Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror – Victor Sebestyen

vlThe dissolution of the United Soviet Social Republics (USSR) remains one of the most important and world changing moments in history.  The lowering of the hammer and sickle on December 26, 1991, was the end of seventy-four years of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe.  But the remnants of the Soviet Union can still be found today and the ghost of its founder,  Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), continues to haunt Russia. In Red Square, Moscow, Lenin’s corpse remains on permanent display and is maintained by a full-time staff of technicians.  To believers in the old-guard and Marxism, Lenin is the eternal leader of the Bolshevik revolution. To his detractors, he was madman who unleashed a wave of terror and was  outdone only by his successor Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Undoubtedly,  Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron grip built upon fear, intimidation and murder.  But those tactics were not new methods of operation, having been in use long before he took power.  During the reign of the Soviet Union, information regarding Lenin’s private life was kept secret and only the most privileged of researchers were able to see any official records.   The passage of time and change in attitudes had resulted in the disclosure of Soviet records that many thought would never be revealed.  The thaw which began with Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) has allowed the world to learn the truth behind the Iron Curtain.  Author Victor Sebestyen has taken another look at Lenin’s life in this well-researched and revealing biography of the iconic and infamous Soviet leader.

It is not a requirement but I do believe that basic knowledge of the former Soviet Union will make the book even more enjoyable to the reader.   There are many figures in the story, some of whom became pivotal figures in Soviet and world history.  From the start, the book is intriguing and the author’s writing style sets the perfect tone for the book.  Furthermore, at the end of each chapter are the footnotes which help aid the reader in following the narrative and developing a mental picture of the tense political climate that existed in Russia at the beginning of the 1900s.

Prior to reading the book, I had learned a significant amount of information regarding Lenin’s life but the story told here is simply astounding. Sebestyen leaves no stone unearthed, fully disclosing the sensitive parts of Lenin’s life including his marriage to Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1969-1939) and relationship with Inessa Armand (1874-1920).   And as the author points out, Nadezhda or “Nadya”,  was a supportive and valued voice in Lenin’s circle.  Her comments throughout the book shed light on Lenin’s very private side and her commitment to the revolution and Lenin’s ideology made her a celebrated figure in her own right.  She remained committed to Lenin after his death and up until her own in 1939.

Lenin’s early life is examined in through detail and reveals an interesting figure but highly unorthodox and complex.  Ideology becomes a major focus of his life and his series of odd jobs come to an end when he finds his true calling as the man destined to lead the Bolshevik Revolution. But his path to get there had many obstacles along the way and it is his time away from Russia that is just as interesting as his time in Russia.  As would be expected, his service as chairman is the crux of the book and Sebestyen delivers the goods.   Sensitive readers should be aware that there are very disturbing events that take place and in their graphic detail here, they may prove to be too upsetting for some.  But the author reveals them so that we may learn the truth about Lenin.  In the title of the book, the author refers to him as a “Master of Terror”.  I believe the title was earned and this book is proof of it. His deeds have been overshadowed by those of his successor but Lenin was a master in his own right and I have no doubts that Stalin took many notes.  Death, deception, lies and even pilferage are part of the Soviet story, serving as pillars in the foundation upon which Lenin and his party established their system of brutality.   Their acts were so surprising in some instances, that even after having finished the book, I am still shaking my head in disbelief.  And to say that anarchy ruled, might be an understatement.

Sebestyen carefully follows Lenin’s rise and the formation of the Soviet Government.  From the start, all was not well and cracks in the facade immediately began to form.  The fragility of the coalition is on full display, allowing readers to grasp the unstable nature of Soviet politics and how quickly friends could turn into enemies.  Jealousy, egos and diverging interpretations of true Marxism severed friendships, raised suspicion and helped create an atmosphere of distrust that remained with the Soviet Union for the next seventy years.  And even today,  Russia and the independent republics, sometimes struggle to to stand completely removed from the dark legacy of the USSR.

One subject which has always been up for debate is Lenin’s untimely demise at the age of fifty-four.  His condition at the time was somewhat puzzling to doctors but all agreed that it deteriorated quickly.   Sebestyen clears up a few rumors surrounding Lenin’s death but there is a slight chance that some details regarding Lenin’s death still remain hidden. However, I do believe the author presents a solid analysis of what contributed to his death based on facts and not mere speculation.  Readers who are expecting to find any evidence of a conspiracy will disappointed.  No such theories are presented or even acknowledged, keeping the book on track all the way until the end.

The existence of Lenin’s tomb is both a testament to his influence over Russia and his inability to envision a future without himself.   He could have never imagined the heights that the Soviet Union would reach over time nor could he have pictured its downfall.   I think he may have mixed feelings to know that today in 2019, people are still interested in his life, one that he was willing to devote to the success of the Soviet empire.  In death, he became eternally etched into the Soviet experience and he remains one of history’s most polarizing figures.  This biography is nothing short of excellent.

B06WLJZNBH

Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang – Lamont “U-God” Hawkins

Ugod_RawIn 1993, Loud Records released an album that re-defined the rap music genre.  A group of nine lyricists from the borough of Staten Island in New York City joined together and created Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The album was a smash hit and before long, millions of hip-hop fans knew the names of each member by hard.  As a New York City native, I remember when the single Protect Ya Neck was released and the buzz surrounding this new group that was in your face, raw and uncut. To some, the group was just another rap entourage from the streets, that was profane and too rough around the edges for mainstream society.  But to fans, they represented a new concept and sound that no one had ever seen before from rap artists.  The latter won out and through many albums, tours and even television appearances, the group cemented their legacy as one of rap’s greatest acts.  But for all of the glitz and glamour, there also existed a behind-the-scenes story that was playing out in ways that no fan could have ever guessed.

Lamont Hawkins, known as “U-God”, is one of the founding nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan.  In this gripping autobiography that is the first book by any member of the group, he opens up about his life as a young kid in New York City who grows into a young man and becomes part of music history.   Readers sensitive to profanity should be aware that there is plenty to be found here.  Hawkins speaks in a very frank manner but at the same time, gets his points across very clearly and drives them home with the right amount of force.  Putting aside the strong language, the story is seductive right from the beginning.  The book is so interesting that I finished it in forty-eight hours.   The story picks up pace from the beginning and never slows down.  It is an unbelievable roller coaster ride and fans of the Wu-Tang Clan will absolutely love this book.

I do believe that even those readers unfamiliar with rap, Hawkins or Wu-Tang will still be able to enjoy the book.  His story is much more than just recording songs.  This is also the story of personal triumph from a life that could have easily taken a much different path.  Younger readers may find some of the anecdotes regarding New York City hard to believe. But anyone who lived in New York during the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s will easily recall the era when New York City was nearly bankrupt and crime was all over the Five Boroughs.  Subway graffiti, burned out and semi-destroyed buildings littered parts of the city. Poverty, drugs and an astronomical murder rate made New York City one of the most dangerous places on earth. I vividly recall those days as a young kid growing up in East New York, Brooklyn during the 1980s.  But my life was far different from Hawkins and his story will blow your mind.

Struggle is the best word I can think of to describe his early life.  But his trials and tribulations also extended to the other members of the group and Hawkins introduces them into the story as the Wu-Tang Clan is slowly formed.  The Park Hill housing complex figures prominently throughout the early part of the story, serving as home for several group members.  Murders, shootings and drugs were a part of their daily lives and it was from this system of mayhem, that they sought to escape.  Success finally does arrive but even then, personal demons followed the group like a dark cloud.  But in time, they each are able to focus on the bigger picture and find their way out of the ghetto.  Hawkins is our narrator and his observations about life on the streets as a drug pusher, his fellow band members and being aspiring rapper are food for thought.

It is clear that at his age now, Hawkins is seasoned and sees things through a much clearer lens.  But he has never forgotten where he has come from and his rough and rumble background are what have shaped his unfiltered approach that surely is “raw”.  As a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, this book showed another side to the group that I did not of before.  Twenty-six years have passed since they released their debut album but it still sounds as good as it did then.   Each band member has their own style and appeal but without each, Wu-Tang could have never existed.  And what many of us who are fans may not have known, is that one of the anchors of the group is the man we have come to know as U-God.   Hip-hop fans will find this book to be a true gem.

ASIN: B074ZLTDJG

Neruda: The Biography of a Poet – Mark Eisner

Neruda

On September 11, 1973,  Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown through a CIA backed coup, that resulted in the seizure of power by General Augusto Pinochet.   The removal of Allende satisfied the Nixon Administration which had seen the democratic election of Allende as a threat to the Western Hemisphere.  To Washington, it was inconceivable to think that the events in Cuba were spreading across Latin America.  The consensus was clear, Allende had to be removed.  McCarthyism and the red scare led to anyone having left-leaning political views to be branded as a communist determined to see the fall of Capitalism.  Among Allende’s supporters was Chile’s national poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-193).  Twelve days after Allende’s removal and death,  Neruda died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  He was sixty-nine years old.  Forty-five years later, his poetry is still beloved in Chile and other parts of the world.  And he is recognized as being one of the world’s greatest poets.   I had heard of Neruda before and have been fortunate enough to visit Chile.  It is a unique country and there is something special about it which is not easy to put into words.  Chile truly is a place you have to see in person, to experience Chilean culture and travel through Patagonia.  I admit that I did not know much about Neruda’s life, so when I saw this biography in my recommendation list,  I did not hesitate to buy it and start reading nearly instantly.  And what I have learned is more than I could have ever imagined.

Mark Eisner has researched Neruda’s life and has compiled a biography that is nothing short of outstanding.  Surely, Neruda took some things with him to the grave as all great figures do.  But his large volume of work, speeches and other writings have survived, and they would all help Eisner in what was a monumental task. Neruda’s story begins in 1904, an era remotely differently from the era in which we currently live.  Eisner has recreated early 1900s Chile and first tells us the story of Neruda’s parents.  His father, José del Carmen Reyes Morales, is a central character in the story and the beginning of the book focuses on his life before Neruda enters the picture.  On July 12, 1904, the story changed for good, when his wife Rosa gave birth to a happy baby boy, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, the future Pablo Neruda.  The young child enters a world that is marred by affairs, illegitimate children, strict social class and backbreaking work on the railroad which in some cases proved to be deadly.   Neruda would inherit some of his father’s nefarious traits and the would cause him consternation and scandal in his own life.   And through his poetry, he allowed the world to read his emotions.  But what many did not know then and may not know now, is that there was also a very dark side to the famed poet.

Eisner does not shy away from Neruda’s failings and when necessary, uses Neruda’s own words to drive home the point.  As I read the book, there were some points at which I shook my head in both shock and disgust.   In fact, there are several parts of the book that may prove to be upsetting to female readers.   Incredibly, Neruda was able to compartmentalize his life and the ease in which he discarded those around him was quite frankly, disturbing.  To the public, he was the rising poet and Eisner follows his developing career which threatened to place him in poverty.   But through a series of events, blessed with luck, Neruda persevered and went on to create poetry that has changed the lives of millions of people.  But what Eisner also shows, is the two sides of Neruda which were unable to be reconciled and a poet struggling with his own happiness while at the same time, oblivious to the errors of his ways.

Neruda was an outspoken leftist and his affinity for the Soviet Union and the communist system of government,  earned him many enemies as well.  The author explores this part of Neruda’s life and the fear of communism that spread across several continents.   His devotion to communism following his admission into the Chilean Communist Party, would prove to be a thorn in his side until his final day.   But for Neruda, staying in one place for long was never an option and this story is filled with travel around the world as Neruda works and creates in several countries.  Through Eisner’s words, we follow Pablo and his many love interests across the globe as he travels to and from Chile both as foreign agent and fugitive.  At times, it seemed as if his life was straight out of a Hollywood film.  There is no let up and Pablo has forced Eisner to move full speed ahead.  Once I started the book, it became increasingly difficult to set it aside for a later time in the day.  I was glued to the pages, curious to see where Neruda ends up next and who makes an appearance in his life and who makes their exit. To say his life was unorthodox would be an understatement.

At over six-hundred pages, the book is not exactly a short read but the pace of the story will result in readers forgetting about the length completely.   The story is engaging and Neruda was quite the character.  But he possessed a natural gift and Eisner’s inclusion of his poems, gives the book an added air of authenticity to it.   In those sections, he turns the floor over to Pablo who never failed to deliver.

Having completed the book, I have mixed feelings about Neruda.  But that is a credit to the author’s talent.   Eisner does not show the Neruda people want to see, he shows us the Neruda that we need to see in order to come to our own conclusions.   A brilliant and talented poet was also at times a cold-blooded monster.  He battled loneliness but had fans worldwide.   Some would call him a walking contradiction and others might simply accept the label of eccentric. Regardless off the adjective, Neruda did not fit perfectly into any mold and Eisner has captured his complex character which at times did not function based on reason or logic.  It is a great story of a unique person, who never faced his own demons but was able to capture the hearts and emotions of millions of people facing their demons.  In death, he became a legend of nearly God-like status and remains a cultural icon in Chile.  He is to Chile what Jorge Luis Borges is to Argentina.  Those looking for a good biography of Pablo Neruda, will be more than satisfied with this gem  by Mark Eisner.

ASIN: B072SCL5Z

 

Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition – Shirley Chisholm with Scott Simpson, Donna Brazile and Shola Lynch

ChisholmMany years before Hilary Clinton decided to run for the office of President of the United States, there was another politician who had eyes on the White House. And although she did not win the Democratic nomination, she earned a significant amount of votes and in the process, showed that a women candidates were more acceptable to society than many have long believed.  Her name was Shirley Anita Chisholm (1924-2005) and through sheer determination, she launched a political campaign that challenged many accepted norms in American society and helped to break down barriers, even today.  In January, 2019, thirty-six women joined the House of Representatives following the success by Democrats in the 2018 mid-term elections.  The number is now the record for the most women in the House of Representatives and if current trends are an indication, that number will continue to grown through future elections.

If Chisholm were alive today, she would have been thrilled and satisfied with the election of Barack Obama and the current roster of Congresswomen.  Their elections to office would serve as confirmation that her life and struggle helped pave the way for women and minority candidates. This is her story in which she invites the reader into her personal life so that we can learn more about the first Black-American woman to run for president.

The first thing that I noticed about the book is the formatting.  I chose the Kindle version and the text alignment is in dire need of correction.  Other buyers have commented on the same issue.  Putting that aside, the story is intriguing from start to finish and will satisfy any reader interested in Chisholm’s life.  She was a product of Brooklyn, New York, born to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Barbados.  From an early age, her life was anything but ordinary and throughout the book, we see that she possessed an uncanny drive and found herself typically in the right place at the right time.  As she admits herself, politics was not her first choice as a career.  But her fate was destined and through a series of events beyond her control, she makes her way into the political field of New York City, a Democrat stronghold.

To say that the book is inspiring is an understatement. Incredibly and sadly, it is only around two hundred pages but within those pages, is a wealth of wisdom that Chisholm passes on to those who are willing to listed.  Her rise in politics to the position of congresswoman was a feat that many thought she could never pull off.  But as the book progresses, it is clear that Chisholm was never a typical candidate.  Her outspokenness, intelligence and fierce independence made her both an outcast and threat. Today, she would be labeled anti-establishment.  But is a price that she was more than willing to pay in defense of her core beliefs. Her refusal to conform and tow the line is part of what keeps her legacy alive to this day.

However, not all of her story is smiles and cheers.  She also reveals some of the darker moments in her life and how they changed her view on the world in which she was attempting to make her name known.   Her relationship with her mother, is a case study for the many challenges American-born children face with regards to foreign-born parents. And yes, there is also the issue of race, which she addresses as well.  However,  I noticed that it does not take over the book but is mentioned only when necessary.   Chisholm is speaking to everyone, about America as a nation and the many problems that existed then and still exist now, regardless of race.

To some, it may be regrettable that many of the things she discusses are still an issue. It may seem as if America has not learned much over the past fifty years. However, I do believe significant progress has been made and I feel that Chisholm would agree.  I am confident that one day in the near future, America will have a female president.   Whomever she is, she will have to confront many of the issues that faced Chisholm more than forty years ago.  But if we remember her advice and keep our sights on the long-term goals, then the first woman president can be successful and become a beloved figure with a legacy to match.

This book should belong to the library of any woman running for public office or considering a political campaign.  These words are the truth about the challenges women have faced and continue to face, as they amass a higher standing in American politics.   Chisholm’s life, here on display, was a mix of love, God, education, success and motivation.   If you have the time, sit back and listen to Shir speak in this truly good read.

ASIN: B008PINHIG

Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long – Richard D. White

1If you have traveled to or live in Louisiana, I think you will agree that it is one American’s most unique states.  The City of New Orleans has a storied past on its own and each year, it attracts millions of visitors, curious to see Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the world-famous French Quarter.  Baton Rouge proudly serves as the state’s capitol and an icon on the landscape of the deep south.  However, there is also a dark history of Louisiana, one that filled with racism, corruption, crime and poverty.   Louisianans with a long memory will remember that there once lived a governor who ruled the state with an iron grip until his reign was ended by an assassin’s bullet.  He was Huey P. Long (1893-1935), the 40th Governor of Louisiana who left a complicated legacy that is nothing short of surreal.

Long’s self-proclaimed title of “Kingfish” matched his unrelenting quest for absolute power and projection of himself as the only person that mattered in any room he was in.  Richard D. White examines his reign and the effect it had on politics in Louisiana and the United States.  To say that America had not seen a candidate like him before would be an understatement.  He exploded onto the scene and in the process seized control of the highest office in the state.  Interestingly, Long never finished high school and today, that alone would earn him few votes.  But in the late 1920s and after the depression, illiteracy was a far more common problem than it is today. Long understood this and had an uncanny ability to reach millions of people that felt as if they had been forgotten by the wealthy.  Louisiana was often viewed as a backward place full of backward people that cam from the swamps.   This casual prejudice against Louisiana, was found in many places in American politics and helped provide the spark for Long’s infamous reign and determination to make Louisiana the example to be followed by the rest of America.

From the start, Long was far from what anyone would have considered a candidate for public office.  Boastful, confrontational, brutish and vulgar, Long earned the disgust of the political establishment but the hearts of poor white Americans.  His popularity soared has he talked of improving the economy, providing free textbooks, building roads and other projects to improve the state.   And while he did accomplish many of those things, his darker side tended to overshadow the good deeds and put him on a collision course with Washington, D.C. and his destiny, which he met on on September 8, 1935 when Dr. Carl Weiss fired a single and fatal shot.  The story from start to finish is captured beautifully by White and will leave readers in shock at Long’s endless antics.

White takes us back in time to an era before air conditioning and political correctness.  As I read the book, I felt as if I were sitting in the gallery watching Long launch into yet another vicious tirade against a perceived enemy.   I found myself in shock at his actions and the vindictiveness in which he carried out his agenda.  Corruption had plagued the south for years and New Orleans has long been known as a place where one can go to have a good time and find any vice known to man. The brash openness with which Long operated would result today in impeachment, indictment and undoubtedly prison.  But this was the 1930s and Louisiana was like the wild west with pistol packing politicians who sometimes resulted to fisticuffs to settle disputes.  Long himself brawled on more than one occasion after cooler heads failed to prevail.

In many ways, Long was everything that most Americans have come to despise and distrust.  He was loud, obnoxious, uncouth, racist, flamboyant, drank too much and had enemies all across America.  His larger than life persona and constant attacks on others, attracted the eyes of the FBI lead by J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945).  Long’s battle with Roosevelt is explored in the book and highlights how serious of a threat Long became to the establishment.  In Europe, Adolf Hitler had risen to power using a nationalist and populist platform.  Here in America, there were many that feared Long could mimic his success.  Long had no desire to be compared to Hitler but failed to recognize his own racism which is on ugly display in the book.  And as the author points out,  the true irony is that Long’s outlandish behavior did more to prevent Louisiana from becoming a true democracy than it did to push the state forward.  While he was an advocate for the advancement of disenfranchised people, he had no intention of giving those advancements to Black Americans and his actions towards them are one of the darkest stains on his legacy.   He truly did have the ability to change Louisiana in many ways, but ultimately became his own worst enemy as he became drunk with power and engulfed by paranoia.

Eighty-three years have passed since Long’s death and today is rarely mentioned in conversation.  Visitors to Baton Rouge take photos in front of the statue erected in his honor but it is anyone’s guess if they know the story of his life.  Richard White presents a clear and concise biography of the Kingfish who made himself the God of Louisiana.  This is a good look at the life and death of Huey P. Long.

ASIN: B002361KQM

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