Month: <span>December 2019</span>

contra1I still remember the video footage taken during the live testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.), as Congress sought to unravel  interconnected covert operations that revolved around Iran, Israel and Nicaragua. North appeared on television in full military dress, earing the sympathy and admiration of a large segment of American citizens.  There were some who felt he should have been incarcerated and that his actions were a dishonor to the very uniform he had on.   Regrettably, his testimony did little to help fully understand what had really taken place.  And even my father who follows politics and news religiously did not fully understand what had taken place.  What was clear, is that the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) had engaged in questionable and possibly illegal activities that sent shockwaves of panic through Reagan’s cabinet and raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill.  As more information came to light, the media began to call it the Iran-Contra scandal and even today, it is still known by that description.  It remains one of the darkest moments of Reagan’s time in office.  Author Malcolm Byrne revisits the Iran-Contra scandal to tell the full truth about how and why it developed, and the actions of a president abusing the powers of the Oval Office. 

If you have decided to read this book, I am sure that there is a good chance that you are already familiar with the Iran-Contra scandal. But even if you are not, the story will still be of interest and easy to follow. The story begins by revisiting the events of October 5, 1986, when a C-123 plane carrying arms for the contras fighting the Sandinista government is shot down while over Nicaraguan airspace.  Several days later, a revelation on Iranian television sent Washington in panic mode.  Nearly everyone began to question the actions of Reagan and his cabinet.  The full story was carefully hidden from the public through omissions and in some cases, deception.   Here we have the whole account and Byrne take us on quite a ride as he peels back the layers of obfuscation employed by key officials close to the President.

Although prior knowledge of the events that gave way to the scandal is not necessary, I do believe that it will help if the reader has some prior knowledge of the political climate of Central America and the Middle East during the time period in which the scandal took place.  In fact, the histories of Nicaragua, Honduras, Israel, El Salvador an Iran are all relevant to the information that Byrne is presenting to the reader.   The fear of a communist expansion under the thumb of the Soviet Union, continued to shape U.S. foreign policy following World War II.  The rise of left-leaning and popular figures across Latin America had caused Washington to pay close attention and subvert several governments through the Central Intelligence Agency.  Central America became the next battle ground and as Byrne shows, Reagan intended to pull out all of the stops.

There are many acronyms in the book due to the complexity of Washington’s design with regards to intelligence and foreign policy.  Several departments play a role in the story and Byrne keeps track of them all, keeping the story flowing smoothly.  Chapters one through twelve alternate between Iran and Nicaragua. It was a good decision by the author, for it allows the reader to focus one part of the story before going to the next and then back again.  The two tracks eventually merge but not before Byrne provides a ton of staggering and shocking information.  When the tracks do merge, the book takes another turn as Reagan’s cabinet goes into damage control and the full weight of Congress comes down on his administration.

The hearings and testimony are summarized here so readers should not expect full transcripts but only snippets of the most critical statements.   In fact, the section regarding the hearings and prosecutions by the Department of Justice do not make up a large portion of the book.  The majority is devoted to the developments in Central American and the Middle East.  But that in no way diminishes the importance of the later chapters and they are just as surprising as the rest of the book.

One section in the book that caught my attention was the discussion about Reagan’s health.  Putting aside the attempted assassination in 1981, there were other health issues that arose during his presidency that caused many to question whether he was fit for office.  His actions and later testimony provide evidence that the conditions he later suffered from, had began to manifest as early as the 1980s. Byrne does not give Reagan a pass because of this but is equally mystified at how he was able to function.  He also makes a compelling point regarding Reagan’s mental state and his interactions with subordinates. It is certainly food for thought about the 40th President of the United States.

America has always said that it does not negotiate with terrorist.   On the surface it sounds tough and gives off the impression that the United States can take as hardline of a stance as anyone else.  However,  the events described in this book, challenge that position and Byrne’s research shows that negotiation became as common as public denials.  For many Americans, the scandal is an afterthought.  Reagan died in 2004 and the suriving members from his cabinet who are still alive had faded out of the public light, well into their later years in age.  However, I do believe that the story is still important in light of the recent events regarding the administration of Donald J. Trump.  Impeachment and investigations are two words that give rise to fear and concern but the founding fathers knew early on that such a system of governing was needed if the United States would truly be a democracy.  Future presidents may also want to read this book so that they too are never accused of abuse of power.

This account of the Iran-Contra scandal lays it all out for the reader to digest. It is an incredible and unnerving story about the very dark side of United States foreign policy.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0700625909
ISBN-13: 978-0700625901

American History Latin America

Janis1 On October 4, 1970, singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) died from a lethal combination of heroin and alcohol at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles.  The building is still there but has been renamed the Highland Gardens Hotel.  In death, she joined the 27 Club, a group of famous stars who all tragically died at the young age of twenty-seven.  In stardom, she had come to symbolize the culture change taking place across America as the ideals of the 1950s and 1960s were replaced by the liberated generation of the 1970s.  To some, she was everything wrong with the “hippie” culture and to others she was inspiration and an example of someone who came from humble beginnings to leave their mark on the world.  To a small group of people, she was simply Janis, daughter and older sister. This book is a look at her life from the eyes of her younger sister Laura, born six years after her famous sibling.

Laura begins the story by revisiting the day she learned of her sister’s death.  The news hits like a lightning bolt and no one wants to believe it.  Her father had come to dread the moment, always concerned about his first born.  Both parents had long realized that Janis marched to the beat of her own drum.  She was different from her siblings and from an early age, showed all that she was counter-culture and willing to stand up for what she believed in.  As we move into Janis’ story, Laura retraces the family’s genealogy, explaining the migration of both sides of the family from abroad to the United States.   The story is similar to other stories men and women who gave up their lives in search of a better life proving that America truly is a nation of immigrants. On January 19, 1943, Janis Lyn Joplin entered the world and before she would leave it, millions of people would know her name.

Admittedly, I had the inclination to believe that the book would be more focused on Laura but it really is a biography of Janis as told by her sister.  And while there are other books on Joplin, I felt that Laura’s version is by far a definitive account. In fact, the book is done so well, that at one point, I completely forgot that her sister is telling the story.  It was only during the moments where Laura recalls a family issue of one of Janis’ visits, that I was reminded that Laura is the narrator.  And I believe that is a testament to the skills required a well-rounded writer and editing team.

Early in the book, the story focuses on the family’s life in Port Arthur, Texas.  Janis’ time in high school shows that early on, her fiery spirit was already on full throttle.  Her stance on racial discrimination was a bold and telling move by a teenager who grew up in what her sister reveals was an isolated community in which no minorities lived.  Her acts of defiance would help form the person she became and stayed with her throughout her life.  And in spite of transgressions, it is clear that sister Laura truly admired her old sister and still does.

The book picks up pace after Joplin’s return to San Francisco to join the band Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Janis is coming into her own and the band is gaining recognition in the music world.  After several slow starts, Joplin and the band hit pay dirt and her life takes a new direction from which she would never return.  Laura chronicles all of it, following her sister’s footsteps as she moves through the music world which found her on The Ed Sullivan Show and signing a record deal with Clive Davis.  As Laura shows us, Janis’ life was a roller coaster ride composed of fame, lovers, drugs and ultimately heartache.  But Janis lived on her own terms and this piece of advice to her sister which Laura vividly recalls is perhaps the theme of the book: “Let yourself go and you’ll be more than you’ve ever thought of being.”

The pace of the book maintains its speed never slowing down.  As a result, I found myself glued to the pages and before I knew it, several hours had passed by before I even looked at the time.  It is an enjoyable read regardless of the ending that we know is coming.  But Janis has a way of pulling people towards her and as Laura tells the story, I found myself happy at her success and down during the moments where her demons took over.  Her times of sobriety are scattered and the letters she sends home are moving, standing in stark contrast to the woman who took hard drugs in a game of chicken with death.  But she was not a one-dimensional personal, rather a complex individual with no single adjective to describe her.

In 1995, Janis Joplin was inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In death, her fame was catapulted and she has earned mythical status as a rock star.  In just a few short years she went from a struggling performer in San Francisco to one of America’s biggest stars.   Forty-nine years have passed since her death but in recent years, a resurgence of material about her life has re-surfaced, including the 2015 documentary ‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’.  The archival footage is good and once again she graces television screens.  Yet, no examination of her life would be complete without this heartfelt and moving account by her sister. Highly recommended.

ASIN: B0776T6FYB

Biographies

caudill Recently, I have become more interested in the Appalachia region in the Southern United States.  What many of us have come to know as “coal country” is a region with a long story, often underrepresented in discussions about poverty and greed in America.  The people of this region are sometimes the butt of jokes with images of “backwoods hillbillies” from the movie ‘Deliverance’ coming to mind.  However, the true story of Appalachia and in particular the Cumberland region in Kentucky is an American tragedy with residual effects that continue to this day.  The late Henry M. Caudill (1922-1990) looked into the lives of the miners and the region that have called home.  And what he reveals in this book is sure to open the eyes to many and confirm for others, beliefs they have long held about coal country.

Caudill begins by revisiting Lyndon Johnson’s famous visit to the Paintsville, Kentucky in April, 1964.  The visit was used to support Johnson’s “war on poverty” in America.  More than fifty-five years later, poverty still exist and in many parts of Appalachia, there are no jobs, doctors and sources of hope for its people.  They do the best they can with what they have.  The sad truth is that for decades, they have been taken advantage of, ignored and forgotten.  The story of the Cumberlands is a textbook example of profits over people and is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Before reading this book, it is necessary to abandon any pre-conceived notions about Appalachia. You have to approach the material with an open mind free from any bias about “mountain people” or any other term used to describe the people of the Cumberlands.  Caudill takes us back in time to the original settlers in North America and traces their path from the coastal cities to the Appalachian mountains.   It is a good lesson in history and will help readers understand how and why the region came into existence.  Undoubtedly life was rough, far rougher than in big cities but the people of this region are accustomed to it.  In fact, as I read through the book, I had to marvel at how they adapted to the rigidness of life in the mountains.  To survive there required true grit and an iron will.  That is all is on display here and the author does not sugar coat anything.  The descriptions of mountain life are graphic and some readers might recoil at some sections.

As to be expected, coal enters the story and it is at this point that the region is transformed completely and the story develops its tragic course. The arrival of the coal companies and other business to the region offer at first the possibility of prosperity for the people of the Cumberlands.  But as we learn through Caudill’s words, there was much to be seen that was carefully hidden from the people, a majority of whom lacked basic literacy skills.  I simply cannot find the words to describe the shock that I felt as I learned about the level of manipulation by businesses as they reaped enormous profits at the expense of the common folk.  I am certain that you too will shake your head in disgust at the actions of corporations in the Cumberlands.  And sadly, this was just one of a long list of revelations about the reality of life in Appalachia.

Mining is dangerous and dirty business, and it is not long before automation enters the story.  For the miners of Appalachia, it proved to be a death kiss and caused the demise of coal, a fuel which has been replaced in many parts of America by cleaner and more efficient sources.  The integration of automated technology and decline of coal combine to form the book.  During the 2016 United States Presidential election, Donald Trump promised to “bring coal back”.  His words were promising for the legions of miners hoping to be put back to work to earn for their families.  But there was much about coal that Trump did not say and the truth about its demise can be found in this book, directly from the Cumberlands. And while there are plenty of articles online today regarding coal, the words here predate many of them by several decades.  The decline of coal is a story that the locals know all too well but for many of them, there is little semblance of a way out of the gripping poverty that can be found all around them.

The decline of coal, flight of professional young men and women and the emergence of clean sources of power, permanently changed the lives  of those in the Cumberlands and Appalachia.  There would be no return to the days of the past and moving forward, the future was uncertain.  Today the future is still uncertain for those in Appalachia.  At the time Caudill wrote this book, he did not have the availability of social media or the internet.   What he saw and experienced was unknown to many Americans.  Appalachia was seen as a hidden region full of backwards people who had no use for outsiders.  The reality is quite different and as Caudill shows, it is a complicated place created by exploitation yet sustained by government assistance. It is also paradox in a country that can spend billions in foreign aid but find itself either unwilling or unable to help its own citizens.

I had always wondered why Appalachia developed the way that it did.  I found the answers to my questions are far more in this deeply moving account by Henry Caudill.  If there is anything I could change about the book, I would have included an index and/or list of references. Dates and events can be cross-referenced without question but an index would have given the book even more of an authentic feel. Nonetheless, it is presented as an autobiography and Caudill was highly familiar with the region having traveled there himself. He also discloses that he has been there to visit family.  Having finished the book, I have a new understanding of the miners and their plight.  And as I sit comfortably in my home in New York City, I remind myself that the struggle to survive for people throughout Appalachia continues. Time will tell if there is indeed a brighter day for them.  It is said that the past is prologue.  This book should be read prior to any discussion regarding Appalachia and the issue of coal.   Many years have passed since it was published but the information contained within remains relevant.

ASIN: B0774XHYT3

American History

marcuaurelius1 I decided to change gears and take a look at the former Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD) who is known for the classic work ‘Meditations’.  During his reign he earned a reputation as a stoic philosopher and this book is a collection of 12 of his works taken throughout his life that highlight some of his most inner thoughts with regards to his fellow man, life and the gods.  This translation was completed by the late classical scholar George Long (1800-1879).  I cannot comment on the accuracy compared to the original work but the book did receive high ratings by other readers.  Putting that aside, I did find the book to be a very thought provoking read and a nice break from my usual regimen of historical non-fiction.

The book is short, slightly over one hundred pages, but contained within it, are very deep thoughts by an emperor seeking to improve himself and those around him.  As I read through the book, I found many of his observations about humans to be thought-provoking.   Some might argue that the material is dated and in today’s world, there is much about life that is far different. That is a valid point but surprisingly, I felt that much of what he says can be applied to life even today.   By no means is it the ultimate guide on how to live life. Instead, it is a collection of the personal thoughts of a man who once controlled one of the largest empires in history.

The language might throw some readers off a little.  It is English but not standard current day English that one would expect. In fact, there are words that are either no longer used or found in older version of the English language.  In spite of that, I was able to read the book with no problem and the points that he makes will not be lost on the reader.  His thoughts never ramble and he presents them with clarity making it easy for the reader to follow along.  At the time it was written, I do not know if Aurelius could have imagined that his words would have survived to the year 2019.

His words are wise and almost prophetic, and they showcase his intellect and ability for introspection, an action which all of us take at different times in our lives.   The result here is a new found wisdom that can be used as we mature in life and come to understand our place in the world.  And while there are no words here that are groundbreaking, I do believe that anyone who decides to read this book can take something from it.

ASIN: B07N1VD2VR

General Reading

20191222_223548On December 31, 1972, a DC-7, loaded beyond its maximum capacity, taxied down the runway at San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico.  The plane had been chartered by Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker (1934-1972), who set out to deliver supplies to the Central American nation of Nicaragua that was struggling to recover in the wake of a devastating earthquake.  There were no survivors and Clemente’s body was never found.   He was 38 years of age and left behind a widow Vera (1941-2019) and three sons. He was posthumously inducted in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and his number, 21, was officially retired by the Pirates in 1973.  More than forty years have passed since his death, but to this day he is regarded as one of the greatest Latin baseball players to have ever played the game.  This is the story of his life by fan and author David Maraniss.

It goes without saying that baseball fans will more than likely be highly interested in this book if they have not previously read it. But even if you are not a baseball aficionado, I firmly believe that you will enjoy this biography of the late star.  Personally, I could not put it down and the time flew by as I read through the book.  As one would expect, the story begins in Carolina, Puerto Rico where we are introduced to Clemente’s parents, Melchor and Luisa.  On August 18, 1934, Roberto enters the world but no one at the time had any idea of the fame and tragedy that laid ahead. If you have been to Puerto Rico or even the Dominican Republic, then you know how important baseball is on those two islands.  For young Roberto, baseball quickly became a way of life and before the age of 20, he finds himself already being scouted by the big players in the United States.  However, his path to the Pirates was more intricate than has been publicly acknowledged.  Maraniss pieces the story together so that we can see how race, money and baseball acumen combined to create a chain of events that resulted in Clemente being signed by the team he would play for during his spectacular career.

Once in the major leagues, his career takes off but off the fields, many other things took place that highlight the strong conviction with which Clemente held his beliefs.  In the era of Jim Crow, segregation and horrific discrimination were widespread in the many parts of the United States.  The difference in social attitudes between Puerto and the states was not lost on Clemente and his determination to combat racial discrimination is truly one of the best parts of the book and shows why he was and is so revered.  Maraniss provides Clemente’s own statements as added emphasis to show the seriousness of his beliefs and actions.   And until his final days, he never stopped in is beliefs of equality and the responsibility that we all have to help each other in times of need.

The book is a little heavy on statistics and descriptions of some of Clemente’s best games including the 1971 World Series in which Pittsburgh defeated the Baltimore Orioles four games to three.  Batting averages and percentages are found throughout a good portion of the book and readers unfamiliar with baseball might find b studying a quick reference of what each means and its importance.  Baseball fans will recognize the importance of each in relation to Clemente’s story.   Something that I did learn which added to my view of Clemente, was his physical condition throughout his career.  His ability to perform at the professional level in spite of his ailments is nothing short of miraculous and a testament to his durability and strength as a person and professional athlete.

The author does briefly mention Clemente’s service in the United States Marines but does not go into much detail about that which I felt slightly detracted from the book. Clemente served in the Marines from 1958 to 1964, during off-season periods while in the major leagues.  He did not see any combat and his service is largely unmentioned in discussions about his life.  Perhaps the author did not feel it added much importance to the story and could very well have been the case. But I was surprised that it received scare attention.  Regardless, the book is still phenomenal and there is so much to the story that the reader will quickly move forward as Clemente’s life continues to evolve.

Maraniss does his due diligence as a biographer and does not shy away from showing us the dark side of Clemente which manifested itself in some surprising acts.  Also highlighted is the morbid vision Clemente had of his own death.  Those parts of the book gave me chills and I am sure that for those present at the time he made remarks about his own death,  they also must have felt a strange sensation rush through their body.  Sadly, his visions came to pass and the story behind how and why his plane crashed shorty after takeoff.  And like all crashes, there was no single event that could be blamed for it but a series of events that are outlined by the author.  As I read the recreation of the events leading up the crash, I could only shake my head in disbelief and anger.  Before he died, Clemente remarked to a friend that no one dies the day before they are supposed to. The words are beyond chilling but also prophetic.

As a sub-story, the events in Nicaragua are worth researching independently of the book. The Somoza regime had been in power for decades and its relationship with the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations are some of the darkest moments of American foreign policy.   And although this book is not focused on that subject, the earthquake and its aftermath does bring it to light as Maraniss shows the reaction of Washington amid fears of a political upheaval in the wake of the disaster.  Clemente’s decision to go to Nicaragua is both admirable and surprising but he was not one to shy away from what he truly believed in and it shows throughout the entire book.

To say that I enjoyed reading this definitive biography would be a severe understatement.  It is one of the best biographies that I have read.  If you are interested in the life of Roberto Clemente, this is a great place to start.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 074329999X
ISBN-13: 978-0743299992

Biographies

RosemaryThe life of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), former dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (“USSR”), has been the focus of endless books, articles and documentaries.  His tyrannical reign over the Soviet Union resulted in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens, persecuted for the slightest of offenses.  The Gulag known in English as a forced labor camp, was the place most were exiled to in particular the Siberian region known for its desolate geography and brutally cold winters. The very word itself caused fear and stroked paranoia across the USSR.  No one was safe, not even members of Stalin’s family, some of whom would find themselves banished to Siberia. This climate of distrust, violence and vengeance would cause a ripple effect that culminated with his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva’s (1926-2011) defection to the United States in 1967.  Undoubtedly, the news was explosive and if her father had been alive at the time, he surely would have issued an order for her death no matter where on earth she would have attempted to find refuge.  When I saw the title of this book, I had to take a second look.  I knew of Stalin’s family but I did not know the life story of his daughter Svetlana.  In fact, in the books I had read that discuss him, his sons are mentioned but rarely his daughter.  Rosemary Sullivan has changed all of that with this biography that is simply outstanding.

The story begins on March 6, 1967 when Svetlana arrives at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.  At first, she is waived off by the night guard but after showing her Soviet passport, it is clear to the guard that this is no ordinary visitor and Washington will have to be notified.  A cat and mouse game develops to smuggle the new defector out of India before Soviet officials become aware of what was possibly the greatest defection in Soviet history.  The very opening of the book is riveting and sets the stage for the roller coaster ride that follows.  But before we can learn of her life post-defection, we must first go back and Sullivan acts as the driver, transporting the reader to the early days of Svetlana’s life while her father controls the USSR with an iron fist.  This part of the book is actually the most critical.  Svetlana’s childhood and the tragedy contained within, shaped her views and actions throughout her life.  Sullivan recreates the atmosphere at the dacha where Stalin holds court, surrounded by party officials trying to curry favor with the dictator.  The charade is not much different from meetings at the Politburo.  It is an insider’s look in Stalin’s family life and the climate of fear he created that resulted in a series of events.  Among them was the suicide of Svetlana’s mother Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva (1901-1932), which had a profound effect on her young daughter and permanently changed the relationship between father and daughter.

Some readers might find this section about the Stalin household to be quite shocking.  I could only shake my head in disbelief at the number of arrests that took place of family members.  Like a master puppeteer, Stalin pulled was pulling all of the strings behind the scenes, sometimes feigning ignorance of acts that he surely would have been privy too.  Those of us who are American may find that this part of the book reinforces many of the things we heard and saw growing up with regards to the USSR.  As a young student, I easily recall how I and my friends viewed the Soviet Union as a mysterious superpower that operated on secrecy and rigidness.  To say that we only knew part of the story would be an understatement.  Sullivan’s reconstruction of the time period between Nadya’s suicide and Stalin’s death in 1953, highlights just how treacherous life could be under his rule.   History buffs will certainly love this part of the book, I know that I truly did. But suffice to say, it is only a part of the story which is even more unbelievable as it progresses.

The book takes its expected turn as Svetlana is allowed to travel to India to spread the ashes of Brajesh Singh (d.1966), whom she had intended to marry in Russia.  Soviet rules prevented marriages between Russians and foreigners but in a cruel twist of fate, she was allowed out of the country to satisfy Singh’s request that his ashes be spread in the Ganges River.  While in India, she makes the difficult decision to defect to the United States.  For Svetlana, life would never be the same again and would soon take a number of twists and turns, resulting in her moving across several continents and having to confront the ghost of her father in her homeland once more.  Following her defection, a cast of characters enter her life as friends, business associates, U.S. officials and lovers.  Her fame becomes both a blessing and a curse but she is determined to survive and find her true purpose in life.  Her personal thoughts, conveyed in letters to friends and lovers, are resurrected by the author showing the intellectual and emotional side of Stalin’s daughter.

While in America, she has another child named Olga in addition to the children she left behind in Russia, Joseph and Katya.  Her life with Olga and attempts to reconnect and reconcile with her older children are some of the most heartbreaking moments in the book.  I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to defect from the USSR knowing her children would be left behind.  Her relationships with her older children are clearly fractured and the times where they do have contact, are cloaked under the all knowing eye of the KGB.  Svetlana’s movements and actions did not escape the eye of Moscow.  Declassified cables and memos, upon which the author relies to tie the story together, show that even Moscow did not fully know what to do at times with its biggest defector.  She had become even too hot for Moscow to handle.  And many who met her soon realized that when crossed, she was in fact Stalin’s daughter.

Sullivan has done a masterful job of putting Svetlana’s life into a chronological narrative that starts off with a bang and never slows down.  The story is gripping and refuses to let the reader go. From the very beginning I found it hard to put the book down as I continued to learn more about life in the Stalin household and Svetlana’s growth into a young woman who comes to see the truth about her father.  I do urge caution for World War II buffs though and point out that this book is not about World War II.  The conflict is mentioned but only briefly so that the story does not stray away from its intended subject.  Those looking for a discussion of the war will not find it here for that was not Sullivan’s purpose in writing the book.  This is Svetlana’s story from beginning to end and it is far more than I could have ever anticipated.

As I read the book, I found myself thinking that there were probably millions of other women and men who thought of defecting but never did.  The collapse of the USSR in December, 1991, allowed the opening of Soviet archives that revealed many ugly truths.  Svetlana believed that the election of Vladimir Putin would take Russia back to its days under Stalin.  I would hard pressed to argue differently.  The daughter of the most infamous ruler in Russian history leaves behind a life story that shows the privileges we enjoy in the west that did not exist in the Soviet Union.  It also shows that people make life changing choices when confronted with realities that change the way they see their existence and the lives of others.  Great read.

ASIN: B00LEXL6VY

Biographies

Jimmy1Martin Scorcese’s recent film ‘The Irishman’, reunited the legendary director with ‘Goodfellas’ stars Robert Dinero and Joe Pesci.  Al Pacino also joined the cast, taking on the role of former Teamsters President James “Jimmy” Hoffa (1913-1975).  The movie is great cinema and Scorcese delivers the goods with an all star cast.  However, Hollywood is known to take liberties with films and here is no different. In fact, there is a lot of Frank Sheeran’s (1920-2003) story that is up for debate.  His book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses‘ is an interesting read and served as the basis for the film.   I had read Sheeran’s book prior to creating this blog and thought that while it was a good story,  there were many claims therein that needed deep cross-referencing for validation.  Sheeran is no longer here and cannot defend himself or answer the large number of questions undoubtedly generated by the release of the film.   Al Pacino plays the role of Hoffa with the energy that we have come to expect from him, bringing the former Teamsters boos back to life on the silver screen.  But there was more to Hoffa than is shown in the film.  And it is here in this short but eye-opening book, that Hoffa tells his own life story to Oscar Fraley

The book was being written at the time of Hoffa’s disappearance.   As a result, the story ends about a few weeks prior to July 30, 1975 when he told his wife Jo that he had a meeting with Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (1917-1988) and Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone (1919-2001).  The book is really an autobiography which Hoffa had intended to finish once he regained the Teamsters presidency.  Although he never finished it, what he did write is highly informative.  He takes us back to his childhood in Brazil, Indiana, highlighting the rough way of life that developed in the wake of the Great Depression. His words are frank and straight to the point.  For those who have always wanted to know how he rose to power, he lays it out here, recalling his immersion into the world of unions and ascent in the Teamsters, which became the most powerful union in America under his guidance.

From the book, it is clear that Hoffa was born to be involved with unions.  And despite several brushes with violence that could have killed him, he never wavers from the goals set by the union in support of its workers.   The battles between employers and unions still place to this day and if Hoffa were alive, I am sure he would be right out front leading the way. In the book, things are going well with the Teamsters until the arrival of his arch enemy Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968).  It is at this point in the book that the story takes a sharp turn.  To say that Hoffa and Kennedy were enemies is an understatement.  There is no love lost between the two and here Hoffa explains how and why he found himself on Kennedy’s radar.  And some readers may even wonder, was Hoffa really guilty of the charge he was convicted of?  Or was he the victim of an ego trip of an Attorney General often ridiculed as being in his brother’s shadow?  There is compelling evidence that both are true.   Hoffa presents the case for readers to reach their own conclusions. One thing I can say is that I have rarely seen a feud as tense as what is found in this book.

Kennedy is not the only person who draws Hoffa’s wrath.  In fact, he unloads on his successor Frank Fitzsimmons (1908-1981) and Charles “Chuckie” O’ Brien, his former protege.  Hoffa does not mince words and makes it clear that he was dead set on purging the Teamsters and returning to power as its president.  Tragically, his intentions never came to pass and his disappearance remains unsolved to this day.  There are many theories about what did happen to him that day.   Some are plausible while others have no basis in reality.   Perhaps we may never know what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa but I am sure that whoever was responsible for his disappearance intended it to be that way.  Tony Pro and Tony Jack are mentioned in the section about his disappearance but aside from that, their names appear briefly throughout the book.  And to be clear, there is no smoking gun here regarding his disappearance.  However, I do think what Hoffa says, offers some insight into why he disappeared.  Readers that are well versed on the subject will probably agree.

If you loved the Irishman and are curious about the life of James Riddle Hoffa, then this book is a must read.

ASIN: B07ZJRTP5Y

Biographies

dyatlovpass1The deaths of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains of Siberia in February, 1959, endures as one the world’s most bizarre mysteries.  The official explanation at the time was that their deaths were caused by an extraordinary force.  Exactly what that means was never fully explained.  As the hikers were found, autopsies were performed which revealed many disturbing facts and do not match the official explanation.  The remains of the tragic hikers were buried at the direction of party officials without much or any input from their parents. Almost from the start, Moscow stepped in and gave orders that were to be followed strictly with no deviation.  The official explanation still stands today but is that what really happened? Or was there a darker and more sinister reason for their shocking deaths?

Author and journalist Svetlana Oss has taken another look at the case to see what really did happen on the night of February 1, 1959.  There are no conspiracy theories here, her work is based on official records, statements from officials involved in the investigation and the diaries kept by the hikers up until their last days.  After reconstructing how the group was formed, the retraces their steps along the way to the Ural mountains. And it is here that things take a sharp turn.  To be clear, no one knows exactly what did happen to force the hikers out of their tent.   What is known is that they exited in a nearly orderly fashion and walked in the same direction.  And it appears from footprints and other evidence that they were attempting to make their way back to the tent before death set in.  There are many facts that will most likely never be known but the author here reveals a lot of things that did catch my attention.

This is not the first book about the incident.  I previously reviewed Donny Eichar’s ‘Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident and Keith McCloskey’s ‘Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident‘. Both books provide very good accounts of the incident but do not contain any “smoking guns”.  Eichar did put forth a good theory of infra sound but makes it clear in the book that it is only a theory and no concrete evidence exist to conclusively state that to be the cause of their deaths. McCloskey provides an equally good assessment but also makes no declaration of having solved the mystery. Oss takes a different approach in this book and focuses on details in the investigation files, highlighting the missteps taken by investigators and the strange behavior of Soviet officials.   Readers may begin to question whether there was ever an “investigation” in the first place. What Oss reveals will undoubtedly change what some readers familiar with the case have long believed to be true.

Towards the end of the book, Oss does provide her hypothesis of what she believed happened.  It is compelling and could possibly be the right explanation. Her conclusion is supported by sound evidence gleaned from the recovery of the hiker’s tent and their remains.  She does leave it up to the reader to reach their own conclusions but I believe that there is ample evidence that as more information is learned, the less of a mystery the case is.  And maybe Occam’s razor truly does apply and the simplest explanation is correct.  Only time will tell if Oss will be vindicated. Great read.

ASIN: B00V5B3PI2

Soviet Union

Sands1The hunger strike at the HM Prison Maze in 1981, captured the attention of the British Government and earned the IRA sympathy around the world.  On May 5, news broke that IRA member Bobby Sands (1954-1981) had died after 66 days of refusing to eat.  Sands and his fellow strikers were determined to be recognized as political prisoners and earn several other concessions from Margaret Thatcher’s (1925-2013) government.  London had refused to give in and Thatcher had earned the nickname of “The Iron Lady”.  Today, the “Troubles” as they are known, continue in Northern Ireland.  The IRA remains committed to its goal of a unified Ireland and the removal of the British Crown from Ulster County.  Sands had risen among the ranks in the IRA and during his incarceration, his reputation as a leader and intellectual grew every day.  This book is a collection of his writings which were smuggled out in parts (The IRA prisoners at HM Prison Maze were engaged in a long running standoff with guards and were being kept in bare minimum cells with mainly a mattress and bucket to be used as waste disposal).

Gerry Adams, the former leader of Sinn Féin, provides a foreword in which he fondly remembers his friend and former fellow inmate Sands.  As the book moves on to Bobby’s words, we already know a bit of information about him.  However, for a more complete biography, I strongly recommend Dennis O’Hearn’s ‘Nothing But an Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands‘. It is by far a thorough and highly engaging biography of Sands. The writings here begin after Sands has been incarcerated for quite some time. He is already well into the hunger strike, has stopped bathing and living in a cell that could only be described as hell on earth.  The day begins like most others with he and the guards having their daily battles.   Sands is frank and does not mince words when he describes what is happening.  It is graphic and it is gritty but he clearly intended for readers to truly understand the treatment he and other IRA members were receiving at the prison.  Other former prisoners and priests also sounded the alarms about the inhumane treatment at the prison, but officials within the Northern Ireland and British governments steadfastly denied the accusations.  What is clear from Sands’ writings is that there was no love lost between to the opposing groups with the IRA members routinely using the term “screws” to describe the guards.

It is hard to imagine just how extreme living conditions were at the prison.  Sands describes the lack of heat and sanitary conditions.  Some readers will be disgusted and repulsed by what he says.   Putting the hunger strike aside, living conditions at the jail were more than enough to induce psychosis in even the most rational individual.  In fact, at several points in the book, Sands questions his own sanity and realizes that his mind will never be the same again.  Yet, he never wavers from his cause and stays committed to the IRA beliefs. And whether you agree with the IRA or support the Crown, Sands’ stand is more than many of us would be willing to endure.

About mid-way through the book, we are able to read a series of poems that he wrote about his time inside and the IRA cause.   He was highly talented but as one would expect, the poems are all political and focused on the Troubles.  Regardless, they are good and showcase the many skills he developed that he was never able to use outside of prison.  And while I do believe he would have remained an IRA member, perhaps his time in prison and maturity would have resulted in a different approach to resolve the Troubles.

Later in the book, we shift back to Sands’ journal that was kept mostly on toilet paper due to the lack of any type of writing materials.  As we move on to the spring of 1981, Sands reports frequently and makes sure to note his weight which by that time had dropped to a shocking 127 lbs.  After several entries they stop, presumably as Sands entered the final stages of his fight.  Had he lived, I am sure he would have put together a book that would have contained far more than what we have here. However, what he did leave us is a trove of insightful notes that show the progression of his mind and why he believed in the Republican cause.

The book is a bit short but it is focused on the strike and is not an autobiography.  Readers who have been following the Troubles and are familiar with Sands’ life will appreciate this collection of his writings from the final months of his life.

ASIN: B07QPV3MGH

Northern Ireland

BourneI saw this book while browsing online and the cover immediately caught my attention.  After reading the cover,  I was further intrigued and wanted to know which great war the author was referring to.  Needless to say, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to take the plunge.  Author Stephen Bourne has researched the lives of Black soldiers who fought in the British military during the World War I and their communities in Britain during and after the war.  Sadly, as the author points out, for too long there was never a major focus on the experiences by Black Britons, who were nearly erased completely from history.  But due to efforts by Bourne and others, some of their stories have survived and in this book, they are given their just due for their service in defense of Great Britain.

Admittedly, I knew very little pertaining to Black soldiers during World War I.   They are rarely mentioned and I cannot recall reading about any during my years in school.  If not for this book, I may have never known any of the things I learned through Bourne’s work.  He introduces us to each person, explaining the story of how and why they ended up in the military.  Many of the men originate from the British West Indies, at the time under the Crown’s rule and influence.  To the people of the West Indies, Britain is seen as the “Mother Country” and many soldiers made the pilgrimage from the Caribbean to England with hopes of a better life and defending the nation.  Jamaica and Trinidad emerge as the main countries from which countless young men embark on their journey across the Atlantic.

As I started reading, I began to wonder about the discrimination they faced as black men in the early 1900s.  Bourne does not waist any time and confronts the issue right away. Interestingly, he points out several facts about black soldiers in Britain that were in stark contrast to their American counterparts.  Jim Crow and segregation are some of the darkest moments in American history, yet across the Atlantic, no such system existed and for black men in the military, experiences varied considerably.   By no means does that mean that racism did not exist. It certainly did and some of the men recall episodes in which it rears its ugly head. Regardless, I did observe that the life of a Black soldier in England was quite different from America.  But as the saying goes, “not all that glitters is gold”. Readers familiar with Jamaica history will appreciate the section Bourne included on the Manley family, particular Douglas R. Manley (1896-1917) and Norman Manley (1893-1969).  In later years after he returned to Jamaica, Norman served as Jamaica’s Chief Minister from 1955–1959 and as Prime Minister from 1959–1962.  His son Michael (1924-1997) also served as Prime Minister of Jamaica from 1972-1980 and 1989-1992.

On the front lines, many of the men were respected soldiers and even officers. However, when they returned home racism was still an ugly part of daily life.  Following the war, unemployment and race became tense issues, eventually leading to the infamous and tragic race riots of 1919.  The riots covered here are by far the darkest part of the book.  The author does hold anything back and through his words, the horrors of the riots come roaring to life. The story of Charles Wotten is a difficult part of the book but necessary for readers to understand the severity of the situation.  Further, the actions of the police are also cause for consternation as black, white and mixed Britons escaped the deadly violence that festered like an open sore. Today, a riot of such type is beyond comprehension, but in the early 1900s, civil rights, tolerance and acceptance were not widespread ideas championed by a majority of society.   This is a time period in which life is hard and short but for the heroes in the book, serving in the British military gave them the time of their lives.  There are lows in the book but there are also many highs and moments in which pride is on full display.  The shining moments include film, theater and even music, showing the talents of many black men and women who found a home in Britain where they could exercise their rights without being legally segregated.

I truly did enjoy the book but I believe that readers will find the list of recommended reading at the end to be of high value. In fact, I have marked that section myself to learn even more about the legendary soldiers that defended Britain in World War I.  Their names were forgotten over time but Stephen Bourne has resurrected them here, allowing these brave souls to live infintely.  This welcoming and heartfelt book is a mix of courage, heartache and understanding of the complex and long relationship between Britain and its black citizens. Great read.

ASIN: B07VN8D6LF

World War I