Category Archives: Biographies

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

Alexander Fu Sheng: A Biography of the Chinatown Kid – Terrence J. Brady

Fu ShengLegends never die, that is an absolute fact.  Some legends never live past fifty years of age, often leaving their mortal coil through tragedy or illness.  For Alexander Fu Sheng (1954-1983), a single car accident was the cause of his demise and in the early morning hours of July 7, 1983, he died at the young age of twenty-eight.  He left behind grieving parents, siblings and his widow Jenny Tseng, an accomplished Hong Kong singer who has also performed abroad. At the time of his death, he had risen to become one of the most popular stars to come out of the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio.  Before ceasing film production in late 1985, Shaw Brothers had released several hundred films which had been locked away until Celestial Pictures bought the rights to the films and digitally remastered the majority of the collection. As a long-term fan of the martial-arts film genre, I had amassed a large collection of films which included all of Fu Sheng’s movies.  My favorite is the film that catapulted him to international stardom, The Chinatown Kid (1977). Terrence J. Brady gave this biography the perfect finishing touch by included the name of that film in the title of this book. His exhaustive efforts have resulted in the only known biography of the late film star.

If you have no idea who Fu Sheng was, I do recommend that you watch some of his films, a full list of which can be found here.  It should be noted that the list does not contain The Mark of the Eagle which was being filmed at the time of his death.  The project was shelved permanently.  Readers familiar with Black Belt Theater will feel a sense of nostalgia as memories of Saturday afternoons filled with Shaw classics then distributed by the World Northal Corporation.  It truly is an era that we will never again see.  Today, CGI and fancy camerawork has replaced the old-school method of filming that relied heavily on coordination, training and relentless stamina.  Many Shaw Brothers stars are still alive, well into their 60s, 70s and even 80s.  The Shaw studio is long gone, but the magic they created will last a lifetime.  Fu Sheng was part of that magic and Terrence J. Brady has finally put together the true story of his short and extraordinary life.

The book is without question a biography, but the author did a great job of providing a tremendous amount of back-story for the topics at hand. In fact, throughout the book, snippets of Chinese military and literary history are included showing the link between China’s past and what the filmmakers had intended to capture on-screen.  Undoubtedly, Fu Sheng is the star of this story and Brady carefully retraces his steps from film extra to superstar.  And along the way, he was surrounded by cinema greats who became mentors, friends and mourners.  Their stories and their relationships with Fu Sheng  show the very personal side to the individuals who helped create the films that I and scores of others have come to cherish dearly.

His widow Jenny is also a central part of the story and I firmly believe Brady lays to rest any rumors that have persisted about their lives together up until the time of Fu Sheng’s death.  And following his demise, Jenny has a surprise of her own which I had never known of.  Her revelation, whether it is true or not, adds to the tragedy of his life.  But what is evidently clear, is the love they had for each other, which the late Chang Cheh (1923-2002) showcased in his most eccentric film Heaven & Hell (1980).  The film has been written off as Cheh’s most bizarre work but personally, I found it to be highly entertaining.  In the film, the couple performs a duet that complements the prior act perfectly.  But there was more to their singing partnership than many might have known or remember. Brady covers that as well here and his research provides a steady stream of incredible information about the couple during their several year courtship and subsequent marriage.  Of note, Tseng never remarried after Fu Sheng’s death.

Fans of the Shaw Brothers will absolutely love this book.  It is an insider’s look into how the studio created its hit films and a good reference guide for a quick background information on some of the biggest names to work there.  In this story, nearly all of the legends make an appearance including Ti Lung, David Chiang and the late Lau Kar Leung (1934-2013). A who’s who of stars is put on display and as I read the book, I could feel the Shaw Brothers studio come back to life again during what could only be described as a classic era in the Hong Kong film industry. In fact, this book has encouraged me to revisit the Shaw classics, some of which I haven’t watched in nearly two years  I still have my entire collection which started in 1995 when my father took me up to 42nd Street.  There, I purchased my own VHS English dubbed copy of the Five Masters of Death. The original Hong Kong title is The Five Shaolin Masters.  Fu Sheng had a starring role in the film and it was in this movie that I first became a fan.  It is just one of many great masterpieces he contributed to during his storied career.

This book truly is a blessing and I am forever grateful for Brady’s monumental effort. Fu Sheng is long gone, having died nearly thirty-six years ago, but his memory and legacy live on not only in Hong Kong but across the world.  During his time at the Shaw Brothers studio, he rightfully earned the nickname of the Chinatown Kid.

ISBN-10: 1717363679
ISBN-13: 978-1717363671

Ribbentrop: A Biography – Michael Bloch

20190202_003914On September 1, 1939, the Second World War began as the German army invaded Poland as part of Adolf Hitler’s quest for world domination.  Britain had warned Germany that any military action against Poland would result in England coming to the aid of its ally.  Interestingly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) did not want to go to war with England, preferring to accomplish the annexation of Poland through diplomatic methods after having successfully partitioned Czechoslovakia in what is infamously referred to as the “appeasement at Munich”.  But if Hitler did not want to wage war against Britain, knowing their intention to save Poland, then why did he give approval to the invasion that plunged the world into a major conflict?  The answer to that question lies in the story of his Foreign Minister and Nuremberg defendant, Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946).

In the annals of the Third Reich, perhaps no other figure is as glanced over as Joachim von Ribbentrop.  Standing next to nefarious characters such as Hermann Goering (1893-1946), Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and Heinrich Himmler  (1900-1945), he is often an afterthought.   Semi-illiterate but able to speak fluent English, he was one of the few officials in the Third Reich with extensive exposure to the culture of the west. And the time he spent in London early in his life, made him the right choice by Hitler for the position of Ambassador to Great Britain.  By all accounts, no one found him to be enjoyable company but incredibly, he maintained a position close to Hitler’s ear with the Führer listening intently and in some cases implementing Ribbentrop’s suggestions.  Their unusual relationship would have dire consequences in 1939 at Hitler set his sights on Poland. It is here in this phenomenal biography that we learn another part of the story behind the Poland invasion and Ribbentrop’s critical role in the events.

At first glance, it is easy to write of Ribbentrop as “non-essential” to the story of the Third Reich.  And although he is mentioned in many books about the Nazi regime, his role is typically minor in the grand scheme of events.  But make no mistake, his advice and misconceptions about foreign nations, played pivotal roles in the rise and fall of the Third SS Reich. Bloch has capture Ribbentrop’s life beautifully in this biography that tells the story of the former Foreign Minister for all to see.  In comparison to the other figures of the Nazi regime, his personal life could be considered average.  But his entry in the Nazi party and actions thereafter, helped changed the course of history.  As I was reading the book, I could not help feeling mystified as to how a figure such as Ribbentrop maintained the confidence of Hitler as each blunder piled up.   Admittedly, Hitler did not consult him on every foreign policy matter, apparently realizing his many shortcomings.  But he did trust Ribbentrop enough on some of the most important decisions to be made, many of which changed the course of world history and produced a mark on the history of Germany which can never be erased.

Notwithstanding his restricted voice in Hitler’s government, he was an important figure in Hitler’s vision of a Anglo-German unification.  In fact, Ribbentrop’s actions towards and with the British government are the crux of the book.   Naturally, his positions as Ambassador and later Foreign Minister, resulted in his constant communication with the Ambassadors of England, Italy and Japan.  However, his close position to the Führer did not earn him the envoy of others but rather their wrath.  Hitler was known to pit subordinates against each other, using the divide and conquer technique.  Their fights and attempts to sabotage each other take center stage in the book as they compete for Hitler’s approval, the elimination of enemies and advancement in rank.   The story reveals a terrible cast of characters drunk on power and filled with venom for competitors and the Jews of Europe.  Standing center among these characters was the sad Ribbentrop, the man often the butt of jokes and contempt, who was rarely seriously.  Having finished the book, I am dumbfounded as to how Hitler’s administration functioned at all.  The decisions they reached and methods used were simply surreal and Ribbentrop plays a direct part in many of them.

On October 14, 1946, Ribbentrop was the first to be executed after Goering committed suicide in his cell the night before.  He left behind a widow and four children, all of whom are still alive today.  Decades have passed since their father’s death and in the passage of time, their lives will also reach a conclusion.  But they remain witnesses to a time in history in which the world was on the brink of complete anarchy as Adolf Hitler set out to dominate the planet.  Next to him was his fanatically dedicated Foreign Minister.  This is the definitive biography of the life and death of Joachim von Ribbentrop.

ISBN-10: 0517593106
ISBN-13: 978-0517593103

Bolivar: American Liberator – Marie Arana

simonIn the annals of Latin American history, perhaps no other figure is as studied as Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), the liberator of South America.   Former Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez (1954-2013) famously spoke with images of Bolívar behind him as he sought to transform the country into a contender on the world stage. The life of Bolívar lasted less than fifty years but within two decades he became the leading figure in the Latin American movement for independence from the Spanish Empire. The nations of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and Bolivia (his namesake) are the products of his vision, a united South America free from the influence of its northern neighbor.   And prophetically, many of his beliefs about the future of South America have come to pass, cementing his legacy as one of the continent’s greatest heroes.  Marie Arana, a native of Bolívar’s beloved Peru, has composed a stunning biography of the late figure that shows a complex character, driven by ideology but crippled by his own generosity and disregard for personal well-being.

On July 24, 1783, Don Juan Vicente and Doña María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco welcomed their fourth child into their growing family but neither of them could have imagined then that their son would one day become the liberator of South America.  To understand the mind of the future leader, it is necessary to understand his past and Arana presents his story in a format that is guaranteed to pull the reader in.  The story takes us back in time where the Spanish Empire controls nearly all of the continent and a young Bolívar is learning about colonialism first hand.  Tragedy became a part of his life from an early age as the deadly disease known as tuberculosis wreaks havoc across the continent.  What is clear however, is that from a young age, the rebel the world would come to know was being crafted through life experiences and the ugly hierarchy of exploitation and racism used to subjugate those considered to be unworthy by the Spanish monarchy in Madrid. The young revolutionary proved to be a fast learner and before long, he became part of the growing movement for freedom.

The book continues to heat up as Arana brings the past alive allowing us to follow Bolívar as he traverses Latin America, covering more ground than any of the greatest warriors in history. But the campaign was far from easy and behind the scenes, back door deals, treachery and in some cases luck, combined to push forward the independence movement.  And as Bolívar rises through the ranks, a cast of characters develops, increasing the suspense in the story as the final showdown with Spain looms in the horizon.   The author increases the suspense as the book moves forward, making it impossible for the reader to stop.   I found myself captivated as I followed the events that culminated in the legendary battles that chartered a new path for Bolívar and millions of South Americans.

The battle of Ayacucho in the Peruvian War of Independence proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back with the Spanish Empire withdrawing the majority of its forces from South America. For Bolívar this was just the beginning of a long struggle that would see the continent nearly tear itself apart and result in his exodus from the place he called home.  Assassins, opportunist, traitors and cowards became major players in a deadly game of treachery that ensued following the continent’s liberation from Spain.  Arana puts all of the players and pieces together in a narrative that is both shocking and disheartening.  And through the story, we can clearly see the development of the Spanish Empire’s system of racial hierarchy  that has remained with Latin American society to this very day.  Fully aware of this, Bolívar made it a point to include everyone in his campaigns with the belief in his heart of a truly united and free Latin America.

Before he died, he recorded a statement regarding the lessons he learned after two decades of service in the revolution.  Hauntingly, his words proved to be correct and to this day, Latin America has never been able to eradicate the very issues proclaimed by  Bolívar in 1830.  And if he were alive today, he would be discouraged to see that he was correct.  Nevertheless, he did succeed in liberating Latin America before greed and deception caused infighting among the new republics that has never fully subsided.  But perhaps one day, we may finally see a truly united continent, free of demons from Spanish and British rule and the dreadful effects of the systems of class division and slavery.  And in that moment, the spirit of Bolívar will truly live on.

The story at hand is one of courage, love, triumph, betrayal and vindication.  Bolívar is long gone but his name and legacy continue to live on.  Marie Arana has done a great service to a legendary historical figure who changed the course of world history and paved the way for the birth of a new South America.

ISBN-10: 1439110204
ISBN-13: 978-1439110201
ASIN: B008J4PNX8

Becoming – Michelle Obama

Books-Michelle ObamaAny former First Lady of the United States will tell you that there is nothing “easy” about that lifestyle.  As the wife of the most powerful man on the planet, there is a high demand on appearance, initiatives and unwavering support for the policies that originate from the White House. Michelle Obama is an alumnus of this world, serving as the nation’s First Lady from January, 2009 to January, 2017.  Her style, look and presence is unmistakable and she will be remembered in time as one of the most dynamic to have lived in the White House. Almost two years have passed since Donald J. Trump took office and the where the United States is headed seems at times uncertain.  There exist a political climate built on division and hate, which will require many years ahead for healing and understanding. As the first Black-American woman to be a First Lady, she has unique perspective on Washington, D.C., and the country she calls home.  Her views and life story are presented here in this phenomenal autobiography of the life of Michelle Robinson who went on to become Mrs. Barack Obama.

As I purchased this book, I satisfied a growing curiosity about the story the former First Lady.  As an American citizen at times dismayed, but I believed that the book could take me back to time in which a sense of normalcy was found at the highest levels of government.  Not only was I completely engulfed in the book, having read it in three days, but it reminded me that it was less than two years ago that the Obamas were in the White House and America seemed to be moving forward in the right direction.  Today it seems like an eternity has passed and only time will tell who will occupy the oval office next.  But this is Michelle’s story and to understand the former First Lady, it is necessary to hear her story as a young girl from the South Side of Chicago who commits to hard work, dedication and supporting the presidential campaign of one of America’s most popular political figures.  In many ways, her story is the epitome of the American Dream supplemented by the added variable of her being a Black-American.

On January 17, 1964, Fraser and Marian Robinson welcomed Michelle LaVaughn Robinson into the world, but I do not believe anyone could have imagined then, the heights she would reach in less than fifty years on earth.  As the product of a hard-working blue-collar home, her story reminded me of my own upbringing.  My father worked for General Electric and my mother for what is now J.P. Morgan Chase.  Both are retired now and I am fortunate to have both of them present each day.   In my neighborhood of East New York, diversity was lacking after New York City endured its own “white flight” to the suburbs.  Over time East New York became one of the worst ghettos in the country with a murder rate that was astronomical.  But our parents and extended family members refused to let my brother and I slack on anything.  And just like Michelle’s grandfather, affectionately called “Southside”,  we had my grandparents and great-parents there to remind us the importance of an education in life.

From the start, the story is seductive as the reader becomes eager to learn about the life of the former First Lady.   Her teen and college years are pretty typical for most young ladies and after graduation from Princeton, she earns a position at the law firm of Sidley Austin, LLP, where fate intervened and she met the man who would change her life forever. It is at this part of the book that the story kicks into high gear and the ride never lets up.  To say that her story is incredible is an understatement.  But what makes it even more special is her humbleness and firm grip on reality.  While I read the book, I never detected any sense of arrogance or entitlement nor was it her chance to brag about herself.   She never loses touch with the fact that at the core, she is still the same Michelle Robinson from the South Side of Chicago., only now older and wiser. Her time as the First Lady has left her with a veteran’s seasoned view of Washington, politics and life.

Some readers might be wondering where Barack Obama fits in to the story.   After their initial courtship, he is as integral to the story as one could imagine.  In fact, it would have been virtually impossible to separate their stories for obvious reasons.  His decision to enter politics was the point at which their lives forever changed in ways they could have never imagined.  And as he ascends to higher office before winning the 2008 Presidential Election, we are given a rare inside view of what was transpiring behind the scenes in his campaign and the changes that took place in the lives of the Obamas.  Following his inauguration in January, 2009, the young couple were placed into an entirely new world in which learning is always constant and surprise around the corner.   And although the focus is always on “Mr. President’ ,  her story is equally interesting even as she settles in to the role of the First Lady while trying to be a good mother, friend, daughter and sister.

There are many highs in the book and also some lows,  but throughout, her story remains inspiring and I recommend that every woman and young woman read this book.  Her story is yet another example that women that achieve great things in this world regardless of what any misogynist may think.  This is a former First Lady of the United States, who personifies class, intelligence and many other things that young women all over the world can aspire to achieve.

ASIN: B079ZYWJJ8
ISBN-10: 0525633758
ISBN-13: 978-0525633754

 

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