Month: November 2016

The evRomeroening of March 24, 1980 marked a changed in the course of the history of El Salvador.  In the evening of that day, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot and fatally wounded as he conducted a mass for his followers.  He is rushed to a nearby hospital but quickly succumbs to his wounds.  His death plunges the nation in mourning and earns widespread condemnation across the globe. On May 23, 2015, thirty-five years after his death, he was beatified.  In El Salvador his grave site is destination for visitors curious about the martyred priest.  On the silver screen, he was brilliantly portrayed by the late Raul Julia in the 1989 film ‘Romero’. Following his death, the country fell deeper into civil war and chaos resulting in the deaths of thousands of El Salvadorans. And to this day, the country continues to heal itself from the brutal system of tyranny and murder that plagued the nation for decades.

It is fair to argue that Romero is more popular in death than in life.  Today he is faintly remembered but during his time, his voice was one of the loudest to be heard from Central America.  James Brockman takes another look at the life of the mythical figure.  The book clearly is a biography of Romero and traces his origins to his hometown of Ciudad Barrios.  The day-to-day experiences of his life are included in detail but more focus is placed upon Romero’s later years as he struggles to maintain his place as Archbishop among dissidents and seeks to have the government investigate and subsequently punish those responsible for the wave of murders of clergy that gripped the country.  Disappearances, assassinations and other crimes of unspeakable horror surrounded Romero forcing him into a position that would earn him praise and bring about his demise.

Brockman creatively uses Romero’s own words in parts of the book to highlight his thinking and clarify the positions that he took.  As we follow Romero’s last few years on earth, we are periodically reminded of the endless number of priests that fell victim to gunfire as they spoke out against the crimes destroying their country.  We travel with Romero on his two trips to Rome where he seeks guidance about his role in El Salvador and back to his native land as he attempts to steer the congregation and nation towards a better path in the face of an administration infiltrated by corruption and incompetence. As a member of the clergy and voice of the people, the selflessness displayed by Romero in his frugal way of life and tireless efforts to help those in need, exemplify the highest character that a Christian can seek to possess.  Not without his faults, he remains an icon for those who advocate for love, prosperity and the messages of the Catholic Church.

For some readers, parts in the book may be hard to accept.  The stark truth as exposed by Brockman is that during the 1970s and 1980s, El Salvador found itself at the doorstep of anarchy.  The accounts of murders, kidnappings and disappearances of common people is alarming and tragic.  The crimes and the victims force us to ask ourselves why people can commit those acts towards each other.  Someone very close to me was born in this small Central American nation and has told me stories of the fragile state of the nation and her family’s  escape from a life that was a living hell.  Today her parents have since returned to the land they call home but it is much different from the nation that they left many years ago. The country is no longer in a civil war but struggles to combat the rise of gang warfare that centers around the notorious MS-13.  But there was a time when El Salvador was one of the most dangerous places on earth and a priest tried his best to salvage what was left of it.  This is his story and the truth about his words and actions.

ISBN-10: 157075599X
ISBN-13: 978-1570755996

Uncategorized

lbj bargainsOn January 7, 1971 law enforcement personnel responded to the scene of a single car accident on U.S. Route 271 near Pittsburg, Texas.  The deceased is identified as Malcolm “Mac” Wallace.  His death marks the end of a life replete murder, sex, alcohol and suspicion.  Wallace was a known associate of several powerful figures in the State of Texas, most notably, Billie Sol Estes and Lyndon Baines Johnson.  His association with Johnson earned him the title of a conspirator in the murder of President John F. Kennedy.  An unidentified finger print at the Texas School Depository discovered in the wake of Kennedy’s murder, puzzled investigators and researchers for years.  In 1998, Nathan Darby, a career fingerprint analyst, identified the print as belonging to Wallace giving rise to the belief of many conspiracy theorists that Wallace had been on the sixth floor either right before or during the assassination.  Wallace’s death was cloaked in conspiracy theories about how and why he died.  But just who was Mac Wallace? Was it really his print at the book depository? And was he LBJ’s hitman for hire as has been alleged?  Joan Mellen, a noted scholar and author of several books related to JFK’s murder explores the relationship between Wallace and Johnson in this phenomenal account of the lives of both of these Texas natives.

Drawing upon the words of Wallace’s children, interviews with former associates, some of whom are now deceased, official documents from the LBJ Presidential Library and other public records, Mellen retraces the origins of the mysterious figure.  JFK assassination researchers might be tempted to believe that the book might contain a “smoking gun”.  This is not the case and the book is not another look at the assassination.  It is purely about the relationship between Wallace and Johnson and the climate of corruption and murder in Texas.  Because Texas is also the location of JFK’s murder, the book does contain a section about the assassination, but not what the reader may be tempted to think.  While the focus of the book is not of JFK’s murder, where it truly shines is the information about Wallace and the true nature of his relationships and troubled life that included more than one marriage, several divorces, alcoholism and deadly sexual triangles.

What is abundantly clear from Mellen’s work is that a deadly climate of suspicion and fraud existed engulfed Texas, then a stronghold of right-wing extremist groups and politicians determined to operated a completely different system of government and culture.  In the middle of this climate is Lyndon Johnson, the native of  Stonewall, Texas and former U.S. President.  His close-knit group of associates formed an impenetrable circle of deceit suspected in the deaths of a number of individuals including Henry Marshall, a former investigator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, John Douglas Kinser and even LBJ’s sister, Josefa.  Billie Sol Estes, Bobby Baker, Herman Brown and George Parr all make an appearance in the book showing the reader how Texas politics were controlled during the first half of the 20th century.

Johnson has been portrayed in textbooks as the champion of civil rights, voting rights and the leading force behind the “Great Society” program.  The reality as shown by Mellen is that a very dark side to LBJ was carefully hidden from public light but did show itself from time to time.  Beginning with the controversial election in 1948 against Coke Stevenson, Johnson’s career would be dogged by controversial events that often had tragic and catastrophic results.  JFK’s murder in Dallas and the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967 remain some of the darkest moments in U.S. history and two of the biggest crimes for which those involved have never been brought to justice.  The truth about the Liberty presented here in its entirety, reveals the very grim reality of the U.S. government’s faulty foreign policy that claimed the lives of 34 sailors and injured nearly 200 more.  And had it not been for JFK’s death, perhaps the story of the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson would be told far differently today.

Many years have passed since the events in this book have taken place.  A majority of the figures in the book are now deceased and their secrets having been lost to history.  But for students of history, the JFK assassination and those curious about the true nature of both Lyndon Johnson and Malcolm Wallace this is the book that sets the record straight and finally puts to rest rumors, misinformation and uncertainty about November 22, 1963 and the lives of many that ended tragically in South Texas.

ISBN-10: 1620408066
ISBN-13: 978-1620408063

Investigative Report

20180603_011021April 30, 1975-The city of Saigon, the capital of  South Vietnam, falls to the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.  The siege of the capital is the final push by North Vietnam on the course towards reunification. The final withdrawal by U.S. military and government personnel marks the of a deadly and protracted war that cost 58,000 American lives and over 1 million Vietnamese lives.  To date, it is the only loss suffered by the United States Armed Forces.  The success of North Vietnam is a shining moment in the Vietnamese struggle for independence for colonialism by France and the anti-communism policies of the United States.  Ho Chih Minh becomes a legend in Vietnamese history and many years later Saigon is renamed in his honor.  Ho died on September 2, 1969, several years before the war’s conclusion, but his ideology and belief in a free Vietnam helped his successors continue his goal of unconditional victory.  Looking back at the war, it seems almost absurd that a country the size of Vietnam was able to resist and defeat efforts by the French and Americans to impose their will.  Both nations were equipped with better weapons, bigger budgets and highly skilled armies.  However on the Vietnamese side, there was a general who proved to be just as sharp as any the French or the United States had to offer.  And by the end of the war, he would also become a legend in his own right.  His name was Võ Nguyên Giáp. (1911-2013)

Giáp was one of the 20th centuries modern marvels.  Having lived to 102 years of age, he remained the sole survivor from the time in which several nations battled each other for control over Indochina.  His death on October 4, 2013 brought closure to a time in history that changed the world and the view of the American military.  James A. Warren has taken another look at the wars in Vietnam in order to examine how this dynamic general helped the People’s Army of Vietnam accomplish two successful military campaigns. It should be noted that the book is not a biography of  Giáp.  It is strictly about his contributions in the wars.  There are other books on Giáp and he wrote several himself.  What Warren has done with this book is to take the reader step by step throughout each war to see and understand how and why the wars developed and why the aggressors ultimately failed in their missions to seize control of Vietnam.

Numerical data is critical to any military commander with victory in mind.  It is assumed that in order to beat your enemy you must eliminate more of them and they do of you. Warren highlights the data to show us how the age-old strategy of elimination by numbers  was virtually impossible in Vietnam. The policies of limited warfare and a Vietnamese nation intent on defending itself until the end through its military and guerrilla fighters. combined to formed a bottomless hole which threatened to first engulf France and subsequently the United States.  With an unlimited amount of soldiers at his disposal,  a superior knowledge of Vietnam’s terrain and a shrewd mind, Giáp evolves in the book as one of the true greats in military history.  And to the Vietnamese, he is one that nation’s greatest figures forever standing tall with the late Uncle Ho.  For those seeking to understand the Vietnamese success in the Vietnam wars, this is a good place to start.

ISBN-10: 0230107125
ISBN-13: 978-0230107120

 

 

 

Uncategorized

sonnyOn December 30, 1970, Charles “Sonny” Liston (1932-1970) died at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada at the age of thirty-eight. His body was discovered six days later by his wife Geraldine when she returned home from a trip out-of-state with Liston’s son Daniel.   It was first suspected that Liston, a known user of heroin, had overdosed.  But it was later declared by the coroner’s office that he died of natural causes.  To this day it is the official cause of death.  The late Liston is remembered as one of the greatest boxers to ever grace a ring. His battles in and out of the ring with Muhammad Ali are some of boxing’s most entertaining moments.  Although Liston lacked the personality of Ali or the flair of Floyd Mayweather, Jr., he was feared in the ring as a powerhouse of a brawler unafraid to go in and demolish whoever stood in front of him.  His personality in the ring was a direct reflection of his personality outside the ring in a life full of twist, turns and ultimately tragedy.  Shaun Assael recounts the short and tragic life of Liston and his death which he believes was in fact a homicide that was wrongly classified at the time of Liston’s death.

Las Vegas is known as the City of Sin and the places where secrets remain after visitors have made their destinations back home. But for those who live in or near Vegas, the lure of casinos, fame, glory, drugs and a fast life are sometimes too great of a temptation to resist.  For Liston, the question that always remains is why was he drawn to the dark side of Vegas to begin with?  His successes in the ring earned him a spot in boxing history and with a good financial advisor, he could have put his earnings towards good use.  But as we learn in the book, Liston suffered from the same problem that plagued a number of African-American athletes during those times, he was functionally illiterate and immersed in a boxing world controlled by crooked managers and dark figures from the criminal underworld.  In fact, boxing was so infiltrated by crime figures, that Liston himself once appeared before the famed Este Kefauver to answer questions about the organized crime influence in professional boxing.  The mafia, fast women, drugs and money engulfed Liston in one of America’s fastest cities that has claimed the lives of many including the late Tupac Shakur (1971-1996).

As a former heavyweight champion, Liston enjoyed many privileges in the City of  Sin.  But those privileges came with a price, a heavy one that eventually claimed his life.  His actions and the situations that developed are sometimes unbelievable. But they also highlight the mindset Liston was in as his addiction to heroin grew and his grip on reality slipped.  A lifestyle such as Liston’s typically results in a few conclusions and death is one of them.  His demons stayed with him throughout his life all the way up until his last moments on that tragic December night. But for all of his mistakes and untimely end, his accomplishments remain as an example of a rags to riches story common in America.  As one of 24 children, he rose to stardom with literally nothing but the clothes on his back.  An arrest and time in prison became a blessing in disguise that launched him onto the path that became his life’s calling.  But Liston’s brutish personality and addiction to things that served no good purpose in his life became the foundation for the house of cards that eventually collapsed. Nevertheless, Liston remains an icon and one of boxing’s all-time greats. Assael has provided yet another crucial look into the life and death of the great Sonny Liston.

ISBN-10: 039916975X
ISBN-13: 978-0399169755

Biographies

more terribleEarlier this year, Netflix released the second season to the hit show ‘Narcos’ starring Wagner Moura as the infamous Pablo Escobar.  While not exactly a dead ringer for Escobar, Moura pulls off a stunning performance bringing the late drug czar back to life.  The series is violent and gritty but a look into a time in Colombia’s past when life was more terrible than death.  Robin Kirk is  currently the Faculty Co-Chair of the Executive Committee of the Duke Human Rights Center at Duke University. She is an experience human rights worker and penned this phenomenal account of the effects of the drug trade on the nation of Colombia.

To most Americans, Colombia is known for coffee, violence and cocaine. While it is true that the country produces the largest amount of cocaine in the western hemisphere, there is far more to Colombia than meets the eye.  The country is also known for its beautiful landscape, hospitable people and some of the finest cuisine in Latin America.  Intervention by the United States into Colombian affairs, the constantly growing market for illegal drugs and political instability helped turned Colombia into the most dangerous country of earth with a murder rate nearly triple of the worst American cities. Escobar stands out as the most popular narco to have come out of Colombia.  But what most forget is that the drug trade went far beyond Escobar and involved many players, some of whom held high positions in Colombian society.  Through Kirk’s memoirs of her time there, we come to know the courageous Colombian citizens who risked their lives in service of their beloved homeland.  The extreme acts of violence are well-known and documented.  Escobar literally held the country in a grip of fear as he waged war against the establishment determined to see him in prison or dead.  As the acts of terror grew, Los Pepes and other cartels unleashed a deadly campaign to rid Colombia of the Rionegro menace. The ensuing war resulted in one of Latin America’s bloodiest drug wars with hundreds of men and women dying at a staggering rate. But as we make our way through Kirk’s book, we are able to see there were more players involved and more ideology in effect than is often shown.

In the wake of U.S. aggression, many Latin American nations struggled with class war between conservative and liberal, Colombian in particular. The civil war in 1948-1958 known as la violencia was  an eerie premonition of the future to come.  The FARC and right-wing Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá, led by the late Carlos Castano, rose to prominence as the two largest extremists groups determined to bring a change to Colombian society by any means necessary.  The drug cartels, M-19 Marxist group and the National Liberation Army (ELN) added another dynamic to already precarious situation and the battles between the parties resulted in a torrent of violence that shocked and appalled the citizens of Colombia and the world at large.

To the average American it is easy to write off Colombia as another hodgepodge of violence. But the stark reality is that the carnivorous American appetite for cocaine helped fuel the highly profitable drug trade and war.   The war on drugs, spearheaded by President Ronald Reagan and continued by future presidents, did little to deter the monster that had been unleashed. Chemical sprays and millions of dollars invested in anti-drug campaigns had little or no effect on the supply of cocaine and in some cases had adverse effects health wise upon the people with the misfortune to live in areas in close proximity to narco operations. Suspicion, fear and paranoia gripped the minds of drug traffickers and left and right-wing leaders.  Doctors, politicians and even judges were no longer safe and many have been forced to leave Colombia in fear of their lives never to return.  Today, the drug trade continues and the government of Colombia continue to negotiate with the FARC to reach a peace agreement.  A truce would be a monumental historical moment giving the people hope and restoring their faith in the country they call home.

The story of Latin America is one of which many Americans remain ignorant.  Assumptions and pre-conceived notions have caused many to disregard Colombia as nothing more than a country of outlaws plagued by greed and cocaine. But in reality the truth is far different.  The people there wish to live in peace and happiness like other countries but have been plagued by an environment encompassed by terror and fear from various angles by various groups all with separate agendas. And while it appears that its worst days are behind, there is still much work to be done as can be seen from the rejection of the proposed peace deal with the FARC.  But all is not lost and a new future for Colombia is apparent as it finds itself on the brink of overdue social reform. With this incredible account of the turmoil that engulfed Colombia and the tragic fates of those who dared to speak up in defense of the place they called home, Kirk has done a great service to everyone that calls their self Colombian.

ASIN: B004WOH0D0

Investigative Report

Go tell it on the mountainJames Baldwin once remarked that the story of Black America was America’s story and believe that it was impossible to separate the two.  Nearly all of this nation’s major events are in some way related to the plight of America’s minorities.  The country that is the land of immigrants becomes more of a melting pot with each passing week.  The recent documentary “13th” highlighted the system of mass incarceration that has resulted in America having the largest prison population of anywhere in the world and millions of young Black and Hispanic men and women being placed behind bars for extended sentences based on convictions for trivial crimes.  At the heart of the African-American experience is the precarious state of the immediate family structure and the constant discord that exist.

Those familiar with Baldwin’s story will recognize that his life serves as some of the basis for the book. In fact, for most authors, personal experiences sometimes provide the best material.  In this story, we dive deep inside a blended family with a large closet of secrets and a son trying to figure out his place within this family. As the novel begins, we are introduced to the Grimes family who are making their way to the local storefront church for the day’s service. The parents are Elizabeth and Gabriel who have a family of four consisting of John the protagonist, Roy who takes after Gabriel and Sarah and Ruth, the two sisters who have strictly supporting roles in the story.  In fact, Ruth is baby and has no dialogue.  It is John’s fourteenth birthday and he finds himself at a crossroads in his life as he tries to understand the path which he will take as he continues to mature.  As the story continues, we come to learn that Gabriel harbors an unusual resentment towards John and is frustrated over Roy’s increasingly rebel behavior and inability to accept the faith.  Faced with four mouths to feed, Gabriel is absent most of the time working to provide for his family. He drinks heavy and is physically abusive.  Elizabeth does not work and takes care of the children all day.  Gabriel’s sister Florence stops by and after her arrival the once contained feelings of animosity between brother and sister come rising to the surface. One day, Roy is knifed in a fight on the west side of Manhattan.  During the argument that ensues between the adults, Gabriel strikes Elizabeth and his actions set off a chain of events.  And at that point, we are told the background stories on each of the major characters.  What we learn is that many dark secrets surround the family, centering around Gabriel, the Reverend who is a man of the faith.  The revelation about his true connection to John is the crux of the book and critical to understanding Gabriel’s tragic character.

The lives of Gabriel, Florence and Elizabeth are further impacted by several deceased characters. Esther, Frank, Royal, Richard and Deborah fill in the blanks to the story and explain the present day situations that exist. Deborah and Esther in particular linger over the entire story and threaten Gabriel’s very existence.  Their appearances in the book and the events that follow underscore the importance of a stable home and the presence of a father in the home.  I firmly believe that Baldwin was making a very pointed statement about the issue. Gabriel’s position as a reverend also has a clear intention regarding the topic of religion which is a main theme in the book.  As we read we are required to examine our own religions beliefs and how they influence our actions or non-actions.  The African-American community remains strongly devout in Christianity and the Bible is viewed as the most important book to have in a household.  In fact, in my own home, the Bible was openly displayed and any interference with it was subject to a tongue lashing or sometimes worse.  Today in 2016, much is still the same in many homes and shows no signs of slowing down.  But a critical question we have to ask is does religion help or sometimes hinder?  And just how did it affect the characters in the book either positively or negatively?

The darker moments in the book give rise to a part of the story that could easily be overlooked.  The era of Jim Crow and often violent racial discrimination forced millions of Black Americans to relocate throughout the country as they scattered to leave the south. However, even in the north and other parts of the union, poverty and hatred continued to haunt recent emigrants . The fears and uncertainty are displayed in Richard’s character and his fate.  Baldwin pulls no punches in showcasing the disparity which plagued countless numbers of homes during that era and resulted in a system of dysfunction that permanently broke the Black family structure. And in the book we witness the characters struggle to keep the family together and in unison.  But when it seems that all is lost, the protagonist John becomes the hope of the family and the light at the end of the tunnel.  Elizabeth, Elisa and Florence serve as his guardian angels intent on preventing him from becoming another Gabriel and continuing the cycle that doomed prior generations. John realizes his potential, the truth about Gabriel and his demons and comes to terms with the fact that he will have to go tell it on the mountain.

ISBN-10: 0345806549
ISBN-13: 978-0345806543

 

 

fiction

massinoOn July 10, 2013, the Hon. Nicholas G. Garaufis of the Eastern District of New York ruled that former Bonnano Crime Family boss Joseph Massino was to be released from federal prison after serving only 12 years of a life sentence.  He will be monitored regularly for the remainder of his life. The ruling was based on Massino’s prior cooperation as a government witness.  To date, he remains the only mafia boss to have become a testifying witness for the U.S. Government. This is the story of his rise to fame and his downfall in a life of organized crime in the five boroughs of the City of New York.

Similar to other books on the legendary crime figures, the story begins in New York City in 1943 when Massino is born into an Italian-American family.  Raised in Maspeth, Queens, his life of crime began in his teen years paving the road for future endeavors.  However it is time as a member of the Bonnano Crime Family that would later be the focus of an unrelenting number of criminal investigations. Crittle does a masterful job of putting together the details of the infamous murders that occurred, including the murders of the three capos (Alphonse “Sonny Red” Indelicato, Dominick “Big Trin” Trincera and Philip Giaccone) as portrayed in the hit film ‘Donnie Brasco’, starring Al Pacino and Johnnie Depp.  As the tension in the book builds, we learn about several more murders including those of  Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, Cesare Bonventre and Gerlando Sciascia, whose murder earned Massino a possible sentence of death if convicted.  The reader may recall Napolitano as the mafia captain who was taken to task over the infiltration of the organization by F.B.I. agent Joseph Pistone.  He is portrayed in ‘Donnie Brasco’ by actor Michael Madsen. The film was fairly accurate but several liberties had been taken by the filmmakers, most notably the insinuation that Lefty is called to this death.  In reality,  Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero survived the Pistone episode and died of cancer on November 24, 1994.

Crittle appropriately named the book for Massino is considered to the be the last of the old-school mafia bosses.  However his decision to cooperate with the government was an act unfathomable in the minds of mafia figures and law enforcement personnel.  The author follows Massino’s trial and the sequence of events that lead to the aging gangster switching sides.  The story takes on a life of its own as we witness a level of devastation within the ranks of the mafia never before seen.  The last don’s fall from power and grace is yet another example of the precariousness of life in organized crime.  Many of the characters in the book are either deceased or incarcerated and today they represent an era long gone in American history.   There was a time when the Italian-American mafia controlled nearly all parts of New York and was feared and glorified throughout the country.  Massino’s conviction and defection pushed the organization past the point of no return.

Fans of true crime novels will readily welcome this addition to their libraries.  Crittle takes us back into time in an era where the streets of New York City were filled with mafia figures larger than life such as John Gotti, Paul Castellano, Carmine Galante and Aniello Dellacroce among others.  The younger generation of today are largely indifferent to the mafia.  The mafia rarely makes headlines but remains firmly implanted in the memories of mature readers who lived during the times explored in the book.  For some of them, Joey Massino truly is the last godfather.

ISBN-10: 0425209393
ISBN-13: 978-0425209394

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