Month: October 2015

DeMeo On January 18, 1983, New York City Police Detectives were called to the scene of a grisly murder all too common in the streets battles of organized crime.  An abandoned Cadillac was found with a surprise in its trunk, the body of mobster Roy DeMeo, the homicidal enforcer for the Gambino crime family.  He had been brutally shot several times before his tragic demise.  During his career, it is believed that he participated in dozens of murders, running a modern-day version of Murder, Inc.  His death came as no surprise to some in law enforcement who know very well that many in that life eventually leave it in a body bag.  But for DeMeo’s family, his disappearance and death, shook the family to its core.

Albert DeMeo, his oldest son, stepped into his father’s shoes following the murder and his life changed in ways no one could have predicted.  To the public, DeMeo was a feared mobster whose reputation preceded him but to this family, he was a father and husband who never failed to show his love and teach them the ways of life so that they did not end up in the life that he chose.  Through Albert’s eyes, we see Ray as the stereotypical American father with a wife and three children who lives on a quiet street in an even nice neighborhood.  Albert is aware that his father has a job that is not the standard nine to five but is carefully shielded by his loving father.  After Ray’s death, Albert does not glorify the life or  reveal any smoking guns. But he does recall events involving figures such as Nino Gaggi, Dominick Montiglio, Anthony Senter and Joey Testa.   Senter and Testa became known as the Gemini Twins in mafia circles.

In the beginning, all seems as if there is one big happy family.   But DeMeo’s death changed everything and as Albert tells us, the world turned upside down and those once considered to be Dad’s friends, are seen in a different light as a veil of secrecy develops in the wake of the crime. And it is here that the story changes pace as the fallout begins.  Albert finds himself in the cross hairs as the Mafia wants to see what he knows about the organization and the police want to know what he has to tell about his father’s associates.  He becomes a pawn on a chessboard as two titans wage their war against each other.  The tug of war that ensued would have profound effects on DeMeo and his revelations about the effects on his personal life are eye-opening and tragic.

With this intimate account of his life as a Mafia child, DeMeo joins the group of authors who have published their memoirs that tell the story of life under the roof of an organized crime figure.  And what is clear from his words and theirs, is that life as a Mafia child is exciting as good times come and money flows in but at some point, things inevitably change, typically for the worse and the family is left to pick up the pieces.  In this story, DeMeo picks up the pieces as best as possible but not even he can overcome the adversity that stared the family in the face in the wake of the demise of one of the Mafia’s most prolific killers.

ASIN: B000FC1I4K
ISBN-10: 0767906896
ISBN-13: 978-0767906890

 

 

 

Biographies Organized Crime

JamBulgeres “Whitey” Bulger is currently incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary, Coleman in Sumter County, Florida. The former gangster who once ruled the streets of Boston is now 86 years of age and will spend the rest of his life behind bars.   The manhunt to capture him spanned 16 years and for several of those years, he was on the FBI’s list of most wanted criminals.  His capture is one of the biggest in U.S. history and also brought down many of the people connected to him, including both known associates and family members.   His trial resulted in numerous lawsuits brought against the U.S. government for the FBI’s complicity in facilitating Bulger’s criminal enterprise.

Recently, Johnny Depp has appeared in ‘Black Mass’ a semi-biopic about the notorious Bulger.  Depp is an outstanding actor and his portrayal of Bulger is nothing short of chilling.   Hollywood is known to take certain liberties when producing films and the true story is often more interesting and far more complex.  I began to search for a book on Bulger after watching the film and picked up this New York Times bestseller by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy.  The authors have done an outstanding job of putting together this semi-biography and semi-investigative report into Bulger’s life, organization and the crimes that were committed.  This book is a great addition for movie goers who’ve seen the film and are looking for more background information on the main characters and the story line in general.   All of it is covered here, including the murders, racketeering, affairs, the FBI’s complicity, Bulger’s run from the law, his capture and conviction.  The city of Boston today is far different from the one in which Bulger made his fortune.  Most of the bars and after hour spots where criminal plans were created are gone, replaced by trendy coffee shops and other commercial establishments.   But at one time, the city was controlled by the most notorious criminal in Boston’s history.

ASIN: B00B0WHTJW

Organized Crime

LeonettiMarch 21, 1980-Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno is shot to death while sitting in the front passenger seat in a car in front of his house.  The ruling commission in New York appoints Philip “Chicken Man” Testa as the new boss and Nicodemo Scarfo as the underboss.   Less than a year later, Testa himself is murdered when a bomb explodes under his front porch.  After meeting with the commission, Scarfo becomes the new boss and his reign would prove to be the deadliest in the family’s history.  Guided by paranoia and a never-ending thirst for blood, Scarfo weaved a path of destruction that would bring down not only himself but nearly the entire organization before being arrested and convicted due in part to the testimony of his nephew and former underboss Philip Leonetti.  Leonetti, whose defection is perhaps the biggest in mafia history, gave testimony that sent dozens of mobsters to prison and played an indirect role in the conviction of the teflon don himself, John Gotti.  Scarfo continues to serve out his sentence at the Federal Medical Facility in Butner, North Carolina with a projected release date of January, 2033 when he will be 103 years old. Now in his mid-eighties, his life is far removed from his days running the streets of Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

Leonetti, who grew up idolizing his uncle while learning the tricks of the trade, has been a long time member of the witness protection program living with a new identity.  And to this day, there remains a contract on his life. This is his story about being a “mafia prince” in the mob and his ultimate decision to defect and testify against his uncle.  Disillusioned by his uncle’s vindictiveness, street life and the murder of his friend, mob captain and son of Philip Testa, Salvatore “Salvie” Testa, his descent into defection came gradually but steady.  And at the very moment when he agrees to be a cooperating witness, he passes the point of no return.  And as we learn about Leonetti and his past, we are exposed to the deadly life on the streets of mafia member.  Leonetti doesn’t ask for forgiveness but he does show gratitude for being given a second chance in life and does attempt to sway young men away from a life that is most often a road to nowhere.

ASIN: B00J1JPTMK

Biographies

BoothOn the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife take in a performance of ‘Our American Cousin’ at Ford’s Theater.  Later that night, Lincoln is shot and fatally wounded and dies the following morning at 7:22 a.m.  Upon being shot he slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness.  Booth flees the theater but not before suffering a fractured ankle, and is shot and killed twelve days later on April 26, 1865.  His body would not find a final resting place until 1869 when he was buried by his mother at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.  But just who was John Wilkes Booth?  And what made him act on that night in April, 1865?

Terry Alford has composed the definitive biography of Booth and his short but intriguing life. As Alford points out early on, there isn’t a wealth of information on Booth’s early life.  However, Alford has done a masterful job researching Booth and putting together the most complete chronology of his life.  And through his efforts, we come to know the complex individual deeply committed to his beliefs and unwavering in his convictions.  Fiercely supportive of the Confederacy and intent on seeing its success, he would go from stage actor to one of the most notorious assassins in American history.   As a fierce supporter of slavery, he opposed emancipation but professed admiration for the abolitionist John Brown.  A gifted actor and favorite of the ladies, he passed over a life of success on the stage for a doomed future of a political assassin.  And his ability to recruit conspirators for the plot would make history for the execution of Mary Surratt was the first time a woman had been executed in United States history.  That record would hold until 1953 when Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.

One hundred and fifty-one years have passed since Booth’s death but his actions and life continue to draw attention and discussions about the Lincoln presidency almost always include his name and infamous deed.  The true reasons for many of his actions and decisions went with him to the grave but Terry Alford has given us window into the past in order to begin to understand the ever mysterious John Wilkes Booth.

ASIN: B00VQVNB6M

Biographies

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I always loved hearing stories from my father about his youth, in particular before he met my mother and was just a young man with no set path in life. His stories have  given me a better idea of how he became the man I know as dad. When Che Guevara left Cuba for the last time, he left behind a wife and several children never to see them again.  His oldest surviving daughter, Aleida, provides a foreword to her father’s famous journal about his journey through Latin America with friend and fellow medical student Alberto Granado.  Appropriately titled The Motorcycle Diaries, the book is the story of two young friends who discovery their home continent.   Written during their time as medical students in Buenos Aires, Che’s journal provides us with an insight to the young man who would eventually become the icon for revolutions throughout the world.

Later in his life, Che revised the journal making edits and corrections but the overall passages remain the same and the diary is an interesting look into the early life of the Argentine revolutionary.  The Latin American we know today is far different from the one that Che and Alberto journeyed through on their ill-fated motorcycle named La Ponderosa II.  Their visits to the poor combined with famine and neglect from local governments, helped shaped the ideology and commitment to social reformation that would serve as the basis of his revolutionary beliefs.  The trials and tribulations that occur in the book are also highly amusing revealing the naive behavior that often accompanies youth.   And as he moves through South America with Alberto, the young Che finds himself questioning the meaning of life, love and the future of society.  Upon his return to Buenos Aires, he obtained his medical degree becoming the doctor who would be sorely needed several years later when he became part of the 26th of July Movement under the direction of a young Cuban lawyer, Fidel Castro.  But before the fame, speeches and armed revolution, he was simply Ernesto.

ISBN-10: 1859849717
ISBN-13: 978-1859849712

 

Biographies

20181205_232138In March, 2014, I had the privilege of seeing Denzel Washington on Broadway when he starred in a new production of  Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin In the Sun’.  Hansberry’s classic play has graced the Broadway stage repeatedly throughout the years and even caught the eye of Hollywood being adapted to movie and television formats.  When she wrote the play, I don’t know if she knew then that it would go on to become a classic, but I do believe that she was fully aware that her play would have an impact on American society and the never-ending issue with race.   The play is set in a time where segregation and racial discrimination were highly prevalent throughout the United States.  We are introduced to a small American family struggling to live the American dream.  Living in a small apartment as a typical nuclear family, Walter Lee, Ruth, Travis and Lena, represent the social status of millions of African-Americans at the time.  The death of Lena’s husband results in a life insurance payout and the family now is faced with the question of what to do with the settlement.  While Walter Lee has his own idea, Mama has her own plan, one that will test every member of the family.  Her vision to buy a house in predominantly white neighborhood is the crux of the play and the most intense.  The visit by Mr. Lindner on behalf of the resident’s association highlights the discrimination and fear that gripped suburban communities as minorities attempted to leave the turmoil of the inner city during the middle of the 20th century.

Although the issue of the house is critical to the development of the play, the characters we meet are equally just as important.  Through them we are able to re-evaluate our own thoughts on marriage, religion, parent-child relationships and the relationships we have with our friends.  Hansberry’s masterpiece continues to open eyes and hearts and is a crucial piece of literature that ranks high among the works of all celebrated authors.  The true tragedy is that she didn’t live to see the legacy her play developed following her death.   Had she lived, I think she would be amazed at how far America has come since the Youngers dared to challenge social norms and make a case for integration on their own. And she would never hesitate to remind that it’s okay to sit awhile and think.

ASIN: B005U3Z5MA

Biographies Civil Rights Movement

ButlerWar is an experience that forever changes a person.  I can’t think of any person that I know who returned from active combat without any long-lasting effects.  My uncle, who served in Vietnam, is adverse to the loud explosions from the firecrackers on the 4th of July to this day.  Many veterans have become outspoken critics of war and have written numerous books and given speeches, the famous of which that comes to mind is Ron Kovic, portrayed brilliantly by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s ‘Born On The Fourth Of July’.

Years before Kovic fought in Vietnam becoming a paraplegic in the process, there was another former marine who became an outspoken critic of war.  Smedley Butler, at the time the most decorated soldier in United States history, wrote this short but eye-opening book about the financial aspect of war and  the benefits that are obtained by few behind the scenes.  I forewarn the reader that the author is very frank in his beliefs about the true motives of war.   For those that are overly patriotic, this book will rattle the nerves and will be dismissed as the rantings of a lunatic and bitter former soldier.  But for those who have an open mind and are not blind to the horrors and financial gains of war, this book will resonate with long-held beliefs that war is hell.  And while I do believe that some conflicts this country has engaged in were justified and necessary, there’s still a very dark side to war that most people would rather not know about.

ASIN: B00P8OEFFY

Anti-War

DenisIf you’ve ever visited Old San Juan, you’ll know why Puerto Rico is called the Island of Enchantment.  The aura that permeates the old city fills the soul with a sense of warmth and nostalgia.  I’ve visited the island twice spending time in various cities across the island and climbing the rocks at the El Yunque rain forest.  The many friends that currently live there are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met and the cuisine is one of the best you’ll find in the western hemisphere.  Founded in 1509, Old San Juan is a major tourist attraction for travelers from all parts of the world. United States citizens have a unique connection to the island in that no passport is needed and American currency is the standard.  The relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States is perhaps the most complex and unique in all of the Caribbean.  The island, ceded to the United States by Spain at the Treaty of Paris in 1898, has been in a state of steady economic decline resulting in a surge in crime rates and unemployment.   The deteriorating conditions threaten to turn the island into a shell of its former self. The future of the island is a critical issue for Washington and as of today no clear-cut solution is in place.

Nelson Denis’ book is the go to source for the real story of the occupation of Puerto Rico by the United States government and the brutal, inhumane and deplorable actions of U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement officials appointed to the island to maintain order and enforce the policies of businessmen here in the continental United States.  To the chagrin of natives of the island, the then Governor, Luis Munoz Marin, served as a puppet of the United States permitting policy makers in Washington free rein to control the island’s economics and politics.  The imperialist tactics of the United States were not accepted by everyone and in the book we are introduced to the legendary figures of Vidal Santiago Diaz and Pedro Albizu Campos, who were life long advocates of Puerto Rican independence.  The island has a deep cultural history, from its early beginnings with the Taino Indians, nearly decimated following the voyages of Columbus, to the fight for freed from Spain led by Dr. Ramon Emeterio Betances, the late and great Roberto Clemente to many other celebrities, scholars and activists.  The future of the island is uncertain, and our relationship with our neighbor in the Caribbean is under constant strain.  But at the very least, our government owes this small island the care and attention that it needs and deserves.

ASIN: B00PWX7TKO

Puerto Rico

NorthI vividly recall watching Oliver North give testimony about his role in the explosive Iran-Contra scandal that came to light during the administration of President Ronald Regan.  North looked stoic in his military uniform and remained defiant through grueling testimony.  Today he occasionally makes appearances and for those who remember the story, they either despise or respect him.  Prior to the scandal and outside of military circles, North was largely unknown by the American public.  Literally overnight, his face was flashed across television screens throughout the nation and in the process he became a household name.  President Regan absolved himself of any wrongdoing or foreknowledge of North’s assignment.  At first it seemed as if the decorated Soldier had possibly become an enemy of the country he served. But we know in hindsight that he was not an enemy of the state and his actions were approved by his superiors with full knowledge of the details.  At the end of the scandal, he was given 1200 hours of community service and fined by the government.  Subsequently, he has tried to live as normal of a life as reasonably possible.  Under Fire is his story, part autobiography and part political memoir.  From the beginning, the book engages the reader and is hard to put down.  North is candid with his words and comes across very direct.  Perhaps it is his military background that is the reason but it gives the book a sharp edge to it that complements the story that is being told.

I had picked up the book based on Amazon’s suggestion and the reviews I read from others who enjoyed the book.  Having read it, I can say that I do not regret buying it and only wish I purchased it sooner.  North has a great story to tell only if the reader is willing to indulge.  But just who is Oliver North? Is he simply a general that became corrupt and found himself embroiled in a political scandal? Or he is truly an American patriot that was resigned to do unpopular things in service of the country that he loves?  Well what we do learn in the book is his life story which includes marriage, fatherhood, the Marines, Vietnam and intelligence work on behalf of the U.S. Government.  And at each stage of his life, he has plenty of lessons to give to the reader that he has learned through trial and error.  His background is that of a typical American kid who believes in the USA and as adolescent, answers the call of the U.S. Marines.  Southeast Asia proved to be a testing ground and provided him with the mental and physical scars he carriers with him to this day.  As a father and husband dedicated to the Marines, his personal life took on a turmoil of its own and North is brutally honest about his shortcomings and the roller coaster ride he and his family endured because of his career and actions relating to the scandal.

North is blessed with a razor sharp memory and shows no signs of inability to remember key names and dates.  In fact, he is spot on with regards to his recollections.  He does admit that some things could have possibly have been done differently.  But in no way did he ever see himself as a traitor to the country he loved then and still does.  One of the key parts of his story is that if forces us to ask ourselves what the true meaning of a patriot is.  North is seen by some as a patriot of the highest calling who is willing to do what is needed to protect America and its citizens.  Others believe he is a criminal who acted illegal and should have been imprisoned along with Reagan and others in the administration.   President Regan is now deceased and unable to give any more insight into what really did happen.  His statements are on the record for history and will remain so permanently.  Incredibly, North does not bear any ill will towards the late president. In fact, he’s very open-minded regarding the actions and statements of President Reagan.  And although they did meet, they really did not have direct regular contact thus ensuring a buffer between the two and plausible deniability.

Before reading the book I did not know what to make of North.  I had faint recollections of his statements and heard in name in passing in conversation on sparse occasions.  After reading his story, I can no say that I do know who he is and why his story is so important to American history.   His legacy will be questioned long after he is gone but the fact remains that he is one of the most important figures from the 1980s and the 20th century.

 

ISBN-10: 1618689991
ISBN-13: 978-1618689993
ASIN: B00FAY6AUA

Biographies