The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie – Andrew Carnegie

CarnegieRecently the world-famous Carnegie Hall in the midtown section of Manhattan announced its schedule for 2021-2022.  After the history changing year of 2020, the music venue is set to resume operations as music lovers return to enjoy all that it has to offer.  Opened in 1891, Carnegie Hall remains one of the most prestigious concert venues in New York City and keeps the name of its creator alive many years after his death.  Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) long ago cemented his place in American history as a successful philanthropist and one of the driving forces behind the expansion of the American steel industry.  In his later years he sat down to write his life story that became this engaging autobiography.

The story begins in the Scottish town of Dunfermline where Carnegie is born on November 25, 1835.  He fondly recalls his childhood and the great memories of his time as a youth.  But for “Andra” as he is called, America is the place to be, and he soon sets his eyes on the United States.   He eventually makes his way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and it is here in America that the Andrew Carnegie known to America begins his rise.   After arriving in the United States, he recalls the dreary scene that existed in Pittsburgh in the middle 1800s.  To say that it is far different from the Pittsburgh of today would be a massive understatement.  Financially Pittsburgh is not in the greatest shape and Carnegie takes on a series of smaller jobs but continues to learn business practices.  And it is not long before fate steps in and he finds himself working for the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  But as we see in the book, it was not meant to be his final destination and fate steps in yet again taking him to Washington, D.C. where he is assigned a high-ranking and important position in the telegraph department allowing him to make observations about the nation’s capital, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885).

After a brief return to Scotland in 1862, Carnegie arrives back on American soil and the businessman that he was destined to be is off to the races.  He soon makes one shrewd decision after another as corporations are dissolved and new ones are formed.  His rise in the business world through the steel and railway industries permitted him to cross paths with other financial greats such as George Pullman (1831-1897) and J.P. Morgan (1837-1913).   He also encounters other figures who come in and out the story according to the role they played in his life.  Carnegie is highly observant and at times plays peacemaker with those on opposite sides.  When looking back on his life he remarks:

“Most quarrels become acute from the parties not seeing and communicating with each other and hearing too much of their disagreement from others. They do not fully understand the other’s point of view and all that can be said for it. Wise is he who offers the hand of reconciliation should a difference with a friend arise. Unhappy he to the end of his days who refuses it. No possible gain atones for the loss of one who has been a friend even if that friend has become somewhat less dear to you than before. He is still one with whom you have been intimate, and as age comes on friends pass rapidly away and leave you.”

The words are wise and when I think of society’s issues today, this quote is hauntingly accurate. Carnegie was keenly observant about human nature and the wisdom he gained is clear in the book.  What I also found to be appealing about the book is not just the story which is incredible on its own but Carnegie’s ability to relate to all people regardless of who they are or where they come from.  As an ardent opponent of slavery and discrimination, he recalls several situations wherein the issue of race came up.  Carnegie had a great sense of humor and his words to those with whom he conversed are food for thought.  And his association with the Tuskegee Institute and Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) is just one example of the enormous generosity that Carnegie became known for.

As the book progresses, Carnegie gives the reader something to think about after each situation plays itself out.  Whether it was a tough business deal or an encounter with a difficult person, he remains in good spirits as he tells his story.  And not once does he resort to gossip or the slandering of a person’s name.  His upbeat personality was certainly not an act, and he has this to say for those who are listening:

“A sunny disposition is worth more than fortune. Young people should know that it can be cultivated; that the mind like the body can be moved from the shade into sunshine.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and embracing many of Carnegie’s wise words.  And though he died in 1919, many lessons he explains can still be applied today.  Of course, the world is a very different place, but some truths will always remain with us.   Prior to reading the book, I confess that my knowledge of Carnegie’s personal life was quite limited but when I saw this recommendation, I reminded myself that there is no time like the present.  My thirst for knowledge has once again been satisfied and I passionately believe this book is a gift that keeps on giving.  And regardless of our occupation, age, sex, etc., something can be found here by all.  Carnegie was ahead of his time and rightfully so.

“There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.” – Andrew Carnegie  

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B004UKDO7M

Coroner: America’s most controversial medical examiner explores the unanswered questions surrounding the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Robert F. Kennedy, Sharon Tate, Janis Joplin, William Holden, Natalie Wood, John Belushi, and many of his other important cases – Thomas Noguchi with Joseph DiMona

NoguchiThis may come as a shock to some, but I have always found the topic of death fascinating.  I find it so because how we leave here often explains how we lived when we were alive.  I am sure we have all asked the same question upon hearing of someone’s death:  what was the cause?  To determine the cause, care and faith is entrusted to the talents of forensic pathologists who become masters at unraveling the mysteries behind the final moments in the lives of humans.  In the City of Los Angeles, pathologists have often faced heavy workloads in a city has seen its share of violent crime. For many years, Dr. Thomas Noguchi was the lead coroner in the County of Los Angeles and was tasked with performing some of the most important autopsies in history.  In this short but highly engaging account of the cases that stand out, he explains what he found as he examined the bodies of larger-than-life figures Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)(D-NY), actress Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) and several other Hollywood stars.  And though there are no “smoking guns”, Noguchi does a masterful job of explaining the forensic approach and how mysteries are sometimes simpler than they appear.

The book opens with the case of Natalie Wood (1938-1981) who drowned while on a pleasure boat with film stars Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner.  The circumstances surrounding Wood’s death have given rise to numerous theories including murder.  But Noguchi is not prone to conspiracy theories and searches for the facts.  He does give his opinion for her death and the explanation is certainly plausible.  However, his position caused a stir at the time and even today the official explanation for her death is viewed by some with skepticism.   As I read through his account of the process to determine how she died, I took notice of his approach which is as detailed as one could ask for.  Wood’s tragic death remains one of Hollywood’s darkest moments, but Noguchi is not done. In fact, the book becomes even more fascinating as the cases keep coming in.

In between discussing each high-profile case, Noguchi recalls his personal life starting with his father’s career as a physician and Noguchi’s decisions to leave Japan for the United States.  His journey exemplifies the saying by President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) that America is “a nation of immigrants”. As a Japanese immigrant there were hurdles to be faced but Noguchi was determined and eventually landed a position with the County of Los Angeles.  But he could not have known that he would find himself the center of attention despite the deaths of major stars.  But it is the nature of the beast in the City of Angels.  His skill and fame would catapult him into in the public spotlight and give others reason to engineer his downfall.  Noguchi’s fight to remain in his position is also discussed and it is unbelievable to learn just how far some were willing to go to remove him from his post.

As we move on from Natalie Wood, Noguchi shifts his focus to the life and death of Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962).  To this day, questions surrounding her death persist and the official cause of suicide is often disputed.  But was there a sinister plot to murder Monroe? Noguchi takes on the case and explores all possibilities and what he discovered does answer some questions regarding her death.  But for those who are searching for a conspiracy, his words may not prove to be persuasive.  To be fair, Noguchi does acknowledge that initially some aspects of the scene did not make  sense and raised more questions.  However, after considering the evidence before him, he makes his final analysis and if there is more to what happened that night, the truth may be lost to history.   Readers interested in Monroe’s story might enjoy Donald Wolfe’s The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe which I believe will satisfy the curiosity of most.

Of all the cases in the book, perhaps none is as high profile as that of Robert F. Kennedy.  His assassination on June 5, 1968, sent shockwaves through the world and we will never know if he would have become president. After learning of Kennedy’s shooting, Noguchi steadies himself to conduct an autopsy that would prove to be the most controversial of his career. And the reason why is sure to have some readers scratching their heads.  Thoughts of “not another Dallas” reverberated throughout America as investigator pieced together the Senator’s final moments in the pantry area of the now demolished Ambassador Hotel.  The question that has haunted many is did Sirhan act alone? There is reason to believe that he did but there is also reason to believe that he did not. The coroner is on the job and the facts are laid out for all to see.   Noguchi is not a conspiracy theorist but what he finds combined with the testimony of witnesses at the scene does give rise to more disturbing questions about Kennedy’s murder.  However, the focus here is on the forensics and Noguchi delivers the goods.

After concluding the discussion on Kennedy, the book moves into darker territory with the murders of actress Sharon Tate (1943-1969) and several friends by followers of Charles M. Manson (1934-2017).  This is by far the most graphic part of the book and the descriptions of the victims may be a bit much for some readers.  Discretion is advised.  As the lead coroner, Noguchi was responsible for examining the victims and putting together the puzzle of what happened that night.  His account is haunting, and I cannot imagine the scene waiting for police officers as they arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive.  It must have been disturbing enough for many of them to wonder how one human being could do these things to another.  Manson and his followers were eventually tried and convicted. Their heinous crimes at the Tate residence and the LaBianca home remain some of the most macabre crimes in American history.  Noguchi explains how he was able to uncover which weapons were used and show the full savagery of the crime from the wounds alone.   I think it is safe to say that forensic science is an invaluable tool.

The author is still far from done after the Manson family crime spree and moves on to other cases such as that of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army (“SLA”) and the deaths of stars Janis Joplin (1943-1970), John Belushi (1949-1982) and William Holden (1918-1981).  All of the cases are gripping but the Hearst file is surreal.  Noguchi’s recollections of the final standoff and its aftermath feel as if they are straight out of Hollywood but they did happen in real life. And with regards to Belushi’s final moments, Noguchi performs what could only be called a one man show as he leaves officers shocked to discover that their original assumptions about the actor’s death were wrong.  But as Noguchi puts it himself:

“It is a system of observation at the scene which I’ve tried to teach young investigators over the years. Don’t worry about the body; the body will stay there. (If it gets up, that’s another story.) First, examine the room in a systematic, preplanned way, beginning with the ceiling. Clues may be up there: bullet holes, bloodstains, chipped plaster.” 

The book was completed in 1983 and Noguchi has been retired for many years.  At the age of 94, he is still going strong and carries with him a wealth of knowledge about forensic science.  Here he takes us behind the scenes allowing us to witness a master technician at work as he reveals what really killed some of the biggest names in history.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B00L5M8U68

Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation – Robert W. Fieseler

36236137._UY630_SR1200,630_When I saw the cover of this book, I had to stop for a second to see if I could pull up something from my memory about the Up Stairs Lounge.  Satisfied that I had no prior knowledge of the incident described, I decided to buy the book and learn something new.  On June 24, 1973, the people of New Orleans awoke to a typically early summer day.  But by the time the sun set that day, the entire city was on edge and the patrons of the Up Stairs Lounge, an LGTB friendly establishment, found themselves in hell on earth.  Sometime that afternoon, an arsonist intentionally set fire to the building and within minutes, patrons were engulfed by flames and smoke.  The deliberate act claimed more than thirty lives with some victims perishing in grisly manners at the scene. Others met their ends while admitted to the hospital and the survivors were forced to confront mental and physical scars from one the deadliest days in New Orleans history.  And the Metropolitan Community Church, which was friendly to the LGBT community, lost one-third of its membership.   Author Robert W. Fieseler revisits that dark day in which the LGBT community New Orleans changed forever. 

I initially had the thought that there was an antagonist with bias against the LGBT community. Surprisingly, that is not the case and the true story behind the act of arson will leave readers speechless.  After a biographical sketch of the central characters in the story, we arrived at the lounge on afternoon of June 24th.   The mood inside the lounge is typical but a chance encounter between two patrons sets in motion a chain of events that no one wanted, or thought would ever happen.  And the lounge’s reputation as a hangout for LBGT individuals later played a crucial role in the investigation that followed.  The attitudes towards the LGBT community and the crusaders against lifestyles they deemed “unworthy” served as impediments to an investigation that would have been handled differently if the patrons had different sexual preferences.  Further, it may be shocking to some that even in the party City of New Orleans, there was a time when being LGBT was extremely dangerous.   The author pays close attention to these factors as he tells the tragic tale about an incident that should have never taken place. 

A sub-story in the book exist in the form of a good discussion regarding New Orleans social attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s.  At the time, New Orleans was home to a wide range of characters and one had his life changed permanently due to the actions of former New Orleans District Attorney James C. Garrison (1921-1992).  During his investigation into the murder of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Garrison and focused on several well-known New Orleanians whom he believed were deeply involved in the plot to murder the president. Among these figures was businessman Clay Shaw (1913-1974) who plays a vital role in the story and is also one of its tragic figures even though he was not at the lounge.  Shaw’s homosexuality is critical to the story and shows the risks associated with coming out of the closet.   Fieseler does not go into the Garrison investigation in full detail but does show enough to explain the flaws in it.  And while Shaw did admit to doing domestic work for the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”),  he was never convicted by any court for being part of a conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy.  

Shaw’s experience reveals another factor in the flawed investigation that followed.   Patrons who either left before the fire, escaped with injuries, or walked away unharmed sometimes had a hard decision to make as authorities searched for the truth.  The choice was not as easy as some may think and came down to a simple dilemma:  help authorities and let it be known that you frequent the lounge or remain quiet and protect your secret life.   Each person placed in this position struggles with their actions and decisions which compounds the tragedy playing out.  Their lives were permanently changed yet some still could not bring themselves to face the reality before them.  And the emergence of anti-LGBT crusaders such as Anita Bryant only added fuel to an already burning fire.  The implications for the Up Stairs Lounge investigation became vividly clear to those who once called it home. 

I mentioned earlier that there was in fact an arsonist.  His story is equally tragic and leaves us with many “what if” questions.  But what is clear is that he was highly disturbed and struggling with his own life at the time of the incident and in the wake of the tragedy.  His name was not known to those outside of a small group of people at the lounge, but his actions were earth shattering and revealed many dark secrets that had been carefully hidden from public view.  Survivors of the Up Stairs Lounge fire were forced to move on in life but none will ever forget that day. They will recall with sadness an era in which simply being LGBT could result in death and legislation was in effect that made life for that community unbearable at times.  Society has come a long way, yet we still have further to travel.  The story of this tragedy by Robert Fieseler should remain with us as a reminder of the dark sides of human nature and the difficulties that come with being LGBT.  

ASIN : B076MD2285                                                                                                       

Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties – Richard N. Goodwin

GoodwinOn more than one occasion my father has commented that the 1960s was the scariest decade of his life.  The threat of Nuclear War, increasing tensions in Southeast Asia and the growing Civil Rights Movement captivated American society and the world.  During one conversation he turned and said to me “at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we didn’t know if we would live to see tomorrow or die in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union”.  The assassinations of several activists and politicians spread fear across the nation and to many, it seemed as if America was on the verge of total anarchy.  Richard N. Goodwin (1931-2018) worked in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and helped draft some of the most memorable speeches given by the iconic figures.  In 1988 he completed this memoir which was re-published in 2014, of the decade he spent in politics with two presidents and two presidential candidates.  And the result is a spellbinding account of a critical time in American history during which the country underwent profound heartache and change.

Goodwin’s account is in part an autobiography in which he revisits his upbringing as part of a Jewish family in the City of Boston and State of Maryland.   His exposure to racism came early as anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in the Old-Line State.  In stark contrast to his comfortable existence in Boston, Maryland would help shape Goodwin’s views that would remain with him throughout his life.  Age and opportunity is on his side and he is blessed with the fortune of working for former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965).  The experience further sharpened Goodwin’s legal and writing skills which later became highly valued and sought after.   As 1960 approached, President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) focused on the remainder of his term and the upcoming election that would determine his successor.  All eyes were on the two candidates engaged in battle for the White House: John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).   The Vice-President at the time, Nixon,  represented all that Goodwin opposed and he had come to like and admire Kennedy who won the election with one of the slimmest margins in history.  The young Irish-Catholic president soon embarked on a mission to change America and usher in “the New Frontier”.   Goodwin became a clutch player and Kennedy’s point man on Latin American affairs.  Some readers will recall that it was Goodwin who met and conversed with famed revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967).  Excerpts of their discussion are transcribed, and the dialogue is interesting for it shows the missed opportunity by Washington to understand the Cuban point of view.   As the story progresses, the two develop a mutual respect and upon learning of Guevara’s death years later, the author laments:

“And I like to think that I would have done what little I could to prevent Guevara’s execution. We were both trapped in the contending forces of a world we had not made; passionate adversaries in the struggle to control the future. Yet I liked the man. He had humor and courage, intellectual gifts and an unmistakable tenderness of spirit. I understood that he also contained ruthlessness, self-defeating stubbornness, and a hatred strong enough to cripple the possibilities of practical action. It is the paradox of the revolutionary that such divergent feelings must coexist in the same man.” 

Cuba proved to be the biggest test of Kennedy’s career in 1961 and again in 1962.  Goodwin takes us behind the scenes to witness the key events from another angle and observe the inner workings of the administration as it grappled with one crisis after another.  His proximity to Kennedy allowed him to make some keen observations about the president and behind the cool public image was was another side to John F. Kennedy.  I can only say that Bobby was not the only Kennedy with a temper.  The actions and reactions by Kennedy shed light on the frustrations of running an administration that struggled to stay in cohesion.  After each debacle Kennedy did shuffle around his cabinet and had become wise to game being played by figures loyal to the establishment.  And Goodwin does not hold back regarding his issues with speechwriter Ted Sorenson (1928-2010).   However, there is no gossip here but only what Goodwin witnessed and knew for certain.  And it is because of this streamlined focus that the story moves forward as fluidly as it does.  Over time, the Kennedy Administration began to fire on all cylinders and the seasoned president began to tighten his grip over Washington.  But with every story about Kennedy’s time in office, there is always the elephant in the room and his trip to Dallas soon approaches.  Goodwin was not with Kennedy that day and can only revisit how he learned of the assassination and the events that took place later that day in Washington.  There is no smoking gun about the crime or conspiracy theories about what happened that day.  Kennedy’s death affected Goodwin deeply and he grieved with millions of Americans.  John F. Kennedy was dead but far from forgotten.  Although his time in office was short he had set into motion a chain of events.  Goodwin is far more eloquent than I and this statement explain’s Kennedy’s importance:

“John Kennedy was not the sixties. But he fueled the smoldering embers, and, for a brief while, was the exemplar who led others to discover their own strength and resurgent energy; their own passion, love, and capacity for hate.”

America had begun the process to give John Kennedy a proper send-off while adjusting to a new leader in the White House. In just a few years, Lyndon B. Johnson would change America in ways no one thought possible. Goodwin had left Washington but soon receives a call from Johnson himself who uses his trademark influence to coerce Goodwin into joining the team.  He accepts and begins to draft statements that Johnson would use to increase his popularity and push legislation through the Senate. The passage of the Civil Rights Bill was a monumental feat but like a master puppeteer, Johnson knew which strings to pull to accomplish the unthinkable.  On July 2, 1964, the bill became reality as Johnson signed it into law and a year later he signed the Voting Rights Act.  Further, he also begun to initiate programs that were part of his vision for American that he famously labeled the “Great Society”.  But a little country in Southeast Asia would change all of that and seal his fate in 1968.  Goodwin was a firsthand witness to the rise and fall of Johnson and sums up the tragic figure he becomes as follows:

“For in the single year of 1965 — exactly one hundred years after Appomattox — Lyndon Johnson reached the height of his leadership and set in motion the process of decline.” 

In 1954, the French military suffered a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and soon withdrew their forces from Indochina.  The staggering amount of U.S. financial aid was not enough to turn the tide against the North Vietnamese Army and the movement spearheaded by Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) known affectionately as “Uncle Ho”. Followin the Geneva Accords, the country was divided into a Communist North Vietnam and Democratic South Vietnam.  Washington continued to eye Hanoi with suspicion and tensions regrettably began to simmer.  Things came to a head in August 1964 as U.S. patrol ships traveling through the Gulf of Tonkin encountered North Vietnamese patrol boats. The events of August 2 and August 4 are still subject to examination, but Johnson used them as a pretext for Congressional approval to escalate the growing war in Vietnam.  Initially, public support is behind Johnson and the fear of the “Domino Theory” combined with misleading intelligence reports resulted in increasing numbers of U.S. troops arriving in Vietnam.  But as we see in the book, the truth about Vietnam could not be hidden forever and became increasingly clear and more disturbing as the war dragged on.  On an interesting note, there were many figures who strongly opposed the war, including Kennedy himself who was highly aware of the dangers of a war.  Goodwin revisits this earlier statement by Kennedy who was still senator at the time and several years away from the throne in Washington:

“No amount of American military assistance in Indochina,” said Senator John Kennedy in April of 1954, “can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”

As 1965 progresses, Lyndon Johnson’s fall from grace begins to accelerate.  Goodwin recalls the series of events that transpire as Vietnam becomes a dark cloud over Washington and the Civil Rights Movement gains momentum.  Although the book is not a biography of Johnson, Goodwin captures the multiple sides of of him perfectly.  And what we see is man self-destructing one step at at time due to a war he cannot end and a country turning against him.  Paranoia soon takes hold and his final descent into madness begins.  Everyone becomes a suspect and unworthy of his confidence and trust. Goodwin would also become the target of his wrath and be accused of being one of those “Kennedy people”.  A sad reality is that throughout his presidency, Johnson struggled with Kennedy’s legacy and never ceased to believe that “they” were out to get him along with the “liberals”.  The revelations by Goodwin are simply mind-boggling and as I read the story, I believe that had Johnson not stepped down, it is possible that a commission might have been formed to study his behavior.  He was clearly losing touch with reality and perhaps the entrance of Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy (1925-1968) into the 1968 election saved Johnson from himself.

After departing from Johnson’s administration and publicly voicing opposition to the war, Goodwin became public enemy number in Johnson’s eyes.  The continuing war and domestic turmoil became too much for Goodwin to accept and he begins to work for presidential candidate and Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005) who sought to capture the Democratic nomination for president.  Upon his arrival at the McCarthy campaign headquarters, he soon finds that there is much work to be done. But Goodwin is a seasoned professional and soon helps to transform the campaign into a well-oiled machine. However, the looming threat of a Kennedy campaign is never far away and after the New Hampshire primary, Bobby formally announces his candidacy.  Goodwin is now placed in a difficult position and must make a decision between McCarthy and Kennedy, with whom he had become remarkably close friends. The saga and its aftermath are thoroughly explained by the author whose observations about politics are some of the sharpest I have ever seen.  And Goodwin was correct in his belief that McCarthy was a great candidate, but Bobby was presidential.  As Kenedy’s campaign kicks off, the author witnesses a transformation of the Senator from New York.  Bobby was reinventing himself and challenging any notion that he was not fit for president. In one gripping scene, Goodwin recalls this experience that shows the passion for America that served as the basis for Kennedy’s actions:

“Kennedy asked, “How many of you left school or good jobs to work in the McCarthy campaign?” Almost every hand went up. “How many of you are going to stick with it to the end, even if it goes all the way to November?” Again, nearly all the hands were raised. “I know some of you might not like me,” Kennedy continued, “think I just jumped in to take your victory away. Well, that’s not quite the way I see it. But it doesn’t matter what you think of me. I want you to know that you make me proud to be an American. You’ve done a wonderful thing. I’m only sorry we couldn’t have done it together.” With that Kennedy got up to leave, and, as we began to start down the street, he turned and waved. Every person on the steps waved back.” 

Readers who are interested in Kenney’s campaign will thoroughly enjoy David Halberstam’s (1937-2007) The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy which shows the incredible change in the candidate as the race for Washington heated up.  Like Jack Kennedy, we know that Bobby’s tragic destiny awaits, and I steeled myself as it approached.  Kennedy is riding the wave of popularity and arrives in Los Angeles determined to win California.  He won the state but was shot and mortally wounded after his acceptance speech. Doctors performed emergency surgery but the wounds to Kennedy had proved to be too devastating and ruled out any chance of survival. Goodwin goes in to see his friend for the last time and his description of Kennedy’s final moments in the hospital bring the story to a melancholy conclusion.

When I finally put the book down, I felt as if I had just taken a ride for the ages.  This is an incredible story about pivotal moments in America’s story that continue to play themselves out.  Many years have passed since Robert and John Kennedy were murdered but their messages and the issues they fought for and against are still with us. However, the past is always prologue and I do believe America can and will make great strides.  Goodwin was also a believer in America and in looking back at that decade of the 1960s, he provides the following quote that confirms his optimism:

“We cannot, of course, go back to the sixties. Nor should we try. The world is different now. Yet, two decades have passed since that infinitely horrifying day in Los Angeles which closes this book. And a new generation is emerging. They can pick up the discarded instruments and resume the great experiment which is America. There is no question of capacity, only of will.”  – Richard N. Goodwin 

ASIN : B00L8FBEWO

The 1989 Coup d’Étát in Paraguay: The End of a Long Dictatorship, 1954–1989 (Latin America at War Book 11) – Antonio Luis Sapienza

paraguayIn the Colombian capital of Bogotá, protests which began on April 28 have increased and has resulted injuries to more than eight hundred people. The demonstrations are the result of public frustration with the country’s economic crisis that has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.  The country has a long history of social unrest and what is taking place today is a scene common across Latin America, a region familiar with political and social unrest.  The issues that have plagued Latin American nations have been compounded the by tyranny of right-wing dictators that solidified their power in the wake of World War II.   On May 4, 1954, the Commander-In-Chief of the Paraguayan Army, Alfredo Stroessner (1912-2006), led a coup d’état that placed him in power of the small South American nation for more than thirty years.  In 1989, he was removed in another coup d’état  that return a sense of democracy to the country.  Author Antonio Luis Sapienza is a native of Paraguay and here he recalls the reign of Stroessner and its impact on his nation.

Personally, I have always wanted to visit Paraguay. I have seen Argentina, Chile and Brazil and will surely make a return to South America post-Covid 19.  But how many of us are even aware of Paraguay? The nation is landlocked and largely unknown to the rest of the world. In fact, the late Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018) perfectly explained the country’s place in the world with this quote:

“For most people, Paraguay is an empty space on the map of Latin America: a country of only 6 million, where a vast percentage of the land is steaming hot jungle or a huge scrub desert known simply as the Chaco. Only a few large cities offer a respite from the oppressive heat.”

Readers familiar with Latin America will easily recall the names of other dictators whom Stroessner appears to be a clone of.  As I read through the story, I began to think of Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte (1915-2006) in Chile, Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) in Argentina and Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina (1891-1961) in the Dominican Republic.  Of course, they are only a few of dictators that seized power across the globe during the 1950s, 1950s and 1970s.  Stroessner rises through the ranks of the military and seizes the moment to gain control of the government.  And it is soon clear that he is another despot seduced by power and lacking the skills needed to bring true democracy to Paraguay.  The people could not have known then that they would live under his rule for more than three decades.  Sapienza discusses Stroessner’s reign and the events that led to his removal in 1989 in this short but direct book that provides an excellent summation of the many aspects of revolution.

It is true that Stroessner did bring some positive changes to Paraguay, in the form of public services and economic agreements with neighboring countries. But the general also had a dark side and made no secret of his right-wing leanings.  During World War II and after Nazi Germany’s defeat, former Third Reich officials found a home on the continent where they could reside in relative peace without the threat of extradition back to Germany.  Paraguay was  one of several countries that accepted former Nazis and the author drives home the point with this reference:

“In 1959, a controversial decree gave Paraguayan citizenship to Josef Mengele, the Nazi SS medical doctor who worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau and conducted inhuman experiments using Jewish prisoners.” 

Mengele never faced justice at Nuremberg and lived until age sixty-seven.   On February 9, 1979, he died after suffering a stroke while swimming near the municipality of Bertioga in São Paulo, Brazil.  Undoubtedly, other former officials escaped and lived quietly across the continent. And even here in the United States, former Nazi officials were welcomed and utilized as the Cold War heated up.  In Asunción, Stroessner ruled the nation with an iron fist while he sat on the throne surrounded by his immediate family and on occasion several mistresses.  As the mid-1970s approached, human rights campaigns began to focus highly on Latin America.  The missing persons  and murders that occurred in Argentina and other nations due to Operation Condor, had caused the world to take notice.  In Paraguay, dissention was brewing and another general began to set his sights on Stroessner’s seat.  Like the president, General Andres Rodriguez (1923-1997) has risen through the ranks in the military. But unlike Stroessner, he did not share the same view of power. And while Rodriguez had his own dark past which is discussed in the book, he was the man who gained the support of those who supported change in Paraguay.  Sapienza provides a biographical sketch of Rodriguez, allowing the reader to see how and why he played such a major role in the events of 1989.

As the coup approaches, readers can feel the apprehension in the story.  Incredibly, everyone but the president seems to be aware that something is brewing.  But the arrogance common to dictators who believe they will always be in power takes hold.  Stroessner may have believed that no one would ever take his place but as Sapienza explains, the country was ready to move on from his regime.  Rodriguez had his own reign, but it did not last nearly as long and he did allow democratic elections while in office, a process that continues to this day.  However, the country will never forget the tyranny of Alfredo Stroessner and his regime that held Paraguay in a vice grip for too many years.   This is the story of his rise and fall on a continent that continues to go through revolution.

ASIN : B07QDBGSQB

The Water is Wide: A Memoir – Pat Conroy

conroyWhile reviewing my list of books to read, I did a double take as I read the title of this memoir by Pat Conroy.  I had added it for a reason yet at the time, I could not recall why.  But I put that aside and decided that there is no time like the present and it might be a hidden gem.  It turns out that I was right in my assessment.   However, I was not prepared for the incredible story within by Pat Conroy (1945-2016) that sheds light on the lives of those who have been forgotten even in the most powerful nation on earth.   I knew that the story centered around education but of course, teaching is never as simple as writing on a blackboard.  In fact, what is revealed in the book should remove all doubt that teaching is by any means as easy task. Some of us are naturally gifted to handle a classroom full of students, each with their own peculiar personality.  In many ways, the teacher is conductor working the orchestra to fine tune all the instruments and produce a symphony that is pleasing to the ears. Conroy is the conductor here and what he accomplished on Yamacraw Island, South Carolina, will leave you sad, angry, and happy at the same time. 

As I started reading the book, I asked myself where on earth is Yamacraw Island?  The name is fictitious, but the land mass is known as Daufuskie Island which is located off the southeastern coast of South Carolina, close to Savannah, Georgia.  It is only accessible by ferry or barge and has a population of less than one thousand people at any given time.  The island has a rich history and is part of the region once home to the Gullah, African Americans who resided on the island and the nearby islands in South Carolina and Georgia.  I had to take a break and look up the Gullah people as I did not know much about them. But Conroy points readers in the right direction: 

“The island blacks of South Carolina are famous among linguists for their Gullah dialect. Experts have studied this patois for years and they have written several books on the subject. It is a combination of an African dialect and English; some even claim that remnants of Elizabethan English survive among the Gullah people.” 

After doing some research, I came back to the book with a better understanding of the environment awaiting Conroy as he begins his teaching assignment on the island.  Readers interested in the Gullah culture will find that this article contains a wealth of information.  After arriving for his assignment with the blessing of Dr. Piedmont, Conroy is given a baptism by fire and soon learns that life of Yamacraw is unlike his comfortable existence in Beaufort and other parts of the South. Further, it will challenge his idea of blacks, largely formed by his middle-class background.  The author is brutally honest and even discusses his own prejudice against blacks that had been cultivated in his youth.  His transformation throughout the book is remarkable and it is fair to say that the kids of Yamacraw left their mark on him. Conroy also leaves his mark on the island which becomes evident as Piedmont seeks his departure from the school.  The people in the book grew on me as well but there are many disturbing issues that come to the surface in the story as Conroy learns that he is really one of the very few people who cares about the island and its inhabitants. 

The book is set in the 1960s and in the South, bringing the issue of race to the forefront.  Race is everywhere in the story as one might expect and even those who try to appear as upstanding citizens are not free of bias that is shockingly horrific at times. The casual use of racial epithets and deranged ideas of communist hippies invading the island might make some readers recoil in disbelief and anger.  Conroy feels the rage increasing within and after one unsettling experience, he remarks: 

“Christ must do a lot of puking when he reflects upon the good works done in his name.” 

As a Black American, I was not surprised at the attitudes in the book and even today there are people who strongly feel that way.  But Conroy and others critical to the story, go above and beyond to change the lives of those students in any way possible.  And although he stayed on the island just a couple of years, what he accomplishes is more than had been done previously even though the school is part of the larger Beaufort public school district.  His work was not easy and on more than one occasion he crosses swords with Mrs. Brown who earns the wrath of the students.  But surprisingly, some of the biggest challenges come from the natives themselves and not the administration in Beaufort.  The author soon learns that he is embarking on difficult journey to break through a wall surrounding a culture that those outside of Yamacraw would never understand.  Superstition, illiteracy, and the fear of whites make his job increasingly difficult as he implements an unorthodox program to help the students learn basic arithmetic, geography, reading and writing.  The most basic skills a student should have are lacking and Conroy is in disbelief at how far behind the kids really are. All throughout the story, the backwardness of the island becomes hauntingly clear and changes his perception of the entire school system:

“Something was dawning on me then, an idea that seemed monstrous and unspeakable. I was beginning to think that the schools in Beaufort were glutted with black kids who did not know where to search for their behinds, who were so appallingly ignorant that their minds rotted in their skulls, and that the schools merely served as daytime detention camps for thousands of children who would never extract anything from a book, except a page to blow their noses or wipe their butts.”

The story is impossible to read without experiencing a range of emotions. But there are some beautiful moments such as their trip off the island for Halloween and the second excursion for a fair. The children absolutely love the experience and Conroy had opened their eyes to the world outside of Yamacraw.  And the main characters among the children are charismatic in their own right.   Mary is one of Conroy’s favorites next to Saul who is always interacting with the teacher whom they call “Mr. Conrack”.  They are beautiful souls who have been failed by those closest to them and a school system that had no intention on improving their education which was virtually non-existent.   When I finished the book, I wished that Conroy had written an epilogue that would have explained what did happen to the kids on the island. Some may have never moved away from it while others may have made the decision to see the rest of America and the world.  If they have read this book, the memories of “Mr. Conrack” and his efforts to give them an education must surely bring back a flood of memories, some of which are quite painful.  But if there is any solace to be found, it is that Conroy has put on the record, just how bad the education system in America was for many blacks living in areas that were neglected horribly. 

The New York Times listed the book as a best-seller, and it is not hard to see why. It truly is an incredible story even if it seems unreal at times.  However, Conroy reveals that in the United States, the “American Dream” is a myth for those whom society has forgotten about.  And the account here can serve as an example of educational policies that are dismal failures.  If you are looking for a good book about American society that explores a social issue which still rears its head, this is must-read. 

ASIN : B003XKN65U

UVF: The Endgame – Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald

UVFThe recent events that have transpired in Northern Ireland have given rise to concern and fear across the United Kingdom.   A return of the Troubles which resulted in the deaths of over three thousand peoples is on the minds of many as the situation plays itself out.  Cooler heads have mostly prevailed up until this point and the paramilitary groups on both sides have managed to keep themselves largely in check.  But there are those who know that a return of the violence that plagued Northern Ireland for more than thirty years, would take the conflict in a far more deadly direction.  On the Republican side, the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) has carried the banner of a United Ireland and will not rest until it sees the expulsion of British rule. On the loyalist side, the Ulster Volunteer Force (“UVF”) and Ulster Defense Association (“UDA”) are unwavering in their support of British rule.  Currently, a cease fire remains in place but both sides are ready to resume operations if open warfare should return.  After reading extensively on the IRA, I decided to shift my focus and look at the Troubles from the loyalist side. 

I saw this book on Amazon and the title immediately caught my attention.  The UVF is firmly cemented in the history of the Troubles but its full role is sometimes mentioned vaguely in discussions about the conflict.  Authors Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald take us deep inside the loyalist cause in this book that peels back the layers of the UVF and the UDA.  But before proceeding, I feel compelled to warn readers that this book is dark.  The number of murders and violent acts is staggering and as I read through the book, I felt a chill as the magnitude of the Troubles fell heavily upon me.  The actions of the IRA are well-documented, and the organization has been seen as a courier of death and destruction.  But make no mistake, the UVF and UDA were just as deadly and just as feared.  The authors put it even more bluntly: 

“The UDA and UVF are merely the most violent manifestation of Unionist opposition to republican goals.”

The statement is telling but I would go even further to say that the conflict was far deadlier that some realize. The vitriol with which each side views the other is chilling and sets the stage for the dark times to come.  Every story has its central figures as the Troubles are no different.  But instead of figures such as Robert Gerard “Bobby” Sands (1954-1981), Brendan “The Dark” Hughes (1948-2008) and Dolours Price (1951-2013), we are introduced to others who remain martyrs to the loyalist cause.  The Rev. Ian Richard Kyle Paisley (1926-2014) makes an appearance but only on few occasions.  The UVF and UDA take center stage and no holds are barred as they go after the IRA and supporters of the unionist platform.  The conflict spiraled out of control and those known to be Catholics were targeted for murder sometimes based on their faith   I had previously learned of the IRA’s most infamous actions, but I began to see that the loyalists were just as fanatical and, in some cases, deadlier than their Republican counterparts.  In fact, the UVF became some dangerous that even Britain began to take notice.  We learn through the authors that: 

“By October 1973 the British army view of the UVF was changing. The UVF was making and planting bigger and bigger bombs, killing more people. A senior British army witness called by the British government during the European Court of Human Rights case of 1975 indicated that before 1973, the army was not greatly concerned with acts of terrorism emanating from the Protestant community. He had regarded the UVF in the early 1970s as a shadow organisation, an object of curiosity and not to be taken seriously.”

That shadow organization along with the UDA had morphed into monsters that could not be contained by the Crown.  Having finished the book, the names of Lenny Murphy (1952-1982), John “Big John” McMichael (1948-1987) and Billy “King Rat” Wright (1960-1997) have been seared into my memory as defenders of the protestant goal for permanent British rule in Ireland.   As an American, I have always had an outsider’s view of the conflict and have never felt that passion that runs through the veins of loyalists and nationalists.  And the violence that ensues was difficult to read about and at some point, I lost count of the names of victims for the list is simply too long. 

There is another aspect of the story that I believe is quite interesting and that is the dis-jointed approach by the loyalist side. In particular, the strange and sometimes hostile relationship between the UVF and UDA is explored thoroughly and what is revealed is that both organizations co-existed but largely in a superficial manner.  Sharp divisions in the loyalist beliefs and a bloodthirst for dead IRA and Catholics pitted loyalist factions against each other and numerous paramilitary groups operating under the radar.  The haphazard approach was so dysfunctional that the two botched a hair-raising encounter involving former Sinn Féin Gerry Adams, a prized target of loyalist groups.  The larger picture of course, shows that there were many paramilitary groups on both sides that turned Northern Ireland into a hotbed of extremism.  And while a cease-fire continues to hold, tensions under the surface can rise at any moment.  It is hoped by many on all sides that the peace remains firm.  The road taken to achieve peace is also revisited from the loyalist side.   Today we know with hindsight that peace was achieved and that there are those on both sides doing what they can to hold it in place.  But the memories of the Troubles are never far away. 

The future remains to seen for Northern Ireland but there is hope that peace will prevail, and that Brexit will not give away to a return of the violence that plunged the United Kingdom into darkness.   This cold hard look at the UVF and loyalist groups serves as a case study of the true history of the Troubles and the messengers of death on both sides of the conflict.  The IRA is widely seen as the organization responsible for violent acts across Ireland and England, but it can be seen here that they were joined in the mayhem by their opponents who equally as effective in committing acts of terror.  For those who want to know more about the UVF, UDA and the loyalist side in the Troubles, this book is an excellent place to start.  

ASIN : B00ANB8KPI

Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing – John A. Williams

JohnWhen I saw this book on sale, I felt a small sense of embarrassment because I did not know who John A. Williams (1925-2015) was.  While it is true that he would be considered “before my time”, voices from the past are often as important as those of today. And any person that spends twenty years writing articles must have a significant number of experiences to reflect on. I gave in to my curiosity and decided to make the purchase. I can honestly say that I received more than I bargained for and have a newfound appreciation the late journalist. To be clear, the book is not an autobiography but more of a recollection of his most vivid memories about his early life, breaking into journalism and the numerous larger than life figures he had the chance to interview and, in some cases, form friendships with.  Writers can tell you that composing an article is not always a simple as it seems and financially, it is not a way to get rich quick. In fact, the author removes all illusions of grandeur when he says:

“I’ve written all that time and if I’ve ever come to one single, positive conclusion it is that writing articles is no sane way for a man to make his living. Article Writing Highway is littered with wrecks, maimed and dead.”

Despite his gloomy summation of his trade, Williams wrote extensively, and his talents did pay the bills. But riches were never his goal and at no time in the book does he allude to fortune as his motive.   He explains how he got into journalism in a time when Black Americans were prohibited from entering and being served at many establishments across America.  Jim Crow was alive and strong and those fighting against it knew that it would die a slow death resisting all opposition to the very end.  Williams did not let that deter him and travels domestically and abroad from one assignment to the next.  And along the way, he observes things about America that even those who lived within its borders may not have seen.  Those memories are presented in an engaging format and Williams pulls no punches in his assessment of the land of the free.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to Williams’ writings about the lives of figures who have their places in history such as Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), Charles “Bird” Parker, Jr. (1920-1955) and Malcolm X (1925-1965). Readers familiar with all three will know their stories but the section on Parker is deeply moving and disturbing as the late musician’s short and tragic life comes into focus.  In just thirty-five years, Bird grew into the man who changed jazz forever and after his death, his former bandmate named Miles Davis (1926-1991) changed jazz again.  Williams did conduct interviews with some of the subjects and his discussions with artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) and writer Chester Himes (1909-1984) offer a frank analysis on the situation in America at that time.  Some might argue that the same discussions are being held today.  I can say that the past truly is prologue.

Some readers may find the sections about his travels across America to be quite shocking. But it is imperative to remember that much of it took place before and around the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.  The landmark legislation had been passed but America did not change overnight.  As Williams drove from one state to the next, the threat of death is never far away, and he had some very hair-raising encounters while on the road. And the treatment he received at various establishments is nothing short of shameful.  Those parts of his story will cause some to wonder how that type of behavior had been normalized in a nation that prided itself on democracy, liberty, and freedom.  Williams was only one person, but his trials and tribulations were common to minorities who had come to realize that civil and equality could wait no more.

As I read the book, he reminded me of James Baldwin in the way he discusses America.  Baldwin had visibility due to his status as a published author and activist. Williams may not have had the same level of popularity, but his observations of daily life are right out of the Baldwin play book.  And like Baldwin, he loved America dearly despite his experiences in the military and later as a traveling journalist.  He remains optimistic for true change in America and the society we see today has come a long way.  There is still more work to be done but I am sure that if Williams were alive today, he would remind us that those much younger than he cannot imagine what life was like during his time.  This book is a cold and hard look at the real America and how life was for millions of its invisible citizens.

ASIN : B01AJ7Z0CQ

Conversations with Lorraine Hansberry (Literary Conversations Series) – Mollie Godfrey

LorraineIt truly is amazing that a person can learn so much about the future by examining the past. In America, there are parts of our nation’s history that people find difficult to control.  Race is at the top of the list and continues to find itself the topic of discussions as the country grapples with instances of systematic discrimination and overt acts by individuals.  However, America is also a very great nation that has the courage to critically examine itself.  The problems we have are not new but instead, more attention is now being paid to them.  And I honestly believe that to remedy those issues, we must continue to look at the past for it provides many valuable lessons from which we can learn.  I picked up this book because 1) I have been a fan of Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) for many years and 2) I knew that the book would contain a wealth of highly intellectual discussions about American society that have relevance, even today.   And I can say unquestionably that this short book is a good look at Hansberry’s brilliant mind that was able to dissect America in ways that sets the stage for meaningful dialogue and change.  

The title may give the impression that it is a one-on-one session with Hansberry but in fact, it is a collection of interviews and articles she wrote during the height of her fame.  Some interviews were recorded for television and the audio for the discussion with Studs Turkel (1912-2008) in particular, can be found on YouTube.  Further, she is sometimes a participant in group discussions that include a range of voices such as James Baldwin (1924-1987) and Langston Hughes (1902-1967).  When they are all together, you can feel the energy in the text and each speaker shines in their assessment of being a Negro author and the social climate in America.   Baldwin shines bright as always and his words are hauntingly accurate of the America he loved and sought to change during his lifetime.  Those who are in the process of writing themselves will absolutely love the group discussion.  But the focus here is on Lorraine and she is given her own platform so to speak to share her thoughts which are numerous and enlightening.  What I found to be highly appealing is her ability to reveal herself in a way that instantly makes you feel as if you know her well.  While I read through the book, I picked up a few things that I was not aware of before that added to the Hansberry story which truly is remarkable.  And considering that she is now recognized as a great playwright, this quote might surprise some readers: 

“I was not a particularly bright student. I had some popularity, and a premature desire, probably irritating, to be accepted in my circle on my terms. My dormitory years, which numbered only two at the University of Wisconsin, were spent in heated discussion on everything from politics to the nature of art, and I was typically impatient at people who couldn’t see the truth- as I saw it. It must have been a horror”

There are a couple of discussions where her role is quite minor.  Whether they should have been included or not is not for me to say but I did find myself hoping that Hansberry would have more to say.   But, putting that aside, I was more than satisfied with the statements and written words that came from Hansberry herself.  If I had to find a crux in the book, it would definitely be her play A Raisin in the Sun, which is still one of the longest running plays in Broadway history.  And in 2014, I had the honor of seeing Denzel Washington live as he took on the role of Walter Lee Younger. He was truly remarkable and captured the essence of Walter just as Sidney Poitier did many years ago.  Here, she explains the back story to the play and her intentions when creating what became a masterpiece.  And make no mistake, getting the play to Broadway was a feat.  And surprisingly, it almost did not happen.  In fact, what eventually came to be did so because of encouragement to become a dramatist by her former husband Robert B. Nemiroff (1929-1991), who preserved her works after her death.  As Lorraine speaks, it can be seen just how simple of a person she was at times.  She never comes across as superficial, egotistical or unrelatable.  In fact, as she speaks, you cannot help but to like her even more.  Physically she stood roughly five feet tall but, in this book, she is certainly larger than life.  And when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement, she is spot on in her observations and honestly believed in peace.  The constant struggle for civil rights was exhausting and this quote sums up the frustration and sense of depression that many found within it: 

“The most shocking aspect of the whole thing”, Miss Hansberry concluded, ” is the waist of our youth – when they should be in school, or working, or just having fun, instead of having to ride Freedom buses, be subject to police brutality, go to jail, to get rights that should be unquestioned.”  

The “Movement” as it is sometimes called, forced America to look in the mirror and make amends for a long and brutal history.  Today in 2021, we are still confronting many dark aspects of our past, but the future truly is bright. America is changing again, and I always hope for the better. Hansberry, along with Baldwin, believed that in the future, America could be a place where anyone could live freely.  And although she did not live to see just how far society has come, I believe that if she were alive, she would be both optimistic and dismayed at some of the things we see taking place. As someone who experienced racial violence firsthand, she knew all too well of the dangers that come with extremism.  Throughout her life, she always believed that it was those dangers that caused her father’s demise.  When discussing her past, she is frank about his last days: 

“My father left the South as a young man, and then he went back there and got himself and education. He was a wonderful and very special kind of man. He died in 1945, at the age of fifty-one, of a cerebral hemorrhage, supposedly, but American racism helped kill him. He died in Mexico, where he was making preparations to move all of us out of the United States”

The family remained in the United States after his death and Lorraine soon found a home in New York City. And that move changed her life forever and resulted in the abundance of material she left behind.  Her tragic and untimely death at only age thirty-four, silenced one of the movement’s strongest voices. However, the movement will never end for any of us regardless of what we look like or where we come from.  The oppression of one human being by another is a constant blemish on mankind but it does not deter us from continuing to do right by each other and set examples for future generations. And no matter many years pass by, Lorraine’s voice will be as loud then as it is here and was many years ago.  

ISBN-10 : 1496829646
ISBN-13 : 978-1496829641

 

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Amazon Classics Edition) – Ulysses S. Grant

41HwlLK8+ILThe death of George Floyd (1973-2020) initiated a chain of events that have resulted in a criminal trial and more discussions about race in America.  It is a subject that will never go away and many still struggle to confront it with the honesty that is sometimes necessary.  I have noticed that when it comes to race in America and the nation’s history, it is almost impossible to grasp the entire picture without factoring in the effect of the American Civil War (1861-1865).  The conflict tore the nation apart over several issues, the most important of which was the topic of slavery.  Many states in the North had already abolished slavery, but in the South, it remained a way of life.  And because it was so critical to the South’s existence, the states that formed the Confederacy were willing to fight to the death to preserve what they felt was their right. Today we know with the benefit of hindsight that it was a lost cause from the start but the battle that ensued was a long and bloody conflict that left thousands dead and others critically wounded. Veterans who survived the conflict were forced to live with horrible memories of war that remained with them until their final days.  Among the war’s combatants was the Eighteenth President of the United States and former General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885). In these extensive personal memoirs, he discusses the Civil War, the Mexican American War and his life which took him to places he could have never imagined, including his roles as a father and husband. 

I should point out that the book is quite long at more than six hundred pages.  However, at no point while reading the book, did I find myself bored with his writing.  From the start the book is engaging and Grant writes in a highly focused style that prevented him from veering off topic and employing rambling text.  The book is broken down into dozens of smaller chapters pertaining to a particular subject or time frame and it does help keep the reader’s attention from waning.  Readers will notice that Grant is very frank in his discussions of the events he witnessed during his time.  He does not mince words even at the expense of possibly offending some.  Although he fought on the American side of the Mexican War, he was not averse to giving his honest opinion and this quote should give readers and idea of the frankness in which the author gets his points across:

“The war was one of conquest, in the interest of an institution, and the probabilities are that private instructions were for the acquisition of territory out of which new States might be carved.”

The beauty in this book is that Grant does not hide behind patriotism and freely conveys his true feelings on various matters.  Some might be surprised that a former general and president is writing in this way but as can be seen in the book, Grant believed in transparency and the soul of the nation, even if it meant calling it out on its faults.  And make no mistake, he supported the Union unconditionally even if that meant his own life being taken from him.  Further, I feel that his words are crucial for Americans today in understanding the darker parts of our past including the founding of the United States. Grant’s account should help remove the mask of a “peaceful transition” between America and the continent’s native inhabitants.  Further, Grant makes an admission towards the end of the book regarding the future of Black Americans and the Caribbean city of Santo Domingo that will raise some eyebrows.

As the story progresses, we eventually come to the part in the story which every ready will be waiting for: The Civil War. Grant lays out the foundations for the war allowing the reader to understand just how important the issue of slavery was, and the threat Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) posed to the South.  I personally learned a couple of things and my eyes were glued to the screen when I read these statements by Grant:

“The Republican party was regarded in the South and the border States not only as opposed to the extension of slavery, but as favoring the compulsory abolition of the institution without compensation to the owners.” 

“The 4th of March, 1861, came, and Abraham Lincoln was sworn to maintain the Union against all its enemies. The secession of one State after another followed, until eleven had gone out.”

For all intents and purposes, the stage was set for the war in which America was fighting to save itself from an enemy within.  And Lincoln would become a savior and a casualty before the war’s conclusion.  The discussions about the war and the individual battles are extensive and it might benefit some readers to take notes while reading what Grant has to say.  Maps are provided but I think that a paperback or hardcover version might be better for those wishing to see actual positions on the terrain. The Kindle display is acceptable but does not match the clarity of a printed version.  To be expected, Grant focuses on the technical aspects of the campaigns which military buffs will love.  He does not go into political discussions for the most part except for when he reveals who he voted for in the presidential race and what he thought of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson (1808-1875).  This is battlefield 101 and all its goodness. Grant was strategist and his brilliancy is on full display as the Union takes hold of the war and step by step, dismantles the Confederate Army.  Legendary figures on both sides enter the story as Grant knew nearly all quite well and he gives his assessment of them as military figures and leaders.  History buffs will find themselves unable to put the book down at times.

If there is one subject about which I wished Grant had discussed more, it is the assassination of Lincoln.  Grant mentions little about it largely mentioning his reasons for not going to Ford’s Theater that night.  As to why Grant avoided a lengthy discussion of the murder, I am not sure but it in no way detracts from the incredible story he is telling. What is clear though, is that he not only liked Lincoln but respected him highly as the nation’s leader. Lincoln in return, respected Grant’s abilities on the battlefield during a conflict the Union had to win by all costs.  Following Lincoln’s murder, Andrew Johnson assumes the presidency and Grant makes observations about that as well. Nothing slanderous will be found in his account but I strongly recommend that readers follow-up this book with material on Johnson’s impeachment trial in which he narrowly avoided conviction. The recent events of the past year will seem like history repeating itself.  However, America survived the Civil War and will continue to survive more challenges that lay ahead as we continue to correct course.  And if we need words of wisdom about our past and the dark side of war and human rights, we have this book by a former president that still stand the test of time. Highly recommended.

Readers interested in the viewpoint from the Confederacy might enjoy this diary by Leroy Wiley Gresham (1847-1865) called The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865, which is a very good look at the conflict from the eyes of a southerner firmly behind the Confederate cause.  Gresham died not long after the war ended but his observations about the war’s progression are interesting for a young man who had not yet reached his eighteenth birthday.

“Everyone has his superstitions. One of mine has always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, never to turn back or to stop until the thing intended was accomplished.” – Ulysses S. Grant 

ASIN : B08CDW51LB