Category Archives: Biographies
Today, sixty-four years after his death in, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) remains one of the most polarizing and studied figures of the 20th century. As the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, he enforced the legendary Red Army as it fought off a German onslaught and helped the Allies put an end to Germany’s Third Reich. Following the war, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated giving birth to the Cold War. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and today Russia is under the control of Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly one of the world’s most controversial figures. Stalin’s reign may seem to be in Russia’s distant past but it was less than one hundred years ago that Stalin ruled with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of not only his enemies but those closest to him. Rumors have surfaced over the years regarding everything including his love life, health, mental state and bungled policies. But who was the real Joseph Stalin? Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878 to Besarion “Beso” Jughashvili (1850-1909) and Ketevan “Keke” Geladze (1858-1937), few could have imagined that the young child would grow up to rule an entire nation. His life in later years became mysterious to those inside and outside of Russia. Misconceptions and falsehoods have spread, causing even more confusion about the truth. Stephen Kotkin has takes on the late leader’s life in a multi-part definitive biography that is simply outstanding.
Kotkin’s compendium is extensive, totaling over seven hundred pages of text. And from what I have seen, the second volume, due to be released in November, 2017 will be slightly larger. But contained within the pages of this book, is the incredible story of the life of Joseph Stalin from his birth until the year 1928. The book was exhaustively researched and at times, is heavy on historical figures, places and dates. At first it may seem challenging to keep track but as the book goes on the, the figures reappear to remind us of their importance. The beauty in the book is that Kotkin deeply examines all situations that require explanation. And in his writing, he is neither for or against Stalin. He simply shows us his life and who he was, based on his own statements, transcripts of Party Congresses and documents that have survived from the era. For history lovers, this is nearly heaven on earth. History textbooks tell some of the story of the Russian Revolution, but here we have an inside look into the movement that catapulted Stalin, Vladimir Lenin (1877-1924) and Leon “Lev” Trotsky (1879-1940) to eternal fame and later condemnation. The subsequent Russian Polish War and escalation of tensions between Russian and it’s allies Germany and Britain following Lenin’s death, highlight the fractured foreign policy enacted employed by the Bolshevik party.
As Kotkin showcases, Stalin’s rise to power was based on fear, intimidation and deception. Even those closest to him, never truly knew what he was thinking or how to approach him at times. His first wife Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze (1885-1907) died only a year into their marriage but his second wife Nadya Alliluyeva (1901-1932) witnessed first hand his unpredictable nature and abrasive moods. And for those that were enemies, they often face exile in Siberia, where Stalin himself was once confined to during the First World War. Trotsky, Grigory Zionviev (1883-1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936) would find this out firsthand. His NEP or “New Economic Policy” was supposed to be the plan that saved Russian but instead propelled it towards disorganized collectivization intended to balance the economy as Stalin moved further to the left. But as we see in the book, the Bolsheviks had steep learning curves in many areas. The results of their shortcomings are tragic having resulted in the deaths of over seven million people. Famine spread like a virus forcing many to eat things unmentionable and unimaginable. And throughout the crisis that arise, Stalin comes off as a cold machine unaffected by anything and driven by ideology. As we re-live the past through Kotkin’s words, we see the deep level of seriousness and vindictiveness that composed the former Soviet dictator.
Stalin took with him to the grave, answers to many questions that have puzzled researchers for years. And although we have documents that have been graciously preserved, some parts of his life are lost for good. Perhaps some day in the future, more information about him may be discovered but with Kotkin’s work, we have the first part of what could be the best biography of Stalin to date. It is one of history greatest stories and filled with historical figures such as Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), Fanya Kaplan (1890-1918), Gavilro Princip (1894-1918) and Nicholas II (1868-1918) among others. Students of Russian history have been presented with a gift in this book and I am sure it will find its way to the bookshelves of many.
Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas” – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin
In December, 1991, Warner Brothers pictures released Oliver Stone’s JFK, the film adaptation of the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (1921-1922) into the death of President John F. Kennedy. The film is filled with an all-star cast and remains one of Stone’s greatest accomplishments. Reviews of the movie are generally favorable but there are many critics who have voiced their dissatisfaction with the film believing that Stone omitted crucial information and glorified Garrison on screen. The famed director did an incredible job of bringing the past of life and his effort paid off immensely as more records related to President Kennedy’s assassination were released to the public. The actors that took part in the landmark film all did an incredible job in making the story one that will continue to spark curiosity. From history, we know that Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) was the alleged assassin but was murdered himself before he could stand trial. Several years later, Garrison began his own investigation, focusing on what he believed to be a plot in his own City of New Orleans to murder Kennedy. His investigation resulted in the arrest and prosecution of local businessman Clay L. Shaw (1913-1973). The trial became infamous for its absurdity and Shaw was exonerated in March, 1969. Garrison later tried Shaw on the charge of perjury and Shaw subsequently filed a civil suit against Garrison and others for the violations of his civil rights. These matters and others were unresolved at the time of Shaw’s death from lung cancer on August 15, 1974.
But just who was Clay Shaw and what really was his significance in the murder of John F. Kennedy? In the film we do not know much about Shaw’s past and the focus remains on his alleged connections to Oswald and David Ferrie (1918-1967). The impression that can be made from the movie is that a plot to kill Kennedy evolved among homosexual right wing extremists determined to see the President removed from office. Curiously, nearly none of the popular books on the assassination regard Shaw as a conspirator in the President’s murder. The reality of the case, as shown by Donald Carpenter in this phenomenal biography of Shaw, is that his life was far different from what we have been led to believe and the real Clay Shaw really was a man of a million fragments.
Carpenter researched Shaw’s life over a period of eighteen years before completing the book. Interviews with those who knew Shaw were conducted and Carpenter also reviewed Shaw’s surviving documents, newspaper clippings, statements given by Shaw on screen and other important notes and memorabilia. The final story is simply one of amazement and sheds light on a man who lived a incredible life. For those of us who have visited the French Quarter in New Orleans, we can attest to the level of enjoyment that awaits all of those who pay visit to the legendary Bourbon Street. Today Shaw’s name is an afterthought but at one time, he was a well-known, respected and beloved resident of the French Quarter whose efforts to transfer the neighborhood paid off well and earned him a permanent place in the City’s history.
For all of the shortcomings that plagued JFK, the film was correct regarding the issue of Shaw’s sexual orientation. And in the book it is a reoccurring subject which follows Shaw throughout his life and takes center stage during his trial. The true motives for Garrison trying Shaw remain somewhat elusive and the “evidence” of Shaw’s guilt was fragile at best. Further, rumors about Garrison’s own sexual conduct become fodder for conversation peaking with an incident involving a minor at an athletic club in 1969. I had previously read about Garrison’s indiscretions which are directly addressed by the late Kent “Frenchy” Brouilette (1936-2015) in his autobiography Mr. New Orleans: The Life of a Big Easy Underworld Legend. If Brouilette is truthful, which appears to be the case, then the anecdotes contained within this book carry more clout and shed light on Shaw’s statement to more than one friend that he would tell them the real motive behind his persecution after the trial was completed. As far as we know and the author has concluded, there is nothing in Shaw’s handwriting or oral statements by him addressing the issue.
Carpenter did an immaculate job of chronicling Shaw’s life providing a staggering amount of information on the late star of the International Trade Mart. In particular, he dives into the topic of Shaw’s affiliation with the Central Intelligence Agency bringing more clarity to the issue while also refuting unfounded conspiracy rumors. Shaw’s life is covered from beginning to end and it was an incredible journey that included service in World War II, a stint in New York City, a career with foreign trade, restoration of the French Quarter and a showdown with a controversial district attorney whose case threatened the foundation of the U.S. legal system. There are many things that we do know about Shaw’s life, but there are many more that went with him to his grave. This is by far the most accurate detailed analysis of Shaw’s life that I have read to date. And if you have watched Stone’s groundbreaking film, are planning to or are curious about Clay Shaw, this is the place to start.
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer-Kali Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
In August, 1945, the course of modern warfare was changed forever when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, striking the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following the successful deployment of the bomb, the Soviet Union and other nations enhanced their own programs to develop a nuclear weapon. The nuclear arms race produced a fear in mankind that still exists today as war continues and dictators drunk on power set their eyes on world domination and a test of egos. It has often been said that the next major world war will be the last war mankind will ever fight. Humanity now has the absolute power to destroy itself literally at the push of a button. Thankfully, since the second world war, there has been no further use of atomic weapons in an armed conflict. But the danger still exists and there have been many who have warned against the escalation of nuclear armament. One of these voices was that of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), referred to as the father of atomic bomb and in this excellent biography, an American Prometheus. Kali Bird and Martin J. Sherwin have captured Oppenheimer’s life splendidly making sure that his life is recorded for history.
Today, Oppenheimer’s name is connected with a distant past during war that the world has long tried to forget. Less than eighty years ago, Nazism, Japanese expansion and fascism threatened the security of the world and plunged several nations into the most savage war the world has seen. Allied commanders and German commanders both began to see the potential of a weapon that could end the war in one stroke. Nuclear energy, still then in its early stages became increasingly attractive. The U.S. military enlisted the help of the greatest physicist the country had to offer. A young brilliant mind joined the mission and his life was never the same again. Readers should know beforehand that the book is not heavily focused on the bomb itself. For extensive technical details, it would be best to look elsewhere. This is Oppenheimer’s story and the events that took place in his personal life which became interwoven with his duties at Los Alamos. There is a saying that there is a fine line between genius and insanity and as Bird and Sherwin show us, Oppenheimer walked the line very closely throughout the majority of his life.
The beauty in the book is that the authors truly did an outstanding job of revealing the real Oppenheimer. He was a father, brother, husband and scientist. In addition he was also a perfect example of Jung’s theory of the duality of man. At some points in the book, it is hard to reconcile how such a gentle figure would create a weapon that would later take thousands of lives and put humanity at permanent risk. The book is exhaustively researched and was completely over many years. All of the figures in the book are now deceased but their words are critical in understanding Oppenheimer’s life. It is well-known that following his accomplishments at Los Alamos, he became a proponent of disarmament. His stance earned him the wrath of many in the government and ultimately lead to his secret clearance status being completely revoked during an investigation in his communist ties. The investigation is analyzed perfectly in the book and I could not help at times but to become enraged at the trials and tribulations inflicted upon him. But I remind myself that this was the 1950s, the time when communism was the ultimate evil and Sen. Joseph McCarthy was making a name for himself with his war on communism. The FBI makes an appearance in the book as J. Edgar Hoover enforces his status as the chief watcher of the country. I shudder to think what Hoover would think today about America if her were alive to see it.
To say that Oppenheimer was an unorthodox figure would be an understatement. As I have learned through this book, he was a complex man with a complex life full of many highs and lows. He is a heroic and tragic figure that remains cemented in America’s past. I dare to say that possibly there was no one who truly did know him completely. In the book there is an aura of mysticism about him that many are unable to accurately put into words. The praises from those who knew him are some of the greater moments in the book and highlight why he was such a unique and fascinating individual. And while he is best remembered for the creation of the bomb, we should not forget that he was also a human rights advocate and crusader against the dangers of unrestricted nuclear warfare. As the father of two children, there are many aspects of his relationship with them and of his wife Kitty who plays an important role in the direction that his life took. But throughout all of it, he remained himself, the genius physicist with a love for literature and poetry and from all accounts, the make of a killer martini.
By far, this is one of the best biographies that I have read. For the majority of us who read this book, we will never know what it is like to have created a weapon that could eliminate an entire nation in less than fifteen minutes. It is an incredible burden to bear for even the most radical of us. Lyndon Johnson awarded Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi award on December 2, 1963 for his contributions to science and the advancement of theoretical physics. It was a fitting honor to a man whose life had nearly been destroyed several years earlier before an investigative committee. His final years read like a Shakespearean tragedy. Although vindicated in the court of public opinion and among his peers, he would remain controversial until his last day as his battle with throat cancer reached its tragic conclusion. He is long gone but his work and words are still with us reminding mankind of the preciousness of life and the cataclysmic threat that exist in nuclear weapons. For those seeking to learn more about Oppenheimer’s life, this is a good place to start.
“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.” J. Robert Oppenheimer
The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Live, Love and Loss-Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
During a trip back to New York from Miami this week, I was browsing the books at the terminal’s newsstand and came across this book by Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt. Like most Americans, I know Cooper from CNN and the years of journalism that he has provided to us. I was not aware of his mother’s story or that she is still going strong at ninety-three years of age. I decided to purchase the book and I am delighted to say this New York Times Bestseller was worth the investment. The title is quite self-explanatory but there is so much more in this book which is a collection of correspondence between Cooper and his mother. It takes place over a period of time and through electronic means. The story of their lives is fascinating and contains an interesting history of its own.
The beauty in this book is the newfound relations ship that develops between mother and son as they try to heal old wounds and find out who the other person really is. To say that I learned a significant amount of information about them would be an understatement. The Vanderbilt name is among the most famous in American history. At her age, she is direct link to the family’s storied past. Her memory of her family lineage at her age is astounding but also a testament to her longevity and ability to analyze herself. As Anderson throws the questions her way, she opens up extensively about the periods in her life and what they meant to her. Many years have passed since she has seen or heard the voices of her late Aunt Gertrude, Dodo, Naney and even her own mother. And all of the stars she was acquainted with as a young starstruck teenager on the west coast are deceased. Nonetheless, her memories of her time with Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Sidney Lumet and her last husband Wyatt Cooper are enlightening and precious.
However, not all the story is happy and there are many tragic moments as well including the passing of her father, the death of Wyatt and the suicide of Anderson’s older Carter in July, 1988. In spite of the many deaths that have surrounded her throughout her life, Gloria does not fear it but provides an interesting look at what she knows could come for her at any time. Her ability to accept her mortality and live the most rewarding life that she can, is an example which we all should strive to follow. Some of us will live to the age of ninety-three and some of us will not. But it is not about the number of years we live but how we live them. That is a lesson which Gloria seeks to reinforce to the reader. I truly enjoyed her story but it is only part of the book. This is Anderson’s show too and he also opens up about his own life and struggles.
I found that I was able to relate to this story as I have a sibling who is also gay and went through a process of coming out to our mother. Like Gloria, my mother also had her feelings on sexuality that have softened over time. But in the beginning things were not always so easy and many rough patches existed that had to be paved over. Today my mother and brother have an even stronger relationship than they ever did. In reading Anderson’s story I saw my brother and the personal decisions he has been forced to make because of his orientation. But as the older brother, I have long realized that it is my job to reassure him and stand in his corner throughout thick and thin. The main difference however, is that my brother is still alive while Cooper’s brother died nearly thirty years ago. The death of Carter Cooper comes up towards the end of the book and is clearly a tough topic for both mother and son. I do not believe that either will ever completely heal from his death or the death of Wyatt Cooper, their father and Gloria’s last spouse. Wyatt reminds me of my own father in the way that he approached life which we see through Gloria’s words. His death in 1976 came far too soon and left many what-if questions. Mother and son touch on these questions but ultimately accept what is and focus on the time they still have left and that is the most touching part of the book. In fact, reading has made me appreciate both of my parents even more but especially my mother who also shares a unique bond with her son(s). If you are a fan of Anderson Cooper this is a must read.
In death several musicians have become in a sense larger than life. Their recordings, writings and interviews become collector’s items catapulting them to legendary status. A cruel irony in life is that some of the greatest artist and performers to have graced a stage, died a young age before reaching their full potential. James Dean (1931-1955), Tupac Shakur (1971-1996), Janis Joplin (1943-1970), Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) and Jim Morrison (1943-1971) are just a handful of names of talented individuals who rose to fame and were gone before thirty years of age. Morrison, with his band The Doors, had become a sex icon and the poster boy for the anti-establishment movement sweeping across the United States. His death on July 3, 1972 concluded a chaotic life that seemed to get even more bizarre as it continued. Eerily, Morrison joined the group of musicians who died at twenty-seven. Joplin, Hendrix and Brian James of The Rolling Stones all died at the age of twenty-seven. And Morrison’s long-term girlfriend Pamela Courson (1946-1974), also died at the age of twenty-seven. The dark coincidences highlights the fragility of life and its unpredictable nature for we are here one day and sometimes gone the next. In death, Morrison became an even bigger legend and still has millions of adoring fans across the globe. But for all of his wild antics on stage, some of which nearly resulted in his incarceration for an extended-stay, the real Morrison proved to be a mysterious and confusing character as evidenced by this informative and well-researched biography by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky.
Capturing the essence of Morrison is critical for any biography and the authors do an outstanding job of presenting to the reader the real Jim Morrison in all of his glory and infamy. The native of Melbourne, FL, starts off life similar to most all-American kids in the 1940s. But as he matures and makes his way through high-school and college, his life begins to take on its own dynamics which would carry him all the way through to his death in Paris, France. He exemplified living outside the box and seemed to thrive on controversy. While The Doors created musical hits, their leader and singer lived life on a fine line between genius and insanity often dabbling between the two. Through interviews and critical research, Morrison’s most outrageous antics are covered and some are beyond shocking. The demons that he developed during his life take center stage and it is unfathomable to realize that in only twenty-seven years, Morrison had a life that could have spanned several decades. As a rock star he was unable to resist the many temptations faced by stars. His compulsive nature, spirituality and indulgence in excess served as a confluence of factors that nearly pushed the rock icon completely off the deep end.
It will seem absurd and possibly unbelievable that such a talented individual lead a life of severe self-destruction. But Morrison, like other great performers, typically viewed life through a different lens than the average person. Substance abuse has long been a common ailment among the world’s greatest performers. For some it was used to keep things in focus and for others, as an escape from the pressures of stardom and personal struggles they sought to avoid. For Morrison, it may be have been a combination of both or one of the other. The real reasons went with him to the grave and shall never be known. As he rose to fame, he became a force on his own and then no longer belonged to himself. He belonged to the fans who refused to allow him to be anything other than the Jim Morrison who turned out arenas and caused mass riots. For them, he was their icon and The Doors was their band providing a leading voice for social change and the rage against the establishment.
It has been said that death is not the true tragedy in life, what is tragic is what dies in inside of us while we are still alive. Tragically, towards the end of his life, Morrison had begun to come full circle and even began to talk about his parents from whom he remained detached through nearly his entire career. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, Paris became the place where he collided with fate and his life ceased to exist giving birth the eternal legacy of James Douglas Morrison and band known as The Doors. For fans of the pioneering group whose example has been followed by countless others, this is a must read.
Jazz music is as American as apple pie and fireworks on the 4th of July. Its popularity has resulted in jazz festivals around the world . The festival in Berlin is among the most popular in the world. Some of the greatest musicians in history made their names famous through their talents of the wide range of instruments that gave us the many great songs that have been studied and imitated to decades. Among these legendary artist is the late John Coltrane, who performed with the all time greats such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charlie “Bird” Parker. Davis is still the best-selling artist in jazz history with his 1959 album Kind of Blue. And his influence on jazz continues decades after his death. However, true fans will be quick to remind you that while Davis is a legend in his own right, there were others who left a lasting legacy on jazz. While he had an unassuming presence, John Coltrane is always named among the top recording artists of his time and has influence a legion of musicians. But behind the saxophone, who was the real John Coltrane?
J.C. Thomas explores the life of Coltrane in this biography of the late star. The book does not follow a traditional biography format. What Thomas has done is to mix biographical data with recollections from those who knew Coltrane. The unusual approach makes the book even more enjoyable and helps the reader grasp the mystique of a legend. Coltrane did not leave an autobiography and tragically he died many years before he could complete one. His sudden passing on July 17, 1967 at the age of 40 caused the jazz world to reel in shock at the loss of a legend in the making. However, Thomas was able to examine his music and converse with those closest to him to give us the most complete picture of this short and incredible life that began in Hamlet, North Carolina and ended in Huntington, New York.
Music is a central theme in the book for obvious reasons, however we also learn about the many struggles that plagued Coltrane throughout his life and might have played a role in his gradual decline and eventual death. There are successes in the book that cause the reader to breathe a sigh of relief. But his tragic fate also causes us to wonder what if he had lived. His belief in faith and enthusiastic study of other religions placed him on a spiritual plane that was manifested in his songs which became more dynamic as he aged and matured. Thomas takes us on this ride with Coltrane as we learn about spirituality in a different way from which we are used to. The application of his newfound spiritual beliefs to his music enable him to be in a place resulted in his ascension as one of the true pioneers of his genre.
Reviewers of the book have given favorable ratings and one even said this was the cliff notes version of his life. While that statement is not far off the mark, the book was not intended to be the end all account of Coltrane’s life. In fact, I think the book serves him well and allows us to step inside the mind of the master himself. Personally, I enjoyed the anecdotes throughout the book. Some were downright hilarious and others interesting for they show the mystery that surrounded Coltrane and still does to this day. His widow Alice said that he did not speak often but when he did he said quite a lot. Methodical, controlled and visionary, Coltrane remains a musical icon. His albums A Love Supreme and Blue Train are ranked 27 and 28 on the list of best-selling jazz albums by the RIAA. His fans would undoubtedly rank them higher than that and I would hard pressed to argue against it. For those who want to know more about his fascinating and brief life, this is the place to start to learn about the man they called Trane.
In July, 1992, my father purchased the album Doo Bop, the last studio album completed by the late Miles Dewey Davis, III. Through my father and uncles, I had been exposed to jazz music and knew the names of many of the greatest artists to ever perform. I grew to love the music and that has not changed to this day. In fact, I still listen to the album when I get in the mood to hear Miles’ songs. When he died on September 28, 1991, I remember my uncle and dad being devastated. Both he and my father were huge fans of Davis but were also aware of the chaotic life Davis had led. They would often spend hours discussion Miles, jazz and the other legends of the genre over wine, rum and cigars. When Miles he died he was less than 70 years of age and his death seemed surreal at the time. Today, many years after his death, his legacy lives on and his music continues to be study for inspiration and analysis. In 2016, the movie Miles Ahead starring Don Cheadle was released to select theaters to mixed reviews. I saw the film and thought that Cheadle captured Miles’ character quite well. There were points in the film where I had to remind myself that it was actually Cheadle on screen and not Davis himself. However, the film moves around too much and the story line fails to deliver. The result is a haphazard biopic that does not help the viewer to understand the life of one of jazz’s greatest musicians. Hollywood is always prone to taking liberties when making films and with on 90 minutes of film to work with, it would be quite challenging to capture all of his life on the silver screen. A saving grace is this autobiography which was written with the assistance of Quincy Troupe, who conducted extensive interviews with Davis and those who knew him. And the rest is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read. Miles is frank by nature and he holds nearly nothing back in the book regarding his life. His story is so engaging that I finished the book in only two days. Simply put, his story is quite the experience and we can be eternally grateful that he did tell his story before he died.
So just who was Miles Davis? And why is he so important to the history of jazz? Well, those two questions and more are answered in this book which is guaranteed to keep you entertained. From his beginnings in Alton, Illinois to his death in Santa Monica, California, his life was one situation after another that sometimes defied logic. But such was his life and one that few people will live. From the start, he is very open about his childhood and his relationships with his parents and siblings. Incredibly, from a very young age, music is in his blood and he never wavers in his quest to become a pioneer and change jazz music, something he did more than once during a career that spanned more than 40 years.
Davis was a very blunt speaker and as a result, his words are laced with profanity. So for those who cringe at foul language, be warned that he does not speak to sound comforting but talks the way he always has. At first, I thought it was a bit much but as I made my way through the book, it became an afterthought and overshadowed by the incredible story he was telling. Aside from his salty language, he had a great ability to analyze himself and open up about where he went wrong in life. It seems almost absurd that someone who was so successful in music, led a wild and tormented life at home. But his life mimics that of other creative geniuses who often straddle the fine line between genius and insanity. As we learn in the book, he constantly tried to pick up as much as he could from other great artists around him and I believe that it was helped him become the legend that he is today. He never stopped learning or changing and even says during the book that “knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery”.
His story is incredible but what makes the book even more outstanding is that Davis either knew or worked with the major names in the jazz music at the time. His friendship and working partnership with Charlie “Bird” Parker is both eye-opening and tragic but sheds light on the many dangers faced by performers and Parker’s downfall and death. Bird is just one of many characters to appear in the book, he is joined by Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Gil Evans and Clark Terry. In addition there are many others involved with the emerging bebop genre that appear in the book as they come in and out of Miles’ life adding to his experiences and wisdom.
Although deeply personal, he opens up about his medical conditions and demons in particular that nearly ended his life. As a father of several children, he struggled being a parent and is brutally honest about his relationship with them as his former wives. His marriage to actress Cicely Tyson is the best known of the three but the other two are the marriages that had the biggest impacts in his life as the reader will see. Nonetheless, his words are intoxicating and even as the book concluded, I found myself wishing for just a few more chapters in the book to see what else would happen or what he had learned as he aged. However, I am grateful to him for leaving us with these memories. Show business is rough, drugs are hard and marriage is tough. Some artists balance all three but for many that is not the case. He had his addictions and failings but was also a creative genius. And throughout the book, he is the coolest person in the room. This is Miles as raw as it gets.
On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549, commanded by Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger and first officer Jeffrey B. Skiles, made an emergency landing in New York City’s Hudson River. The successful landing and evacuation of all passengers and crew became known as the miracle on the Hudson. Sullenberger is now retired from US Airways but remains involved in the aviation industry. His efforts that day in conjunction with those of Skiles remain a classic example of the necessity of extensive training and extraordinary ability to focus on the issues at hand. Sullenberger has said that he does not consider himself a hero. In his mind, he was doing what a well-trained pilot was supposed to do; fly the plane and try to land it while preserving the lives of everyone on board. And on that day, that is exactly what happened. Prior to the incident, his name was largely unknown outside of US Airways. His face just another pilot that thousands of passengers walk past each day as they leave their flights. The men and women who travel the skies are rarely acknowledged for a job that requires tremendous sacrifice, patience and dedication. But just who is Chesley Sullenberger? And why is his story so amazing?
In this autobiography and memoir about the flight, Sullenberger opens up about his life that began in a small town called Denison, Texas. He realizes at an early age that flying is his passion and makes it his life’s mission. As we know now, he accomplished that goal and will be remembered as one of the greatest pilots we’ve come to know. But behind the skilled aviator is a simple man who leads a simple life who has been dedicated to aviation for nearly his whole life. And that is the true beauty of the book. Sullenberger makes it easy to relate to him and does go out of his way to bring undue praise to himself. His comments about the life of a pilot and bits of information about the airline industry are interesting and highlight the tremendous sacrifice pilots often have to make both personally and professionally.
After reading the book, I felt as if I knew Sullenberger personally. And if I met him person, I would probably be tempted to call him simply “Sully”. To the passengers of flight 1549, he will always be the best pilot they have ever flown with. And while nearly none of them will probably ever see him again in person, they are forever bonded by the events of that day. What I truly loved about his story is that he remains a humble person in spite of the fame and notoriety. And when he is not in the cockpit, he is a father and husband who struggles as he continues to learn how to be both. His story is one that nearly all pilots can relate to and in telling his story, he is telling their story as well.
His mind is truly one of a seasoned aviator and his ability to analyze all components of a flight and the dynamics required to a successful flight are a testament to his career and accomplishments. And because of this story, I have a deeper appreciation for all of the work that is required for a commercial aircraft to make it from one airport to the next. I will be sure to say thank you as I pass the cockpit before exiting my flight. Each time I sit down before taking off, I will think back to his story and remind myself that the pilots at the controls have put their lives on hold so that I may enjoy mine.
Shaka Senghor spent 19 years of his life in prison after being convicted for murder. At the time of his release, he was 38 years old and had spent nearly half his life behind bars. The Detroit native became a writer in prison and turned his thoughts and memories into this incredible autobiography of his life which could be a case study of the path a young man takes in a life of crime and the redemption that can be found inside the walls of a prison. The City of Detroit stands out as one of America’s greatest tragedies. The one time mecca of the automobile industry, Detroit has steadily declined and become a haven for crime, poverty and lack of hope. And as new president takes office, some are filled with optimism that Detroit can rebound from its dismal state and regain the prominence it once had.
Stories about life in prison are never easy to listen to. The recollections told by former inmates reveal the brutal life inside of a correctional facility. Murder, assault, rape and extortion are daily realities that test the sanity of even the most balanced prisoner. But what happens when a young man who is barely old enough to drink, enters the American penal system? Shaka Senghor’s story is gripping from beginning to end and helps the reader to understand the true nature of incarceration and its devastating effects on the prisoners and their loved ones. Senghor could have easily become just another statistic inside the penal system. Thousands of young African-American men enter prison at a young age and spend a majority of their lives behind bars. And when they are released later in life, several decades has passed and they struggle with integration back into society. No doubt, his story is one of success but his battle for freedom did not come easily and I assure you that once you begin this book, you will find it nearly impossible to put down.
To say that it is incredible that he is still alive today is an understatement. By all estimates, he should have died many years ago. But I believe that his fate was not to die a senseless death but to survive and write this phenomenal book that just might change the lives of those who read it whether they are on the streets in a life of crime or currently incarcerated. As he traces his beginnings to his childhood , we see the chain of events that are put into place beginning with the separation of his parents. He is introduced to the streets and before 16 years of age, a known drug dealer in the neighborhood. Fast money, status and power are in his hands but a chance encounter with a regular customer changes his life forever and for many years, he would struggle to come to terms with the events of that day.
Those who remember the HBO drama Oz will feel reminded of that show as they read this book. His memories show the ugliest parts of prison life and the descriptions of what happened are frank and to the point. Some may shy away but in order to feel the power behind his words, it was necessary on his part to tell the stories as they happened with their gritty details involved. By telling the stories in this way, his transformation into the man we see today becomes even more remarkable. I cannot imagine that it was easy for Senghor to write this book but as he explains, writing became one of the tools he used to maintain his sanity and express his emotions. And he would use writing as a means to gain his freedom after a long 19 years behind bars.
The beauty in this book is not only that he earned and gained his freedom, but in the process he reinvented himself and dives into the many social issues that have plagued minority communities for decades. As a product of a broken home, he maintains a distinction as a first hand witness to the tragic results of dysfunction in the home. His entry into a prison system with disproportionate demographics, helps to reinforce the notion that young Black and Hispanic men and women far too often fall victim to the prison system and its draconian design that attempts to strip individuals of their human existence. Senghor spent nearly five years in solitary confinement, a punishment which is purely designed for isolation and to break the mind and spirit of the inmate. Miraculously, he does not break and strengthens his resolve to one day walk out of prison a free man. His discovery of literature is a shining moment in the book. Authors and figures such as Huey P. Newton, George Jackson, Assata Shakur and Angela Davis flood his consciousness with words that help him understand his existence in prison and his life in America. Their writings prove to be invaluable in his transformation and emotional development as they provide a source of pride and hope in an environment full of toxic elements and deadly characters. His discovery of he Muslim faith is a story similar to that of other men of color who have experienced life inside of a prison and in search of an eternal creator.
Having found this book by accident, I can say that it is one of my best mistakes. His life is an incredible journey so if you have time to spare, grab a seat and follow Shaka from his childhood in Detroit to his life on the street, fatherhood, incarceration, awakening and finally redemption with success mixed in. In the end it is a feel good story that originates on the worst of circumstances. But he reminds us that we have control over our actions, words and destiny. The key is that we have to be willing to open our eyes, expand our horizons and reevaluate the path that we have taken in life.
December 16, 1988-Surrounded by family and close friends, Sylvester James, Jr., takes his last breath, having succumbed from AIDS related complications at the age of 41. The singer is another victim of the deadly outbreak of Kaposi Sarcoma, the disease which shook the United States to its core and served as the focus of Randy Shilts’ classic “And The Band Played On“. James, who was known publicly as simply “Sylvester” rose to fame during the era of disco and gay liberation in San Francisco. As Harvey Milk evolved into the Mayor of Castro Street and challenged Anita Bryant and John Briggs, Sylvester evolved as well and provided the anthem for the movement when he recorded the disco classic Mighty Real. The song remains one of the best from the disco era and can be heard in Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, the documentary of Harvey’s life. By the time of his death, Sylvester’s star as a disco legend had faded as the music industry changed gears and ushered in new genres of music. But for many people, he represented a time that was special, unique and composed of a sexual and personal freedom that had yet to be seen. But just who was the real Sylvester? Who was the man behind the drag?
Joshua Gamson brings to us the story of Sylvester’s life, put together through interviews with those who knew him, interviews given by Sylvester on various occasions and public records. The result is a definitive biography of an unorthodox star who lived life on his own terms and faced death with unrelenting stoicism. The temptation to label Sylvester is strong but as we make our way through the book, we come to see that he is not defined by any particular adjective. His odyssey from cabaret singer to superstar was a course not without adversity. Yet his ability to see beyond the limitations placed upon him by society and willingness to step outside of social constrictions earned him a following and a legacy that continues even today.
His musical recordings speak on their own but his personal life rife with his struggle to find himself, love and a sense of being, reveal a side to his life that often went unnoticed. It has been said that artists of all types live in a different world from the average person. For Sylvester this rings true and is exemplified in the book in his relationships and encounters on the gay scene. And the true tragedy is that for a man who brought love to so many and helped people discover their own happiness, his own life was one marred by sadness and rejection. Up to the time of his death, he struggled to find that everlasting peace which so many of us seek to find. Yet he remained the iconic Sylvester, a queen of the disco era and the man who supported the gay revolution with music that reigned supreme.
Enormous progress has been made for the LGBT community in the decades since Sylvester’s death. Had he lived I think he would be satisfied by what he would see today. His music and voice are still part of the revolution and he is truly one of the music industry’s most memorable stars, not only for his outlandish wardrobe but incredible singing voice that was like no other. This is Sylvester, his story, the good, the bad and the tragic. Gamson invites you to take a seat and partake on the ride that is the life of Sylvester. In the end you will come to know another side of a music legend and understand why it is so important that you feel mighty real.
“Until I call you up and tell you that I’m dead, don’t believe it” -Sylvester