and deadlier form of crime. In response, the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) stepped into the foray and within a one-year stretch, arrested or executed America’s most wanted.  At the top of this list was the late John Herbert Dillinger (1903-1934).

John Beineke has captured the outlaw’s life in this straight to the point biography of his life of crime and sudden death.   It is neither praise or vindication of Dillinger but a look at the life of the legendary figure.  The story begins in Indiana, Dillinger’s home state.  After the death of his mother, the young boy slowly makes his way into a life in crime resulting in  stint at Indiana State Prison after a conviction for robbery and assault.  Paroled nine years later,  it would be the last time that Dillinger served time in prison.   In fact, he vowed never to return to a prison cell, a vow he kept until his final moments.  But what is it about Dillinger that captivates people even today?  In 2009, director Michael Mann brought Dillinger’s life to the big screen again, enlisting Johnny Depp in the starring role. The film was released under the title Public Enemies, and also portrayed the FBI’s pursuit of Lester Gillis, a.k.a George “Babyface” Nelson (1908-1934) and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904-1934).  Christian Bale stars as FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (1903-1960), tasked with capturing the outlaws at all costs.  The film was solid and with an all-star cast, Mann recreates the feel of depression era America.

Here, Dillinger is the star and he has his own supporting cast of criminals, each of whom would meet their own violent ends.  To say that Dillinger’s life was extraordinary would be an understatement.  As we learn in the book, not only did he excel in knocking over banks, but no jail could seemingly contain him and incredibly, he often hid from authorities in plain sight.  It is literally a story that no filmmaker could write.  The pace of the book picks up early and it never slows down.  And with each heist, Dillinger becomes more infamous to authorities and more a folk hero to thousands of Americans who believed the banks were the real enemies, profiting off the misery of the average citizen. In comparison to some biographies, mundane information is excluded leaving the reader with the facts peppered with occasional sub-stories between the major characters.  Politics inevitably enters the story as America grapples with a rising crime wave and Washington reconsiders the tenure of the FBI’s longest-serving director whose job might have ended if not for the apprehension of Dillinger and others.

Less than one hundred years ago, John Dillinger used Midwestern banks as his own personal ATM.  His escapades filled newspapers, filled with tales of crimes by fellow outlaws such as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Flood and part-time accomplice, Baby Face Nelson, who enters and leaves this story on multiple occasions before parting ways with Dillinger for good not long before both would be gunned down. Today such a crime spree is unthinkable but in Dillinger’s era, a time before two-way radios, cellphones and social media,  bank robberies and shootouts with cops were common occurrences. Beinecke has taken us back in time to relive the decade that Dillinger made a name for himself.  Curiously, although the end of his story is widely known, the story still pulls the reader in with its engaging descriptions of the Dillinger gang’s exploits and graphic descriptions of the deaths that occurred as a result. The outlaws will always be romanticized in American culture.  In fact, they are as American as apple pie.  Dillinger has been dead for more than eighty years but if you research depression era gangsters, his name will appear on every single list.  He lives on in infamy and is idolized by some as a rebel who fought against the corrupt banking establishment as a modern-day Robin Hood.   To the FBI, he was a public enemy whose capture was more important than anything else.  In the end, they would get their man but not before Dillinger left his mark and became part of history.

ASIN: B00NQGP47O
ISBN-10: 0871953536
ISBN-13: 978-0871953537

 

Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival-Norman Ollestad

20180728_230931On February 19, 1979, eleven year-old Norman Ollestad was a passenger in privately chartered Cessna aircraft.  He was joined by his father Norman and his father’s girlfriend Sandra.   The flight was supposed to be a routine trip but weather conditions and pilot error resulted in a series of events that climaxed with the crash of the plane in the San Gabriel mountains in Northern Los Angeles County, California.   Miraculously, he was able to descend the mountain and eventually encountered a family living in the area who alerted authorities that a survivor of the crash had been found.   Suddenly without his father, young Norman is forced to keep going in life without the words, wisdom and encouragement of the man he called Dad.  In 2006, he began to write this book, his life story and his memories of his father while growing up in Malibu, California.

The book is not so much an autobiography in the traditional sense.  In fact, Ollestad does not go into the story of his birth, all of his schooling, etc.   When the book opens, he is already age eleven and like many of his peers,  he possesses a passion for skateboarding.  His father however, has more plans in store for him and teaches him the skills necessary for becoming a seasoned skier and surfer.   And in between events, his father gives him small doses of wisdom that have remained with him throughout his life.  It is clearly obvious that he adored his father and was proud that he not only had joined the FBI but the resigned a wrote a book about it titled Inside the FBI, published in 1967Naturally, following the plane crash rumors surfaced about Hoover wanting revenge for the book but no evidence of foul play was foundThe accident occurred for other reasons which are revealed in the book.

Norman’s story is pretty straightforward and nothing in it stands out at first.  That all changes when Mexico becomes the next destination for father and son.  Norman’s grandparents need a new washing machine so his Dad informs him that they will take the machine to Puerto Vallarta on their own and deliver it.   The anecdotes from their journey are some of the deepest moments in the book, next to Ollestad’s descriptions of the crash-site and the fatalities that occurred.  In the epilogue, Norman tells his son Noah that he could never do the things with him that he did with his grandfather because it would illegal.   Most parents would never consider such a trip for their eleven year-old child but as we see in the book, the Ollestads did things differently, never intending to conform to anything or anyone and always with courage.  This helps explain Norman’s rebellious streak that intensified after his father’s death.

Prior to reading the book, I did not have any expectations for it and I was not aware of Ollestad’s story beforehand.   I do not know what some readers will expect in the book, but it is not simply a memoir about the crash.   In fact, the chapters are divided between the crash and his childhood. It reminds me of the flashback to young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II.   Some readers may find it confusing but personally, I thought it added a uniqueness to the book.  It is critical to pay close attention but the flashbacks set the stage for the crash and events that follow.   By some miracle, he survived the crash which surely could have killed everyone on board.  Regaining his composure, he finds the courage to make his way down the mountain with a will to live.   This drive and determination, was instilled in him by his father as we see in the flashbacks in which young Norman is perfecting his crafts and absorbing his father’s words.  And his messages to his son Noah show that Norman learned from his father many things that were great and also some things that need to be changed with the next generation of Ollestads.

I am fortunate to have my father in my life.  He is in his  mid-sixties and keeps moving forward.  He does not believe in sitting still and follows the mantra that you should never let any grass grow under your feet.   As I read Ollestad’s book, I repeatedly thought of the importance of a strong bond between father and son.  As Tupac Shakur once said, you need a man to teach you how to  be a man.  I could not have said it better myself.  And one day if I am fortunate to have a son of my own, I will teach him how to be a man so  that the lessons I have learned can be pass down through him and to future generations. Wisdom is the gift that keeps on giving.

The book is less than three-hundred pages in length so for some it would be considered a short read.   I read through it quickly for the story flows very well but I think that more information about his life after the crash through adulthood would have given the book more substance.  Nevertheless, it is a nice read full of emotion and the values we aim to  have in our lives.  And after you have finished the book, you too might be crazy for the storm.

ISBN-10: 0061766720
ISBN-13: 978-0061766725

Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope: Kerry Kennedy in Conversation with Heads of State, Business Leaders, Influencers, and Activists about Her Father’s Impact on Their Lives-Kerry Kennedy

20180716_212634Recently, I watched the Netflix series Bobby Kennedy for President, a look back at Robert K. Kennedy’s (1925-1968) memorial campaign for the oval office in 1968 that was tragically cut short by his assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California on June  5, 1968.  The footage is good and the sense of loss from his death is evident from start to finish.  His daughter Kerry is the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and a world-renowned activist for social change and instrumental in keeping her father’s legacy alive.   And with this recently published masterpiece, his legacy is assured to remain intact for future generations.

The book is not a biography of her father.  There are others that have been published for that purpose including the well-respected and widely read Robert Kennedy and His Times, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007)   The purpose of this book is far different and in fact,  it does not include biographical information.   The book is a collection of interviews with a wide range of individuals who either knew him or were inspired by him.   Quotes from him can be found in between interviews and sometimes in the middle.  Also included in the book are photos of Kennedy, some of which may have been rarely seen until the publication of this book.  Contained within the pages of this book are some of the best interviews I have ever read.  Each speaker reflects on Kennedy but they also explain their own personal story, how Kennedy relates to it and how they intend for society to move forward.

The list of speakers is too long to type here but the first is Harry Belafonte, now in his 90s but still sharp as a tack.  His interview is deep, thoughtful and sets the tone for the rest of the book.  And with each speaker, the words become even more powerful.   Following his tone, we read the words of Bono, Tony Bennett, Alfre Woodward and even former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  One interview that stood out to me among several, is that of MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough who until recently, was a registered Republican.  His interview highlights Kennedy’s ability to transcend party lines and reach people from all walks of life.   Scarborough is candid and he remains an important voice on the state of politics in America.

Author Thurston Clarke provides the foreword and an important question comes us that forms the premise of the book, “what did he have that he could do this to people?”.  The question arose as his funeral train made its way to Arlington, Virginia.  An estimated two million people lined the train route from New York to Washington, D.C.  They came from different political parties and ethnic backgrounds but were united in grief.  The question itself is one that America has been trying to answer since his death.   In the pages of this book, it becomes clear that he had more than any of us could have imagined.   Unfortunately for myself,  I never had the opportunity to see him speak in person and have had to settle for his writings and those of others who knew him or decided to write about him.   But his quotes and actions throughout his life have served as part the foundation upon which I live my life.   Because of him,  I have always understood the amount of courage it takes to speak your mind freely for the right cause even if it brings the wrong reaction.   He was the first and the only politician I have ever seen walk into the most desolate and impoverished areas in this country.   Instead of lip service to constituents, he possessed the drive and empathy to venture where no politician dared. And this point of view is firmly supported by the interviews in this incredible collection of words of wisdom sparked by a man whose main sense of purpose was those around him.

Kennedy’s transformation from Attorney General to Senator and then candidate for President of the United States had not been seen before and has not been seen in America since.  In fact, the transformation was so surreal and the heartache so great, that David Halberstam made it the subject of a book, The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy.  In death, Kennedy has become one of the greatest what if questions we have.  What if he had lived and been elected President? I think if he had, I and millions of other people would live in a very different America.   Did he have the ability to end all of America’s problems? Not at all, no one does.  But he would have set the country on the path it needed to be on.  Some of the interviewers stated that they feel that the United States never got over his death.  After reading about his life and studying his words, I believe they are correct.  His death and that of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) continue to haunt this nation as reminders of the dangers of extremism and the uncomfortable truth that those who dare to speak out and commit to profound change, remain targets for those committed to violence and social upheaval.

This past June, marked fifty years since he died and the passion with which people speak of him, speaks volumes about his life.   We shall never see another Bobby Kennedy but what is consoling is that he lives on in the spirit of millions who have taken his messages to heart.   Love him or hate him, his impact on America then and now is uncanny.

Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live” – Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy

ISBN-10: 1478918241
ISBN-13: 978-1478918240

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine-Anne Applebaum

Ukraine

When Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) died on March 5, 1953, the Soviet Union embarked on a change of course under its new leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971).  While the majority of government policy remained in effect, a “thawing” took place where the old ways of Stalin were slowly repealed. However, many secrets remained buried as the Politburo sought to maintain its public facade of a progression under communist ideology.   Among those secrets was the deadly famine that engulfed the Ukraine between the years of 1932-1933.   In history courses, the famine is not discussed and it remained a hidden secret to the west for decades after it ended.   The death count stands at a minimum of three million people.  The true number may never be known.   But what is certain is that the famine was no accident and the product of disastrous and delusional planning from Moscow.

Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author, dives into the tragedy of the Ukraine famine head first with an accurate and riveting account of how and why the famine developed.   But before the reader can understand the famine, it is first necessary to understand the complicated history between Russian and the Ukraine.  It is a history of violence, distrust and the animosity was on full display in 2014 when Russian military units invaded the small nation.   Russia, has never relented in its quest to reclaim the Ukraine, once part of the U.S.S.R.  The history of Ukraine in the story at hand begins with the Russian Revolution of 1917.  The new found political spirit did not end in Russia but crossed the border into the Ukraine as Ukrainian Bolsheviks launched their own cultural revolution.   The culture, language, laws and traditions of the Ukraine were blacklisted and criminalized as the Bolsheviks sought to erase all traces of the Ukrainian way of life.  Their seizure of the country set the stage for the deadly path of destruction the Soviet government would later embark on.

What I noticed as I read through the book was how much of a premonition the famine was for later communist governments that made the same mistakes. Stalin’s policy of collectivization, embraced by both Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro, was an utter failure just as it was in the latter mentioned regimes.  Moscow’s refusal to change the policy, even in the face of reports coming back from the field, is horrific and ultimately mind-boggling.  Malnutrition, distrust, resentment and crime evolved out of the doomed policy and reduced the people of Ukraine to a mass of bodies pushed to the extreme.  Millions did not survive and for those who did, they carried the mental and emotional scars from a famine that could have been handled if not for a ruler dogged by paranoia and drunk on power.

Applebaum tells the story the way it should be told with the reasons and methods used to rid the Ukraine of those intellectuals who had the potential to lead it in a new direction.  The smear campaigns and murders approved by the OGPU, predecessor to the KGB and FSB, removed anyone who Moscow believed to be a threat to its supreme rule.  The common people, often referred to as the kulaks, suffered immensely and trust between neighbors and acquaintances became rarer than a solid meal.  Like puppets on strings, Moscow played with the lives of millions of Ukrainians, doomed by their culture and religion as antisemitism and anti-Ukraine sentiments prevailed.

Today there are many sources of information about the famine that was once firmly hidden behind strategically placed propaganda.  But not everyone was fooled. In fact, Nazi Germany was firmly aware of it as it invaded Ukrainian territory during World War II.   The German occupation is a topic for another book as Applebaum mentions but it highlights the despair and hopelessness that Ukrainians found their selves subjugated to. Following the war, things were far from improving and it would not be until the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev that the truth began to come to light.  His policy of glasnost, helped repeal the curtain of secrecy in the Soviet archives.   The door became slightly ajar but authors such as Anne Applebaum have now kicked it wide open with the full story of one of the world’s deadliest famines.  This book is key to understanding the tragedy and the tense relationship between Russia and the Ukraine.

ISBN-10: 0385538855
ISBN-13: 978-0385538855

Before Night Falls-Reinaldo Arenas

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The Cuban Revolutionary war has been viewed through different lenses, typically dependent upon which side of history the viewer falls on.  Fidel Castro’s march through Havana after the exit of Fulgencia Batista was paraded as the era of change that Cuba needed in order to break out from Yankee imperialism and the iron grip of organized crime.  The charismatic and bearded leader introduced a new pride in Cubans with promises of true revolution and equality for all.  Today, nearly sixty years later, we know that did not happen and the true number of people persecuted under his rule may never be known.  Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) was just one of thousands of exiles who were able to leave the island they called home to escape relentless persecution because of their sexuality and literary beliefs.  And when he took his own life on December 7, 1990,  an end came to a short but painful life in which he never truly found peace.  Before his death he made it a goal to complete this autobiography as a sort of farewell gift to those who knew him or his work.  His death was no accident and Arenas explains himself that he will in fact leave this world as his choosing.  Twenty-seven years have passed since his death but his story is remarkable even today.  The book was adapted into a screenplay  by Julian Schnabel and the film starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp.  Both are great actors but as good as the film may be, the only person who told Arenas’ story the best was Arenas himself.

The author begins the book by taking us back to his childhood in Cuba, in particular his village of Holguín where he was born into a village of poverty where he and his closest siblings had no shoes and sometimes ate the earth.  The descriptions of the poverty that could be found in his village are shocking but an accurate portrayal of life in small villages just decades ago.   At a young age, he realizes he is a homosexual and his sexual orientation will be a major factor in almost all of the events that take place throughout the rest of his life.  They are also central to everything in the book.   Stories of the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba under the Castro government are well-known but those outside of Cuba may not know just how much.   In a society where all were supposed to be equal, the blatant harassment and discrimination of gay men and women contradicted the revolutionary ideology.  Nevertheless, from Arenas’ words, it does seem at times as if homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality.  His encounters with men are spontaneous, dangerous and also numerous. And his descriptions of his encounters and what he witnesses are graphic and not for readers that are uneasy with explicit sexual dialogue.

As a writer, Arenas also possessed another quality which made him an enemy of the state.  He explains himself that Castro does not like writers, either those for or against the government and the suppression of  free thought, speech and works of literature is present everywhere as big brother cracks down in Orwellian style manifested in the classic 1984.  Informants, mail-opening and surveillance were tools of the trade as ordinary citizens lived under a microscope where everyone was suspected of being counter-revolutionary and forced to live on meager rations with nearly no income.  In fact, their lives stood in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Castro and his subordinates.  In short, it was the classic totalitarian state despite of the image projected by the Castro regime.  Cuban exiles will readily agree with this but even in Cuba, there are those who believed in Castro and still do.  The debate will go on for an eternity.

Arenas realizes that his sexual orientation and writing have made him a target and he knows it is just a matter of time before the authorities come for him.   They do and his incarceration in Cuban jails makes up the central part of the book.  His descriptions of life in Cuban prisons defy belief and it is a miracle that anyone survives.  Towards the end of the book, he admits that he never fully healed from prison and that no one ever does.  But he remains strong in the face of adversity as authorities do their best to break his spirit and turn him into informant.  When he finally puts prison behind him, he troubles are over as he has to earn a living but is known to the State and known in society as part of a group of people who are often ostracized. He knows he must get out of Cuba, but the questions remains as to how he will do it.  A chance event in Peru changes his life and the lives of thousands of other Cubans and when he finally steps foot on U.S. soil, the next phase of his life begins but not long before it tragically ends.

Although this is Arenas’ autobiography, he tells the story of the lives of many people close to him, all struggling to find peace and happiness in a society which represses anything an everything.   Scene and scene of debauchery and tragedy play out by characters just short of despair. Their stories and Arenas’ life reveal the facade behind the triumphant revolution which replaced on dictator with another who was at times even more brutal towards his own citizens.   In a cruel twist of fate, Castro outlived Arenas and many other Cuban exiles depriving them of the chance to see Cuba after Castro.  The future will tell if Cuba will every truly be free but as the nation moves towards that goal, then it is best served to remember the stories of those who have suffered and Arenas who through his words, one of Cuba’s loudest voices.

ISBN-10: 0140157654
ISBN-13: 978-0140157659

Darkest Hour: John Alite: Former Mafia Enforcer for John Gotti & The Gambino Crime Family -John Alite, S.C. Pike and Kayla Robichaux

AliteThere is something about the Italian-American crime syndicate that continues to fascinate American culture.  The larger than life characters that appeared on television and in newspapers have been immortalized in movies and documentaries.  Their close-knit organization which we have come to know as the Mafia,  became as American as apple pie.  Violence, money, sex and power become staples of the gangster’s life.   Many of them die before their time as the street life inevitably catches up with them.  John Alite knows this all too well.  The former hit man for the late Gambino Family boss John Gotti (1940-2002), served several years in prison after being extradited from Brazil in 2006.  He later agreed to testify against a former associate which reduced his sentence.  In 2017 he was released from supervised parole.

When I saw this book on Amazon it immediately grabbed my attention.  As a New York City native, I vividly remember the time when the Mafia controlled nearly every industry in the city with an iron grip that was broken main by the RICO Act.  Alite was in a unique position similar to another associate who also agreed to help prosecutors, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano.  The better days of the Mafia are long past but the memories of its reign of terror remain firmly fixed in the minds of many. From the beginning, Alite’s story pulls the reader in and mainly because unlike Gotti, he his not of Italian heritage. In fact, his family comes from Albania.  And his childhood is composed of a three-generation family, an environment in which I myself grew up in.   Those familiar with Eastern Europe will recognized the profound differences between Italian and Albanian culture.   What helps make Alite’s story interesting are the dynamics between family members and the struggle by his parents and grandparents as they adjusted to a new country with a language they had to learn later in life.  To enforce the point, phrases of Albanian spoken by Alite’s parents and grandparents are peppered throughout the story.  And it is clear that his Albanian heritage was and is a source of pride.   However, every story has an antagonist and Alite’s is no different.

I should point out right now that this book is part one in what will surely be either a two or three book series.   This story is strictly about his childhood and his slowly descent into rebelliousness and a life of crime.  But perhaps, no other relationship was as critical in this development than that between him and his father Meti (Matthew).  This is the crux of the book and Alite pointedly states that it was his father’s teachings that made it easy for him to end up in the life of crime later in his life.  Today it would be considered abuse but back then, what went on at home often stayed at home.   Under their roof existed a tyrant whose life was complicated and stressful and unfortunately led to outbursts of violence that affected each person in their own way.  But ironically, love also exists at home but it is carefully guarded by some and shown in different ways.  The fondness Alite had for his grandparents is endearing and an example of the importance of the bond that should exist between multiple generations.  The old country lives with the new country in a land with completely rules and customs.  An in a climactic scene between Alite and his father, we see the different ways of life come to a head in what could only be described as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The story takes place in the Woodhaven section of Queens, New York.   Readers that are from Queens or familiar with the neighborhood and era will nod in agreement at some of the things he recounts.  Queens truly is the borough of immigrants and for this Albanian family it would prove to be a blessing and a curse for their young boys.  The budding baseball player and boxer sometimes crippled with epileptic seizures grows fast and tough on the streets of Queens. At the conclusion of the book, he has begun to embark on the path that would lead him into the clutches of the Gambino Crime Family where the stakes are higher and the activities and conspirators far more deadly. If the writers continue on the path set in this first part, the second will be an even better read.

ASIN: B078NHPS3S
ISBN-10: 0997159189
ISBN-13: 978-0997159189

 

 

 

The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton-Jefferson Morley

9781250080615_p0_v1_s550x406

He was arguably the most feared and secretive intelligence officer to have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.  And although he left the agency in 1974, his name still conjures up images of the cold warrior with nerves of steel, engulfed in the world of counterintelligence and determined to protect the United States at all costs. Formally he was known as James Jesus Angleton (1917-1987), but to author Jefferson Morley, he is referred to as the ghost. The title fits appropriately for the secret life of the late CIA spymaster was one which Hollywood could never replicate on screen.  By all accounts, his personality was outwardly unassuming, but behind the horn rimmed glasses, was an operative that ate, slept and breathed counterintelligence.

This project began in 1994 and the amount of research Morley has invested is impressive.   Angleton did not leave behind diaries or personal writings, he was far too cloak and dagger for that  He did however, testify before Congress as the CIA’s domestic mail spying program came under fire after being revealed by the press.  The spymaster escaped without prosecution but his career at the agency was effectively finished.  He would remain hidden in the shadows but still involved in the field until his death on May 11, 1987.   The mystery surrounding Angleton helps to keep him in the public light, but what is it about him that is so fascinating?

Morley has composed a solid biography of Angleton, but there is still much about his life that has probably been lost to history.  Angleton himself said that he would take things to his grave and I have no doubt that many secrets were buried with him.  And next to Allen Dulles, Dick Helms, Bill Harvey, Cord Meyer and the many legendary officers once part of the OSS, Angleton stood as a gatekeeper to the trove of the Agency’s dark secrets.  And throughout his life he was involved with a cast of characters who made their names famous as operatives of the agency that John F. Kennedy once threatened to scatter into a thousand pieces.   As he moves up the ladder and increases his power, his secretiveness and paranoia grows at an exponential rate.  His hunt for Soviet moles would prove to be one of the final nails in the coffin of his career and nearly crippled the CIA.  But was he too paranoid or did he know more than he let on?

There is so much about Angleton’s life that remains a mystery.   He was a family man, but his wife and children barely factor into the story.  Instead, the book is filled with CIA intrigue, informants, double agents and political gambles in Washington.   And sadly, it seemed that when no enemies existed, they were manufactured to suit personal agendas.  And for Angleton, this might have been an underlying cause of his later obsession of moles within the government. But such was Angleton’s mind, the maze with false exits, traps and more riddles than answers.  The man whom Morley calls “the ghost”, led a life which did not give away secrets and prevented even the most prying eyes from gaining too much insight.  It may have been by design or just an extension of the counterintelligence legend’s way of operating.

To say that Angleton’s life was incredible would be a severe understatement.  In fact, throughout every major event that takes place, the CIA seems to be close by and his  actions regarding some are bizarre and even disturbing.   Although detested by many, scared of by others and mind boggling to subordinates, he endeared himself to more than one president and those relationships gave rise to many questions surrounding his actions following JFK’s murder, RFK’s murder and the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer.

By the time he died, his CIA life was far behind him but the saying goes that you never really leave the agency.  For James J. Angleton, the agency was his life and in a taped interview with Thames TV in 1975, he stated pointedly that he regretted nothing.  I have no reason to doubt him and after reading this book I believe that you will also feel the same way.  But as I read the book, I could see that in more than one way his life was quite tragic.  As Morley explains, secret intelligence work was his life, but what suffered in the process was his personal life and in some cases his health.  In a tragic fate, the love he would give to the CIA would not come to him from his family. Even to them he remained the elusive ghost.

Readers who are familiar with the stories from the cold-war CIA era will know many of the facts revealed in the book.   We have heard the names before and their actions are now well-known.  But I do think that the section on Lee Harvey Oswald is telling and adds yet another question to the mystery of Kennedy’s murder.  When asked about the assassination, Angleton reportedly said ” a mansion has many rooms, I was not privy to who struck John”.   Exactly what he meant we will probably never know.  But what is clear is that Angleton possessed knowledge of many things that most Americans would prefer not to know.

I cannot imagine that writing a book on a secret CIA operative is an easy task.  But Morley’s account of Angleton’s life is a solid work and will be appreciated by historians.  Love him or hate him, there is no denying Angleton’s legacy, fame and infamy in the annals of the history of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Deception is a state of mind–and the mind of the state.”– James J. Angleton

ISBN-10: 1250080614
ISBN-13: 978-1250080615

 

 

 

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