Month: <span>May 2019</span>

Neruda

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN: B072SCL5Z

 

Biographies

20190518_112659Recently, I have become fascinated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, a culmination of long-simmering tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster Province.  The conflict is among the longest running in the world and has claimed the lives of thousands.  In each of the books that I have read, I kept coming across the name Bobby Sands (1954-1981).   I knew he was one of several prisoners at the Long Kesh correctional facility who died following a hunger strike in protest of the conditions at the jail and the policies of London.   However, I did not know much about his life.   I became focused on him and eagerly searched online for whatever I could find.  Amazon delivered yet again with this definitive biography of Sands’ life by author Dennis O’Hearn that is nothing short of riveting.

Here in the United States, Sands’ name is largely unknown but across Ireland and other parts of the world, he is remembered as a champion of resistance and an inspiration to others who have waged their own battles for freedom including the late Nelson Mandela (1918-2013).  Mandel used Sands’ hunger strike as an example for strike of his own which proved to be highly successful.  However, Sands also had his detractors and many of them still view him with disgust, particularly in the six Protestant dominated counties in Ulster Province. And similar to other famous figures, there are endless stories about his life, some true and others most likely fiction. O’Hearn sets the record straight here giving the best account of the life of one of the IRA’s most legendary leaders.

From the start, the book earned my undivided attention and at times I could not put it down.  Curiously, the Sands’ story begins like many other kids in Northern Ireland.  He was born several miles from Belfast and his childhood was a happy one by all accounts. He lived in a modest house with his parents and three siblings.  His friends were a mix of Catholic and Protestant.  But that would soon change as the battle between Republicans and Loyalists escalated and the induction of the British military further fueled tensions.  As O’Hearn shows, these events began to shape the mindset of the growing Sands and the events of Bloody Sunday, were the spark that fully ignited the raging conflict.

The author’s writing style flows very easily and the pace of the book moves just right.  We revisit Sands’ early life where we see his slow progression from the average young kid, to a young man learning about religion and complexities of life for Irish Catholics and finally to the wise and seasoned IRA member that launched the most famous and moving hunger strike in Irish history.  I think O’Hearn showcases clearly, how and why many young men and women joined the IRA, knowing full well that jail and death were the most likely outcomes.  To Americans, Sands might seem out of his mind. But that is far from the case and here he is given a platform to spread his ideas.  Sands’ writing samples are included in the book, giving him a voice in this incredible biography.  Even if you do not agree with what Sands did, it will hard not to admire his dedication to his beliefs, his charisma, intelligence and willingness to sacrifice himself.

His incarceration at Long Kesh is without a doubt the crux of the book.  As O’Hearn tells this part of Sands’ life,  we step inside the walls of the prison and the different sections in which Sands and other IRA members were confined.  The ugly and vindictive atmosphere that developed at Long Kesh is on full display and some readers will be repulsed at the actions of some guards and conditions in which Sands and the others lived.  But the struggle inside the prison by no means was one sided. Sands and the others do their share of antagonizing the guards whom they affectionately refer to as “screws”.  A daily war of attrition developed as each side sought to find out just how far they could push the other. And to say that some aspects were barbaric would be an understatement.

Prison time was an accepted part of life for the men and women of the IRA. Death came as well to those who were either unlucky or extraordinarily brave.  The men at Long Kesh believed their fight was political and they decided they would not be confined within its walls without being appropriately labeled as political prisoners. London vehemently refused to agree to any such notion and thus, the stage was set for the battle between the IRA and the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013).  As this point in the book, the suspense heightens as the IRA becomes more defiant and the guards become more determined to break them into submission. It was an environment that would have driven most to insanity. But for Bobby Sands, this was the proving ground in which he could show his commitment to his cause. His studies of the works of Che Guevara, Franz Fanon and others became the backbone of his resistance and carried him through to the final moments of the second of two hunger strikes carried out by IRA prisoners. O’Hearn covers both in solid detail to give the reader an inside look into the battle behind-the-scenes battles within the IRA with regards to the impending doom by the hunger strikers.

As a sub-story to the events at Long Kesh, the author focuses on the turmoil in Sand’s personal life outside of the IRA.  Marriage and fatherhood enter the story and the effect the movement had on his personal life will cause many to wonder if it was truly worth it.  Sands would surely say yes but I am sure that if he could have gone back and done things differently, there is a good chance that he might have changed course.  But by the time he had reached this point in his life, his fate was sealed and destiny was waiting.  At the time of his death, he was only 27 years of age and joined a long list of other famous figures who died at age 27.  In death, he became a martyr and his image can still be found on murals in Northern Ireland.  To Republicans, he is a hero who fought against British Rule and to Loyalists, a criminal who caused his own demise.  But to some of his enemies, as Dennis O’Hearn shows, he was still worthy of respect and the interactions with guards in various parts of the book are confirmation of this.  I think that all can agree that he was one of a kind and remains a legend of the IRA.  His hunger strike changed public opinion of the IRA and their cause for a united Irish Republic. Future generations of IRA members and Republicans will surely look to him as one of their greatest figures whose memory shall continue to live on. This is the life and death of Robert Gerard Sands.

ISBN-10: 1560258888
ISBN-13: 978-1560258889

Biographies Northern Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN: B008PINHIG

Biographies

cooganSeveral years ago, I visited Dublin to finally see Ireland for myself.  And while I admit that I was not swayed by the Irish breakfast, there were many other things about Dublin that made up for the first morning and I left Dublin with a sense of warmth and humbleness.  During my visit, I stopped by the General Post Office (“GPO”) to send out a few postcards. As I stood on line with other tourists, I marveled at the beauty of the building.  After some time, I and the other customers departed and went our separate ways.  But I do not believe that many of us on line that day, recalled or were aware of the historical significance of the post office.  On April 24, 1916, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (“IRB”), staged an uprising across Dublin to force an end to the rule of the British Crown (“the Crown”) across Ireland.  The GPO was one of many occupied buildings but is recognized as “ground zero” for the various seizures that occurred.  The events of that day have become known as the Easter Rising and contained within the pages of this book, is the story from start to finish by author Tim Pat Coogan.

Recently I have covered a couple of books on “the troubles” in Northern Ireland’s Ulster Province.   Each makes reference to the 1916 uprising but are primarily focused on the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”).  I knew that at some point I would need to examine the Easter Rising and this book did not disappoint.  It came as a recommendation on Amazon and I purchased it rather quickly.   Having finished the book, I can firmly state that Coogan created an invaluable tool to learn the truth about the long and violent struggle by Republicans for a united Ireland.

Reviews on Amazon.com are generally positive with the only drawback being that the book is geared towards readers with a good amount of knowledge of Ireland’s history.   I do concur that the book is not an easy read but I do believe that readers who choose to explore this book already have a strong interest in the subject matter and will be somewhat familiar with the events at the GPO.  Regardless of the reader’s knowledge, it is an enjoyable read.  Coogan sets the right pace from early on and the book picks up speed as we move closer to the deadly climax.

While the book is focused on the uprising, there is far more to the story than meets the eye. In fact, not only do we learn about Coogan’s life growing up in Ireland, we also learn about the social conditions for most Irish men and women.  Life in Ireland was hard, famine was real and being Catholic was a cardinal sin. London had meddled in Irish affairs for several hundred years and calls for a United Ireland grew exponentially.   Protestant rule was enforced through gerrymandering and outright discrimination.  For Republicans, there was only thing to do and that was to force the Crown out of Ireland. To some, it was the only hope of an Ireland in which poverty was gone, religion did not divide society and the whole country was united as one.

Through Coogan’s work, I have come to learn the names of the Republican martyrs who whose legacies live on.  The names of Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and James Connolly (1868-1916), among others, are now etched into my memory.   The uprising proved to be their downfall but in death they have become revered as the fathers of the Irish Republic.  Coogan provides samples of Pearse’s written correspondence to family members and short speeches he gave prior to this death, giving the reader a better idea as to who he was and his ultimate goal for Ireland.  To the Crown, the IRB was a group of agitators whose actions were insubordinate, treasonous and outright disrespectful. And to some Irish, particularly those of the Protestant faith, it was further confirmation that they were vindicated in their distrust and rejection of Catholics.  London took the position that the rebellion had to be resolved and Britain retaliated sharply.  Ironically, the crackdown by the Crown had many unintended effects that changed the course of Irish history.  Readers will find this part of the book highly interesting.

Coogan created what is with without a doubt, a definitive account of the Easter Rising.  There are many characters involved and certainly a lot of information to process.  But I think that readers who have the patience and interest to make it through the book will find that it is well worth the effort.  The troubles in Northern Ireland could reignite at any time and the war between the Republicans and the Crown could once again become full scale.   Inevitably, foreign nations will intervene and try to broker peace.  But in order for peace to prevail, all involved must understand what is truly at stake and why each side has the strong convictions that they do.  For those that live outside of Ireland, it may be necessary to first go back and learn the truth about the Crown’s presence in Ireland and the birth of the effort of Republicans to see it come to an end.

ASIN: B01ER6Z83Q

Northern Ireland

Rebel Hearts.jpgThe conflict in Northern Ireland between pro-British Protestants and Republic Catholics, is the longest running feud to date.  The planned exit by England from the European Union has resulted in suspense and apprehension throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.  The Irish have undoubtedly been watching closely as any movement by England will have a ripple effect that will eventually reach their shores.  Belfast remains a major tourist attraction in the north, similar to its southern counterpart Dublin, and receives millions of visitors each year.  History buffs may recall that Belfast is the city in which Harland and Wolff built the world-famous RMS Titanic for the White Star Line.   But behind the fame of the doomed ocean liner, lies a dark side that has taken more lives than anyone could have ever imagined.  Belfast and Londonberry (“Derry”) have served as the battlegrounds for the deadly war between Nationalists and Republicans forces.  Across Ulster province, six of the nine counties are protected by the British Crown (“the Crown”) and unofficially by the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association.  The Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) stands firm as the opposition force founded to defend the minority Catholic population from what they believe to be the refusal of the Crown to let Ireland become a united country. Kevin Toolis is a journalist and screenwriter born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Irish parents.  In this eye-opening and chilling book, he travels back to the country of his ancestors, seeking to understand what drives the men and women of the IRA.

I believe that anyone interested in this book probably has a fair amount of knowledge regarding the IRA and “the troubles” as they are known by the Irish.  Toolis does not simply relay their well-known attacks but instead seeks to understand the mindset and conviction of those who have taken the pledge to see the Crown removed from Irish soil.  He interviewed many high-ranking members, some of whom are now deceased such as Martin McGuinnness (1950-2017), families of fallen IRA members and even those on the other side of the conflict.  And what he has come away with will shock readers who live outside of Ireland and are not of Irish ancestry.  To outsiders, the conflict seems surreal and the deaths of so many beyond needless.  It is a conflict that has no restrictions on violence and the ideology that fuels both sides is as strong as any found throughout the world.  However, as I read the book, I did find myself aghast at the ease in which so many accepted jail and death as part of the plan.  As the author shows,  to nearly all of the figures, taking up the IRA flag is seen as an act of honor, even if it means certain death and/or prison time.  It is a thought process that neither I nor many readers outside of the United Kingdom will be able to associate with.  But for those that remain in Northern Ireland, the troubles have never gone away.

The author provides a clear and thorough explanation for the origins of the conflict and the imposition of the Crown more than 400 years ago when Oliver Cromwell led the Crown in the War of Three Kingdoms, setting the stage for British rule.  As the book moves along, we are introduced to the IRA through polarizing and deadly figures.  The uprising of 1916 by Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) marked a new era in the Republic of Ireland.  His life and last moments are revisited here, showing the reader the level of conviction behind the Republican cause.  The IRA has been home to a large number of larger-than-life characters including the late Bobby Sands (1954-1981), whose hunger strike and death at HM Prison Maze, Long Kesh earned the IRA a major publicity coup against the administration of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013).  Sands’ legacy and spirit are alive and well as a martyr in the cause for a united republic.  Toolis moves through IRA circles with bravado and fear, knowing full well just how dangerous the interviewees were.  But his journalist background, allowed him to continue his research as he descended deeper into the IRA’s soul.

The book is far more than just a collection of missions carried out by the IRA.  Here we learn the names and personal stories of several figures who became popular and infamous in IRA lore.  Some were heroes, others informers and the rest, tragically became casualties of war.  Regardless of their roles, each has their own story to tell about their life in Ireland and whey they feel that the Crown should no longer remain in power in the north.  One thing that did stand out is that in nearly every story, a common theme is terrible poverty and discrimination as a result of the majority Protestant rule.  In fact, not one person in the book that Toolis interviewed, came from a family of extreme wealth.  The opposite was more often than not true, and their prospects in life were grim.  But the IRA and the dream of a united Ireland, was enough to lure many into committing acts intended to drive the British away once and for all.  Frankie Ryan, Mairéad Farrell (1957-1988), Sean Savage (1965-1988), Daniel McCann(1957-1988), Joseph MacManus and Patricia Black (1972-1991) are just some of the names listed in the long register of IRA members who died tragically on behalf of the IRA.  Their goal to force the Crown to leave Ireland has not materialized but the IRA continues to stick to its core mission.

At first glance, it is easy to write off the voices in this book as delusional militants whose numbers were never any match for the Crown of the British military.  The six counties in Ulster province are still under the Crown but the IRA is recognized world-wide as the Catholic voice across the north.  As I read the stories of the figures being interviewed, I continued to ask myself if there was any possibility that they could have taken a different path in life.  For some, it almost seems that they were destined to join the IRA.  In fact, as a few explain, it is what they grew up with and a part of life that became accepted.  But those of us looking from the outside in may ask is the heartache and death truly worth it?  Those part of the IRA will undoubtedly say yes it is.  Even those that have been forced to bury siblings and even children, remain committed to the IRA’s cause: a British-free and unified Republic of Ireland.

Those who decide to read the book through pure fascination with the violence and gore that occurs will miss the point of the book.  What Toolis has done is to allow us to see how and why young men and women who could have led ordinary and long lives, made the decision to join a cause that many of them knew from the beginning would result in prison and death. Their rationale for answering the call to arms and joining the IRA will provoke a range of reaction in readers.  Some of us will be empathetic while others may dismiss them as nothing more than rebel hearts.  But regardless of our own personal opinions, these are their stories and the reasons behind their decisions and actions.  We do not have to agree with them but we can make the effort to understand their position. Furthermore, we are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in their place.

The British side of the question is not left out and the Crown does make an impact in the story through counter-intelligence missions spearheaded by MI5 and the Special Air Service (“SAS”), police action through the Royal Ulster Constabulary and informers within the IRA’s ranks. Deadly games of espionage, double-agents and collateral damage, turned Northern Ireland and even London in battlegrounds to force change to 10 Downing Street’s foreign policy toward its Irish neighbors.

Today there is a form of peace in Ireland but the Provisional IRA, which split for the traditional IRA in 1969, continues to operate.  Time will tell if peace will continue or if the troubles will once again be re-ignited.  As Britain struggles to find a suitable exit from the European Union, many eyes are on Ireland and the fears abound of the possible deadly impact of London’s final decision.  There may indeed come a day when the Crown is finally removed from Irish soil and the dream of a united Irish Republic becomes reality.  Protestants will have to make life changing decisions and for some that might include the use of violence.  We can only hope that cooler heads prevail and a British exit from Ireland will be done in an orderly and peaceful fashion.  But until that day comes, the IRA remains a force to be reckoned with and a voice for an oppressed minority seeking to change social conditions that have caused thousands of deaths. They are supported throughout Ireland and even here in the United States.  But if peace will have a chance of prevailing through a long term solution, we must first understand those that have served and died in their commitment to the IRA.   Some of those incredible and heartbreaking stories are captured here by Kevin Toolis in this breathtaking journey into the heart of the IRA.

ASIN: B00ZON5LIE

Northern Ireland