Month: December 2019

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

Autobiography

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

Investigative Report

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

Political Memoirs

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

Investigative Report

BonnerFor the first time in a long time, I found myself emotional and angry as I finished this book about the relationship between the United States and the military dictatorship in El Salvador during the small Central American nation’s civil war in the 1980s.  I had expected the book to be a tough read and contain many facts that would be both uncomfortable and upsetting.  But I admit that I was not prepared for what I learned.  This is not the first book I have read or reviewed regarding  El Salvador.  There are many  other books that are very good but take different approaches to the subject matter.  It might be fair to say that the other books were a primer for what I was to learn here in this mind-blowing and deeply troubling book by Raymond Bonner, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and current staff writer for the New York Times.

Younger Americans will most likely have no recollection of the civil war that claimed the lives of thousands of El Salvadorans.   A friend of mine was born in El Salvador and has told me the story of her family’s departure from the country as government troops surrounding their town.  They found refuge in New York before making a home in New Jersey.  Although she has never spoken in too much detail about El Salvador, I am sure there are many memories that she has kept to herself from a time in her youth where death was certain but life was not.   Those who are old enough to remember the war in El Salvador and the actions both the Carter and Reagan Administrations, will find this book to be a thorough account of what really did happen as America became more entrenched in the affairs of Central America.

To help the reader understand politics in El Salvador, Bonner provides a brief history of the nation, including the settlement of the Pipil Indians and the Spanish colonization which has had long term effects on El Salvadoran society.  Coffee became a prized possession and still remains on the nation’s top exports.  The plantations, known to the locals as “fincas“, became a hot commodity and later actions by the wealthy upper class backed by ruling officials, set the stage for the adversarial relationship between the peasants and the Government that late reached deadly proportions.  The 1932 massacre or “matanza“, is discussed as well, so that readers can understand the long history of repression.

On October 15, 1979, President General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena (1924-2017) was overthrown in a military backed coup that marked a turning point for El Salvador and set the country down a dark path that still reverberates today.  At this point in the book, the pace picks up considerably.  The administration of Jimmy Carter found itself unsure on how to proceed with El Salvador, a nation of no strategic importance for the United States.  Fears of a left-leaning administration permeated the in Washington resulting in policy mistakes that later came back to haunt the United States.  Through Bonner’s work we can see how the mistakes developed but more importantly, why.  Relying on now declassified cables, other documents released to the public and his time in the country, a clearer picture of what did and did not happen has begun to take shape.  And it is a deeply troubling picture of ineptitude and complicity.   Or some might simply call it weakness.

On January 21, 1980, Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) took office as the 40th President of the United States and as Bonner show, events in El Salvador took an even darker turn that might cause some readers to revolt in disgust.  I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart and what is revealed during the administration of Ronald Reagan forced me to question all that I knew about El Salvador.  To be clear, there are no happy endings here but instead, the dark truth about events in El Salvador including the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) and churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan in December, 1980.   The heinous act was portrayed in the 1986 film ‘Salvador‘ by Oliver Stone, starring James Woods and Jim Belushi.  in 1989, the film ‘Romero‘ was released starring the late Raul Julia (1940-1994) as the late Archbishop Romero. Both films are powerful but there is far more to the story as told here.

It goes without saying that on all sides there were multiple players and it was no different in Washington and San Salvador.  The actions of the military commanders are horrific but what I found to  be even more disturbing as I read through the book, were the actions of many in Washington, including elected officials, cabinet members and officials in the State Department.  Misrepresentations and outright lies to the American public and Congress, coupled with covert plans to sent military aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which became ground zero in Washington’s battle against the left in Central America.  These actions are what would be called deceit.  That deception resulted in repeated tragedies that claimed the lives of thousands of people through failed U.S. policy that failed to fully understand El Salvador, Central America and the truth about the influence of communism.   The red scare was alive and well and Washington’s justifications for its actions are misguided and repulsive.   In the book, the paranoia surrounding it is eerily reminiscent of the mantra endorsed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1907-1957).  Bonner provides snippets of public states and cables to drive home the message so that it is loud and clear.

Surprisingly, to date there has never been a full investigation into Washington’s actions in El Salvador.  And as the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 (composed of a significant number of deportees from the United States) continue to tear the country apart, investigations into individuals of prior administrations are almost certain to never happen.  Many in Washington have made it a point to forget El Salvador but for the its people, the memories of the civil war will never fade.  This is their story, told by Raymond Bonner, of hope and disappointment, supplemented by death and terror under a military backed by America and determined to maintain its grip by any means necessary.

ASIN: B01FGHJ5MK

Investigative Report