Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History – Elizabeth Salas

SoldaderasThere is a saying that behind every great man is a great woman. Truth can be found in that statement, and I would also add that sometimes great women can stand alone. One definition of mythology is that it is a widespread belief or assumption that has grown up around someone or something. Regarding the Mexican female soldier known historically as the “Soldadera”, this is undeniably true. Their role in history of often obfuscated or unknown outside of Mexico. However, in Mexican history, they earned a well-deserved place that cannot be overlooked. But when exploring history, it is imperative to separate fact from fiction, and that is exactly what author Elizabeth Salas has done here in this book that examines the Soldadera and her role in Mexican society.

The cover of the book is suggestive and captures one’s attention, but for good reason. This strong image is not a myth, but an accurate portrayal of the role accepted by women who decided to pick up arms in defense of their families and country. And to understand the emergence of the Soldadera, Salas revisits Mexican history and the dominance of the Spanish empire. Uprisings against the Spaniards had a significant impact on the morale among subjugated classes of people. Women played crucial roles in the revolts and paid heavy prices. As Salas discusses, one such revolt occurred in 1611-1612 when pure and mixed Africans marched against injustice. These early struggles helped set the stage for the Soldaderas who later proved themselves at home and on the battlefield. Because the number of Soldaderas was extensive, Salas focuses on a select few to serve as examples. Among this group of women is Manuela Oxaca Quinn (1897-1980), mother of the late film star Anthony Quinn (1915-2001). Their stories are not intended to be all inclusive of all aspects of the Soldadera’s life, and for other women, the experience could have been vastly different depending on the circumstances surrounding their existence. But what we do learn from these women is that the Soldadera was unique and destined to become a fixture in Mexican history.

Salas moves through the book in a chronological order, and as the Mexican Revolution approaches, the role of the Soldadera becomes more pronounced and the pace of the book increases, as well as the suspense. Further, the Soldaderas also participated in other military campaigns that required their effort. As the author explains:

“Soldaderas served as part of Gen. Antonio López Santa Anna’s 1835–1838 campaign into Texas, the Mexican War of 1846–1848, the Three Years’ War of 1857–1860, and the French Intervention of 1862–1867” 

The Soldaderas gained status and reputations for courage but there was also a dark side to their life in Mexico. Salas also discusses the dangers that existed towards women who were caught on the battlefield or forcibly taken during raids by enemy factions. The Soldadera was sometimes born out of necessity and conditioned to protect herself and other women as much as possible. Frankly, what is revealed in the book would be described today as genocide and sex trafficking. Bandits were plenty and pillaging had become an art form. The women knew that marauders at the door did come with good intentions, and if the men could not protect them, they needed to take up arms. And that is one reason Soldaderas were born. Others sought protection of male soldiers with high rank. The author provides sufficient evidence to prove that the term Soldadera is not a monolithic term. Each woman had their own story, but they were unified in the willingness to fight and defend.

In addition to taking up arms, the women were still required to take care of the home. And the Soldadera also excelled in this regard. What we see are women who had multiple tasks that required extensive physical and mental stamina, but also had to face the threat of abduction, assault, and death in combat. Life could be short and brutally hard. Today, Mexico continues to grapple with the issue of femicide, and as the book shows, that threat also existed centuries ago during the era of the Soldaderas. However, there are bright moments in the book and the feats accomplished by the Soldaderas will leave readers speechless. Daring, cunning and devoted to their causes, the Soldaderas rose to the occasion when needed. But if that is the case, why are they never mentioned in history books? Well, in Mexico they are known but even there, the role of the Soldadera is not always a black and white issue, but one that has many shades of grey. Chicanas today are aware of the Soldaderas’ significance but live in an era far removed from the 1800s, and desire to reinvent the image of the Mexican woman. In fact, Salas points out that:

“There has been a concern among many Chicanas about the appropriateness of the soldadera image as a symbol of the Mexican woman. This issue is important to Chicanas because they want to anchor themselves in Mexican culture while expanding their personal horizons beyond that of wife, mother, and defender of La Raza.” 

The Soldaderas are an integral part of Mexican history, but Chicanas today are right to be concerned about their image. The life that existed for Soldaderas is different from modern times and the image of roving bandits and outlaws has become archived material. And though there is no need for the Soldadera today, we can still learn from their lives and experiences. But to do that, separating myth from reality is the first step. Highly recommended.


The Mountain Shadow – Gregory David Roberts

Mountain Shadow

Earlier this year I posted a review of Gregory David Roberts’ masterpiece ‘Shantaram’, a fictional novel based loosely on his life story and events that transpired in Bombay, India, known today as Mumbai. The story is unbelievable yet intriguing from the start with a cast of characters that are sure to be remembered. I recently finished this sequel to Shantaram in which Roberts continues his story two years after the finale in part one. And like the first book, the story at hand here is unforgettable and filled with plot twists that will satisfy fans. At over eight hundred pages, the book is not a quick read and due to Roberts’ writing style, the pace of the story moves quickly. In contrast to the first part, it was easier keeping track of the characters in this story. There are familiar names from part one such as Lisa, Didier, Kavita, and Karla, who emerged in part one as the object of Lin’s affection. Their exploits are far from over and by the time this book is over, they have run amok all over Bombay on missions not for the faint at heart.

The book opens with Lin engaged in his routine criminal activity. He is still living with Lisa who Karla rescued from the infamous Madame Zhou in part one. Lisa has turned her life around and has set her sights on bigger things. Lin, however, is still running around with underworld figures. He visits a local drug spot to rescue a friend named Vikram who has a serious addiction. There he meets the Irishman Concannon and Dennis who both play crucial roles later in the story. But before we reach that point, the Company and Lin have their own issues as they face a threat from rival gang the Scorpions and Lin realizes that he wants out of the criminal life. Company boss Sanjay, who is not popular, is willing to let him leave but not before one last mission in Sri Lanka which Lin accomplishes. But while he is gone, a series of events in Bombay involving Lisa transpire that turn his world upside down and signal that the story is about to take a sharp turn. Upon returning to Bombay aided by suspicions implanted by the Blue Hijab’s words, Lin becomes a man destined to find the truth. And to help him find that truth, Karla fills the void and their complicated past from part one comes back to life as they each wrestle with the lives they have created. Madame Zhou also returns filled with rage and thirsting for revenge. Lin is also seeking revenge but is burdened with the reality of being a Company outsider and a target of the Scorpions. His protector and brother in arms Abdullah stands by his side in this part as well as the fearless warrior who stares death in the face and is the main threat to Sanjay’s reign in a metaphorical clash of the titans.

Lin finds himself in a strange place realizing that he has done too much to turn back and done too much to move forward without pushback. Added to his issues are the plights of Divya, Rannvieg and Ranjit, Karla’s husband. Lin is the person they all seek out for help and like a juggler, he confronts and diffuses situations but not always without violence. And lurking in the background is Concannon who is by far the book’s biggest antagonist. But Lin is far from alone, and standing behind him is the Frenchman Didier, who is not only the comic relief in the book, but the type of muscle needed when the streets are hot. His sexual orientation is the source of controversy more than once in the book, but he never fails to show his strength when needed. He is, without question, my favorite character in the book.

As the story picks up in pace upon Lin’s return to Bombay, the chips begin to fall, and the fallout is nothing short of astounding. Frankly, there are a lot of departures and few arrivals. While reading the latter part of the story, I could tell that things were coming to a head and the final part of the story would leave no stone unturned. There is heartache at the end but also justice even if it is unconventional. Lin is alive to tell the story but not without his demons and the realization that the dark side of Bombay is darker than one may think. But there are ways out and throughout the story, that is a common theme. The problem, however, is that everyone is in too deep. From Vikram to the corrupt police official Lightning Dilip and even Diyva’s father, all are up to their necks in some scheme or racket in Bombay. That is not to say there are no morals in the story. In fact, the characters are fully aware of their shortcomings and the choices they have made in life. And that is a part of the story that can be lost. In both books, each person is confronted repeatedly with moral challenges that test human nature and our willingness to corrupt ourselves to survive or to indulge. Idriss is the guru on the mountain they seek enlightenment from and the discussion they have provides something to consider. But even Idriss cannot stop the deadly actions in Bombay from reaching the mountain. Abdullah never fails his mission and the last time they visit the mountain in the story, all debts are paid.

Readers in search of a short story will not find it here but those who enjoy long books and intricate storytelling will love this. And if you have read Shantaram, you must read this. I have yet to watch the television show based on it, but my hope is that it does the book the justice it deserves.

ISBN-10: ‎ 0802125557
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0802125552

It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs – Rodney Dangerfield

rodneyAfter finishing the most recent book from my reading list, I was in search of something different to change gears. I came across this book while browsing recommendations and the cover instantly caught my attention. I vividly remember the legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004) and the endless laughs he provided to households across America and abroad. But sadly, I knew very little of his personal life. I have heard that there is a dark side to comedy and behind the jokes there is often trauma and tragedy. I was not sure what to expect when I started this book but before it was over, I realized I did not want it to end. Dangerfield died on October 5, 2004, but the book was published after his death. His life was a roller coaster ride and anyone who remembers him will enjoy the book. The story is a mixed bag with the good, the bad and the ugly. But it is also full of laughs and moments of reflection by a man in his senior years aware that Father Time comes for everyone.

Dangerfield’s early life was not pleasant as he explains in the book. Born Jacob Cohen in Deer Park, New York, his parents could not have known their son would become one of the most popular comics in America. But as readers will learn, they had their own issues and young Jacob was not afforded the luxury of a “childhood” as one would expect. In fact, the story is surreal, and the level of dysfunction is shocking. As he matures, he finds his calling in comedy but did not instantly become a hit. Further, if fate had not intervened, the world may have never known Rodney Dangerfield. However, everything happens for a reason and his rise to fame is nothing short of inspiring. And as the title says, there was plenty of sex and drugs along the way, plus two wives and two children. The comic opens up about his family’s struggles and reveals the challenges that come with fame.

Throughout the book readers will find the comic’s jokes strategically placed as one chapter ends and begins. The snippets are hilarious and I had to restrain myself heavily while riding the subway. But I am sure that other passengers noticed the constant grinning as I read Dangerfield’s words. The material is edgy and gave me a sense of gloom when I realized that a comedian like Dangerfield could not perform his routine today without risk of heavy censorship. Times have changed significantly. As he revisits the past, he also tells stories regarding other comedians who struggled early in their careers before catching their big breaks. It is astonishing how influential Dangerfield was to scores of aspiring comics. Seasoned readers will recognize the names in the book but for younger readers, YouTube will provide a source of archival footage for the names mentioned. Personally, I had a ball reading this book and laughed out loud when possible.

Early in the book, Dangerfield explains that he is at the age of eighty-two and aware that time is short. Towards the end of the book, he discusses the health struggles he endured and recovered from. His health was an issue on more than one occasion as he explains but he kept pushing forward and would have lived forever if possible. I surmise that with this book and the memories he left behind, he will live forever.  And for a man who claimed to never get any respect in his routine on stage, he commands it here. If you need a good laugh, you will not be disappointed with this book.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B002JB3EBK

Colombo: The Unsolved Murder-Don Capria and Anthony Colombo

s-l300On June 28, 1971, the Italian American Civil Rights League (“IACRL” held a “Unit Day” rally in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. The league was co-founded by Joseph Colombo (1923-1978), the former boss of the Colombo Crime Family. The mafia don had become a public figure due to his criticism of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and its actions against Italian Americans. During the rally, Colombo made his way to the podium to deliver a speech when he was shot and mortally wounded by Jerome Johnson (1946-1971) who had used fake press credentials to gain access to the guarded Colombo. Three shots struck Colombo who never regained consciousness. He remained in a coma for eight more years before dying on May 22, 1978, in Blooming Grove, New York. The shooting was shown in the 2019 film ‘The Irishman‘, which earned rave reviews. The film is good  entertainment but contains inaccuracies from start to finish. Six years ago I read this book co-authored by Colombo’s son Anthony (1945-2017). I recently viewed a clip online which re-sparked my interest into the murder which never made sense. And upon reading this book a second time, I have come to see a darker unknown element at work which was determined to silence Colombo for good.

Unofficially, the murder was attributed to mobster Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo (1929-1972) who was known to dislike Colombo and wanted more power for himself and siblings within the family. Gallo never claimed responsibility for the murder and to this day, no mobster has ever gone on the record and tied him to the crime. The bad blood between Gallo and Colombo is no secret but no proof has surfaced that Gallo took their feud to the next level. And in this book, Colombo’s son Anthony provides even more information he learned himself after his father’s shooting that cast doubt on law enforcement’s widely accepted theory. But to understand why Colombo would have been a target, it is necessary to learn who he was as a person and that was one goal of this book. His son revisits the family’s life before the crime and peels back the layers encapsulating his father, Joseph Colombo, Sr.

I instantly took note of the family’s connections to organized crime and the fate of Joe Colombo’s own father Anthony in 1938. The events of that dark night in his father’s life, provides an eerie premonition of what comes later in the book. The tragedy was not lost on young Joe Colombo who went on to have several children of his own. Anthony recalls the day-to-day life in their home with a father determined to see his children succeed and stay out of “the life”. And with the help of Don Capria who provides snippets of historical events in each section, the book becomes an valuable tool for insight into family life within the mafia. The story is as normal as one could expect with Colombo being a dedicated family man. There are moments where he is overbearing and strictly adherent to his beliefs, but otherwise the home is stable. But when Colombo catches the attention of the FBI, everything changes and this is where the book picks up speed and never slows down.

The back story to the league’s creation is discussed and despite the accusations that it was sham and front for the mafia, the story within shows that the people behind the scenes were dedicated to the cause of civil rights for Italian Americans and the distinction between the mafia and hardworking Italians in America. However, as the FBI probed deeper in the Colombo crime family, the mafia boss went from public hero to a liability. And the FBI was determined to see him indicted and convicted by any means necessary. Readers may be both shocked and disturbed at the actions of its agents who try to get Anthony to provide them with information on his own father. Whether they believed he would do so or used it as another form of harassment I cannot say, but the term questionable to describe their antics would be an understatement. That is not to say that Colombo was an angel, far from it. We know that the mafia survived because violence was a tool often utilized to keep everyone in line. But that is why evidence is collected to prove crimes without any doubt. Without that evidence, the FBI could only harass Colombo who fought back through the IACRL. But everyone knew that the battle would one day come to a head.

In regard to the Colombo story, the pushback he was getting behind the scenes should not be overlooked. The threat of retaliation against him was high and the future of the IACRL was in question. But Colombo was determined to move forward and knew that behind the scenes, he had the support of other mobsters across the board.  However, as Anthony shows, his father did receive warnings that something dark was coming but no one knew exactly what it was. In the days leading up to the rally, there were suspicious events that took place as shown in the book. And they force the reader to ask the question, who knew Colombo would be shot? What we learn cast serious doubt on Johnson being a crazed lone gunman. Inevitably, Unity Day arrives and the moment we dread takes place resutling in pandemonium. Johnson unleashed a hail of bullets on Colombo before being fatally shot himself. The long-standing explanation was that one of Colombo’s bodyguards had killed Johnson in response, yet that person was never identified. Further, the two people with Johnson escaped through the crowd, never to be seen again nor were they identified. And just when I thought thought the story could not get any stranger, Capria’s explanation of the forensic evidence sent chills up my spine. With each page I read, my personal belief that Colombo’s murder was not a “mob” hit was reaffirmed.

But if the murder was not a mob hit, then what did happen? Well, the authors explore that question here and what was discovered is sure to make the hair on your neck stand up. And it all starts with the background of Jerome Johnson, a career criminal with a highly suspicious record. The information provided on Johnson is surreal and if he was a lone gunman, he was the craziest that ever existed to have infiltrated Unity Day and murder a famous mafia boss. Capria and Colombo also address long-standing myths about Gallo’s “close ties” to Black gangsters. This murder is shrouded in mystery and none of them leads directly back to the mafia itself. Colombo was undeniably a powerful leader who courted alliances with Meir Kahane (1932-1990) of the Jewish Defense League (“JDL”) and other social activists, and this alone would have made him a target of both overt and covert investigations. Mention is also made in the book of the role Colombo Family hitman Gregory “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa (1928-1994) played in providing he FBI with crucial information about his underworld connections. To be clear, there is no accusation anywhere that Scarpa played a role in Colombo’s shooting. There is a lot to unpack in this book which will leave you with more questions than answers. And though we know how Colombo was shot, the why remains a mystery. The shooting changed New York City history and the lives of Colombo’s family, left to grieve the act of violence that took their father known as an activist, criminal figure and a person you could speak with to discuss any problem. And it is clear is that Anthony never recovered from his father’s death. The pain in his words is evident and there is a moment in the book where he tells his dad “we can always have another league, but I can only have one father”. The full truth about Colombo’s murder may never be known but the authors have shown enough here to remove any doubt that elements of the crime remain unsolved.


Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World’s Greatest Scientist – Andrew Robinson

einsteinOn January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) became Chancellor of Germany and established the Third Reich, formed under the banner of national socialism, as the country’s ruling party. The Sturmabteilung known informally as the “Brown Shirts”, embarked on a campaign of terror across the nation persecuting opponents of the Reich and those determined to be “undesirable” of Aryan citizenship. Millions of Jews had already fled the country, alarmed by the rise of Hitler’s party and the anti-Semitism spreading like wildfire. Among those who left was famed scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who never returned to the nation of his birth after his departure in 1932. And though he had left Germany, he remained on the radar of the Third Reich which moved swiftly to erase his name from Germany literature. After leaving, Einstein moved across Europe before finally settling in the United States. But what is often neglected in discussions of his life and fame is the time he spent in England as the Nazi party gained strength and war with Germany became a reality.

Admittedly, I knew little of Einstein’s life after fleeing Germany. Today he is remembered for the theory of relativity and his equation E=mc2. Both were groundbreaking events in science but while Einstein was making a name for himself in Britain, Hitler was ramping up efforts to eliminate his opponents abroad and those around Einstein remained keenly aware of the threat. Author Andrew Robinson has examined the late scientist’s time on the run and compiled a story that is both unbelievable and tragic. And though it contains biographical information on Einstein, the book was not written as a definitive account. But the information is crucial to understanding Einstein’s motives and his complicated life.

There is an incident revisited in the book that played an integral part in Einstein’s decision to leave. The murder of journalist and government official Walter Rathenau (1867-1922), served as a wake-up call for German Jews indifferent to growing anti-Semitism and a new group of rebels calling themselves National Socialists. Rathenau’s assassination remains one of Germany’s darkest moments and a pivotal moment in resentment towards Jews. Einstein knew Rathenau personally and was disturbed by his murder. The crime removed any illusions that he would be safe in Germany should Hitler gain power and ten years later, Einstein and second wife Else (1876-1936) left for good. Their arrival in England as captured by the author, shows a Britain receptive and in awe of the Germany scientist. And it is here that Einstein accomplishes some of his greatest feats. However, he was still a man without a home and as Robinson shows, no one knew where he would finally end up. The couple moved around quite a bit and, in the book, Einstein reports from multiple locations playing host to the man awarded the Noble Prize in 1921.

Though the threat of assassination is always present and one on occasion, a high possibility, the author provides valuable insight into Einstein the person. I did not know previously, how Einstein felt about Zionism and his Jewish faith. His relationship with Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), the First President of Israel, is interesting and shows that Einstein was able to view an issue from both sides when necessary. Further, his relationships with both wives, his son Eduard (1910-1965) and stepchildren from Else are complex and reveal his shortcomings. Fans of Einstein will find these parts of the book both shocking and hard to accept but the reality is that despite his brilliance, he struggled in other aspects of his life. Frankly, we see the human side of Einstein and all his faults. But despite his personal life, he remained at the forefront of science and paved the way for nuclear fission. Interestingly, Robinson provides information about the atomic bomb and Einstein’s role that is often misunderstood. Further, the idea of nuclear fission did not belong to Einstein who was quite indifferent to his own successes. However, after the bomb’s development and use against Japan in August 1945, Einstein became an ardent opponent of its use and earned himself a spot on the subversive list of none other than former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). I cannot say I was too surprised by this as Hoover was fanatical about “communists” and others he deemed threats to the United States.

Einstein’s stay in England was temporary and the couple eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey. The author provides plausible explanations for the decision to leave Europe for America and the simplest reason is correct, in that Einstein needed to be far away from the threat of Nazi terror and in a place where he could find peace. America was not perfect, but it was nothing like Europe being forced to confront the growing German menace. Einstein never returned to Europe, remaining in America until his death in 1955. Today his image can be found on posters, t-shirts, websites, and other memorabilia, but there was a time when his image meant persecution and death. Hitler never succeeded in punishing Einstein, but the Nazis did confiscate everything they found belonging to him. Had they succeeded in capturing Einstein before he left, history and World War II might be quite different today. But as the saying goes, everything happens for a reason. Fans of Albert Einstein will appreciate this book.


Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 – William L. Shirer


In December 1941, CBS News Foreign Correspondent William L. Shirer (1904-1993) sailed from Europe for the final time as World War II claimed lives and destroyed cities. At the time of his departure, World War II was heading into its second year but several months ahead of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the conflict. The journalist said goodbye to a continent to which he had devoted fifteen years of his life. Upon his return, he assembled his diary, carefully hidden from the Gestapo and Nazi Germany officials and turned them into this account of what he witnessed as Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) embarked on a path of world domination and plunged the world into its deadliest conflict.  And the result is an eye-opening account of life behind the carefully crafted world image that Nazis put forth to keep the prying eyes of powerful nations averted as the Wehrmacht plundered its way across western Europe.

Shirer may be recognized by readers for his other phenomenal work on the Nazi regime, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany‘, a masterpiece of writing that remains on my shelf and list of favorite books to this day. I strongly recommend it to readers in search of a thorough history of Nazi Germany.  Here, the story is focused on life in Germany as the Nazis took hold of the country. At the start of the book, Hitler has already been made Chancellor, so there is little in the journal about the transfer of power from President Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) or the Reichstag Fire. The focus is on daily life in Berlin and the sobering Nazi conditions placed on the Reich’s citizens. As an American journalist, Shirer was allowed close access to the notorious figures of the Reich from President and Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe Hermann Göring (1893-1946), Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and the notorious Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). Shirer did cross paths with Hitler and witnessed his speeches, but there was no formal interview that Shirer would have referred to had it existed. Regardless of his location and situation within the Reich, he witnesses the truth behind the Reich that contrasted with what Hitler was saying to the German people.

Germany’s rearmament was a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, but Hitler had no intentions on adhering to the sanctions and rules placed upon the Fatherland. Western powers were slow to react to the Germany build-up but on the ground, Shirer was able to see how popular Hitler was becoming and the preparations for conflict like no other. He makes notes about German life from the peculiar behavior on the streets and Germans he knows personally. There are bits of humor in the observations yet the dark cloud on the horizon continues to approach. And in the weeks before the Germany invasion of Poland on September 1,1939, the suspense continued to build as Shirer shows in the daily entries. But there are two incidents in the notes that require a comment. The appeasement at Munich, widely seen as the last chance to stop Hitler’s plan is discussed and Shirer’s disbelief at the British actions towards Hitler’s aggression was shared by the author of this post. Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) once wrote about this in his classic ‘Why England Slept‘, a valuable book about the failure to confront the Austrian menace in Berlin. The other entry in the journal relates to the German advancement on the Rhineland in 1936. What he notes in his journal about the missed opportunity to stop Hitler is one of the war’s most puzzling events. The comments by German officers following the de-escalation on the Rhine highlight the ability of the Germans to bluff their way through as Hitler consolidated power and seized territory.

The journal entries pick up in intensity as the threat of war increases. And like a runaway train, we know that it is coming but nothing can stop it, and the shock felt by Shirer as a correspondent on the ground is captured by his words written after the Germany invasion of Poland. From this point on, the diary takes an entirely different course as the Nazi machine kicks into high gear and then plateaus. England is the “antagonist” in the story according to Hitler, and a sizeable portion of the entries are related to the off and on-again discussions with London about “peace”, though Hitler had no desire to let England survive. The showdown between England and Germany intensifies and soon the Royal Air Force began to hit targets within the Fatherland. Experienced German pilots were aware that England would not be easily defeated, and that Germany had its weaknesses which made winning a world war impossible. As a journalist, Shirer was intent on publishing all news about the German war front both good and bad. However, censorship was in full effect and throughout the story, there are countless battles between the author and German officials who inspected incoming and outgoing communications. The propaganda war waged by the Reich was nothing short of absurd. But it worked within Germany’s borders. Shirer takes note of this and gives insight into German mindset that explains why the people gave Hitler the power he desired. And these observations could have only come from a correspondent in the field watching the events as they happened.

There are occasions in the book where Shirer leaves Germany and travels to other European nations but most of the entries are from Berlin where the promise of a quick war rings hollow as England puts up more of a fight than expected. And the realization that Germany is not invincible begins to dawn on the German people who create crude jokes to describe Third Reich leadership. In the distance is the looming threat of American involvement, about which Shirer makes a premonitory statement that later came to fruition. Hitler also knew it would happen and pre-emptively signed agreements with Japan and Italy, realizing that America would never surrender to German domination. Nonetheless, Shirer accurately sizes up Germany’s sealed fate and the insanity of Adolf Hitler. The final entry in the book provides a fitting conclusion to an unbelievable story. As Shirer watches Europe fade in the distance aboard the vessel that will begin his journey back to America he remarks:

“For a time I stood against the rail watching the lights recede on a Europe in which I had spent all fifteen of my adult years, which had given me all of my experience and what little knowledge I had. It had been a long time, but they had been happy years, personally, and for all people in Europe they had had meaning and borne hope until the war came and the Nazi blight and the hatred and the fraud and the political gangsterism and the murder and the massacre and the incredible intolerance and all the suffering and the starving and cold and the thud of a bomb blowing the people in a house to pieces, the thud of all the bombs blasting man’s hope and decency.”

A year after Shirer returned to the United States, Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor Naval base bringing America into the deadliest war in history. For the next five years the world remained at war in a conflict between democracy and tyranny. In the end, a dictator lay dead and nations in ruins. The threat of dictatorship will never subside and to protect society from the dangers of tyranny, we must remember how it was done. This is the inside story of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler’s hold over Germany.

ISBN-10:‎ 0883659220
ISBN-13:‎ 978-0883659229

Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s Before the Fires – Mark Naison and Bob Gumbs

BronxThe Bronx, New York is known as the birthplace of hip-hop music and the home of the New York Yankees. It is also a melting pot and home to immigrants from all parts of the world. And the history of the Bronx is as storied as the people who call him home. During the 1970s, New York City had ventured into its darkest days with the threat of bankruptcy and crime rate nothing short of astronomical. In the Bronx, an epidemic of fires emerged but not solely due to arson. In fact, arson played a minor role in the plague of fires that struck the Bronx. Regardless of how and why the fires started, the tragedies altered the Bronx landscape and left its people wondering where things went wrong. However, life in the Bronx was not always as perilous. Authors Mark Naison and Bob Gumbs conducted interviews with former residents of the Bronx to learn what life was like before the fires and drugs devastated communities.

Most of the people interviewed are Black Americans but there is one interview with a former resident who was white. The participants range in age and occupation, but all called the Bronx home, with a heavy focus on the Morrisania section. Among the speakers are a relative of jazz legend Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) and the sister of NBA legend Nathaniel “Tiny” Archibald. Their stories are interesting but there are numerous interviews in the book which are highly informative. What struck me as I read is the diversity that existed in the Bronx at a time when racial segregation in America was legal and enforced. In fact, the Bronx during the 1930s to the 1960s could serve as the blueprint for the United Nations. Speaker after speaker comment on the diversity they saw in a neighborhood home to Jews, Irish, Italian, Blacks, and anyone else who needed a place to live. Of course, there were racial issues on occasion and the presence of gangs cannot be overlooked. Names such as the Slicksters, Savage Nomads and Fordham Baldies are cemented in New York City gang lore. The dark elements of life in the Bronx are discussed but the speakers are unanimous in the position that the racial violence found in American South was unknown to the Bronx. That is not to imply that everything was perfect. In fact, during those times Crotona Park and Arthur Avenue were off limits to blacks as is discussed by more than one speaker. And though white flight did occur, the speakers also fondly remember their white neighbors with whom they created memories to last a lifetime.

There is a dark side to the interviews and that takes the form of heroin which floods New York City and turns the Bronx into a nightmare. The rise in drug addiction is the most difficult of the stories in which it is mentioned. Thankfully, none of the speakers suffered from addiction but they recall how they saw their neighborhoods change as drugs flooded the streets. The stories are heartbreaking and an eerie premonition of the current opioid crisis in America. Fentanyl has the possibility to repeat the events in the Bronx a thousand times over across America, and in some places it has already started. The influx of heroin resulted in the exodus of long-term residents resulting in a change in demographics, income level and quality of life. However, today the vacant lots are gone, and the fires in the 1970s ancient history to the younger crowd. But there was a time when the Bronx hit rock bottom and was one of the worst parts of New York City. My borough of Brooklyn had its own issues and in East New York, we were able to relate to the Bronx as we too saw the influx of drugs and escalation of violence that turned the streets into war zones.

Another thing I noticed as I read the stories was the sense of community that once existed. The Morrisania section was its own world with close bonds and unlocked front doors. The image that I formed in my head is far removed from the reality of life in the Bronx today where doors must be locked. The carefree environment discussed by the speakers sounds too good to be true, but it was a different time with different mindsets. The loss of community and the indifference on the streets today is puzzling to the older residents as can be seen in the interviews. The Bronx they knew is long gone, having been replaced by new tenants whose experiences and lives have taken different paths to the city that never sleeps. However, New York and America by large was built by immigrants and that is also evident in the interviews.  The men and women interviewed in the book had been away from the Bronx for extensive periods of time, but they are all clear about their love for the borough known informally on the streets by its nickname “the Boogie Down Bronx”. If you like New York City history, this will pleasantly surprise you.

ASIN: B01J86B22Q

Miseducated: A Memoir – Brandon P. Fleming, Foreword by Dr. Cornel West

flemingEvery so often, a recommendation shows up in my list that catches me completely off guard. This book is one of them. At first, I was not sure what to make of it and had not heard of it previously. But after seeing the high rating, I decided I had to see for myself and now that I have finished the book, I can state with certainty that it is a true gem. As stated on the cover, the book is a memoir by Brandon P. Fleming, a former debate coach at Harvard University and the Founder & CEO of The Veritas School of Social Sciences. The school was formerly known as the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project. And though he has found success through years of challenging work, there was a time when Fleming could have become an inner-city statistic.

The book begins with all the makings of a story about a kid who falls victim to the streets. Fleming and his siblings are being raised by a single mother enlisted in the military. Added to the mix are multiple fathers and a stepfather concerned only with himself. From the very beginning, I noted the lack of a stable family structure and the impact it had on the author’s life. By his own admission, he was a problem child but for reasons that are understandable. The section about Lucas was difficult to accept but it is a common occurrence that sets the stage for future dysfunction. Around 2007, the author’s mother receives orders to deploy with her unit as United States Armed Forces landed in Iraq. For the author, this meant a change of scenery and he soon began to spend more time in the belly of the beast: on 227th Street in the Bronx, New York. It is here that Fleming admits he learned how to craft the persona that nearly derailed all his hopes in the years to come. And his term for the form of education he learns there is jolting but also an aspect of life in the ghetto. As the author and siblings age, they are ushered through the school system sometimes without care for their development as students and individuals. The author somberly reflects that:

“I had not learned a thing since middle school, or before. I had never read an entire book. I did not know how to write essays. I knew nothing about thesis statements or citing sources. My SAT scores were so low that I was put into remedial, 100-level English and math courses.” 

As I read his heartbreaking story, I thought of the young children who are in similar situations. Fleming emerges as a prime example of how young black kids are “miseducated”. Surprisingly, Fleming advances far enough to enroll at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and has a promising basketball career. But a devastating injury changed those plans and left the author reeling and on the brink of self-destruction. And this is where his life takes a sharp turn, and the story becomes more uplifting with each passing chapter. Of course, there are setbacks, but through chance encounters with several people who influence his mind, and determination, he pushes forward. And before long, he finds a group of kids who he begins to cultivate as future debaters, giving birth to the ideas that have provided him with the platform he has today. Upon reflection, he asks this crucial question that will resonate with Black Americans:

Why is it that basketball was all I ever wanted? It’s because passion is born through exposure and affirmation.

Towards the end of the book, Fleming’s students evolve as a force to be reckoned with. And after a successful performance, he is approached with the suggestion of working at Harvard. And though I was only reading the book, I too felt elation at this point in the story. I also felt sad because a move to Harvard would mean moving away from the other young kids who need mentoring. But as Fleming explains to the young minds looking to him for guidance, they are all part of a movement. His arrival at Harvard is smooth but he soon notes that the debate program suffers from a lack of diversity. At this point, the writing is on the wall. Administrators agree and give the author the freedom to bring his vision to life and give readers the happy conclusion we patiently wait for throughout the book.

There is one part of the book that really stands out and it is the section in which he takes his first group of students out to eat. He is downcast because he cannot seem to reach them but suddenly an opportunity presents itself for debate and the light goes off in Fleming’s head. What he learns and explains is absolutely gold in the field of education and even teachers who read this book may learn something from it. Old dogs can learn new tricks.

Fleming’s story is a true rag to riches account but in no way is it standard. In ghettos across America, children remain stuck in homes that are dysfunctional and neighborhoods that are deadly. Brilliant minds are hidden due to the environment in which they live that dictates survival over anything else. Yet, that does not have to be the final word in their lives. They too can succeed but first need a path that leads from the darkness to awakening. And to drive this point home, the author sums up his experience and that of other black kids with this quote that says it all:

“Too often, Black youth, no matter how gifted or talented, miss out on opportunities because their family’s earning power is less than their white classmates’. Lack of access, not lack of ability, often keeps Black people from accomplishing what they could in a more equitable world.”

Brandon Fleming is only one person, but his story and success is a template for what can happen when brilliant minds are presented with the opportunity to create their visions and test the waters. Every action and decision do not always mean success but as he explains to one of his Harvard students, you always get back up. Highly recommended.


Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel – Alison Weir

weirOn May 14, 1948, World Zionist Organization executive head David Ben Gurion (1886-1973) proclaimed the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, formally establishing a Jewish state. To Zionists, the accomplishment was the fruit of their labors, but in Washington, D.C., there was cause for concern. Officials in the State Department witnesses one of their greatest fears come true and accepted the reality that the Middle East would never be the same again. It is easy to make the mistake of believing that the term Jewish is monolithic, but the reality is far different. In fact, as this book shows, within Judaism there are sharp divisions over faith, identity, and ideology. A hotly contested issue is Zionism, the driving force behind the creation of a Jewish state as envisioned by Austrian Jewish journalist Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), who is considered to be the father of Zionism. American foreign policy makers understood that the changes to come in Palestine would not be warmly welcomed and would inflame tensions between the new settlers and Palestinians who called the area home. With hindsight, we know that they were eventually overruled and today, conditions in the region remain tense. If officials knew this would happen, then why did they agree to the partition? Author Alison Weir traveled to Israeli and Palestinian territories as part of her research into one of the most important questions of the twentieth century. 

As per the author’s words, the book originally started as an article that evolved into the larger story presented here. By no means is the book a complete discussion of the Zionist movement or the creation of Israel. Both subjects are far too extensive and intricate to cover in one book. But Weir does provide the right amount of information to peel back the layers of a story hidden from the American public. It cannot be overstated how crucial World War II was to the creation of Israel. Jews who had the means available fled Germany before the war. Those left behind faced an uncertain future that included a horrific death for millions of men, women, and children. Jews who survived were determined to never let it happen again. The Zionist cause has existed far longer than World War II. In fact, the location for a Jewish state changed more than once as detailed in the book. However, the movement initially struggled to gain the support of American Jews, highlighting the divisions that existed. 

The situation in the Gaza strip is the end result of the story at hand. But there is a darker aspect of the account to be found within that challenges the idea that I am my brother’s keeper. What Weir reveals is both shocking and disturbing. To those in power, the means justified the ends, but the revelations also reveal sobering truths about Israel’s creation. And the interactions with officials of the Third Reich are sure to make the hairs on your neck stand up. Further, the support for the Zionist cause here in America is examined and here we see the origins of groups committed to the cause of a Jewish state. Yet even as the movement gains momentum, Washington is still hesitant to support partition for reasons addressed by the author. However, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) eventually reverses course and supports the partition. An explanation is given but I suspect there is more to his decision we may never know. Truman was a seasoned president by that time and would have known the political impact of partitioning and the pushback from the Arab world. If he did not, I am sure the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have addressed it due to their concerns revealed in the book. Truman may have agreed to the plan against his better judgment as well. 

Every movement has collateral damage, and the Zionist cause is no different. Non-Zionist Jews found themselves caught in a difficult position and the pressures they faced also form part of the discussion. And others who were receptive to the Zionist cause but also cautious about the reputation of America abroad and stability in the Middle East also found themselves under scrutiny as allegiance to the movement was questioned. The debate about Zionism is larger than this book but continues to this day among Jews. I should point out that at no point in the book does Weir challenge the right of Israel to exist. The book is a lesson in history that is not taught in schools. History is not always pleasant and filled with stories that are at times unsettling. But they are crucial to understanding how our world functions today. 

The book is short, but the author does provide an extensive list of further reading which includes discussions on Israel, Zionism, and the Palestinian people. This is the not the final word on Zionism, but it is a good place to start. 


Meyer Lansky: The Thinking Man’s Gangster – Robert Lacey

LanskyIn September 1971, reputed mobster Meyer Lansky (b. Maier Suchowljansky)(1902-1983) was denied Israeli citizenship by Dr. Yosef Burg after a careful review of the evidence presented to him. Prior to his ruling, he had consulted with Prime Minster Golda Meir (1898-1978) who proclaimed, “no Mafia in Israel”. Lansky was dejected and continued to seek out ways to live abroad beyond the reach of the U.S. Government. His next stop was South America but there he refused entry and accepted his fate as he returned to the United States. When he arrived at Miami International Airport, I am sure onlookers wondered what the commotion was regarding one man who stood about five feet four inches. The media dubbed him “the Mob’s Accountant” due to his uncanny ability to process figures in his head. And rumors have persisted that he once had three hundred million dollars hidden from investigators. The allegations are grandiose, but the truth is that Lansky was a figure of his era, nothing more and nothing less. Robert Lacey first published this book in 1991 under the title ‘Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life‘. It was republished in 2016 under the current title and includes an updated account by the author. It is by far, a definitive biography of the late Lansky.

Mob aficionados will know Lansky’s story and readers who have viewed ‘The Godfather Part II‘ (1974) will recognize the inspiration for the fictional character “Hyman Roth” which was based on the real-life Lansky. Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) nailed the role and as Lacey discusses in the book, Lansky contacted the actor following the film’s release to discuss the portrayal of himself on screen. Lansky must have been thrilled to serve as an inspiration for a character in a film but the belief that he was a larger-than-life mobster who bankrolled La Costra Nostra may be misleading. In fact, the real story, as presented here, shows a complicated life that was anything but glamorous. There is more than meets the eye. Two marriages, a son with special needs and emotionally dysfunctional children are only parts of the Lansky story which begins in Grodno, Belarus in 1902. Like his contemporaries, Lansky emigrated to the United States as a child and the family settled in New York City. Max Lansky (1879-1939) found a new life for his family in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. I took notice of this part because the author touches on a part of the borough’s long forgotten history. In comparison to the Brownsville that exist today, known for a high crime rate and low income, the area was once a hotbed for Jewish immigrants. However, the story is just beginning and the move to the Lower East Side in Manhattan changed all their lives for good.

The section about Meyer’s childhood in Manhattan is key for it is here that he forms the alliances he would keep for decades with other immigrants, Italian and Jewish, who learned the way of the streets and the money to be made. The most famous of these friends are Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1896-1962) and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (1906-1947). Lacey takes us back in time to the era of prohibition and crime fighting politicians such as former Governor Thomas E. Dewey (1902-1971) and former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947). Luciano fell victim to Dewey’s administration and was convicted on prostitution charges on June 7, 1936, and subsequently incarcerated. But his story was far from over. In fact, the United States Government would later need Luciano as the war effort heated up. And at the center of the events was Lansky himself. The covert operation and Lansky’s role are covered in the book and show that when it came to defeating the Axis powers, all avenues were open.

As his underworld life evolved, Lansky also became a family man, and that story is far more complicated and unglamorous than his criminal exploits. His two marriages and the three children he had with first wife Anna (1910-1984) provide some of the most emotional parts of the story. The family’s struggle is nothing short of heartbreaking and the private side of Lansky’s life stands in stark contrast to the public facade of the seasoned mogul who helped build casinos and fill the Mafia’s coffers. Lansky’s oldest son Buddy has a story of his own in the book and the trials and tribulations of father and son are difficult moments. Second son Paul and daughter Sandra are equally chaotic, and Sandra plays another role in the book that will shock readers. And throughout the story is the importance of Judaism and Lansky’s adherence to his faith. It can be argued that his life was anything but Jewish and one that no believer would subscribe to. But in his defense, he was one of hundreds of Jewish mobsters in the early 1900s. There is never a shortage of gangsters in America.

On New Year’s Eve, January 1959, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) fled the country, evading capture by Fidel Castro (1926-2016) and his Revolutionary Army. For Lansky and other gangsters, the source of income Cuba had become was now over. The events of that night were fictionalized for the Godfather Part II and Lacey provides additional facts about Batista’s last flight from the island which I was unaware of. I also noticed that after Castro seizes power in Cuba, there are no further moves by Lansky that could be considered “big”. In fact, I saw the opposite. Aside from investments and miscellaneous sources of income, there is nothing in the book that alludes to him being a financial mogul with streams of hidden income. Even when Lansky moves to Florida later in the book, the belief that he had hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed income continued to haunt him. The stress from relentless investigations combined with his failing health only added to the tragedy his life slowly became. His second wife Teddy (1907-1997) stayed by his side, but also found herself under the prying eyes of the press. Her response to the press upon her return to Miami International Airport following Meyer’s failed attempt to establish residence in South America, was captured by television cameras and must be seen to be believed.

Despite the increased pressure by investigators, Lansky evaded prosecution for major crimes and that is one of the ironies in the book. If he was a criminal mastermind, he shrewdly kept himself out of long prison sentences. The reality I gleaned from the book is that Lansky was not the person he was portrayed to be. He did have dealings with mobsters and earned significant amounts of cash, but the only section in the book that shows extravagance is when he took his second wife Teddy on a first-class European vacation. Lansky did have income and the author provides details of his earnings as the story progresses, but the figures are well short of what would be expected from the “mob’s accountant”. Added to Lansky’s financial woes in Florida are the struggles each of his children had throughout their lives. This is a sobering reality in the story; Lansky could control hardened gangsters but struggled with his own kids. And what we see in the book about the Lansky home is all too familiar in mobster stories. Long nights out, weeks away from home and secrets of the streets combine to strain even the most committed marriages and bonds between a father and his children.

Lansky’s life in Miami during his final years closes out the story, but before it is over, the decline of the aging mobster plays out in the final act. Years of chain smoking and stress took their toll, and the decades-long health issues he endured came to a head. He dutifully walked Teddy’s dog Bruzzer but on the inside, his body was slowly breaking down. Readers will see the writing is on the wall and that Lansky does not have much time left. But when death comes for him, there are no last words in the form of a confession but instead Lansky affirmation that he was ready to go. He lived and died on code as the thinking man’s gangster. This is the legacy and tragedy of Meyer Lansky.