Category: Biographies

audieWhen this book came up as a recommendation, I thought back to the movie ‘Platoon‘ (Orion Pictures, 1986) by Oliver Stone.  There is a scene before the final battle in which Bunny (Kevin Dillon) and Junior (Reggie Johnson) have been instructed by Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) to get back in their fox holes.  Junior is at his breaking point but Bunny is getting warmed up and says to him “don’t you worry my man, you’re hanging with Audie Murphy now“.  I had heard of Audie Murphy before mainly through my father, who was quite familiar with his story and the 1955 film of the same name. This is the story behind the film of the most decorated soldier to return from World War II.

The book opens with a foreword famed NBC journalist Tom Brokaw before moving to Murphy’s story which begins in Kingston, Texas where we quickly learn that his father has walked out on the family.  He is one of twelve children born to Emmett Berry Murphy and Josie Bell Killian. At the age sixteen, his mother dies and the young teenager is forced to grow up literally overnight.  At the age of eighteen, he reports to the Marine Corps recruiting station but is initially refused enlistment because of his weight and age. Murphy is determined to sign up and eventually succeeds in his quest.  His thirst for action is soon quenched as he finds himself on the front lines in the Mediterranean Theater off the shores of Morocco.  As the story progresses, we are quickly thrown into the mix of the action as Murphy and his platoon are actively engaged in fierce combat.  Soliders enter and exit the story quickly, some having been felled by a sharpshooter’s bullet and others having fell victim to  shells and rockets.  The scenes are graphic and death lingers over them like a storm cloud that breaks without any hint of warning.

The Marines needed killers and Murphy eagerly signed for the task.  Yet the savagery of war is not lost on him and this quote sheds light on the humanity that resides in all soldiers: “But it is not easy to shed the idea that human life is sacred . The lieutenant has not yet accepted the fact that we have been put into the field to deal out death“.  To say that  war is hell is an understatment. Murphy understood the darkness of it all but make no mistake he believed in the job he was assigned to do and he takes pride in being a leatherneck.  He is a killer but one who sees the dysfunction of war and realizes that death is everywhere at all times. Bravery is his speciality but not idiocy.  Further, he was not invincible to the dangers of infantry including malaria which catches him in its grip on more than one occasion.  His time in the infirmary where he meets the nurse known only as “Helen” is a needed relief from the constant descriptions of the last moments of fellow Marines.

The European Theater is undoubtedly where the story picks up pace and as they march across Italy, Murphy fills the book with recreation of battle scenes and hilarious anecdotes through the likes of fellow soldiers such as Novak, Swope and Kerrigan, whom Murphy calls the “Irishman”.  He and Kerrigan develop a lasting friendship built upon the time they spend facing death and dishing it out to German forces.  At the book’s closing, Murphy remarks “but I also believe in men like Brandon and Novak and Swope and Kerrigan ; and all the men who stood up against the enemy , taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting . The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent “.  Between the soldiers is a sense of humor that some readers may find to be somewhat macabre.  But in war, the rules of reality and morality are changed in ways some of us cannot comprehend. 

The book is less than three hundred pages but it is by far one of the best memoirs of war I have read.  It is dark, humorous and enlightening at the same time.  War creates a separate world in which soldiers navigate while trying to hold onto their morals and sanity.  Both are sometimes sacrificed and no one who leaves alive,  leaves the same.  There are many books on World War II but to see the war from the grunt’s point of view is a separate experience and Murphy delivered the goods.   Highly recommended.



sam1If you have ever listened to a song by Sam Cooke (1931-1964), then I am sure you can agree that no one is ever the same after hearing his voice.  My parents and grandparents played his albums and knew many of his songs by memory, singing them with as much passion as Cooke did while on stage.  For millions of black Americans, Sam Cooke was the best singer of his time and his death on December 11, 1964, sent music fans into mourning as one of the most beloved singers in America was laid to rest.  Today, almost fifty-six years after his death, the songs he produced sound as if they were recorded yesterday.  In fact, earlier today, I listened yet again to ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ which many people believe to be his best recording.  Spike Lee opted to use it in the 1992 film ‘Malcolm X’, in the scene where Malcolm (Denzel Washington) walks toward the Audubon Ballroom and his fate after parking his car.  Cooke’s music has stood the test of time and will continue to do so. But just who was the real Sam Cooke?

Author Peter Guralnick researched Cooke’s life and has composed a biography that shows the many sides of the late singer.  The book is well over seven hundred pages, so by no means is it a short read. But contained within these pages, is a wealth of information about Cooke’s life and the music industry in which Sam found himself fully immersed.  Guralnick was able to speak to many individuals who knew Sam and were able to provide him with invaluable access to archival documents, footage and anecdotes.  It is an exhaustive effort for sure but one that has certainly paid off.

The story begins in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the home of the Rev. Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae whose marriage produced eight children. Sam came in fifth but would go on to become the most popular and most tragic child. From an early age, his father drilled into him that no matter what you do, you do it the best.  It was a lesson that helped fuel Cooke’s work ethic which is on display throughout the book in both positive and negative light.  After becoming part of several singing groups early in his career, Cooke makes the decision to become a solo artist. It was a decision that would change his life forever and re-shape music in America.

There are many high moments in the book as Cooke’s life reaches new heights. However, not all of the story is smiles and giggles.  Sam was a complex figure like many superstars and some of the sides to him were darker than what many fans were allowed to see.  Guralnick explores these sides of Cooke which might come as a shock to the even his most ardent supporters.  Cooke was not impervious to the demons that come with success in the music business and it is not long before money, fame and women become the vices with which he lived.  Lawsuits, contract and paternity disputes haunted Cooke and I admit that I was unaware of some of the other children he had sired.  However, Barbara remains central to the story and was the wife the public knew. But behind the scenes, Cooke’s relationship with his wife was a constant storm brewing that occasional developed into a full blown tornado with Sam’s dark side rising to the occasion.  The tragedy of their son Vincent is central to their relationship later in the book.  I warn readers that some of the events that take place between Sam and Barbara are tough to digest and remind us that even stars have their faults.

Cooke rose to fame during a time in America where segregation was still legally employed in many cities across the United States.  The ugly face of Jim Crow appears as Sam and the other artists are forced to navigate and endure a system of discrimination that was designed to humiliate and subjugate its victims.  Cooke is determined to buck the system and his actions in opposition to segregated audiences is both legendary and truly one of the most inspiring moments in the book. His refusal to perform in front of segregated audiences helped set the stage for the eventual demise of Jim Crow. And battling right along with him are Malcolm X (1925-1965), Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) and even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), all of whom make an appearance in the story.  Sam found himself at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and used both his music and star power to challenge the establishment. By all accounts he was a straight shooter and fair regardless of who the person was.  He exemplified integration with a supporting cast composed of people from all walks of life.  For Cooke, all that mattered was the music and the revenue.

It should be noted that many industry greats appear in the story on various occasions.  You may find yourself taking a significant amount of notes. However, if you are familiar with Cooke’s story, you will already know some of the history presented here.  Regardless, the book has a steadily moving narrative that flows effortlessly through the author’s words.  The inclusion of the recollections by Sam’s close confidants adds the right amount of authenticity to completely tell the story of his life.  At one point, it seemed as if for Sam, the sky was the limit.  But his attraction to money and fast women would prove to be his undoing and at times, I found myself wondering why he acted in the ways in which he did.  The final act in which he visits the Hacienda Hotel with Elisa Boyer seems surreal so many years later.  Perhaps we may never know what completely happened that night.  Maybe Sam was over his head filled with rage. Or perhaps there was a darker and far more sinister reason for Bertha Lee Franklin putting an end to the legend of Sam Cooke.

If you are a fan of Sam Cooke, this book is a must read. It is by far, an authoritative account of his life that steps deep inside the life of the man behind the music.  He is long gone but his powerful words remain with us and even in the most adverse of situations, I often think of Sam and remind myself that yes, a change is gonna come.

ISBN-10: 0316013293
ISBN-13: 978-0316013291


20200125_205451On Easter Sunday, my mother would have my brother and I watched the epid Hollywoof Film ‘The Ten Commandements’. It is one Chartlon Heston’s (1923-2008) best roles and his agtonist in the film, Yul Brynner (1920-1985), delivers an equally compelling performance a Ramesses II.  In fact, it remains the film by which I have always recognized Brynner. However, like most great stars of his era, often called the “Golden Era of Hollywood”, there was more to his life than the public was able to see. His son Rock Brynner decided to turn memories of his childhood into this memoir of the time he spent with his father, one of Hollywood’s leading men.

The book is an autobiography and biography at the same time. Rock tells the story of his father’s life while giving us insight into his own struggle as he grows up in the public spotlight.  Yul Brynner has always remained something of a mystery.  He never fully explained his upbringing in interviews but instead chose to spread misinformation and in some cases complete fabrications.  The real story of the Brynner name is told here, putting to rest any outlandish rumors that have persisted throughout the years about  Yul’s origins.  If there was ever an instance of the apple does not fall far from the tree, it is definitely to be found here as the actions of Yul’s grandfather Jules and father Boris serve as a blueprint for the way Yul later lived his own life. Was it heriditary?  I do not believe so but it is apparent that within the Brynner family, history continued to repeat itself in ways that will leave some readers speechless.

Yul Brynner remains the center of the story all the way throughout the book.  His son lets us following along as his father leaves his native Switzterland and emigrates to New York and into a completely new world. From there, he would eventually make it west to Hollywood.  The trials and tribulations endured by Brynner are reminiscent of the long paths taken by other stars to finally achieve stardom.  He was a tenaciou individual, undaunted by adversity and determined to leave his mark on the film world. The fact that I am writing about him in 2020 shows that he was indeed successful.  But what I found to be even more interesting was the fact that when he arrived in America, he spoke almost no English.  Incredibly, the films later in his career reveal no trace of this fact.

Similar to other leading men and women in Hollywood, Yul’s life was filled with indescretions, controversy and financial troubles which hung over him like a dark cloud. The Unites States Government proved to be a formidable enemy, even pushing Yul to make a big move abroad that affected sitautions and events around him for the rest of his life.   Rock does not hide anything and reveals the unorthodox world of the place they call Tinsel Town.

Rock supplements his dad’s story with his own that begins in a house with a roaming father with an eye for the opposite sex and a mother with an addiction that would later drive a wedge in between husband and wife. Virginia Gilmore’s (1919-1986) role as wife of Yul Brynner and mother of Rock Brynner proved to be no easy task and as we see in the book, it took an enormous toll on her well-being.  Sadly, she never remarried after Yul Brynner. By contrast, Yul remarried several times and with each marriage came even more surreal events that would be added to his story.  Rock is forced to confront his own demons and as I read the book, I could not help to feel as if he was spiraling out of control but in a way different from his father, whose own demons were catching up with him. And while I would hesitate to label the household as dysfunctional, there were certainly things that would not be accepted today even many homes around the world.  But this is life as Rock remembers it: the good, the bad and the ugly.

One aspect of the story that will be of interest to readers is Yul Brynner’s health.  His appearance in an anti-smoking commerical after his death had an eerie film to it as nearly everyone by then was aware that Brynner had long since been dead.  I found the back story regarding his health to be eye-opening and it also provided insight into the many ways we live our lives even at the expense of longevity.  I do believe that if Yul Brynner were live, he would warn many about the perilous behaviour that helped to cause his own demise.

Other celebrities make appearances throughout the book and the anecdotes by Rock Brynner are interesting and reveals small bits of information about some of the greatest stars to ever grace the silver screen.  Not all of the storys have happy endings, some are dark such as small sections regarding the late Steve McQueen (1930-1980).  Rock finds himself immeresed in this usual but highly seductive lifestlyle that would give rise to his own pitfalls that haunted him for many years.  His struggle is equally as poignant as the story of his father’s life.  Father and son had a great bond but differences of opinion that later became a source of tension between the two. Regardless, Rock never wavers in support of love of his father and is with him up until Yul’s final moments which are recalled towards the end of the book.

If you remember Yul Brynner and have always been captivated by his work, then this book is a must read.  And even if you are not, there is enough interesting information in the book to hold your attention all the way through. Great read.

Mr. Brynner is, quite simply, the King. Man and role have long since merged into a fixed image that is as much a part of our Collective Consciousness as the Statue of Liberty.” –Frank Rich, The New York Times

ISBN-10: 067169006X
ISBN-13: 978-0671690069


cjung1Many years have passed since I studied philosophy in college.  Names such as Kant and Freud were part of my regularly assigned reading.  However, one name I was not particularly exposed to was Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the late Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who is widely held high regard as a pioneer in the field of psychology.  I saw this biography on Amazon and decided to take another look at his life and beliefs.  When starting the book I had no judgments about Jung but was sure I would learn a new way of looking at the human mind and what lies behind our thoughts and actions. And while I did find some very interesting concepts put forth by Jung, there is far more to the book than meets the eye.

First and foremost, the book is an autobiography and Jung takes center stage.  He begins with his childhood in Keswill, Switzerland which is idyllic of life in Europe in the years prior to the outbreak of the First World War. He is soon joined by a younger sister but quickly learns that his family is slightly different from others in terms of status and finances.  His parents Paul Achilles Jung (1842–1896) and Emilie Preiswerk (1848–1923) are common people but from early on, the differences between mother and father become vividly clear. For young Carl, his relationship with each would help shape his future endeavors.  His father admonishment to never become a theologian was partly followed mainly due to Jung being somewhat of a rebel as he explains early in his story. His anecdotes about his actions as a kid make it clear early on that his life was destined to be anything but ordinary.

One thing I did notice is that Jung does not mention many parts of his life with exact details but rather summarizes the main events.  In fact, only the major occurrences that are discussed in detail are the death of his father in 1896 and mother in 1922.  His wife’s death in 1955 is mentioned in passing during a passage about another topic.  Even his children are rarely mentioned.  We can only guess as to why they receive such scant attention.  Regardless, the story is still highly engaging and Jung has plenty of discuss regarding his thoughts on human psychology,  allowing his brilliant mind to be put on full display.

As the book progresses, Jung begins to travel abroad and his trips across Africa, India, America and the Middle East, result in highly interesting observations from the visitor’s point of view.  His ability to place himself in another person’s shoes and objectively examine his European background are food for thought and shows Jung’s evolution into the figure that the world holds in high esteem.  He is not without fault however and relates his shortcomings.  His relationship with Sigmund Freud is an interesting part of the book and Jung explains why it ran its course and where he felt that Freud has psychology wrong.  In the appendix to the book are several letters from Freud to Jung that some readers may find interesting. Letters from Jung to Freud are not included here.

A book about Carl Jung would be incomplete without some discussion of the psyche, the unconscious and God.  All three and much is discussed in detail presenting compelling arguments that might challenge your current thoughts on them and how they relate to your own life.  Love also finds a place in the discussion and Jung’s opinion of it and how man handles it, provides an insightful and valuable explanation of a topic and liberates, confuses and in some cases destroys.   Jung has answers as to why and I believe his reasoning is still valid today, having stood the test of time.

Readers familiar with Jung’s work will find the book easier to follow along than readers who are not. However, one does not need prior knowledge of Jung’s work to follow the story.  In fact, I felt that he is very clear in his thoughts and even someone who has no exposure to psychology can quickly pick up the material.  His experiences provide a wealth of material into the human psyche and can spark discussions that can last for hours.  His gift in this book is a gift that keeps on giving.  His thoughts are not the final word but a starting point for future discourse.  If you are fan of Carl Gustav Jung and want to know more about the man behind the legend, his memories, dreams and reflections are exactly what you are looking for.

ASIN: 0679723951


circle1 On December 25, 1979, the armed forces of the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in support of pro-Communist forces engaged in a power struggle with insurgent forces known as the mujahideen.  Soviet forces marched into the capital city of Kabul and later succeeded in staging a coup in which President Hafizullah Amin (1929-1979) was removed and replaced with Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal (1929-1966).  Thousands of Afghan citizens were rendered homeless as bombs fells and brutal fighting produced collateral damage. For Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller, the war changed her life in ways she could have never imagined.

This moving autobiography is Ahmadi-Miller’s story of life in Afghanistan and her family’s journey across cities and countries in search of a better life far removed from war torn Kabul.  As the book begins, we are taken inside her home where she and her seven siblings are being raised by their parents Abdullah and Miriam.  Their daily routine is what we would expect of large family and the interactions between siblings is something that anyone with brothers and sisters can easily relate to.  Her parents care deeply for each other but Abdullah, whom Enjeela affectionately calls Padar, has a vice that eventually fractures their marriage. Though they are able to move past it, changes in the Afghan government coupled with a crackdown on opposition voices, results in Miriam making the decision to leave the country with half of their children, leaving Padar and the rest behind.  He is determined never to leave Afghanistan and is certain they can ride out the war.  However, the reality of the conflict begins to hit home as he finds himself suspected by the Soviets of secretly working for the United States.  Time begins to run out and Padar decides that they will join their mother who has settled in India.  He sends his children on their journey with a trusted friend, Masood, and promises to join them in neighboring Pakistan.  Masood is a loyal and dedicated friend who serves as their guardian as they traverse across mountains, valleys  and small villages across Afghanistan and Pakistan.   Enjeela and her siblings soon experience the realities of the world that have a profound effect on all them.

As they move through Afghanistan and later Pakistan, they encounter many dark realities of life that children in the west are never exposed to.  Soviet fighters had engulfed the city and their presence alone is enough to cause fear and consternation among the local populace.  Enjeela has plenty to tell us and her memories of the migration between the two countries are filled with anecdotes that reveal the brutal reality that is life in remote locations.  Nomads, rebels, shepherds and bandits roam freely resulting in Masood keeping a watchful eye over his group.  Mina enters the story and young Enjeela soon makes a new friend.  But over time, Mina’s life at home reveals a dark side of Afghanistan that Enjeela was unaware of.  She is slowly growing up on this trip but in ways she could never have imagined.  Their bond as siblings and support for each other are tested time and again as they are forced to use critical thought in situations that could have easily gone the wrong way.

Pakistan proves to be a refuge for the group of siblings who eventually realize that they are in fact refugees.  But they have many guardian angels along the way and their roles in the story were unexpected but definitely welcomed.  Those moments add a touch of humanity to a story filled with adversity.  Padar eventually reenters the story and the Ahmadi family that has survived thus far, is determined to make it to India.  The next leg of their journey to what they believe is their final destination, is by far the most dangerous and the escapades that ensue are what we would describe as “close calls”.  Padar remains the voice of reason and their source of eternal faith. Throughout the book he is anchor upon which everyone relies for support and reassurance.  His strengths and flaws are on display but it is clear that Enjeela truly loves him and the two have a special bond.  After a series of mishaps, Padar and the four siblings finally reach India where a sense of normalcy sets in again.  However, their mother Miriam has her own struggle and needs the support of her family at this time more than ever.  Her plight and the family’s status in India, forces her and Padar to make another life altering decision that will take the family across several continents to place none of them ever thought they would live in.

This book came as a recommendation on Amazon and at first glance, the cover caught my attention.  I have always been fascinated about the Middle East, a region which many westerners still struggle to understand.  Enjeela’s story shows a side of Islam that is often omitted and her observations about what true Islam is and how we should treat each other, are insightful and thought provoking.  My only complaint is that I wish the book had continued for a few more chapters to see how life changed for the Ahmadi family after their final move. Perhaps that part is not as important or possibly boilerplate in development. Regardless, this story of her early years in the Middle East and the struggle to survive and emigrate is enough to inspire anyone that decides to read this story.  And her account goes to show that broken circles can be repaired.


Biographies Middle East

lutherIn the state of South Dakota, the Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the descendants of the Oglala Sioux Native American tribe.  The children of Pine Ridge aspire to enroll in the Red Cloud High School with hopes of attending college.  Many of their parent, suffer from alcoholism, a plague that has followed the Oglala Sioux since their first encounter with white settlers in the early 1800s.  Poverty and discrimination have resulted in depression and despair which has yet to be fully addressed.  The true story of the Native American experience remains misunderstood and in some cases neglected. They current day Oglala are the descendants of indigenous people whose home was a North American continent in which life was simple yet effective with  languages largely unwritten and passed down through oral teaching.  The Sioux were only one of hundreds of tribes, some of whom are now extinct such as the Canarsie Indians.  Chief Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939) was born in Rosebud, South Dakota into the Oglala Sioux tribe and this is his story of his life and his people.

I found this enjoyable autobiography on Amazon while browsing through recommendations. I have always been curious about Native American history and the title quickly caught my attention.  This story begins in Rosebud, South Dakota during Standing Bear’s childhood.  Life is simple for the Sioux and he takes us through the motions, explaining daily life and the many customs practiced by their tribe.  There is a good amount of information about the Sioux and their approach to life.  Readers today may find some things strange but it is imperative to remember that this was a community that had no exposure at that time, to modern technology.

Life for the Sioux changes as the United States Government increases its policy of expansionism and begins to seize land home to native tribes.  The new settlers introduce the Sioux to new foods and customs, and his descriptions about them are eye-opening and highlight the stark difference in culture between the two groups.   But over time, the two groups become more acquainted with each other and the white settlers become determined to give the Sioux a formal education. Standing Bear enrolls the Carlisle Indian School under the direction of Captain Pratt who becomes one of the most important figures in his life as we read the book.   And it is at this point, that his life is never the same and his path of education would take him places he never imagined.  He adopted the English first name of Luther and it remained with him for the rest of his life.

As Standing Bear increases his knowledge and his expertise of the English language, he is accepted to work in a store owned by former United States Postmaster General John Wanamaker (1838-1922) which changes his view of the world and he soon realize that he must do what is possible to help his people the Sioux. He makes the tough decision to return to his home, with the intention of using his education and teaching skills to improve life for the Sioux.  But the story soon take takes yet another turn as he meets and marries Nellie De Cory with whom he would father several children.  And it is not long before opportunity comes knocking again and soon husband, wife and child are off to London as part of the traveling Buffalo Bill Show.  He recalls life in England and how he and fellow tribesmen adjusted to show business on the road in a foreign country.  Throughout all, he is the undisputed leader who lives an exemplary lifestyle founded on principle.  His heritage as a Sioux is of the utmost importance and the words of his father are never far from his mind throughout the book.

Upon his return to the United States, his life takes a series of turns, and his next destination was California, headquarters for the motion picture industry.  He finds work in Hollywood for a short time as an actor but quickly realizes that no one understands how to accurately portray Indians on screen. The non-existent presence of authentic Indians in motion pictures is not lost on him and he informs us at the book’s closing that he is planning on opening an Indian Employment Agency to help other Native Americans find work.  However, his ultimate goal was to help other Indians make the transition from the plains to the white man’s world. Their world is foreign to us but Standing Bear knows this and his purpose here is to help you understand and appreciate the Sioux. On February 20, 1939, Standing Bear died from complications of the flue while filming ‘Union Pacific’ directed by Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959).  He was seventy-years old and had lived an extraordinary life as described within the pages of this book.



zahedOn September 22, 1980, the Iraqi military marched into neighboring Iran under the orders of President Saddam Hussein (1937-2006).  Tensions between Hussein and Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) had been brewing over control of the Shatt al-Arab river, Iraqi nationalism and Khomeini’s calls for the Ba’ath party to overthrow the Iraqi government.  The conflict raged for eight years before a cease-fired was signed in August, 1988.  It is estimated that the war resulted in the deaths of nearly 1.5 million Iraqis and Iranians.  On both sides, villages were destroyed, leaving thousands homeless and families permanently separated.  Children as young as thirteen were conscripted to serve, becoming trained killers before the age of twenty-one.  After the cease-fire, prisoners of war remained held in prisons on both sides before they were slowly repatriated.  This book is the story of two of those prisoners who survived the war, living to tell their story about the war that changed their lives.

Zahed Haftlang was born in the town of Masjed Soleyman in Khuzestan Province, Iran. His relationship with his father, whom we come to know as “Baba”, is not good and serves as the main catalyst for his flight from home. At the age of thirteen, he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary and for six years he fought in the war before being captured by the Iraqi army. in 1982.  By Iraqi protocols, he should have been executed, but his captor showed mercy and transported him back to base for medical treatment.  Along the way, he suffers more injuries at the hands of Iraqi soldiers but arrives in stable condition.  He was then joined by other captured Iranian soldiers and for the next seventeen years, he remained there as a prisoner of war before being released in 1999.

Najah Aboud was born in Iraq and grew up in the Shula neighborhood in Baghdad. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Iraqi army and was formally discharged in his early twenties.  He was called back to serve at the age of twenty-eight when the war broke out.  In 1982, he was captured by Iranian forces and and spent seventeen years as a prisoner of war.

The two stories are interesting and although parallel, they show two different sides of the war.  What is clear from the beginning is that neither man wanted the conflict but rather a normal life that would include a career, marriage and children.  Their goals are simple and under normal circumstances achievable.  In fact, Najah had been operating the Bruce Lee Restaurant before the war destroyed his efforts.  The arrival of the war changed all of their dreams each one recounts how destruction settled in as the bombs fell and all hell broke loose. It is at this point in the book that the stories change gears and the ugly realities of the war become vividly clear.

What I noticed in each account is that on both sides of the war, chaos reigned. Neither goes through any type of basic training but rather are thrown into positions and forced to learn through baptism by fire. Their recollections of battle scenes and the horrors of war are graphic and sobering.  Make no mistake, they do not sugar coat this part of the book, it is as real as it gets.  Eventually, both are captured and their experiences as prisoners of war are where their accounts diverge, showing a very stark difference in treatment of prisoners of war.  For Najah, his time served in Iranian camps is quite mild although mundane. He longs for his fiance Alyaa and son Amjad.  But for Zahed, the Iraqi camp is nothing short of a nightmare.  The descriptions given by him of his time as a prisoner of war are beyond shocking.  Inhumane would be an understatement to describe his treatment at the hands of officials, most notably the antagonist Mira Sahib, whose sadistic behavior is repulsive. By the time Zahed is released, he is a shell of himself and man haunted by the war in which he fought. A shining light comes in the form of Maryam, whose entry into his life influences the decisions he makes as love becomes a very real possibility.   Najah continues to carry his own own scars as well without any information of his future wife and son.

The realization that both Iraq and Iran suffered tremendously during the war hits home and they both realize that moving abroad is the only way to help their families and themselves.  In a twist of fate, both end up in search of a new life in North America.  Vancouver, Canada is the destination and fate intervenes in ways that no one could have ever imagined for them both.  Upon arrival life is tough for both, but various figures enter the story, each to serve a different purpose in their lives.  And even after adjusting to life in the U.S., there is still much they must deal with regarding their former lives as soldiers on the front line.

The ending of the book is beyond moving and puts the finishing touch on two incredible stories.  Both express their gratitude to author Meredith May for writing this book and I do too.  It truly is an exciting and emotional book to read but crucial in understand the effect of war on all involved.


Biographies Middle East

eastmanThe history of Native Americans was for many years, untold and in some cases omitted.  the trail of tears is just one example of the systematic process of relocation enforced by the United States Government as America continued to expand.  The natives were seen as uncivilized in comparison to their American and European counterparts.  The natives would readily say their lives were uncomplicated and simple.  Many resisted the influence of soldiers on their land and fought to the death to preserve their homes.  Others did not resist and accepted the lifestyle and religion of the white man. Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman (1858-1939) was one of those who migrated from one world to another and in this short but interesting autobiography, he recalls his life and his path from the deep woods to civilization.

Eastman was a member of the Sioux tribe in Minnesota and explains his early life in Minnesota.  From the beginning, he mentions the relationship between the Sioux Indians and white settlers.  And while there are a few acts of violence discussed, the book does not contain a lot of text devoted to it. In fact, his story is mainly about his development as a person.  There are White Americans who enter the story, but in a peaceful role and their actions help propel him to his next destination.  That is not to say that all in the book is glorious and without incident.  In fact, Eastman is fully aware of the plight of Sioux people and the deceit used by the American government in prior agreements with Native American tribes.  There are a couple of people who are not exactly “friendly” but in the end do him no harm.

About midway through the book, he makes the fateful decision to go to Dartmouth College.  And it is here that his life changes completely.  In time he met and married Elaine Goodale and the couple would go on to have six children.  The book ends before the fourth child is born but not before he accomplishes many things first as a doctor and then later as a representative on behalf of private business before the Indian Bureau, the President, and Congress. His time in Washington, afforded him the opportunity to meet several presidents and scores of congressmen. His observations about Washington are still relevant today.

Eastman possessed a very radical and freethinking mind for his era.   His ability to have empathy and see things from all sides is on display and I found myself nodding in agreement at many of his thoughts.  As an Indian and American, he was forced to navigate two worlds yet he never forgets his position in either.  And that is a true mark of maturity and character.   I have yet to read the other books he has published but have now added them to the list. Good read.

ASIN: B007X18D9O


Janis1 On October 4, 1970, singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) died from a lethal combination of heroin and alcohol at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles.  The building is still there but has been renamed the Highland Gardens Hotel.  In death, she joined the 27 Club, a group of famous stars who all tragically died at the young age of twenty-seven.  In stardom, she had come to symbolize the culture change taking place across America as the ideals of the 1950s and 1960s were replaced by the liberated generation of the 1970s.  To some, she was everything wrong with the “hippie” culture and to others she was inspiration and an example of someone who came from humble beginnings to leave their mark on the world.  To a small group of people, she was simply Janis, daughter and older sister. This book is a look at her life from the eyes of her younger sister Laura, born six years after her famous sibling.

Laura begins the story by revisiting the day she learned of her sister’s death.  The news hits like a lightning bolt and no one wants to believe it.  Her father had come to dread the moment, always concerned about his first born.  Both parents had long realized that Janis marched to the beat of her own drum.  She was different from her siblings and from an early age, showed all that she was counter-culture and willing to stand up for what she believed in.  As we move into Janis’ story, Laura retraces the family’s genealogy, explaining the migration of both sides of the family from abroad to the United States.   The story is similar to other stories men and women who gave up their lives in search of a better life proving that America truly is a nation of immigrants. On January 19, 1943, Janis Lyn Joplin entered the world and before she would leave it, millions of people would know her name.

Admittedly, I had the inclination to believe that the book would be more focused on Laura but it really is a biography of Janis as told by her sister.  And while there are other books on Joplin, I felt that Laura’s version is by far a definitive account. In fact, the book is done so well, that at one point, I completely forgot that her sister is telling the story.  It was only during the moments where Laura recalls a family issue of one of Janis’ visits, that I was reminded that Laura is the narrator.  And I believe that is a testament to the skills required a well-rounded writer and editing team.

Early in the book, the story focuses on the family’s life in Port Arthur, Texas.  Janis’ time in high school shows that early on, her fiery spirit was already on full throttle.  Her stance on racial discrimination was a bold and telling move by a teenager who grew up in what her sister reveals was an isolated community in which no minorities lived.  Her acts of defiance would help form the person she became and stayed with her throughout her life.  And in spite of transgressions, it is clear that sister Laura truly admired her old sister and still does.

The book picks up pace after Joplin’s return to San Francisco to join the band Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Janis is coming into her own and the band is gaining recognition in the music world.  After several slow starts, Joplin and the band hit pay dirt and her life takes a new direction from which she would never return.  Laura chronicles all of it, following her sister’s footsteps as she moves through the music world which found her on The Ed Sullivan Show and signing a record deal with Clive Davis.  As Laura shows us, Janis’ life was a roller coaster ride composed of fame, lovers, drugs and ultimately heartache.  But Janis lived on her own terms and this piece of advice to her sister which Laura vividly recalls is perhaps the theme of the book: “Let yourself go and you’ll be more than you’ve ever thought of being.”

The pace of the book maintains its speed never slowing down.  As a result, I found myself glued to the pages and before I knew it, several hours had passed by before I even looked at the time.  It is an enjoyable read regardless of the ending that we know is coming.  But Janis has a way of pulling people towards her and as Laura tells the story, I found myself happy at her success and down during the moments where her demons took over.  Her times of sobriety are scattered and the letters she sends home are moving, standing in stark contrast to the woman who took hard drugs in a game of chicken with death.  But she was not a one-dimensional personal, rather a complex individual with no single adjective to describe her.

In 1995, Janis Joplin was inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In death, her fame was catapulted and she has earned mythical status as a rock star.  In just a few short years she went from a struggling performer in San Francisco to one of America’s biggest stars.   Forty-nine years have passed since her death but in recent years, a resurgence of material about her life has re-surfaced, including the 2015 documentary ‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’.  The archival footage is good and once again she graces television screens.  Yet, no examination of her life would be complete without this heartfelt and moving account by her sister. Highly recommended.



20191222_223548On December 31, 1972, a DC-7, loaded beyond its maximum capacity, taxied down the runway at San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico.  The plane had been chartered by Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker (1934-1972), who set out to deliver supplies to the Central American nation of Nicaragua that was struggling to recover in the wake of a devastating earthquake.  There were no survivors and Clemente’s body was never found.   He was 38 years of age and left behind a widow Vera (1941-2019) and three sons. He was posthumously inducted in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and his number, 21, was officially retired by the Pirates in 1973.  More than forty years have passed since his death, but to this day he is regarded as one of the greatest Latin baseball players to have ever played the game.  This is the story of his life by fan and author David Maraniss.

It goes without saying that baseball fans will more than likely be highly interested in this book if they have not previously read it. But even if you are not a baseball aficionado, I firmly believe that you will enjoy this biography of the late star.  Personally, I could not put it down and the time flew by as I read through the book.  As one would expect, the story begins in Carolina, Puerto Rico where we are introduced to Clemente’s parents, Melchor and Luisa.  On August 18, 1934, Roberto enters the world but no one at the time had any idea of the fame and tragedy that laid ahead. If you have been to Puerto Rico or even the Dominican Republic, then you know how important baseball is on those two islands.  For young Roberto, baseball quickly became a way of life and before the age of 20, he finds himself already being scouted by the big players in the United States.  However, his path to the Pirates was more intricate than has been publicly acknowledged.  Maraniss pieces the story together so that we can see how race, money and baseball acumen combined to create a chain of events that resulted in Clemente being signed by the team he would play for during his spectacular career.

Once in the major leagues, his career takes off but off the fields, many other things took place that highlight the strong conviction with which Clemente held his beliefs.  In the era of Jim Crow, segregation and horrific discrimination were widespread in the many parts of the United States.  The difference in social attitudes between Puerto and the states was not lost on Clemente and his determination to combat racial discrimination is truly one of the best parts of the book and shows why he was and is so revered.  Maraniss provides Clemente’s own statements as added emphasis to show the seriousness of his beliefs and actions.   And until his final days, he never stopped in is beliefs of equality and the responsibility that we all have to help each other in times of need.

The book is a little heavy on statistics and descriptions of some of Clemente’s best games including the 1971 World Series in which Pittsburgh defeated the Baltimore Orioles four games to three.  Batting averages and percentages are found throughout a good portion of the book and readers unfamiliar with baseball might find b studying a quick reference of what each means and its importance.  Baseball fans will recognize the importance of each in relation to Clemente’s story.   Something that I did learn which added to my view of Clemente, was his physical condition throughout his career.  His ability to perform at the professional level in spite of his ailments is nothing short of miraculous and a testament to his durability and strength as a person and professional athlete.

The author does briefly mention Clemente’s service in the United States Marines but does not go into much detail about that which I felt slightly detracted from the book. Clemente served in the Marines from 1958 to 1964, during off-season periods while in the major leagues.  He did not see any combat and his service is largely unmentioned in discussions about his life.  Perhaps the author did not feel it added much importance to the story and could very well have been the case. But I was surprised that it received scare attention.  Regardless, the book is still phenomenal and there is so much to the story that the reader will quickly move forward as Clemente’s life continues to evolve.

Maraniss does his due diligence as a biographer and does not shy away from showing us the dark side of Clemente which manifested itself in some surprising acts.  Also highlighted is the morbid vision Clemente had of his own death.  Those parts of the book gave me chills and I am sure that for those present at the time he made remarks about his own death,  they also must have felt a strange sensation rush through their body.  Sadly, his visions came to pass and the story behind how and why his plane crashed shorty after takeoff.  And like all crashes, there was no single event that could be blamed for it but a series of events that are outlined by the author.  As I read the recreation of the events leading up the crash, I could only shake my head in disbelief and anger.  Before he died, Clemente remarked to a friend that no one dies the day before they are supposed to. The words are beyond chilling but also prophetic.

As a sub-story, the events in Nicaragua are worth researching independently of the book. The Somoza regime had been in power for decades and its relationship with the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations are some of the darkest moments of American foreign policy.   And although this book is not focused on that subject, the earthquake and its aftermath does bring it to light as Maraniss shows the reaction of Washington amid fears of a political upheaval in the wake of the disaster.  Clemente’s decision to go to Nicaragua is both admirable and surprising but he was not one to shy away from what he truly believed in and it shows throughout the entire book.

To say that I enjoyed reading this definitive biography would be a severe understatement.  It is one of the best biographies that I have read.  If you are interested in the life of Roberto Clemente, this is a great place to start.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 074329999X
ISBN-13: 978-0743299992