The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War- Neil Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, E. W. Kenworthy, Fox Butterfield and James L. Greenfield

s-l300The names of the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War that are found on the memorial in Washington, D.C., are a reminder of a conflict deemed by many to be the worst the United States has ever been involved in.  The withdrawal of U.S. forces in March, 1973, brought a sigh of relief to the American public which had long grown tired of a war with no end in sight.  The dark truth which we now know is that we did not by any means accomplish the mission.  And the mighty American war machine failed to secure a victory. I have met many veterans of the war and have an uncle who served.  What I recall most about all of them is that they do not speak of their experiences while in combat.  I know the memories are there and for some of them, they were unable to leave parts of the war behind.  Today we call it PTSD, but back then you simply found a way to move forward in life.   But why were they in Vietnam to being with?  Was the domino effect really a threat to the United States?

On May 11, 1973, Daniel Ellsberg found himself the talk of the town as charges pending against him for espionage were dismissed by U.S. District Judge William Byrne. He had been indicted for leaking what became known as The Pentagon Papers, the subject of this book and the topic of the movie The Post starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.  The New York Times, after several battles in court, was finally allowed to move forward with its plan to publish The Pentagon Papers and contained in the pages of this book are the documents that the U.S. Government tried in earnest to hide from the American public under the guise of “national security”.   Ironically, the facts that are revealed in this book have absolutely nothing to do with national security but rather several presidential administrations that failed to find a workable solution to Indochina.

The late Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) has been called the architect of the war and was loathed by many because of it. However, the title is misleading and in some ways unfair. The war had many architects either by wishful thinking, uncontrolled ego or naiveté.  What is truly ironic is that as the war waged on, McNamara became a strong voice of dissent.  And in spite of what we have been led to believe, our existence in Indochina began many years before 1965.  The story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam is a long tale, filled with hard truths, false truths, deception and ultimately failure.  But this is how it happened and why.

The papers are divided into several sections which correspond to a different aspect of the conflict.  The administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson are examined to understand what each cabinet did and did not do as it grappled with the growing headache.   Step-by-step Southeast Asia opens up as black hole as more advisors are committed, instability rages in South Vietnam and war hawks finally get their wish as the United States jumped nearly feet first into a jungle conflict that proved to be nothing short of disastrous.  Rolling Thunder, troop deployments and South Vietnamese politics are just some of the issues that antagonized Washington for nearly a decade.

If you served in Vietnam, I forewarn you that the book might anger you in many ways. For others, this is a critical source of information in order to understand the war from a behind the scenes view.   We are often told that the military fights to protect the country and our freedoms that we take for granted.  But did a nation over 13,000 miles from U.S. soil really pose a threat to the most powerful nation on earth at the time? And what would we have accomplished if we had in fact won the conflict?   Perhaps Vietnam would have become a second Korea, partitioned between a communist controlled North-Vietnam and a U.S. controlled South-Vietnam.   Following the U.S. withdrawal, Saigon fell and the North achieved its goal of reunification.  Today the war is a distant memory for young Vietnamese but for the older generation, many painful memories remain.  The figures in the book are long gone but their actions will stay with us and the Vietnam war will always be a regrettable example of U.S. foreign policy gone wrong.

ISBN-10: 1631582925
ISBN-13: 978-1631582929

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy-Heather Ann Thompson

AtticaOn September 9, 1971, inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, staged a revolt in protest of the treatment they received by prison officials and the living conditions employed therein.  Several days later, New York State Troopers regained control of the prison after approval from Governor Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979).   The siege had tragic consequences and ended with the deaths of nine hostages and twenty-nine inmates.  The fallout from the retaking was swift and to this day the story of Attica is considered the worst prison uprising in American history.  The riot caused sharp division among people with some believing in the inmates’ actions and others supporting the State of New York.  In fact, among Rockefeller’s most ardent supporters was President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) who would himself resign in 1974 due to the Watergate scandal.   The riot and its aftermath were so powerful that even Hollywood became interested and produced the television series Attica (1980) starring Morgan Freeman and Against the Wall (1994) starring Samuel L. Jackson (1948-) and Kyle MacLachlan (1959-).  Both film productions earned award nominations and the stars in each film would go on to have successful careers in Hollywood.  However, the questions always remain, how much did the producers get right, how much did they get wrong and how much did they leave out?   Further, how much do we, the public know about one of New York State’s darkest days?

Heather Ann Thompson composed this Pulitzer Prize winning account of the Attica prison uprising and the legacy it left behind.   Contained within the pages of this book is a story that is sad, shocking and infuriating.  Today in hindsight, we will be tempted to ask ourselves how could this have happened?  For starters, the social environment in which the main characters existed is much different from today in some regards. Law and order were applied in a far more repressive context.  Make no mistake, the prison system today is plagued with brutality and prisoners routinely complain of suppression of their basic human rights by guards and officials.  The prison industrial complex has become a multi-million dollar business and each year more Americans enter the penal  system generating more revenue for investors and contractors.  This system of mass incarceration is exactly what the Attica inmates strove to fight against and today many of the lessons that were learned in the wake of the riot have been lost or neglected.  But this book is the place to learn about the Attica riot and why we can never forget it.

Thompson acknowledges that many of the participants in the story are no longer alive and any secrets regarding Attica went with them to the grave.  What remains are their public statements and official testimony.  Some of the names are cemented in history such as Governor Hugh Carey (1919-2011), Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (1936-), attorney William Kunstler (1919-1995) and former New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner (1910-1991). But others will become known such as Frank “Big Black” Smith (1933-2004), former guard Michael Smith and prisoner L.D. Barkley whose speech was captured by television cameras as the inmates made their voices heard.   The amount of research that went into the creation of this book is nothing short of painstaking.  And as an added touch of intimacy, the author supplements the story with photos of those relevant to the narrative.

From the moment I opened this book, I literally could not put it down.   At times I found myself sitting in disbelief and how and why the situation unfolded as it did.  And incredibly, an inner conflict arose because as I waded through the book, I came to support the inmate struggle as they fought racism, class based discrimination and the monster that is mass incarceration while at the same time I found myself empathetic to the guards taken hostage, some of whom would also perish.  And it dawned on me that they were all human beings who had different roles to play during those four days.  Decisions and actions made many resulted in a tragedy that claimed victims both dead and alive. And that is one of the main points of the book.  But perhaps one of the most shocking is the disregard by the State of the well-being of its own employees.  What Thompson has truly shown us is that lives on all side were ruined that day and there truly were no winners.  Everyone directed involved in the Attica riot carries with them scars to this day, some mental, some physical or possibly both.  Thompson has done all of them a great service by re-telling the Attica story in a book that should be read by every American that wishes to understand the frustrations of those convicted of a crime and the direction of the American penal system.  This is a definitive account of what truly happened at the Attica Correctional Facility between September 9 and September 13, 1971.

ISBN-10: 0375423222
ISBN-13: 978-0375423222

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Case Against Sugar-Gary Taubes

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As of July, 2017, 100 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that in 2015, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death.   My late grandmother suffered from it for many years prior to her death and my mother also deals with the disease.  In their cases, they are among the millions that have been diagnosed as having type-2.  And with the number of diabetics growing around world,  the future prognosis is grim.  More disturbingly, diabetes is just one of the several conditions that are considered to be effects of metabolic syndrome.  The link between food and health has long been established.  Food has been man’s source of energy and the key to life.  But somewhere along the way, our approach to what we eat changed dramatically and in the process we face health epidemics never before seen.

Gary Taubes appropriately named this book The Case Against Sugar.  What he has written in this book is sure to open your eyes and change the way you look at sugar which might possibly be the most common food ingredient in history.  In fact, it is so common that it is hiding in plain sight in dozens of foods we would never suspect to contain added sugar.  The first thing I should point out is that Taubes does not tell us to refrain from eating sugar nor does he tell us to consume it. He leaves that to the reader to decide.  What he does tell us is the unfiltered truth about the history of sugar and its effects on the human body.   Doctors and other health figures have told us for years that fat and salt were the culprits behind many of the illnesses we battled. But what if the real monster was there all along and ignored either unintentionally or even blatantly? Some readers may find the topic far-fetched and wonder if the sugar they put in their coffee and the sugar found in other products they consume daily are truly that bad.  Well in order to answer that question, we first have to understand how sugar came to be developed and why it has been so important to business and the food industry.  Taubes has done the leg work for us, presenting the material in an engaging format the pulls the reader in.  Additionally, he helps us understand the different types of sugars and why it is important that we know them intimately.

The story is centuries old and incredibly, without sugar, many of the empires throughout history would have had enormous difficulty existing.  In particular, the British Empire became extremely fond of the white crystals that bankrolled their imperialist machine.  Throughout history, sugar has accompanied every civilization, empire and ethnic group.  I dare to infer that its commonplace among all of these thing is precisely what made it so hard to believe for many that it could also be life threatening.  But it is exactly that which we learn but more importantly, Taubes, like a seasoned professor, explores in-depth why sugar was so important to big industry and why it was necessary to be protected.  He includes many facts that some readers may be completely unaware of.  The section on the tobacco and sugar industries should frighten every reader, especially if they are a smoker.

Diabetes is far from a modern disease. In fact, it has been in existence for centuries and its rise has been well noted and documented.   But what we see through Taubes, is that for a large portion of that time, the connection between sugar and diabetes never fully acknowledged.  If you ask any diabetic today, they will readily inform you that sugar is at the same time their worst enemy and most needed substance.    Their inability to produce enough insulin to handle rising blood sugar or inability to produce insulin at all, as in type-1 diabetics, highlights the precarious situation that exist for diabetics.   In essence, they walk a daily tight rope that could spell success or doom.

Diabetes is a focus of the book but the not the main focus and in addition to what is the silent killer, Taubes makes the case for the relationship between sugar and the conditions classified as metabolic diseases.  The connections form an intricate web and at times the reader may need to revisit a section more than once to understand the chain of events that occur in the body upon the ingestion of sugar, whether natural, refined or artificial.  Gout, cancer, hypertension, strokes and heart attacks plague millions of Americans and for years, doctors have known that what we eat does affect how we feel and age.   Inflammation has become a known factor in all of these conditions and other ailments that plague the human body.   Sugar is also known to play a role in all of these conditions. But is it safe to say that the reduction or elimination of sugar could reverse all of these illnesses?  Possibly so and incredibly,  it is believed that at least 4 in 10 forms of cancer are preventable.  I have always refrained from telling anyone what they should or should not eat.  That is a highly personal decision.  But what I can say is that I have had my own battle with sugar and dropped it from my diet well over ten years ago.  When I did, my acne disappeared, I lost weight, my digestive tract improved and I saw a marked improvement in cognitive function in addition to a surplus of energy.  However, there was a withdrawal process and I did suffer from headaches and irritability for a couple of weeks as my body readjusted to the absence of sugar and high levels of carbohydrates.   Today,  I do not even buy it, add it anything I eat or drink and also follow the mantra that if I cannot pronounce what is in a product then I do not eat it.  It may sound extreme to some but we are only given one body on this earth and it is up to us to take care of it.

This is the ugly truth about sugar, the once believed to be harmless product that our parents and grandparents gave to us without the knowledge that we have today.  The children of today are the first generation that may have a shorter lifespan than their parents.  That is unacceptable and I believe, criminal.  Our health has been sacrificed in the name of greed and mass production.  But we can fight back and take care of our lives.  And with books such as this one by Taubes, our minds are being awakened each step of the way.  If you suffer from a metabolic condition, trying to quit sugar or even curious about its dangers, this book is a must read.

ISBN-10: 0307946649
ISBN-13: 978-0307946645

Full Monster: Book Three in the Bureau 13 Saga-Nick Pollotta

20180225_161703(0)In volume two of this three-part series, Bureau 13 saved mankind for a second time as they battled a crafty villain on the USS Intrepid and New York City’s West Side Highway.  At the conclusion of the book, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief as Special Agent Ed Alvarez and his team prevailed.  However, for Bureau 13, there is no such thing as the end and they are back again as a new enemy threatens to obliterate the City of Chicago and turn the United States in a land of  werewolves.  At first, the mere mention of werewolves sounds implausible.  But we must remember that this is Bureau 13 where the impossible becomes possible on a daily basis.

Volume three begins a retired veterinarian named Joanne Abernathy hears an earth shattering sound in the distance outside her home.  She lives in a place that could be best described as the outskirts.  Curiosity sets in and the aged and seasoned doctor heads out where she discovers a wolf that appears to have been shot.   But alas, this is no ordinary shooting and this is no ordinary werewolf.  What transpires after the wolf is tended to medically is surreal but sets the stage for the rest of the book.   The team is assigned to an unexplained occurrence in a small town called Hadleyville.  The issue at hand is large numbers of corpses without hands or heads scattered about.  Jessica realizes that something is amiss and the team makes a quick exit.  But they are far from danger and following them is a team of werewolves who speak and have one goal; eliminate mankind.   This book quickly takes us to Defcon 1 .

Chicago becomes ground zero and every law enforcement agency is briefed on the imminent doom.  But this will be no ordinary battled and all hands are on deck as Alvarez and team Tuna Fish take on werewolves, run of the mill creatures and even a floating apartment building.  Pollotta pulls out all of the stops and if the first two books did not meet the standard of guilty pleasure, then this part surely will.    This is the continuing saga of Bureau 13 and the strange and lethal world in which they operate.

ISBN-10: 1554047064
ISBN-13: 978-1554047062

Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution-Bart Jones

HugoToday, Venezuela finds itself at the brink of a migrant crisis that could very surpass that of Syria.  The mass exodus of Venezuelans to surrounding countries in Latin America has increased as social conditions have deteriorated with food shortages, absurdly inflated currency and political suppression having become daily aspects of life. Nicolás Maduro (1962-) is the sitting President of Venezuela.  His administration has come under fire both domestic and abroad for its dismal record on improving Venezuelan society.  The country’s fall from grace is one of the most confusing and astounding transformations in modern history.  The nation was once at the top of the petroleum export industry and under President Hugo Chávez (1954-2013), Venezuela re-merged as a country to be recognized.    On March 5, 2013, he died after a two-year battle with colon cancer and with his death came the end of an era in Venezuela to which the country has been unable and in some cases unwilling to return.

In the United States, Chávez was often demonized as brutal despot that ruled Venezuela with an iron fist.  Absurd stories of public shootings, censorship of the press and human rights violations were regularly broadcast in U.S. media outlets.  The anti-Chávez stance was espoused by the White House as official government policy.   Many Americans firmly believed that Chávez must go.  But how much do we really know about Hugo Chávez and his life?  Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday and for eight years he worked in Venezuela, documenting the regime changes and spectacular rise and fall of Hugo Chávez.  He has a keen insight into Venezuelan society from a first-hand view and because of this, the book has an even more authentic feel to it.

Jones takes us back in time to 1954 in the small town of Sabaneta in the State of Barinas in west-central Venezuela as Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías enters the world.  Raised at first by his grandmother Ines, there are no inkling that the young child will grow up to rule the country.   What is clear is the high esteem in which Chávez held his grandmother for all of his life and up until her death.   As he matures into a young man and enters the military, it is here that his story begins to pick up speed.  The author goes into great detail about Chávez‘s early life, through old-fashioned research and discussions with Chávez that lasted several hours.  The portrait that begins to take shape is of a young man with a passion for baseball, history and the well-being of the country he calls home that has been plagued by corruption and poverty supplemental by a racial hierarchy.   Books become his favorite hobby and through history, Chávez becomes familiar with the man who is the Latin American equivalent of George Washington; Simón Bolívar (1783-1830).  For the rest of his life,  Chávez would inject Bolívar into nearly all of his speeches, plans and actions.   American readers who are drawn to history will appreciate the recap of the story of the late revolutionary and come to understand why he is so revered in Latin America.  For Chávez, there was no Venezuela without the spirit of Bolívar.

Latin America has been plagued by military coups and endless changes in regime.  Venezuela was no stranger to either. Chávez, the brilliant and aspiring leader, seized his opportunity on the heels of political upheaval and in contrast to what is often mistakenly repeated, catapulted to office in a free and open election.   But what is paramount is how he rose to power and that is what Jones carefully explains to us.  The man who was the outsider, achieved the impossible and during his time in office, left a mark on Venezuela that will last forever.   Not without his faults, he was a complex character and the author leaves it up to the reader to decide. And had he not died at such a young age, perhaps he would have gone on to achieve more in his later years.  I forewarn the reader that if you approach this book with anti-Chávez bias, you will not appreciate the gift contained in these pages.   In fact, Jones is no Chávez fan and does an incredible job of remaining unbiased.  He points out Chávez‘s triumphs and also his failures.  And what we can take away from what we learn is that Chávez was a human being who some believed was larger than life.  From the comfort of our homes in America, it may be hard for some of us to understand his popularity but in Latin America, hope is more powerful than we may think.  Chávez masterfully became a man of the people and his ascension to power was extremely well-played.

Similar to other biographies of great leaders, the book contains a cast of real-life characters from President George Bush (1946-), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (1954-) and even the late Fidel Castro (1926-2016).  Chávez had never served in office before winning the presidential election but he quickly made up for his shortcomings and did change Venezuelan society.  Sadly, it seems that after his death the nation was never the same and under the current administration, is sliding deeper in anarchy with each passing week. If Chávez were alive, I am sure he would be ready to work to carry on the revolution to make Venezuela the greatest Latin American nation the world has seen.  He was brash, inspiring, shrewd and at times unrealistic but above all, he was Venezuela.  This is the incredible life story of Hugo Chávez and the nation he led.

ISBN-10: 158642145X
ISBN-13: 978-1586421458

Doomsday Exam:Book Two In The Bureau 13 Saga-Nick Pollotta

DoomsdayAuthor Nick Pollotta returns with this second installment in the trilogy of the story of Bureau 13, the secret agency within the U.S. Department of Justice responsible for the tracking and apprehension of all supernatural creatures that pose a treat to the safety of the nation.  In book one, we were introduced to Special Agent Ed Alvarez and his team of supernatural crime fighters and followed them on their mission to save mankind from complete destruction.  The book was filled with all sorts of characters, weapons that we can only dream of and battles nothing short of epic.   The team returns in this second part, tasked with another earth shattering mission to save the world as we know it.

The story begins in a research lab whose location and origin are unknown.  What we do know is that an experiment has been conducted in which the goal is create a super human that heals instantly and is primed for infantry.  The recruits are former soldiers declared dead to society.  However, they are far from deceased, retaining scattered memories of their former lives.   They are self-aware and a scuffle breaks out after a disagreement following an attempt by a test subject to turn on his human controllers.  One subject is left standing, former Lt. Col. Kensington Sanders who we come to know as Alpha.  He becomes part of Bureau 13 in ways he could have never imagined.

Life for the agents is pretty normal with plenty of ghosts, demons and other creatures to chase.  But during a routine training exercise, an alarm is sounded indicating that a breach has occurred in the main containment facility.  However, this is no ordinary breach and a call to arms is broadcast.   The battle is surreal and the subsequent investigation reveals that there is far more to the story than meets the eye.  Bureau 13 does not just have a jail break on their hands but another crime on a much larger scale.  And to solve this crime, they need all of the help they can get, including Alpha and a few other recruits that blend right into Alvarez’s squad.  And later in the book, they are even joined by a familiar face.

In book one, the action was non-stop and came from all directions.  It was a high-octane ride from start to finish.  While book two has plenty of action, there is more of a story line that builds up to the conclusion.  The team is composed of seasoned veterans having engaged in endless deadly battles but here they are also investigators.  And their methodical approach feels like a scene out of Criminal Minds.  And similar to part one,  the second part of the book takes place in New York City with the USS Intrepid playing a critical part to the book’s conclusion.  The story seems completely far-fetched but in the world of Bureau 13,  the impossible is always possible.  And Pollotta keeps this ride going as only he knows how.  Special Agent Ed Alvarez and his team are always on the job but can they save the world?

ISBN-10: 1554047056
ISBN-13: 978-1554047055

Judgment Night: Book One In The Bureau 13 Saga-Nick Pollotta

13-1Nearly all of the reviews I have written have been of books that are classified as non-fiction.  This review will be different as I have a taken a short break from the normal material to let my mind have some fun with this book that was recommended to me by a co-worker.  It is book one in a trilogy and the review for the second book will follow shortly.  The cover of the book gives the reader the indication that it is a novel of horror of the most unspeakable kind.  However, I can assure that is not the case but the book is a non-stop ride from beginning to end.  If I had to give it a definite classification, I would reply that it is a place where the Men In Black meets The Suicide Squad, Harry Potter with a touch of Fallout added.  But what exactly is the book about?  And what on earth is Bureau 13?

The story begins from a first person point of view as a battle with supernatural forces takes place.  The central character to the story is Special Agent Ed Alvarez who joins Bureau 13, a secret division of the U.S. Department of Justice tasked with tracking down and eliminating all supernatural threats to the United States.   He forms a team composed of characters of the most unusual sort and together they become Team Tuna Fish.  Alvarez is assisted by Mindy the martial arts expert who is also fluent in Japanese, Jessica the mind reader, George a former solider in the Army, Father Donahue who gives the team a religious supplementation and sorcerers Raul Horta and Richard Anderson.  Their commanding officer is Horace Gordon, Division Chief of Bureau 13 who bluntly informs the group that a large cloud has formed off the East Coast of the country in the Atlantic Ocean and threatens to unleash a fury of supernatural creatures upon the only place they have all called home.  Beneath the cloud is an island from which the nexus of the dark cloud is formed.  The group has a simple mission;  get to the island, infiltrate the encapsulate city and destroy everything that poses a threat to the survival of mankind.  However, with Team Tuna Fish, nothing is ever that simple.

Science-Fiction fans will absolutely love this book. Pollotta has a brilliant imagination. The creatures are as outrageous as the battles the team is forced to fight but the story never loses its pace and is supplemented with excellent sarcasm and quips about American society.  Some of the action takes place in and around New York City which stood out to me as a native New Yorker.  We have a joke here that nearly all disaster films and books take place in New York City for reasons only the creators know. Thankfully, my city survives here but the same cannot be said for many other things in the book. But with a legion of demonic creatures determined to erase humanity, clean and safe are not adjectives that comes to mind.  This is a war between good and evil with carnage and a near apocalypse.

From start to finish the book just keeps going and just when you think the author might slow down and take a break, another curve ball is hurled toward the reader. If you are looking for a good book that lets the imagination run wild peppered with adult humor, you will find this book to be a gem.

ISBN-10: 1554047099
ISBN-13: 978-1554047093

 

 

 

The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe-Donald H. Wolfe

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On August 5, 1962,  newspapers around the world relayed the news of the death of Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) the night before at her home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, California at the age of thirty-six.  The cause of death was listed as suicide from an overdose of the drugs Pentobarbital and chloral hydrate.  However, decades after her death, several question still remain regarding that tragic night of August 4, 1962.  What really happened that night and why was she paid a visit by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) and his brother-in-law Peter Lawford (1923-1984)?

The image we have been given of Monroe is a drug-addicted sex symbol, starved for validation from the opposite sex and unable to cope with the rigors of Hollywood.  Her previous suicide attempts gave credence to this perpetuated image and for many, it was the ending that they expected for quite some time.   Her life reads like a tragic novel of a heroine unable to fully come to terms with herself and seeking love and affection in all of the wrong places.  However in just thirty-six years, she lived a live that some can only dream of.  At at one point in her life, she was the most desired woman in the world.  Donald H. Wolfe takes us back in time to the those final days in August, 1962 to piece together what really did happen and why.

The book opens by revisiting the night of August 4 and the pandemonium that ensued following Monroe’s death.  Immediately we learn of several disturbing facts that set the tone of the book. Wolfe does an incredible job of keeping the suspense going and the reader engaged.   And rightfully so, he not only explores her death but also provides a concise biography that sets the stage for events that took place later in her life.  Behind the facade of a starlet singing happy birthday to the President, lay a woman raised in a childhood which could best be described as tragic.  However, in order to understand Monroe’s life and her death, it is necessary to explore her beginnings which Wolfe presents to us without breaking the momentum of the book.  And I can assure you that once you start you will be hard pressed to put it down.

Although the book is about Monroe’s final days, there are many sub-stories that are told which gives us an inside view of the inner-workings of Hollywood and politics in the middle of the twentieth century.   As she moves through one circle to the next, some of the biggest names in show business, sports and politics make an appearance in her life such as   John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), Clark Gable (1901-1960), J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999).   However, among all of the people who cross paths with her, her life takes a much darker and tragic turn through her association with the Kennedys and their associates and it is this relationship that forms the crux the remaining third of the book.  After you have finished the book, you may come to see the administration in a different light.  Today it is public knowledge that an affair did take place between Jack Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.  And if all accounts are correct, Monroe and Robert Kennedy also had their intimate moments.  The sexual content is fodder for gossips and tabloid magazines.  But what was critical was the true nature of their relationship and the many secrets Monroe possessed about the most powerful man in the country.   In fact, it is quite possible that she did have the power to bring down a presidency.   Was this the reason for the urgent visits by J. Edgar Hoover to the White House in May, 1962 and that last visit by Robert Kennedy on the day she died?  Or was this the reason for the heated arguments that took place between Monroe and Robert Kennedy in the weeks leading up to her death? And how much did she know about their association with Frank Sinatra and mobster Sam Giancana?  Certainly, many of their discussions which were likely picked up by the FBI may never be known.  Other recordings by the President are locked away in the Kennedy library.  A little over one year after Monroe’s death,  John Kennedy himself was cut down in a hail of bullets in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.  Several years later, Bobby would be gone as well, also the victim of an assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California on June 5, 1968.  In death they joined a long list of political figures and stars that died during the turbulent decade of the 1960s.

Marilyn Monroe remains a sex icon decades after her death.  Young women still hang posters of her on their walls and purchase t-shirts with her image.  In death, she became a legend whose left this world far too soon.   Her life was in some ways a soap opera with affairs, fairy tale romances, political scandals, drugs, mental health issues and tragically, broken homes.  Sadly, many people in her life failed her not just on one but on several occasions.  But if there is one inspiring aspect of the story, it is her resiliency to move forward in life and command respect even in the most difficult of times.   And had her life taken a slightly different course, then perhaps she might still be alive today well into her senior years and full of knowledge about Hollywood’s golden era.  This is the story of the life and final days of Marilyn Monroe, a true Hollywood icon.

ISBN-10: 0688162886
ISBN-13: 978-0688162887

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962-Frank Dikotter

3Previously, I reviewed Frank Dikötter’s  The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 and The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, investigative accounts into life under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976).  In the first volume, Tragedy of Liberation, we learned about the transformation of China following the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975) and his Kuomintang Nationalist party.  In the third volume, The Cultural Revolution, the behind the scenes political battles are put on display revealing the dysfunction that had engulfed Mao’s inner circle.   Here in Mao’s Great Famine,  Dikötter takes us back in time to the Great Leap Forward and its catastrophic failure between the years of 1958 and 1962.   I feel the need to point out that by far, this part of the trilogy was the most difficult to read. As usual, Dikötter’s writing style is to the point and very concise.  The difficult part is the material at hand.   Today we know a fair amount about the Great Leap Forward and how it failed to transform Chinese society.  The famine that ensued is known but what may not be known are the facts about what really happened behind the closed doors of China as a government struggled to move a nation forward as widespread hunger decimated its population.

If you are a reader with a sensitive stomach or easily disturbed, this may not be the book for you.  But if you are a reader that is able to digest material that is emotionally and mentally difficult to accept, then this book will be one that you can add to your reading list.  Some may wonder why a book such as this is needed.  I believe it is important because it reveals to us what many probably did not and do not know.  The details are sometimes gory and all around tragic.  At several points in the book, I wondered to myself how human beings could do the things that they did to each other.  The policy of collectivization and the labor mandated by the government devastated the country in ways from which it is still recovering.  Mao’s grip over China was relentless and his failure to first grasp the severity of the situation and his lack of action to halt the descent is mystifying and infuriating.   And considering what was known to have occurred in counties across the country, I am astounded that he was able to sleep at night with the blood of millions of Chinese on his hands.  Perhaps towards the end of his life and in closed-door meetings, he did voice concern and repulsion about what was transpiring. But if that did happen, those facts have remained secret and are locked away from public view. One day we may find out more of the truth but for now we can only assume.

In between the descriptions of famine and violence,  I did pick up a possibly unintended message in the book; we should all be grateful for the privileges and comforts in life that we have.  I personally have never had the experiences detailed by Dikötter.  And I can only imagine what life for them was like.   Through his work, I now know their stories and can see their pain but I can never say that I know their struggle.  Daily episodes of gratuitous violence, sexual assault, exhaustion, inhumane living conditions and death occurred with no reprieve.  And when people did try to make their voices heard, they were met with severe resistance by cadres unwavering in their adulation to the Chairman.  Lives were ended and others had their career ruined as the Red Guard made its presence felt throughout the country.  Those who did not succumb to violence, often had to deal with extreme hunger, disease and mental degradation.  The number of deaths that occurred is not known for sure but as we see in the book, it is believed that over 40 million Chinese people died during the Great Leap Forward. It is by far the worst case of systemic mass murder the world has ever seen and hopefully never will see again.

Today, Mao’s picture can still be found across China and his tomb in Beijing is open to the public.  But as we come to know more about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, we will be forced to reexamine what we thought we knew about the Chairman and the legacy that lives decades after his death.  This book is a hard look at the Great Leap Forward and all of its infamy.

ISBN-10: 0802779239
ISBN-13: 978-0802779236

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