Why I Love to Read

20190206_230007I decided to take a break from the reviews and address a question that I am often asked.  “Why do you love to read?”, is the question I am presented with by people who are aware of my passion for books.  I could offer a cliché answer but the truth is more intricate than that. I firmly believe that each bookworm, as we are often referred to, has their own personal reasons for reading and the category of material that he/she prefers.  Regardless of the reason, their love of books is something that unites us.

Next to writing, reading is one of the most basic skills that a person can possess.  I go as far as to say that at times, our lives can depend on it.  Through the passage of time and a growing collection of books,  I have come to realize that reading needs more promotion in the age of digital communication.  Social media, online news and smartphones have permanently changed the ways in which humans communicate with one another.  Hours long talks on the phone and in person have in some cases, been reduced to a “wall post”, SMS or a “Facebook like”.  Our minds are constantly flooded with small snippets of information but the allure and satisfaction of a good book can never be replaced nor duplicated.

As bibliophiles, we are indeed a rare breed.  We are looked upon with envy as our peers wonder how we can read as much as we do.  Our passion to keep reading and learning is what sets us apart and increases our attractiveness to others.  Personally, I read to satisfy my own hunger for knowledge and have never sought approval or envy from anyone.  Each book that I read is a challenge to myself to see just how much more additional information my mind can process.  And if I had to give just one reason why I read, it is simply because I love books.  However, I do have other reasons and I share them below.  Some you have probably seen before and if that is the case, I will reinforce them here.

Knowledge is Infinite

The human mind is an incredible invention that is still a mystery to even the smartest doctors and therapists.  The development of the world over the course of the last two hundred years is a testament to the ability of humans to push the mind beyond limits that were believed to have been possible.  Our brains crave new information and are eager to use that information in ways that advance our own lives and that of the societies in which we live.  The greatest minds in history knew that reading was a mandatory skill.  We are familiar with the stereotypical image of an old professor with a library of hundreds of books in the background but that image certainly is grounded in a fair amount of truth.  Books have always been the key to knowledge that cannot be learned in the streets.  As I begin each book, I find solace in the fact that I will be learning something new and like a sponge, my mind will soak up the material, resulting in a trove of facts and other bits of information that I may possibly use at a later time. But the real treasure, is knowing that knowledge is not finite. In fact, it is the exact opposite which means that there will always be something new to learn.

The Past Comes Alive

History has always been my passion and was one of my best subjects throughout my teen and adults years in school.  That passion has resulted in my clearly obvious tendency to read non-fiction.   Books have allowed me to travel back in time to endless destinations such as Ford’s Theater in 1865, San Francisco in 1977 and Havana, Cuba in 1959. Some of the places that I have read about, I have been fortunate to see in person.  For others, I have been there mentally, transported by the words of passionate authors blessed with the ability to captivate their audience.  Some might say that is better to leave the past in the past.  But what I am reminded of, is George Santayana’s quote that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  History shows us where we have come from so that we will know where we want to go but without making the same mistakes as those before us.

The Art of Conversation

Life today moves at an incredibly fast pace.  Emails, text messages, instant messages and social media notifications have become ingrained into many of our lives, rarely giving us a reprieve.  For some of us, electronic communication has become our preferred method of interaction. Yet I am old enough to remember a time in which not looking a person in the eye during a conversation was enough for a reprimand.  My great-grandfather called every family member nearly nightly up until the time he became severely ill before his death.   I shudder to think what he would feel about a text message as opposed to a formal hello in person at his apartment or on the telephone.  In public, there are times in which I see a severe social awkwardness as two individuals struggle to have a discussion.  The art of conversation has declined and some believe that it might become a lost art.  For book-worms, we always have something to discuss and can start a conversation from any number of the books that we have read.   Quite frankly, we never run out of things to discuss and always have an ice breaker on hand during new conversations.

Vocabulary Improves

A hallmark of a good author is to know when to use a certain word and why.   In fact, a body of text can be completely re-written just by substituting certain words, giving it new life and a renewed interest.  My growing library of books has resulted in a constantly expanding vocabulary which I call upon not only when I write blog posts but while at work and in discussions.  I do not expect to know every word in the English language but I do intend to try.  And in the process I can continue to improve and broaden my vocabulary which will serve me well for years to come.

Confidence in Writing and Speaking

An older friend who is a retired lawyer once told me that my tongue was also a muscle that needed exercise. He further advised that pronunciation was critical and when speaking to someone,  the voice should be the right volume and clarity was essential.  I was seventeen at the time and at times,  I spoke so low that I was barely audible.  Looking back, I realize that I did not have the confidence that I do now.  Of course, most teenagers have yet to figure out who they are and where they want their lives to go so I do not punish myself younger self too much.   I took his words to heart, practicing my speech and even taking a speech course in college which finally cured me of my mild stage fright. Today when I am speaking, I project the words in my mind, envisioning how they would read in written text.  This allows me to make mental edits before I make any further statements, resulting in a clear presentation of my thoughts.  And those same thoughts eventually become part of this blog which as been one of the decisions I have made in my life.

Travel Without a Passport

Travel is good for the soul, mind and body.  It provides us with opportunities to learn about our world and ourselves.  But realistically, not everyone has the means to travel the world.  The internet has provided an avenue by which hopeful travelers can traverse as they embrace other parts of the planet.  Books  have always been a means to see the world without leaving home. Recently I learned of Ruthenia, a place I had no idea existed but through an excellent biography of Andy Warhol, which I am currently engrossed in, I learned about an entirely new culture that I am sure most of us have never heard of.  Whether I can see it person remains to be seen but at least now I know that it exist.  And if I do happen to visit, I have a small arsenal of facts to make the visit far more memorable.

You Might Be Inspired to Become an Author

It should come as no surprise that many great authors are avid readers.  Their love of writing undoubtedly walks hand in hand with a love of reading.   Inspiration, ideas and satisfaction are products of reading regularly.  Young readers who are amassing their own libraries may one day become authors and will always remember the books that became their favorites.  Personally, S.E. Hinton still stands tall and her classic The Outsiders, remains one of my prized possessions.  Time will tell if I write a book of my own but what I can say for certain is that writing this blog has given me the confidence required to even attempt such a feat.

Your Health Will Benefit From It

Doctors have advised that the best way to prevent Alzheimer’s is to keep the brain stimulated.  Reading is still one of the best ways to keep the mind sharp, long into our elderly years.   I have always feared slowing down as I age but think of my great-aunt who is over ninety years of age and still goes on vacation.  Her mind is still sharp and her words are crystal clear.   She is an inspiration to our entire family and a reminder that there is rule that says elderly people cannot continue to enjoy all that life has to offer.  Further, similar to other parts of our bodies, our minds also age but it is imperative that we do what we can to make sure that is never slows down.  A good book is just what the doctor ordered.

Conclusion

These are the main reasons why I love to read.  There are plenty of other reasons which I have not discussed as they take a backseat to the above.  Other bloggers and book-worms who embrace their bibliophilism may agree with my reasons and I am sure that they each have their own.  WordPress has given me the opportunity to cross-paths with others who love books and it is welcoming to see that they have followed their passion in maintaining their own blogs dedicated to the written word.  If anyone ever ask you why you love reading, maybe some of these ideas will resonate with you and produce more than enough answers for inquiring minds.

 

Child Killer: The True Story of the Atlanta Child Murders – Jack Rosewood

42844479._UY500_SS500_On July 21, 1979, the bodies of fourteen year-old Edward Smith and thirteen year-old Alfred Evans were found in Southwest Atlanta.   Both had been murdered and authorities struggled to find a motive for the senseless killings.   Over the course of the next two years, more than twenty children, adolescents and adults were found murdered in Atlanta.  The homicides were dubbed by the media as the Atlanta Child Murders.  Today, the crimes are a distant memory for many Americans but Atlantans will vividly recall the time period in which the primarily African-American areas of the city  lived in fear as a killer was on the loose, preying upon young children, teens and adults.  Less than forty years ago, a homicidal maniac terrorized the famed Southern Georgia city that served as the home of the 1996 Olympic Games.

When Wayne Bertram Williams was arrested on June 21,1981, the City of Atlanta breathed a collective sigh of relief.  It now seemed as if Atlanta’s children could once again venture outdoors without fear of death.  Authorities had been watching Williams for some time before taking him into custody and officially charging him with the murders of Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Payne, both of whom were adults at the time of their deaths.  Williams was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.   To this day he continues to profess his innocence with defiant statements and baseless theories as to how the murders occurred.  Eerily,  prosecutors knew that their chances of convicting him on all of the murders were nearly impossible and to this day, some of them are technically unresolved.  Williams was the main suspect but because he was never convicted of them, there is no formal sense of closure to those open homicides. Authorities had suspected Williams had help but were never able to prove it conclusively.  Myths and rumors have plagued the Atlanta Child Murders nearly from the beginning, clouding the truth.  But author Jack Rosewood has sought out to dis-spell these myths, telling the true story of Wayne Williams and the deaths in the City of Atlanta between 1979 and 1981.

The book is more a compendium than a biography of Williams or detailed examination of his trial and subsequent conviction. Rosewood’s purpose is strictly to relate what is fact and discard what is fiction. And the result is a chronological examination of the case from start to finish, giving readers the most complete picture of what really happened.  The authors spares the reader from any bias and ridiculous fodder for gossip. The presentation in the book is streamlined with a steady but not too quick pace, keeping the reader engaged as the story picks up pace and Williams enters the cross-hairs of the Atlanta Police Department.  Those who decide to make notes will find that the paragraphs are formatted perfectly for highlighting information to be retained for a later date. Rosewood covers each victim, not just as another number but as young kid or adult, driving home the savageness of the murders.

Major crimes have the tendency to cause speculation among investigators and citizens alike.  All sorts of theories arose as to who was responsible for the murders. Rosewood covers those theories, as outlandish as they were and still are, and breaks them down until they no longer have any semblance of reality.   Race has always had a large role in Atlanta, a city which was at one time was a hotbed of Ku Klux Clan activity.  The city’s dark racial history reared its head again, becoming a political pawn in the mission to bring the killer to justice.  And even today, the murders continue to bring up discussions about race, politics and law enforcement in Atlanta.  Rosewood handles the subject perfectly and clears up any misconceptions that may exist.

Towards the end of the book, Rosewood gives interesting descriptions of other notable or perhaps forgotten African-American serial killers in the United States.  Their names will undoubtedly be unfamiliar to many readers.  And for others, the idea of black serial killer seems too surreal to believe.  But Rosewood has done his homework and these killers are just as deadly or even more so than Williams. Curiously, after he was arrested, tried and convicted, the murders stopped.  The cessation of the homicides led many to firmly believe that Williams was the right man.   He has never admitted to killing anyone and will surely go this grave professing his innocence.  But forensic evidence,  damning witness testimony and Williams’ own implosion on the witness stand, sealed his fate and led to his confinement for life behind bars.  His appeals have been exhausted and it is nearly certain that Wayne Williams will spend the rest of his life in prison.  History may one day absolve him of some of the crimes attributed to him, but until then, the Atlanta Child Murders lays squarely on the shoulders of Wayne Williams.

ASIN: B07KKPRSCX

Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein – Peter Taylor

Sinn fein2Britain is steadily moving towards the anticipated and dreaded exit from the European Union on March 29, 2019. For Ireland, the move comes with a mix of emotions, including fears of the re-ignition of a conflict that resulted in several thousands deaths over the span of several decades. The IRA has long been recognized as the extreme group responsible for dozens of bombs and acts of terrorism across Norther Ireland and London.  But the reality is that many groups were involved in one of the world’s deadliest conflicts.  I have been following Brexit since the referendum was held on June 23, 2016. The vote to leave the European Union sent shock waves throughout the world and left many wondering what would happen to both England and Ireland in its wake?  I wanted to know more about the conflict in Northern Ireland and decided on this book by author Peter Taylor.  And what I found inside its pages, has opened my eyes to a feud that would have dire consequences should it commence again.

Taylor explains early in the book that his first challenge was to decide on where to begin.  He decides on 1916, when Patrick Pearse and his “Irish Volunteers” laid siege on the General Post Office in Dublin, proclaiming the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic.  Their philosophy was modeled after Sinn Fein, created in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, a journalist in Dublin.  Six days of fighting ensued before Pearse gave orders to surrender.  On May 3, 2016, he was executed at the age of thirty-six. His life and legacy continue to live on after his death but I do not believe even he could have predicted the events that followed in Northern Ireland.

Taylor is beyond reproach in telling the story of the rise of the Catholic movement for Irish independence from British Rule.  In 1919, the Irish Volunteers became the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the name it carries to this day and in 2910, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 officially partitioned the country into Norther Ireland and Southern Ireland, allotting six counties to the north and the remain twenty-six to the south. In the north, Protestants are the majority and live comfortably under British rule.  The Catholics are the minority and seek to be free of the control by the Government in London.  Discrimination becomes a tool of the trade, relegating the Catholics the lowest level in society.   Tensions begin to build and it is not long before both sides engage in violence.  Fianna Fail was established in 1927 after breaking away from Sinn Fein and in 1996, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was created in response to the growing threat from the IRA.   London soon realizes that Northern Ireland is a powder keg and sends in British troops to restore order.  These various groups became entangled in a battle that was nothing short of all out war.  And as we see through Taylor’s words, it nearly tore the entire country apart.

I warn the reader that violence is prevalent in the book.  However, no story about the IRA, UVF and British Army conflict can be told without discussing it.  Here, Taylor does not mince words and the acts of violence might even disturb the most hardened of readers.  What I found to be even more shocking aside from the acts alone, were the ages of the young men and women involved, some of whom were no more than twenty years old.  But they believed in their causes and were determined to fight to the death in support.  As an American, it is with some difficulty that I was able to put myself in their position.  I have visited Ireland, seeing the General Post Office in Dublin while embracing all that the Irish have to offer.  But this story is not about the Irish breakfast or a pint of Guinness.  This is the bloody story of sectarianism in its most violent form.

Many of the fighters on all sides are no longer alive having succumbed to death, old age and in some cases a hunger strike, as was the case in 1981 at Long Kesh, now known as HM Prison Maze.  But in this excellent account of the conflict, their stories come back to life allowing the reader to go deep inside the mindset of the IRA and its followers.  In hindsight, we have the privilege of examining the actions of all involved.  But at the time, all believed that they were acting in good faith.  And even in some of the interviews that Taylor conducts, the soldiers and activists stand firm in their convictions.  The tense atmosphere, intimidation and fear that engulfed a nation is captured brilliantly by the author.

The British Government plays a huge role in the story for obvious reasons.  And although London is slow to react to the building tension, but once it does, the story picks up pace and its intervention adds another layer of tension of the already explosive conflict.  The administrations of Harold Wilson (1916-1995), Edward Heath (1916-2005), James Callaghan (1912-2005) and Margaret Thatcher (1923-2013) all tried their hand at moving the conflict towards peace. Thatcher would prove why she had been nicknamed the “Iron Lady” following the hunger strikes at Long Kesh in which Provisional IRA member Bobby Sands (1954-1981) died after being on strike for sixty-six days.  The failures of London and the eventual success at achieving peace are covered extensively by Taylor in full detail, putting together all the pieces of a tragic story.   One of the highlights of the book is that in his interviews, he was not afraid to ask the difficult questions of the interviewed.  His approach and the unfiltered answers, give the book even more authenticity as Taylor takes us back in time, recounting a story that should never be forgotten.

Today, Ireland seems peaceful but beneath the surface, old tensions exist and in Northern Ireland, sharp divisions remain between Protestant and Catholic.  Time will tell if the old rivalries will be resurrected and the IRA and UVF re-engage in deadly conflict. The hope is that calm prevails and he world can breathe a sigh of relief in a united Ireland.  What is certain, is that a willingness to maintain peace will be needed by all sides. Wisdom and foresight will prove to be invaluable tools along with unwavering patience.  The people of Ireland face an uncertain future but I remain confident that peace will prevail in the hope that all involved do not wish to see a return to the past.  For anyone who is trying to understand the Northern Ireland conflict, this is a great book to start with.

ASIN: B00K4SC5UG

Ribbentrop: A Biography – Michael Bloch

20190202_003914On September 1, 1939, the Second World War began as the German army invaded Poland as part of Adolf Hitler’s quest for world domination.  Britain had warned Germany that any military action against Poland would result in England coming to the aid of its ally.  Interestingly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) did not want to go to war with England, preferring to accomplish the annexation of Poland through diplomatic methods after having successfully partitioned Czechoslovakia in what is infamously referred to as the “appeasement at Munich”.  But if Hitler did not want to wage war against Britain, knowing their intention to save Poland, then why did he give approval to the invasion that plunged the world into a major conflict?  The answer to that question lies in the story of his Foreign Minister and Nuremberg defendant, Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946).

In the annals of the Third Reich, perhaps no other figure is as glanced over as Joachim von Ribbentrop.  Standing next to nefarious characters such as Hermann Goering (1893-1946), Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and Heinrich Himmler  (1900-1945), he is often an afterthought.   Semi-illiterate but able to speak fluent English, he was one of the few officials in the Third Reich with extensive exposure to the culture of the west. And the time he spent in London early in his life, made him the right choice by Hitler for the position of Ambassador to Great Britain.  By all accounts, no one found him to be enjoyable company but incredibly, he maintained a position close to Hitler’s ear with the Führer listening intently and in some cases implementing Ribbentrop’s suggestions.  Their unusual relationship would have dire consequences in 1939 at Hitler set his sights on Poland. It is here in this phenomenal biography that we learn another part of the story behind the Poland invasion and Ribbentrop’s critical role in the events.

At first glance, it is easy to write of Ribbentrop as “non-essential” to the story of the Third Reich.  And although he is mentioned in many books about the Nazi regime, his role is typically minor in the grand scheme of events.  But make no mistake, his advice and misconceptions about foreign nations, played pivotal roles in the rise and fall of the Third SS Reich. Bloch has capture Ribbentrop’s life beautifully in this biography that tells the story of the former Foreign Minister for all to see.  In comparison to the other figures of the Nazi regime, his personal life could be considered average.  But his entry in the Nazi party and actions thereafter, helped changed the course of history.  As I was reading the book, I could not help feeling mystified as to how a figure such as Ribbentrop maintained the confidence of Hitler as each blunder piled up.   Admittedly, Hitler did not consult him on every foreign policy matter, apparently realizing his many shortcomings.  But he did trust Ribbentrop enough on some of the most important decisions to be made, many of which changed the course of world history and produced a mark on the history of Germany which can never be erased.

Notwithstanding his restricted voice in Hitler’s government, he was an important figure in Hitler’s vision of a Anglo-German unification.  In fact, Ribbentrop’s actions towards and with the British government are the crux of the book.   Naturally, his positions as Ambassador and later Foreign Minister, resulted in his constant communication with the Ambassadors of England, Italy and Japan.  However, his close position to the Führer did not earn him the envoy of others but rather their wrath.  Hitler was known to pit subordinates against each other, using the divide and conquer technique.  Their fights and attempts to sabotage each other take center stage in the book as they compete for Hitler’s approval, the elimination of enemies and advancement in rank.   The story reveals a terrible cast of characters drunk on power and filled with venom for competitors and the Jews of Europe.  Standing center among these characters was the sad Ribbentrop, the man often the butt of jokes and contempt, who was rarely seriously.  Having finished the book, I am dumbfounded as to how Hitler’s administration functioned at all.  The decisions they reached and methods used were simply surreal and Ribbentrop plays a direct part in many of them.

On October 14, 1946, Ribbentrop was the first to be executed after Goering committed suicide in his cell the night before.  He left behind a widow and four children, all of whom are still alive today.  Decades have passed since their father’s death and in the passage of time, their lives will also reach a conclusion.  But they remain witnesses to a time in history in which the world was on the brink of complete anarchy as Adolf Hitler set out to dominate the planet.  Next to him was his fanatically dedicated Foreign Minister.  This is the definitive biography of the life and death of Joachim von Ribbentrop.

ISBN-10: 0517593106
ISBN-13: 978-0517593103

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou

181231143615-07-best-books-large-169Theranos was supposed to the company that changed health care forever.  The Silicon Valley startup had issued a bold proclamation that it had developed technology that could analyze a person’s blood and screen it against a multitude of known conditions, thereby providing early detection of sometimes fatal conditions.  The startup attracted attention and investments from big name players, all highly interested in the potential of what promised to be a revolutionary product.   Today, Theranos is gone, having officially become defunct in September, 2018.  Its proposed device nicknamed “Edison”, never materialized into the product it was designed to be and the fall of Theranos left many with shock, frustration and anger.  But why did a small company with such a game-changing idea, fail to live up to its potential? John Carreyrou is a journalist with the Wall Street Journal who received a tip about an obscure Silicon Valley startup plagued by internal problems and using deception as a tactic to accumulate investors.  His investigation has resulted in this best-selling account of the rise and fall of Theranos.

The central figure in the story is Elizabeth Holmes, the wide-eyed young lady with bright blonde hair who envisioned a product that would project her to stardom in the male dominated world of information technology.  Although she only completed two years at Stanford, she was able to launch the startup with the help of very wealthy investors.  Interest into the product accumulated and in a short amount of time, the money rolled in. But as time went on, investors began to realize that little return was being shown.   And as the facade slowly crumbled, the truth was revealed for the world to see.   And even then, many on the outside of Theranos had no idea about what really transpired behind the scenes.

Former employees agreed to talk to Carreyrou, even in the face of legal threats from Theranos’s counsel.  A widow also talked, even as she mourned the suicide of her husband, once one of the company’s best technicians.  The picture that has come together is a web of secrets and lies that doomed the company from the start.  This inside story is nothing short of mind-boggling and it is surreal that the startup existed for as long as it did.  During its prime, it claimed as members of its Board of Directors, Henry Kissinger and Gen. James  “Mad Dog” Mattis.  Investors such as the savvy Rupert Murdoch also put their money into the startup, believing it truly did have an innovative concept that would change the world.  The ability of Holmes to sway investors towards Theranos and finalize deals with major carriers such as Walgreens, highlighted the ambition behind her vision that carried a win at all costs mindset.  But that same mindset would later prove to be her downfall and that of Theranos.

Interesting, Carreyrou does not enter the story until about midway. Prior to that, we learn about Holmes’s life and the foundation of Theranos.  Contacts are reached and employees soon fill the roster of a promising young company.   But as they would soon learn, there was far more than meets the eye and no one would come away unscathed.  Leadership that evolved into tyranny cast a dark cloud over the startup and a revolving door of employees ensues.  Carreyrou tells each of their unbelievable stories while covering the progress of Theranos step by step.   But over time, optimism faded and former employees could no longer ignore the many illegalities and outright lies purported by the company.  And as Carreyrou is beginning to learn about the startup, he finds assistance and guidance in the voices of those who were once on the inside.  At this point in the book, the story picks up the pace and the battle between Theranos and the media, in particular the Wall Street Journal, is nothing short of a slug-fest.

The investigation by the Wall Street Journal, in addition with anonymous tips to the Center for Medicaid and Medicare services, combined to seal the fate of Theranos. And despite threats of litigation to the paper from Theranos’s legal counsel, the Wall Street Journal moved forward publishing a series of articles that opened the eyes of many to a deception that had gone unnoticed by even the sharpest of eyes.   By the time the end came and the company was a shell of its former self, nearly all of the major players and investors were gone but the memory of Theranos remains firmly implanted in their minds.

Silicon Valley is full of startups, bristling with activity in the belief that it might by the next big thing in technology.  But sometimes, a company can move too fast too soon, never stopping to evaluate itself and its motives.  Haste of that nature combined with ego and vindictiveness, can combine to form a nexus of nefarious behavior that can only lead to defeat and in some cases, total destruction.  This is the unbelievable story of the mysterious and ultimately disappointing, Theranos.

ISBN-10: 152473165X
ISBN-13: 978-1524731656

An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings – Harvey Milk, Jason Edward Black, Charles E. Morris and Frank M. Robinson

20190119_180840This past November marked forty years since the assassination of Harvey Bernard Milk (1930-1948), who is recognized as being the first openly gay politician to hold office in the United States. The 2008 film Milk, starring Sean Penn, brought Milk’s life back into public light, where public interest has continued to increase. In the City of San Francisco, he is revered as one of its greatest citizens and the Castro neighborhood where he operated his camera store and conducted his political campaigns, pays homage to him with a bar named in his honor. Throughout the streets of the Castro, his image can be found throughout and on occasion, tourists might be fortunate enough to encounter someone who knew Milk personally.   On a visit to San Francisco a year ago, I did not have this fortune, but I did visit 575 Castro, the former site of his store which now serves as the base for the Human Rights Campaign.  Standing in the middle of the floor felt surreal as the realization settled in that this was where Milk lived and worked nearly forty years prior.  In the upstairs window at the front of the apartment where Milk lived, there is a full size image of him looking down at the street. It is as nostalgic as can possibly be. As I walked the Castro, I began to think, what if he were alive today?   What would he think of progress made by the LGBTQ community?  I think he would be proud but not satisfied, continuing to push for further advancement and acceptance of LGBTQ men and women  in society.

Sadly there are many young gay men and women who still have yet to learn about Milk’s life and contributions to the gay rights movement.  But fortunately for them and us, he left behind scores of speeches and writings devoted to the cause he wholeheartedly believed in.  Part of this collection of speeches and writings contained herein, are  appropriately titled An Archive of Hope, which brings the past alive as Harvey takes center stage in his own words.  Frank M. Robinson (1926-2014), was a speechwriter for Milk and had a cameo in the 2008 film where he plays himself.  He provides a foreword for the book, which he wrote in 2012, that is a testament to Milk’s legacy and some of the best writing I have ever read.  It is not hard to see why Milk solicited his assistance in creating the speeches that would help define his legacy.  On June 30, 2014, Robinson died at his home in San Francisco following a decline in health, due in part to heart problems.  His death was confirmed by friend and fellow activist Danny Nicoletta.

Milk’s brilliance cannot be overstated and it is on full display in the book.  The writings that are included are taken from newspapers that Milk contributed to, letters he wrote, sometimes to editors, and highlights from his most famous speeches.  The book follows a chronological order and at the beginning of each section, the authors provide a back story to the writing at hand.  It serves as a compliment to Milk’s words and helps the reader to follow along as Harvey challenges the establishment while throwing himself into the political arena as he runs for City Supervisor.  And although he lost the first few races, his popularity increased exponentially and all in San Francisco knew that Milk was here to stay.  What I found the most attractive in the book was Harvey’s foresight into the future.  It is with profound sadness that I can say that many of his predictions about San Francisco have come true. His words were prophetic and had his vision for San Francisco come to fruition,  the course of Californian politics would have undoubtedly taken a different course.

Reading Milk’s writings was a pleasure in itself.  His ability to analyze and critique the system was beyond precise and his words are still relevant today.  And while he did run for office, he was never a true politician.  In his view, they were all hypocrites and for Harvey, there was no way he could join that club.  Perhaps he was too driven, honest and outspoken for politics. Regardless,  he never wavered in his dedication to the movement which he rightfully called the candidate in his tape recorded will.  But as much as he railed against the persecution of the LGBTQ community, he also criticized the same community for its failures as well.  His words of advice for the gay community can applied today as they were in the past.  As Harvey believed, everyone, whether gay or straight, had a role to play in the movement.  And that movement found itself on a collision course with the evangelical right, determined by any and all means to take away the rights of the LGBTQ community.   They would find their icons in singer Anita Bryant and former Senator John Briggs. The advancement of California Proposition 6, also called the Briggs initiative, resulted in call to arms in the gay community and as Harvey points out, the forces mobilized in response to Anita Bryant’s crusade against homosexuals.  I had hoped to see more of the transcripts of the debates between Milk and Briggs included but as the authors point out, many were not recorded and others  suffered from sub par sound.  But from the small section that is included, it is clear that Harvey had mastered the art of politics without becoming a politician.  At his core, he was an activist or even more plainly stated, a humanist.

No book about Milk would be complete without his campaigns to become a City Supervisor which finally resulted in victory in November, 1977 after several failed attempts. The book follows these campaigns and includes the text of his speeches following his history win.  Harvey realized his work was far from over and continued to push forward until he succeeded with the successful vote of the gay rights ordinance that was opposed by only one Supervisor, Dan White, the man would later murder him.  A year before his untimely death, Milk tape recorded his will, the full text of which is included in the book.  And those words truly define the vision and goal that Milk had for the movement.  The Mayor of Castro Street had arrived and had he lived, I believe he would have gone on to accomplish even greater things for the gay community and the State of California. Right now we find ourselves as nation, in the midst of a turbulent political climate where individuals rights are sometimes still under attack.  Wounds of division and a short memory can combine to produce a society in which no one moves forward and we continue to make the same mistakes of generations prior.  Whether you are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, contained within the pages of this book truly is an archive of hope.

ISBN-10: 0520275497
ISBN-13: 978-0520275492

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick

nothing to envyThe Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains one of the most secluded nations on earth.  To some, it is the best example of the society George Orwell described in his masterpiece, 1984. Documentaries, photographs and videos taken in North Korea have given the rest of the world glimpses into a nation ruled by an iron fist, where individuality and personal expression are as forbidden as foreign literature and films.  Every living moment of North Korean life is in service to the State under the tutelage and patronage of the “Dear Leader”.   The ideology of the North Korean Republic known as “Juche” was made famous by the late Kim il Sung (1912-1994) and has been carried forward by his son Kim Jong il (1941-2011) and currently his grandson, Kim Jong Un.  Portraits of the leaders can be found on the walls of nearly ever building in the country, reinforcing the demand for subservience by the government of its citizens.  The threat of American Invasion and moral corruption of young Koreans by foreigner influence are used by the State as justification for its seclusion from most of the world.  But for some citizens, the smoke and mirrors become clear as nothing more than propaganda used to keep society in line. and curiosity of the outside world creeps steadily in.   Their awakening results in a mix of emotions, one of which is defection to South Korea typically by way of China.

Barbara Demick is the former Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and spent five years in Seoul interviewing defectors from North Korea. This book tells the story of several individuals who made the difficult decision to leave the only place they have called home.  I think it is fair to say that anyone outside of North Korea is aware of the totalitarian regime imposed upon the people of that nation.  Journalists have lifted the carefully guarded veil constructed by Pyongyang. But what is contained in the pages of this book might surprise even the most knowledgeable readers. In fact, descriptions of their daily lives will stun some but in order to understand their desire to learn about the outside world, escape a suppressive regime and find peace and happiness, we must learn their stories and the challenging lives they were born into.  Their names are Kim Hyuck, Mi-Ran, Jun-Sang, Oak Hee, her mother Song Hee Suk and Dr. Kim Ji-eun.  Their stories are different but they are all united in the defection to South Korea, leaving behind family members and friends.  But what they witnessed will remain with them for the rest of their days.   Those events which we learn about in this book are more than any of us would want to endure.  I guarantee that for American readers, after you have finished this book, you will have a greater appreciation for the privilege of living in the country that is perhaps the most powerful nation on earth.

 

For those readers new to literature about North Korea and/or its defectors, the author provides a good history about the Japanese occupation of North Korea and its liberation following World War II.  Kim il-Sung would rise as the leader of the new Soviet backed North Korea while Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) established him as the leader of the U.S. backed South Korea.  The establishment of the 38th Parallel also known as the DMZ, as the dividing line between the two countries, remains firmly in place as the line that separates two very different countries and different worlds. Sung’s goal to create a new version of Communism, resulted in a regime that ranks among the most brutal anywhere in the world and seemingly stuck several decades behind the rest of the modern world.  And as the nation endured periods of famine and near economic collapse, increasing numbers of North Koreans, including those in this book, made their way south by any means necessary.

When we first meet our characters, their lives are typical of North Korea, far removed from any knowledge of or influence by the western world.  Allegiance to the “Dear Leader” is mandatory and all seem to stay in line willingly.   But over time the facade wears away and the death of Kim il-Sung on July 8, 1994, would provide the catalyst for many to open their eyes to the truth about life in North Korea.   Radio programs and even television from South Korea began to infiltrate the nation as growing numbers of citizens began to question all that they had been taught from a young age.  For figures in the story at hand, the moment of revelation of a life outside of North Korea proved to be too seductive to ignore and once the decision was made, the next step was to act which they did under the most intuitive of ways.  And in stark contrast to the idea of communist citizens all falling in line without thought, each of the characters prove to be as sharp and clever as anyone determined to seek asylum in the hope of a better life.  Their successful defections to the South are not without complications and their adjustment to life in Seoul, also shows the complicated efforts that exist to undo many years of indoctrination and seclusion.

Throughout the book, a constant theme is the possible collapse of North Korea and even the author remarks that it has been predicted for many years.  In spite of conditions that should cause the downfall of any government, North Korea continues to maintain its position as the rogue nation that issues threats to neighboring countries while preparing for a believed conflict with the United States.  The government operates on a system of dysfunction and in some cases hypocrisy.  While those at the top enjoy American cars, films and imported goods, millions of North Korea endure malnutrition and destitution.  Time will tell if the regime will collapse but what we do know, not just from news reports but also from the stories in this book, is that outside of Pyongyang, life for millions of North Koreans is marked by famine, poverty and fear of the State.  Defectors have survived the roughest of ordeals and no longer live in the fear that grips North Korea.  However, their hearts are still with those left behind and they do believe in the dream that one day Korea may once again be unified.  Until then, the number of defectors may continue to rise and people seek to move away from scavenging for food and praising the Dear Leader to having a full meal, talking freely and being able to watch any show they prefer on television.   Their stories may give others inspiration that there is a life outside of North Korea and for some, it is worth dying for.  But it is hoped that they are able to escape and enjoy the many privileges that so many of us take for granted.

This book has caused me to really think about the concept of freedom and how precious is truly is. I have seen and accomplished things that most North Koreans either have no knowledge of or ability to do. I am grateful for the life that I have and the author is correct when she says that life in North Korea is nothing to envy.

ISBN-10: 9780385523912
ISBN-13: 978-0385523912

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