Month: April 2017

bgThroughout our lives we sometimes find ourselves in search of the meaning of life and where we go after our time on earth reaches its conclusion.  Religion has played a central role in the question, giving millions a sense of calm and relief that upon death, there is an afterlife awaiting us where we continue to live for an eternity.   There are those among us who do not believe in any God or Deity, but feel that it is up to humans to create heaven on earth.  Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are the world’s dominant religion with each having millions of followers.  There are thousands of other deities worshiped throughout the world and dozens of separate faiths. Hinduism reigns as one of the world’s oldest religions predating Christianity by thousands of years.  Its ancient scriptures are prized and studied for guidance through life by Hindus and others seeking spiritual enlightenment.  Among these cherished scriptures is The Bhavagad Gita, the classic of Indian spirituality that earned the love of readers world-wide.  It is rare for me to pick up any book on religion but I decided to give this a read following the completion of a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. (1904-1967)  Having finished the text I can see why it is loved by many.

Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999), the  founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation and Nilgiri in Northern California, translated the ancient text in an attempt to manifest its contents to a large world audience.   He died on October 26, 1999 but his work and life of commitment to the teachings of the Indian spiritual classics established his legacy.  Here he has translated one of the most popular classics, the book which was a personal favorite of Oppenheimer’s.  In fact, upon completion of the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer quoted the Gita when he famously said “I am become death”.   The words by Oppenheimer, haunting in many aspects, sparked my interest in the text that touches deep on all of our spiritual beliefs.

Purists may not be fond of this version which contains extensive explanations by Easwaran.  But the explanations are necessary for those unfamiliar with Indian spiritualism and others reading the Gita for the first time. In fact, on more than one occasion, Easwaran explains that it is almost important to completely translate some things.  Regardless he does an outstanding job of making the book clear enough so that anyone can pick up the book and begin to learn instantly.   But what exactly is The Gita? The story begins as we join Sanjaya who tells the story of a discussion between Arjuna, who’s preparing for battle and Krishna, the God who rides with him but does not take part in the fight.  Arjuna has reservations about the war for he must confront and engage his relatives.  He is conflicted and questions his own existence.  Krishna, seeks to provide him with the answers he has and explain to him the truth path to wisdom.   Step by step Arjuna is given a course on the most important concepts that will shape his mind and guide his spirit.  As outsiders looking in, we follow along and explore the concepts of Atman, Brahman, Yoga, sannyasa, sattva, rajas and tamas among dozens of others critical to understanding the deeply spiritual purpose behind the Gita.

The beauty in the book is that it is not simply a book of rule and regulations.  In fact, there are no standard rituals at all. Krishna presents each concept and thorough explains the what it shapes our lives.  This in itself is what makes the book such a pleasure to read.  Krishna is clearly the all-knowing and all-powerful God but he never goes as far as to demand subjugation from Arjuna.  He explains things with profound wisdom and love and never loses patience with Arjuna or avoids discussion even the most complicated topics.  For the readers, Krishna is also talking to us so that we too may find help in our own lives as we travel the path to spiritual salvation.  And whether you believe in Allah, Christ or Vishnu, the words in this book are insightful and deeply moving.  The Gita is not just a manual or a discussion, but an important scripture about the love of life and one’s purpose in it.

ISBN-10: 1586380192
ISBN-13: 978-1586380199

Religion & Spirituality

gk1Fourteen years have passed since the United States military invaded the nation of Iraq and deposed its former ruler Saddam Hussein.  President George W. Bush had declared Iraq America’s number one enemy and vowed to remove Hussein from power.  Hussein fled but was captured in December, 1993 and eventually executed for his crimes against his own people.  For many Iraqis and Americans, his death was long overdue and they bid farewell to one of history’s worst dictators.  Critics of the war remain and remind us that our military is still in Iraq and no clear permanent solution to establish true democracy is in place.  The war is as controversial as those that precede it.  But for the men and women that served in the war,  their stories are often unnoticed.  However in this phenomenal story, Evan Wright brings their story to light for the world to see what warfare was like for thousands of troops.  In March, 2003, he accompanied the First Reconnaissance Battalion as the invasion begins.  The group becomes known as First Recon and is tasked with clearing town after town until the Iraqi army capitulates.   Baghdad eventually falls, Hussein escapes and the marines have done their job for the time being.  America celebrates and Bush stands stoically as the armed forces once again succeed.  The infantry soldiers return to civilian life or choose to remain enlisted.  Their stories fade in time and their names are often never heard of by the mainstream public.  But just who are these brave souls and why do they voluntarily put their lives on the line?  Wright explores this and more in the book that became a New York Times Bestseller and inspired the HBO hit series of the same name.

I forewarn those readers looking for a feel good story to stop before they purchase the book.  There is no glorification of war in this story, this is the life of a grunt and all of the ugliness that comes with it.  The Marines are quite young, most of them under twenty-five years of age.  But they are hardened and they are seasoned with one command, to kill whatever is hostile.  Readers that dislike profanity or crude talk might do well to prepare ahead of time for the dialogue contained within the pages of the book.  They’re Marines in a foreign land embroiled in a deadly conflict.  Pleasantries sometimes go out of the window.  To Iraqi troops and foreigners who have come to Iraq to fight the Americans, the Marines are a mass of invaders and nothing more.  But as we travel with the group next to Wright, we learn their stories and talk to each man to get his view on the war and his own life.  Their stories are fascinating and as we get to know them, we come to like them more and more and nervously wait until each battle is over, hoping that there have been no casualties.  Sadly, there are casualties in the book but that is a part of war.

The saying that war is hell is entirely appropriate throughout the book.  As I read through it I found myself having enormous empathy for the Iraqi civilians that the group encounters.   Some of them are severely or fatally wounded and others are mentally unbalanced because of the sudden invasion.  Their loved ones, land and animals are destroyed by American weapons but yet they truly believe in the removal of Saddam.  Their ability to continue even in the face of crippling adversity is beyond admirable.   The deaths of the civilians and their deplorable conditions affect the Marines and we see how each one wages his own personal battle knowing that his actions and those of his fellow soldiers have permanent effects on their lives. Sgt. Brad Colbert is the most recognizable and plays a prominent role in the book.  In him particularly, Jung’s concept of the duality of man is put on display.  He is joined by other Marines whom we meet one by one as the story progresses.

If he were alive today, I think Gustav Hasford (1947-1993) would be proud to read Generation Kill.  In fact, there are times in the book where I am reminded of his classic The Short Timers, the book that served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s (1928-1999) Full Metal Jacket (Warner Brothers, 1987).  Cowboy, Joker and Animal Mother would be in awe of Espera, Gunny and Manimal.  The war is different but the Marines are the tough lot of characters they are expected to be.  The battle scenes in Nasiriyah, Al Gharraf and Al Muwaffaqiyah are vivid and pull the reader in refusing to let go.  I have never been in active combat but as I read the book, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up each time the platoon reaches a new destination, unknown to them and potentially a kill zone.  Incredibly, the men perform as if on cue even as they are under heavy fire.  I cannot say enough about the courage they display in this book.  And regardless of personal opinions readers may have about the war,  the efforts of the soldiers and conditions under which they exist, deserved our full support and understanding.  Wright has done a great service to these Marines and the many others that have proudly put their lives on the line in defense of the United States.

ISBN-10: 0425224740
ISBN-13: 978-0425224748

General Reading

20180603_133758This past weekend I had the fortune of becoming re-acquainted with two of my teachers from the eighth grade.  One of them has now turned eighty and looks as sharp as she did when I was a thirteen year-old kid.  During the conversation, I mentioned that I still had my copy of The Outsiders, the book we read as a class that has remained with me to this day and occupies a space on my bookshelf.  I find it incredible that after nearly twenty-five years, I still love the book and remember passages from the book in their entirety. It is a classic story given to us as a gift that keeps on giving by famed author S.E. Hinton (1948-).  The book is popular among many of my peers and my former teacher has recently given a copy to her grandsons so that they may find joy in the book.  I had the pleasure to meet both of them and believe that they will turn out to be fine young men.  Many years from now, they took will look back on The Outsiders as one of the greatest books they have ever read.

But what is it about this book that makes it so special?  Besides having been read by millions of students across the United States, Francis Ford Coppola turned the book into a feature film with an all-star cast of actors who all went on to have further success in Hollywood.  The story itself seems simple enough on the outside but in reality, there are numerous messages in the book for the reader to adapt in their own life.  The story centers around Ponyboy, the youngest of the Curtis brothers.   He lives with his older brothers Sodapop who works at a local gas station and Darrell (“Darry”) who has become their guardian and protector after their parents perished in a violent car accident.   Ponyboy is a high school student and this story is the focus of an essay he is writing as the book opens.  Continuing along, we are slowly introduced to the rest of the supporting characters. Ponyboy’s closest friend is Johnny Cade who comes from a broken home and spends most of his time with Ponyboy.   Johnny appears as one of the weaker characters in the film and his protector comes in the form of Dallas Winston who takes on the role of his older brother.  The comedian of the group is Two-Bit Matthews, who loves Mickey Mouse but is also a fearless brawler.  Sodapop’s best friend is Steve Randle, who works with him at the gas station.  Steve is a little on the wild side but fiercely loyal to all of his friends. Darry does not have any close friends in the book and primarily spends his time at work to pay the bills at the house.  Nonetheless his character plays an important role in the story.  This young group of men are part of the crowd referred to as “the greasers”.    They are the unlucky ones that society looks down on.  The fight, swear, smoke and live as they please without supervision.  To society, they are everything you do not want your child to be.  Their rivals are “The Socs”  who also embody the role of the antagonists and the upper class members of society that wear khakis and drive Mustangs.

Life for both parties is fairly routine until Ponyboy and Johnny have a deadly encounter with the Socs following an earlier incident at the drive-in movies.   Becoming fugitives, Ponyboy and Johnny eventually decide to return home and clear their names. But their plan is not as simple as they think.  Several events take place that change the course of their lives giving the book a new dimension that pulls the reader in even further.  Life and death become central issues in the book and the pride that the greasers have in their existence even as they struggle with their social status. In a cruel way, some of them have accepted their lives and their fates as if the script has been completed.   Their experiences, combined with the joyful and tragic moments in the book, are a commentary on social issues that continue to affect society.  Ponyboy is our captain through this story and through his eyes we see first hand the devastating effects of the lives they are forced to live. The Socs are actually a sub-story but their appearance is the source of the grief and happiness that resides within the greasers.  Cherry Valance proves to be the most dynamic of them all and her friendship with Ponyboy gives the book the edge of romance that a good story typically contains.  And in the end, when we return to him, we come full circle after going on a moving journey.

To say that Hinton’s book is incredible would be an understatement.  Her masterpiece is American history and one of the best stories about the nation’s youth ever composed.   The story is set in the 1960s in the Midwestern part of the country.  The social climate is much different from today but not a too distant past.  The drive-in has mostly faded into obscurity along with the many Dairy Queens and abandoned churches of “Jay Mountain”.   Social media are the method of communications for today’s youth and Starbucks has phased out many of the mainstay coffee shops characteristic of small town USA.  But the story is retold daily as the privileged and underprivileged live their lives at opposite end of the social ladder.  But as we see in the book, there are times where the last shall be first.  They may be considered the lowest class, but by the end of the book I am sure that you too will become fans of the greasers and root for all of them to make it through the story.   Hinton keeps the suspense up throughout the book and we never know what is coming next.  All of the characters are fascinating characters and their entrances and departures from the story are part of what makes it such an enchanting read.

In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola helped adapt the book for the silver-screen.  C Thomas Howell assumed the role of Ponyboy and was joined by Ralph Macchio (Johnny Cade), Matt Dillon (Dallas Winston), Tom Cruise (Steve Randle), Rob Lowe (Sodapop Curtis), Patrick Swayze (Darrell Curtis), Emilio Estevez (Two-Bit Matthews) and Diane Lane (Cherry Valance).  The film is a cult classic and must have for those who have come to love the book.  I still watch it on occasion when I feel the need to revisit Hinton’s classic.  And each time I feel as if it is my first viewing.   Hinton would go on to write other classics such as That Was Then, This Is Now and Rumble Fish, but The Outsiders remains my personal favorite which I will continue to embrace for years to come.



20180603_160301There are a number of adjectives that come to mind to describe the late Eldridge Cleaver. (1935-1998) If I had to choose one in particular, my choice would be unpredictable.  His voice is legendary among the most prominent of the Civil Rights Movement. He co-founded the Black Panty Party but was later expelled by Huey P. Newton due to ideological differences.  In 1954, he was convicted of possession of Marijuana and sentenced to slightly over two years at Folsom Prison in Represa, California.   He began to write letters in his cell and those writings form the basis of this book considered be a classic text on revolution, racism, sexuality and the future of America.   The book was published in 1968 after Cleaver had served a second prison term for an attempted rape with assault conviction.  Married by then to Kathleen Cleaver, the marriage eventually fell apart due to his erratic behavior and philandering ways.   In later years following his split from the Panthers, he distanced himself from his Muslim faith, ran for President, created the “penis pants” and eventually joined the Mormon church.   He died on May 1, 1998 in Pomona, California. The cause of death was withheld from the public.  Today he is still a controversial figure and his writings and the confessions within have resulted in a split of opinion; readers either like him or hate him.   However, the fact remains that he was a valued and highly intellectual voice within the movement that attempted to manifest the issues that faced Black and White America.

But what is it about the book that gets favorable reviews?  Cleaver was an extreme figured and is to be expected, he is extreme at some points during the book.   At two hundred ten pages, the book is shorter than others by figures such as Newton but within the pages of this book are passages that will cause even the most hardened mind to think deeply.  From the beginning Cleaver pulls the reader in with his seductive writing style and deadly accurate analysis of society.  Reading about racial discrimination and America’s dark past is always tense but the part of the book is Cleaver’s admission to becoming a rapist in an attempt to get revenge against white men.  For all of his creative genius, expert analysis on revolution and highly perceptive mind, his biggest shortcoming by far is his admission to being a sexual predator.   The trauma endured by minorities throughout America’s history is tragic and regrettable but it does not excuse the violence and sexual exploitation of women.   Furthermore,  the truly baffling part is that Cleaver admits that he was wrong but is then convicted in 1958 of attempted rape.  Additionally, he is believed to have fathered several children out-of-wedlock.   That caused me to ask myself if he truly did have remorse for his past actions.  Putting that part of the book aside, the other parts are highly introspective but require an open mind to truly see the genius in his writing.

He touches on several topics and dissects them thoroughly.   The youth of today may have extreme difficulty in understanding Cleaver’s points.  America has changed in many ways since the 1960s.  Vietnam is a relic in the past for the millennial generation with names such as Johnson, Nixon and Mao only discussed history textbooks.  But at the time of the publication of this book, they were all very real and Cleaver, like millions of other African-Americas watched the struggles around the world develop as they continued to face their battles at home.

The book has many highlights and Cleaver is a shining star and an example of what could have been if creative and intellectual minds had continued in the right direction.   Religion is a central theme early in the book in particular during his time at Folsom.  He is a Muslim but attends classes in the prison.   He describes his daily life behind bars and the challenges faced by inmates to retain their sanity and optimism that they will one day see freedom.  Moving on he touches on the death of Malcolm X, who at first earns the wrath of the Nation of Islam by disavowing the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.  But after returning from Mecca, changing his ideology and creating the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm gained old and new followers, Cleaver included. His death at the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 was a heavy blow to the Civil Rights Movement and the hearts of the men and women who considered him their black shining prince.  Vietnam is not spared nor is the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson.  The personal conflict within the hearts and minds of black soldiers returning from combat to a country that refuses to grant them their rights is truly one of the saddest moments in American history and in the book.

It would have been nearly impossible for Cleaver to analyze social conditions without examining the issue from an opposing view.  He writes about white heroes and their extinction due to the changing mindset of the young white youths of America whom he says have rejected the ways of their elders and embraced the culture of their fellow Black Americans.  Never straying too far from his Muslim faith at the time, Cleaver gives an interesting portrayal of Muhammad Ali and his importance to the struggle for equality.  In fact, Cleaver refers to him at point as the “Fidel Castro of Boxing.” The unfortunate scapegoat in this case is Floyd Patterson who is not able to defend himself.   He also gives attention to James Baldwin and his opinions of the late author could be considered controversial.   Those who believe Baldwin to be beyond reproach will have a hard time accepting Cleaver’s criticism.  And while I do not agree with everything he said about Baldwin, I respect his opinion for Baldwin also attacked Richard Wright and according to many, in a highly unfair manner.  Sadly, both Baldwin and Cleaver are deceased but I would love to see them sit down today and have a discussion about the current state of America.

Cleaver in his ideology and writings was aligned with Marxists and his name is mentioned along those such as Guevara, Lenin, Mao and Castro.  He does avoid the topic of imperialism and its devastating effects around the world.  Particularly close attention is paid to the hypocritical policies of a government that publicly declares support for freedom of foreign nations but struggled to give equality to its own citizens. This chapter in the book is among the strongest and highlights an argument made repeatedly by those committed to an end to colonialism. America has many dark secrets but no shortage of those wishing to expose them.   In exposing them, we can see where policy goes wrong and what it is truly needed to correct it.

Towards the end of the book, Cleaver touches on two topics which are sure to cause a range of emotions.   It is imperative to remember that these are his beliefs and can be rejected or accepted.  In his analysis of male and female relations he has composed four characteristic traits;  the Ultrafeminine, the Amazon, the Omnipotent Administrator and the Supermasculine Menial.   There is some truth to what he says but there always exceptions to the rule.  Nonetheless it is an interesting take on the relationships between men and women.   This relationship is carried over into his exploration of the connection between white women and black men.   Setting the stage, Cleaver explains that he is with two acquaintances he calls Eunuchs.  They are joined by the Infidel who they believe to be a fraud and not aligned with the movement.  The dialogue quickly turns to the topic of interracial couples and apparent dysfunctional relationship that the infidel says exists due to the system of slavery.   Incredibly, it was not until 1963 that laws against interracial marriage were ruled unconstitutional paving the way for the rescinding of miscegenation laws by states in the union that had not done so.  While I do not deny that there are many stereotypes affixed to couples of mixed background, the youth of today are unable to relate to the times in which Cleaver lived. Furthermore, as someone who has dated women that are from many parts of this world, Cleaver through the voice of the Infidel would be off base today. But this was the 1960s and a completely different time in America. And I would be foolish to deny that there are in fact some of us who are exactly what that section of the book discusses.   If there is one thing I have learned about love, it is that it strikes us when we least expect it and we never know to whom it will be directed.  But when it does happen, all that we can do is go with it and see where it takes us.

It is undeniable that Cleaver was a polarizing and truly mystifying figure.  Is this book outdated? Maybe.  But it is still a guide that many youths lived by during those turbulent times.   And if America seeks to move forward and improve itself, then we will need to revisit the past on occasion so that we do not make the same mistakes again.  Eldridge will be with us as one of those voices to reminds of the failure that awaits those who do not study the past.


Civil Rights Movement

20180603_003449On July 1, 1962 a referendum was held that paved the way for Algerian independence from the government of France. The complete cessation of armed conflict marked the end of war that lasted seventeen years.   The Algeria movement for freedom stands out as a success story similar to the legendary revolutionary campaigns in the Caribbean and Latin America.  It is also a case study for those seeking to go down the path of revolution as a method to enforce social reform.  No revolution is complete without a defining text and in this case, the struggle was analyzed and transcribed the famed revolutionary, writer, philosopher and psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon. (1925-1961)  The book was finished shortly before his death and published not long after.  Originally written in French, it has been translated by Richard Philcox for English readers.

Tragically, Fanon died on December 6, 1961 from the effects of leukemia and did not live to see the success of what became a masterpiece.  And in a cruel twist of fate, his deteriorating condition forced him to seek treatment in the one country that became the poster child for imperialism, the United States.   Following his death, he was buried in Algeria, the nation he wrote so passionately about.  The Wretched Of The Earth dissects the Algerian campaign and the complicated, dysfunctional and deadly relationship between colonial governments and their colonized territories. Fanon minces no words, he is frank and his rhetoric sharp.   His mission is writing this text was to explain to the reader the ingredients necessary for armed revolution and in inevitability of the inclusion of violence.  The benefit of having a first hand witness to the bloody struggle for liberation put him in a unique perspective to become the movement’s biographer.

Fanon proves himself to be a complex and deeply intellectual figure.  Tapping into this seeming endless intellect, he does not stop at examining the oppression of the colonized. He dives further discussing the mental and physical state of both opponents before moving on to the rebuilding of the nation that has newfound freedom.  If we fully digest what Fanon tells us we can see the long-lasting effects of colonialism even to this day. Across the world, revolutions are taking place and others are being formulated as the oppressed masses reached their breaking point.  Along the way, Fanon will be there to guide them with his insight and words.  His critics have said that he incites violence.  I do not believe the criticism is warranted entirely.  As Fanon points out, violence is a part of revolution and is a logical result of systematic oppression over a period of time.  A system that subjects its citizens to daily discrimination and deplorable living conditions will eventually engineer its own downfall.  And this is the point that Fanon emphatically drives home.  Decolonization is never pleasant but it must be strategically developed and carried out by those who truly wish to break the back of their colonial rulers.

Throughout the year, his work has been studied and employed by countless revolutionaries figures including Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party for self-defense.   Next to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, Fanon stands out as one of the loudest voices against American and European imperialism.  And like Guevara, he died before reaching forty years of age and had yet to reach his full literary and revolutionary potential.  But through his works his legacy continues and he finds new fame as young minds embrace the works of the past as seek to understand the brutal system of colonization which takes of many different forms but possesses the same agenda to extract as much as possible from the nations and people under its control.  Fanon was survived by his widow Josie who died on July 13, 1989 in Algiers after tragically taking her own life.  After Frantz’s death she never remarried and carried his name for the rest of her life. Her devotion to him is reminiscent of the devotion given by those who have read and studied him and believe him to be a voice for their own struggles. And for many more years, The Wretched Of The Earth will be one of the most important books ever written about decolonization.

When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe” -Frantz Fanon

ISBN-10: 0802141323
ISBN-13: 978-0802141323

Civil Rights Movement

pabloWagner Moura became one of Netflix’s most memorable faces when he assumed the role of infamous drug czar Pablo Escobar in the hit series Narcos. The series, while based off of true events,  is also a fictional account of the late kingpin’s life as a cocaine trafficker and public enemy number one in Colombia.   The received rave reviews and I  enjoyed it immensely.  I was aware of Escobar’s story before watching the show and knew that the producers would tweak some parts of the story to enhance its seduction.  The created a hit that will remain one of the best products of the digital behemoth.  But some of us may be asking ourselves, how much did Netflix get right? And what did they change as they filmed the show?  Shaun Attwood goes behind the camera and revisits the real story of Pablo’s rise and downfall that lead to his death on December 2, 1993 in the city of Medellín.

Attwood gives a brief recap of Escobar’s early life before returning the story at hand, his time as a narco.  And it is here that the story quickly picks up speed.   Netflix changed some of the names of the major players in the story most likely for either legal or creative reasons.  For some readers, they may need to quickly catch clips of the show to match the characters.   The deaths are also different but follow the same narration as the show.  Pablo once again takes center stage with a supporting cast of deadly enforcers.   Combined with the animosity of rival cartels, law enforcement, revels and a president determined to see Escobar fall,  the war on Escobar and drug trafficking nearly turned Colombia into a bloodbath.   The violence and increase in American consumption in cocaine, earned Escobar the wrath of Washington, then under control of President George H.W. Bush.   Attwood probes in the battle between the two and Washington’s many actions to bring the drug lord down.   Some are familiar but other information might be surprising for some readers who were unaware of the extent of Washington’s involvement in Escobar’s apprehension.

In spite of changes by the producers of Narcos, the show did an excellent job of telling the story.  The actors in the show all did an incredible job of bringing the past alive again in stunningly vivid detail.   The cinematography was beyond amazing and Colombia became enchanting real, a beautify country caught in an unfortunate situation.   As I read the book,  I involuntarily pictured the actors from the show as I read the conversations that are put on display in the book.  And although their faces and names are changed, their roles in the story are not.  To be fair to Attwood, the book is not a biography of Escobar, so readers in search of that will be disappointment.  But for those who want to know what was changed during the filming of Narcos and what really happened, Attwood does a great job of putting it together in a narrative easy to follow and thoroughly engaging.

Twenty-three years have passed since his death but Escobar continues to live in pop culture, documentaries and on the internet.   To be fair, a large number of traffickers existed at the time Escobar made his name.  Some of them are still alive today while others are incarcerated or deceased.  Regardless of their present status, none have come close to matching the man who could arguably be called narco number one.   In future years, he will continue to fascinate and mystify and his story is re-told and readopted for the silver screen.  In death he has become martyr, icon and glimpse into Colombia’s dangerous past.   Narcos has yet to be discovered, but more viewers will tune into the show and have many questions about the true story.  With books such as these, they will find the answers that they seek.

ISBN-10: 1537296302
ISBN-13: 978-1537296302

Latin America

fanypdToday it is hard to imagine that less than fifty years ago, New York City was once considered one of the most dangerous cities in America.  Rising crime, poverty, budgetary mismanagement and police corruption combined to turn the Big Apple into a city that took more than it gave.   The New York City Police Department was tasked with maintaining order in the concrete jungle in the face of budget cuts and incredibly layoffs in the late 1970s.  The officers who survived those dark years carry with them endless memories about their time on the streets of New York City.  Tom Walker, who retired in 2004, spent several years of his career at the 41st Precinct in the South Bronx, nicknamed by the officers as “Fort Apache”.   The name sounds heroic but as we learn in the book, it was for darker and more tragic reasons that the station was referred to as a fort. Outside the walls of the precinct existed a world that bordered on the surreal and gave a glimpse into what hell must really be like.

The story begins as Walker is a newly appointed Lieutenant assigned to the 41st Precinct or simply, “The Four One”.  On his very first day, he quickly learns that his new home is anything but welcoming.  He is instantly introduced to the infamous Fox Street and its surrounding walkways that prove to be nothing short of deadly.  Readers who are natives of New York and remember the era in which this book was written, will recall the sense of disparity and anger that consumed many of New York City’s poorest residents.  Walker addresses this in the book and clearly shows the link between poverty and crime. And the scenes that he describes throughout the book reinforce that lack of hope that often consumes the ghetto.   While many of the officers finish their shifts and go home to the suburbs, the residents of the Four One could not leave, reliving a nightmare every day of their lives.  As a former resident of East New York, Brooklyn, I can relate to Walker and the people of the South Bronx for my own neighborhood resembled the Four One except that for us it was the Seven-Five.

After finishing the book, I asked myself how Walker was able to do that job with a wife and five children at home?  The constant threat of death on every shift and the traumatic experiences placed upon the officers could have doomed his marriage or taken his life.  Yet he perseveres through the book and even talks briefly about the struggle that some cops face in maintaining a health marriage.  What is evidently clear is that to be a New York City Police Officer during that time was literally gambling with your life.  Today the streets of New York City are much safer although the threat of death still exists albeit on a much lower scale of risk.   The City has a stable budget and the department has consistently filled its rank adding more officers to patrol the streets.   In hindsight it seems nearly criminal that the Four One was understaffed, under-supplied and even neglected by higher-ups in the chain of NYPD command.  Sadly, there are several instances in the book where there are no cars available to respond to police dispatches.

Many years have passed since the book was published in 1976 and the South Bronx has undergone a dramatic transformation.  Fox Street and Southern Boulevard have been improved and no longer look as if they’ve been hit by an explosive device.  The gangs such as the Savage Nomads are lone gone and only live in the memories of others.  Some of the residents are undoubtedly still there advanced in their years but others have moved on in life leaving the Bronx behind.  And other officers, like Walker, have since retired and moved on with their lives.  But they all share a bond from the time they spent in and around Fort Apache.  Walker’s story is an interesting step back into time and an invaluable account of the darker times in New York City history.

ISBN-10: 1935278398
ISBN-13: 978-1935278399

New York City

519cait848l-_sy344_bo1204203200_In August, 1945, the course of modern warfare was changed forever when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, striking the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Following the successful deployment of the bomb, the Soviet Union and other nations enhanced their own programs to develop a nuclear weapon.  The nuclear arms race produced a fear in mankind that still exists today as war continues and dictators drunk on power set their eyes on world domination and a test of egos. It has often been said that the next major world war will be the last war mankind will ever fight. Humanity now has the absolute power to destroy itself literally at the push of a button. Thankfully, since the second world war, there has been no further use of atomic weapons in an armed conflict.  But the danger still exists and there have been many who have warned against the escalation of nuclear armament.  One of these voices was that of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), referred to as the father of atomic bomb and in this excellent biography, an American Prometheus.  Kali Bird and Martin J. Sherwin have captured Oppenheimer’s life splendidly making sure that his life is recorded for history.

Today, Oppenheimer’s name is connected with a distant past during war that the world has long tried to forget.  Less than eighty years ago, Nazism, Japanese expansion and fascism threatened the security of the world and plunged several nations into the most savage war the world has seen.   Allied commanders and German commanders both began to see the potential of a weapon that could end the war in one stroke. Nuclear energy, still then in its early stages became increasingly attractive.  The U.S. military enlisted the help of the greatest physicist the country had to offer.  A young brilliant mind joined the mission and his life was never the same again.   Readers should know beforehand that the book is not heavily focused on the bomb itself.  For extensive technical details, it would be best to look elsewhere.  This is Oppenheimer’s story and the events that took place in his personal life which became interwoven with his duties at Los Alamos.  There is a saying that there is a fine line between genius and insanity and as Bird and Sherwin show us, Oppenheimer walked the line very closely throughout the majority of his life.

The beauty in the book is that the authors truly did an outstanding job of revealing the real Oppenheimer.  He was a father, brother, husband and scientist.  In addition he was also a perfect example of Jung’s theory of the duality of man.  At some points in the book, it is hard to reconcile how such a gentle figure would create a weapon that would later take thousands of lives and put humanity at permanent risk.   The book is exhaustively researched and was completely over many years.  All of the figures in the book are now deceased but their words are critical in understanding Oppenheimer’s life. It is well-known that following his accomplishments at Los Alamos, he became a proponent of disarmament.  His stance earned him the wrath of many in the government and ultimately lead to his secret clearance status being completely revoked during an investigation in his communist ties.   The investigation is analyzed perfectly in the book and I could not help at times but to become enraged at the trials and tribulations inflicted upon him.  But I remind myself that this was the 1950s, the time when communism was the ultimate evil and Sen. Joseph McCarthy was making a name for himself with his war on communism.   The FBI makes an appearance in the book as J. Edgar Hoover enforces his status as the chief watcher of the country.  I shudder to think what Hoover would think today about America if her were alive to see it.

To say that Oppenheimer was an unorthodox figure would be an understatement. As I have learned through this book, he was a complex man with a complex life full of many highs and lows.   He is a heroic and tragic figure that remains cemented in America’s past.  I dare to say that possibly there was no one who truly did know him completely.  In the book there is an aura of mysticism about him that many are unable to accurately put into words.  The praises from those who knew him are some of the greater moments in the book and highlight why he was such a unique and fascinating individual.  And while he is best remembered for the creation of the bomb, we should not forget that he was also a human rights advocate and crusader against the dangers of unrestricted nuclear warfare.  As the father of two children,  there are many aspects of his relationship with them and of his wife Kitty who plays an important role in the direction that his life took. But throughout all of it, he remained himself, the genius physicist with a love for literature and poetry and from all accounts, the make of a killer martini.

By far, this is one of the best biographies that I have read.   For the majority of us who read this book, we will never know what it is like to have created a weapon that could eliminate an entire nation in less than fifteen minutes.  It is an incredible burden to bear  for even the most radical of us.  Lyndon Johnson awarded Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi award on December 2, 1963 for his contributions to science and the advancement of theoretical physics. It was a fitting honor to a man whose life had nearly been destroyed several years earlier before an investigative committee.  His final years read like a Shakespearean tragedy.   Although vindicated in the court of public opinion and among his peers,  he would remain controversial until his last day as his battle with throat cancer reached its tragic conclusion.   He is long gone but his work and words are still with us reminding mankind of the preciousness of life and the cataclysmic threat that exist in nuclear weapons.  For those seeking to learn more about Oppenheimer’s life, this is a good place to start.

The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.” J. Robert Oppenheimer

ISBN-10: 0375726268
ISBN-13: 978-0375726262


untitledOn April 6, 2017, The Global Confederation of Labor (CGT) conducted a one-day general strike in protest of the policies of the administration of President Mauricio Macri. (1959-) Inflation, high taxes, low wages and job cuts have constrained the people of Argentina into an economic vice grip as the president attempts to steer the country away from a looming economic crisis.  The strike is just one in many that have taken place during the last one hundred years in one of South America’s most popular countries. In July, 2017, I had the privilege to visit Buenos Aires, the city that has been called the Paris of South America.   In July of this year I will return to the nation that is home to world-famous steaks, milanesa, wine, asado and dozens of culinary delights that make the heart flutter and the mouth water.  I do not know what the political climate will be like when I visit but I can be sure that the people of Buenos Aires will show me the same hospitality that they did in the past and in the process help to create memories that will remain with me for the rest of my life.  My favorite Argentine presented this book to me as a gift, a gift that keeps on giving.  This book is a history of the Argentine Republic during the twentieth century. And what is contained in the pages of this book is essential in understanding modern-day Argentina.  James P. Brennan has translated the work of Luis Alberto Romero (1944-), who became a Professor of History at the University of Buenos Aires in 1967. The book is written as only a professor could but presents the reader with a wealth of critical knowledge that is invaluable.

The story begins towards the end of the 1800s as Argentina sees an influx of foreign immigrants, a trend that continued forming the blend of culture that became a signature to this day.  Politically, the nation is still in early stages at attempts to embrace democracy.  In 1916, the course of the nation changed forever with the election of Hipólito Yrigoyen (1852-1933), the “father of the poor” and co-founder of the Unión Cívica Radical.  He is seen as a reformist and one of the nation’s best leaders.  He was succeeded by Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear before being elected for a second time in 1928.  On September 6, 1930, he was deposed in a coup by the military, a trend that would continue for decades to come and cast a dark light on the future of Argentine politics.  Several military officials followed and assumed the office of the presidency. But in 1943, Argentina’s history was forever changed once again with the assumption of power by the late Juan Perón.   His reign over the nation, subsequent political activity up until the time of his death and the party that bears his name,  became permanently fixed in Argentine politics making it extremely hard for opponents of the party to exist as they attempt to transform society.

While the story of Argentina is complex and volatile as shown intricately in the book, there were other players involved in the development of the country.  The United States and Great Britain played critical roles in Argentine society in more ways than most Americans or Brits may be aware of.  Personally I learned a few things about my own government’s actions in Latin American and in particular Argentina that help explain how and why the nation still struggles with its economy.  When President Barack Obama visited Argentina in February, 2016, it was crucial step in repairing relations to two nations that were once more closely aligned.  Moving forward, it is hoped that both countries continue the effort and solidify a growing bond that will benefit both parties.  But in order to do so, it is necessary to revisit and reconcile the past not only with America but with England as well.  The conflict over the Malvinas Islands, instigated by then president Leopoldo Galtieri and the rise and fall of the export of beef, are dark moments in Argentina’s history that are examined in detail in the book.

The role of the military is not overlooked and throughout the book, its presence is continuously felt as one president after another is deposed and replaced by the next general in line.  And during the rule of Galtieri, the plague of the “disappeared” during the Dirty War that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Argentines with the final number possibly as high at thirty-thousand people.  The nefarious actions of the government would result in the formation of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the organization of Argentine mothers who demanded answers into the final destinations of their children and loved ones.  The group is supported by the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.  The true number may never be known but what is certain is that many lost their lives as the government enforced a crackdown on all forms of opposition.  Their efforts proved to be futile as opposition parties continued to flourish as legitimate threats to the crown of the highest office.   The elections of Carlos Menem and Fernando de la Rúa marked a stark change as neither candidate was a military official at the times of his election.   However, each left office in controversy with the latter being forced to leave quite unceremoniously.  He was succeeded by Adolfo Rodríguez Saá (1947-), Eduardo Duhalde (1941-), Néstor Kirchner (1950-2010) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (1953-) before Macri’s successful campaign as the candidate of the Republican Proposal (PRO) party.  Macri’s future is unknown at the moment but he finds himself in the position of former presidents who have struggled to maintain control of the country while attempting to balance the budget, promote economic growth and curtail the rising rate of inflation that has plagued Argentine society for several decades.

The highlight of Romero’s work is the attention paid to the economic policies that nearly crippled the economy and threatened to cause the country to self-destruct.  Seemingly, the ministers of finance were replaced as often as the deposed presidents.  Martinez de Hoz (1925-2013) and Domingo Cavallo (1946-) stand out in the book as pioneering reformists and also contributors to the woes of Argentines. They are two among dozens that have tried without long-lasting success to complete fix the nation’s problems.  Romero’s investigation into their policies and their effects serve as a lesson in economics that can be revisited in the future by other ministers of finance.

For those wishing to understand the political history of modern-day Argentina, this is the place to start.  So take a seat and follow Romero has he steps back in time revisiting the pivotal moments in the Republic’s history that has and continues to confound its citizens and those abroad.

Argentina is amazing” – Arjun Kapoor

ISBN-10: 0271021926
ISBN-13: 978-0271021928

Latin America