Author Archives: Genyc79

Neruda: The Biography of a Poet – Mark Eisner

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

 

Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition – Shirley Chisholm with Scott Simpson, Donna Brazile and Shola Lynch

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

Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long – Richard D. White

1If you have traveled to or live in Louisiana, I think you will agree that it is one American’s most unique states.  The City of New Orleans has a storied past on its own and each year, it attracts millions of visitors, curious to see Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the world-famous French Quarter.  Baton Rouge proudly serves as the state’s capitol and an icon on the landscape of the deep south.  However, there is also a dark history of Louisiana, one that filled with racism, corruption, crime and poverty.   Louisianans with a long memory will remember that there once lived a governor who ruled the state with an iron grip until his reign was ended by an assassin’s bullet.  He was Huey P. Long (1893-1935), the 40th Governor of Louisiana who left a complicated legacy that is nothing short of surreal.

Long’s self-proclaimed title of “Kingfish” matched his unrelenting quest for absolute power and projection of himself as the only person that mattered in any room he was in.  Richard D. White examines his reign and the effect it had on politics in Louisiana and the United States.  To say that America had not seen a candidate like him before would be an understatement.  He exploded onto the scene and in the process seized control of the highest office in the state.  Interestingly, Long never finished high school and today, that alone would earn him few votes.  But in the late 1920s and after the depression, illiteracy was a far more common problem than it is today. Long understood this and had an uncanny ability to reach millions of people that felt as if they had been forgotten by the wealthy.  Louisiana was often viewed as a backward place full of backward people that cam from the swamps.   This casual prejudice against Louisiana, was found in many places in American politics and helped provide the spark for Long’s infamous reign and determination to make Louisiana the example to be followed by the rest of America.

From the start, Long was far from what anyone would have considered a candidate for public office.  Boastful, confrontational, brutish and vulgar, Long earned the disgust of the political establishment but the hearts of poor white Americans.  His popularity soared has he talked of improving the economy, providing free textbooks, building roads and other projects to improve the state.   And while he did accomplish many of those things, his darker side tended to overshadow the good deeds and put him on a collision course with Washington, D.C. and his destiny, which he met on on September 8, 1935 when Dr. Carl Weiss fired a single and fatal shot.  The story from start to finish is captured beautifully by White and will leave readers in shock at Long’s endless antics.

White takes us back in time to an era before air conditioning and political correctness.  As I read the book, I felt as if I were sitting in the gallery watching Long launch into yet another vicious tirade against a perceived enemy.   I found myself in shock at his actions and the vindictiveness in which he carried out his agenda.  Corruption had plagued the south for years and New Orleans has long been known as a place where one can go to have a good time and find any vice known to man. The brash openness with which Long operated would result today in impeachment, indictment and undoubtedly prison.  But this was the 1930s and Louisiana was like the wild west with pistol packing politicians who sometimes resulted to fisticuffs to settle disputes.  Long himself brawled on more than one occasion after cooler heads failed to prevail.

In many ways, Long was everything that most Americans have come to despise and distrust.  He was loud, obnoxious, uncouth, racist, flamboyant, drank too much and had enemies all across America.  His larger than life persona and constant attacks on others, attracted the eyes of the FBI lead by J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945).  Long’s battle with Roosevelt is explored in the book and highlights how serious of a threat Long became to the establishment.  In Europe, Adolf Hitler had risen to power using a nationalist and populist platform.  Here in America, there were many that feared Long could mimic his success.  Long had no desire to be compared to Hitler but failed to recognize his own racism which is on ugly display in the book.  And as the author points out,  the true irony is that Long’s outlandish behavior did more to prevent Louisiana from becoming a true democracy than it did to push the state forward.  While he was an advocate for the advancement of disenfranchised people, he had no intention of giving those advancements to Black Americans and his actions towards them are one of the darkest stains on his legacy.   He truly did have the ability to change Louisiana in many ways, but ultimately became his own worst enemy as he became drunk with power and engulfed by paranoia.

Eighty-three years have passed since Long’s death and today is rarely mentioned in conversation.  Visitors to Baton Rouge take photos in front of the statue erected in his honor but it is anyone’s guess if they know the story of his life.  Richard White presents a clear and concise biography of the Kingfish who made himself the God of Louisiana.  This is a good look at the life and death of Huey P. Long.

ASIN: B002361KQM

Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader – Leo Zeilig

20190409_214533On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier.  The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock.   The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.

To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960.  Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination.  Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed.  And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star.   In less than one year,  he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair.  There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder.  To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.

The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others.  He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber.  Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation.  It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe.  From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.

Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”.   Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.

The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence.  Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity.  Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969).   Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock.  Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus.  Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal.  It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers.   But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.

Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him.  One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow.  His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response.  We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting.  The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.

The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches.  I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination.  The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker.  However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville.  Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.

I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book.   Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story.   They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography.  This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.

ISBN-10: 190579102X
ISBN-13: 978-1905791026

Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City – Jennifer Toth

Mole PeopleA subway ride through the underground portion of the New York City Transit system can reveal far more than most might anticipate.  And if you find yourself on a train passing through lower Manhattan, you might pick up images of abandoned stations or long-lost passages through the windows of the subway car, forgotten with time as relics of the City’s storied past.  The system itself is truly is a modern marvel that continues to be renovated and upgraded.   But there are still many parts that remain hidden, known only to workers of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and possibly others who have dwelled in prohibited areas far removed from the sight of strap-hangers.  In the 1980s, the City saw a rise is the number of people living beneath the sidewalks, in crevices, tubes and tunnels buried far below the surface.   The total number of underground dwellers will most-likely never be known. But their existence is a telling sign of the extremes some people go to when living on the streets.  Jennifer Toth, stepped into this world, largely unknown even to those that live in New York City.  Some may call her foolish and others may feel that she was courageous.  I believe that she had a mix of many things as she covered the lives of those she met as she explored a completely unknown and different world that could only seem to exist in fiction.

There is a section in the book where one city worker describes the dwellers as a CHUD or Cannibalistic Underground Humanoid Dweller.   The name sounds ridiculous but was probably taken from the 1984 B-grade horror film of the same name directed by Douglas Cheek and starring the late John Heard (1946-2017) and a young Daniel Stern.   In the film, a court injunction has prevented the removal of radioactive material currently sitting under New York City.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is unable to transport the material out of the City.  The homeless soon become exposed to the toxic sludge and are transformed into cannibalistic monsters that come above ground at night to hunt.   Highly imaginative and campy, the film is a fun ride for those who are aficionados of 1980s horror films and the movie holds a place in my own collection.  The majority of the film is purely imagination but the people who lived underground was quite close to reality.  And in this book, Jennifer Toth shows what the movie did not explore for obvious reasons.

Some of the people she interviewed for the book gave their real names while others preferred a pseudonym. Geographically, their locations were spread out across the city with the majority of the scenes taking place below Penn and Grand Central Stations.  Seville, Black, Brenda, Blade and Bernard are just some of the many dwellers that Toth encountered in the course of her research. Other figures who cast a darker tone are mentioned briefly in passing sections.   Shockingly, some of them came from good homes, graduated from college and possessed advanced degrees.   Abuse, drugs and dysfunction at home proved to be the common link between many of them and fueled their decision to go underground where it was “safe” from above. In the interviews they are highly articulate, aware of their surroundings and should be productive members of society.  And even more surprising,  some of them preferred to live underground.  But there also exist, another group of people, who ended up underground as an escape from lives that could be classified as hell on earth.

Each person has their own reason for moving underground but what emerges in the book, is an underground network of tunnels, caves and passageways akin to a city of its own where surface dwellers are not welcome and those who come down below are seen with the highest level of suspicion.  It is a world many of us could never imagine living in, let alone raising a child in as can been seen in the book.  The descriptions of the tunnels are graphic and those with a weak stomach will need a strong resolve to make it through some chapters.  Life underground is gritty, dirty and beyond dangerous. It is not for the faint at heart.  But miraculously, Toth was never seriously injured while conducting the interviews.  She may have had someone watching over her combined with an unusual amount of good luck or perhaps she did on the one thing that many above ground could never do for the people below and that is to simply listen.  Whether some of them embellished their tales is a strong possibility.  Drug addiction and mental health issues are largely prevalent in many of them and could possibly have played a role in the accounts that they give.  But what is accurate is the former existence of a large number of underground dwellers beneath the City.

The book was completed in 1993 and to my knowledge, there is no follow-up to the story nor would I expect there to be.  Her experience with Blade as detailed towards the end of the book is beyond enough to make anyone think twice about returning.  Some of the characters may still be alive today while others may have left the tunnels or died along the way.   In recent years, I cannot recall any discussion of the mole people and most of them have probably been relocated by City officials as the tunnels were cleaned up and the underground squatters permanently removed.  Some of them may still live underground, firmly hidden from prying eyes, but the number is probably far lower than the 1990s when the epidemic reached its height.

The book is revealing and sure to leave many readers in a state of shock.  New Yorkers unaware of the mole people of the 1980s and 1990s will find this book to be eye-opening about the city they call home.   The book shows the ability of humans to adapt to nearly anything and the lengths people will go to in their efforts to survive. This is a haunting look at life in a city beneath a city.

ISBN-10: 155652241X
ISBN-13: 978-1556522413

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