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

20180518_223406Can 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

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

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything-Christopher Hitchens

hitchens1

The title of this book is enough to cause a range of emotions in deist, agnostics and atheist.  Next to politics, religion is a subject which unites or divides, sometimes through the use of extreme violence. Today, when we think of religious fundamentalism, images of Islamic radicals readily come to mind causing us to forget that extremism exist is nearly every religion known to man.  In the United States, most deists are followers of monotheistic faiths.  Others are followers of polytheistic faiths and the remainder could be classified as agnostic, spiritual or even atheist.   Those who are atheist remain firm in their belief that God does not exist. But for deists, God does exist and is present all around us at all times.  But what if is there is no such thing as God?  Believers will find the mere mention of such a concept preposterous. But in all fairness, no one has ever come back from the dead to tell humanity what really happens when we die.  Furthermore, non-believers point to the world’s many ills as proof that an all-loving God is nothing more than make-believe.   Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) wrote at least thirty books, some of which like this, addressed religious faith.  Here, he takes on God and puts forth his argument that religion itself is the cause of many of the world’s ills.  One look at the cover will cause some to claim blasphemy and write Hitchens off as doomed and demented soul who surely found out when he died, that God does in fact exist.  Regardless of what side of the fence you are on, the book is a good discussion on the effect religion truly has on our lives.

In the book, Hitchens does not focus on one religion solely, he addresses multiple religions as he makes his argument.  He is clearly well-read and by his own admission, grew up in a Christian childhood.   His career has taken him to all parts of the world where he was able to examine other faiths up close. And the arguments he makes in the pages of this book are thought-provoking and it would extremely difficult for even the most ardent believers to ignore the many problems with religion that Hitchens discusses.   As a believer, when you think of your faith, it is seen in a positive light.  It helps people, gathers them together, provides answers and gives a sense of purpose.   But was that always the case and is religion even necessary to have all of the things that we seek through it?

There are thousands of gods worship throughout the world.   However, the most dominant religions are mainly monotheistic.  Jesus, Yahweh and Allah have claimed billions of followers world-wide.   Hinduism also claims a large number of followers who pray daily to the many Gods that are worshiped. In parts of Iran and the Middle East, Zoroastrianism is still practiced.   Exactly when each of these religions developed is lost to history.   Science tells us that man existed for thousands of years and that the planet is at least a four billion years old.  That forces the question, did God create man or did man create the Gods?  Furthermore, are Gods even necessary to live a full and purposeful life?

Hitchens pulls no punches in this book and makes his point clear that he truly believes religion poisons everything.   However what he does not do is tell anyone to give up their faith nor does he attempt to belittle anyone who believes in the Gods that he mentions.  And although he does believe that a world without religion would be better, he is mature enough to understand that some will continue to believe in the only religion they have ever known.   Atheists are often thought to be vile and vicious beings who want to rid the world of religion.  The opposite is usually the case.  Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins and others who have made a case against religion, is very rational and in no point in the book, does he use rhetoric to incite any type of violence or force anyone to become an atheist overnight.  Clearly, the decision to no longer believer or remain in the fold is up to the individual.  But what he does do, is provide examples from history of why he believes religion plays a negative role in society.  The book is a journey from mankind’s earliest known relationship with God all the way to the present and the growing numbers of people in the United States who have no religious affiliation at all.

I believe that is fairly obvious that in order to read this book an open mind is needed.  And I also believe that those who do purchase the book are either unwavering believers curious to see what Hitchens says and others who no longer believe or are on the path to living religion free. We all have to find our own path in life but if we need an honest and critical examination of the role of religion in society, this is a good place to start.

ISBN-10: 9780446697965
ISBN-13: 978-044669796

Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury-Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne

freddie2It is said that legends never die. Long after they are gone, their accomplishments and gifts to the world remain as a reminder of their genius and in some cases, short time on this earth.  Growing old is often not in their interest and the ways in which they leave us are typically tragic.  For Freddie Mercury (1946-1991), this was certainly the case and his decline and eventual death from AIDS is well-known.   Mercury and the band Queen became household names over the span of thirteen studio albums and countless live performances.  Their song We Are the Champions is still played today at sporting events.  The hit song Another One Bites the Dust seizes the listener with its engaging and provocative melody.  But of all the classics, it is perhaps Bohemian Rhapsody that stands out as possibly his greatest composition.  Regardless of what your favorite song is, the popularity of his music is a testament to the genius of Mercury and the aura of Queen.

But who was the real Freddie Mercury?  His death on November 24, 1991 came just hours after he released a statement informing the world that he had developed AIDS after being diagnosed as HIV positive several years earlier. Those close to him were not surprised at the announcement. The press was relentless is following Mercury around London attempting to get a glimpse of the star who was rumored to be on his deathbed.  I remember when Mercury died and the news broadcasts that flashed across several networks.  The music world had lost one of its greats.  However, like all musicians, much of his life was subject to speculation and misinformation.  In fact, to this day there is much about him many people may not know.   But here in Somebody to Lovem we have a complete picture of the life of the late Freddie Mercury.

The story begins with the origins of HIV and its progression from SIV in Chimpanzees to a disease that became an epidemic.  In 1946, the world welcomed Farrohk Bulsara, born to Persian parents of the Zoroastrian faith.  He would be joined a younger sister, Kashmira.  From an early age, it is evident that music is his calling but the path he would take to stardom and his life after finding it, is a classic example of the importance of always following your dreams.  But with his rise to stardom and relationships with women, there was another side to Freddie Mercury that he fought desperately to hide from the press.  Today most of us think nothing of a gay or lesbian celebrity.  But we often take for granted how much the world has changed. For Mercury, coming out was not an option and the efforts he went to in order to contain his secret life are astounding.  But it is also a tragedy for Mercury was never able to find the true love that escaped him his whole life.  He does his best to find true love and the people who came in and out of his life all play a part his rise and eventual decline.   Mercury was not innocent himself and at times is nearly out of control and seemingly on a path of self-destruction.

It goes without saying that any book on Mercury could not be written without addressing the gay community.   Coincidentally, as Mercury was becoming a household name, kaposi sarcoma began to afflict large numbers of gay men in New York and San Francisco.  It would be known at first as the “gay cancer” and prompt officials in San Francisco to close all of the City’s bath houses. The race to identify the disease and find a cure became the topic of Randy ShiltsAnd The Band Played OnThe book was later adapted to a film starring Matthew Modine and Alan Alda.  Mercury was fully immersed in the gay lifestyle at this point and his connection to the story by Shilts might surprise even those who are well-read on the AIDS epidemic.   Before Mercury’s demise, he would lose many of those once close to him and the world would learn about a deadly killer that crossed all social and ethnic lines.

In just forty-five years, Freddie Mercury rose to the top of the music industry and Queen became legends.  In death, his status as a rock icon grew without boundaries but sadly he joined a long list of victims of AIDS, and his name is mentioned next to many such as Arthur Ashe and Rock Hudson, as celebrities who were unable to escape a killer that spared no one.  I sometimes wonder what would have happened had Mercury lived.  Before his death he had been planning more projects and writing material until he was forced to abandon his passion.  His passing was our great loss and we should be grateful for all of the great music he left behind.  His lifestyle was not agreeable to all but his talent was undeniable.  This is the life, death and legacy of Freddie Mercury.

ISBN-10: 1681881888
ISBN-13: 978-1681881881

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