Indira Gandhi – Meena Agarwal

IndiraFew places are as fascinating as the nation of India. Its constitution officially recognizes twenty-two languages. English continues to serve as a critical method of communication in the business sector. Natives will proudly tell you that India is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Yet, despite the diversity, social issues such as poverty, corruption, and overpopulation are a reminder that India’s long struggle for success is far from over. Recently I was reading only and came across the name of Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), the former prime minister who was assassinated on October 31, 1984. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), served as the nation’s first prime minister after India gained its independence in 1947. Both father and daughter left behind legacies that remain with India to this day.

The death of Indira Gandhi sent shockwaves across the world. The nightly news broadcast covered the crime in detail and readers who are too young to remember the events can find videos on YouTube that provide a step back in time before breaking news went viral on the internet. As I thought of Indira Gandhi, I realized that my knowledge of her personal life needed an adjustment. I purchased this book by author Meena Agarwal who provides a good primer for an examination of the late leader’s life. There are more extensive books to be found about Gandhi, but this biography is just what is needed by readers searching for a concise account of the historic figure.

I did notice that the book is short at around one hundred seventy-six pages, which is short compared to most biographies of political leaders than can easily stretch to nearly one thousand pages. Nonetheless, the information contained in the book is more than sufficient to provide readers with a fair amount of knowledge about who Gandhi was and why she is important in India’s history. The recap of her early life was the right amount of information needed for the story we read. The author does not go into every minute detail but explains the crucial events in her life that changed India’s history and world history. The deaths of her mother Kamala Nehru (1889-1936) and prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904-1966) changed her life forever with the latter placing her in the position to become India’s first and only female prime minister.

Gandhi’s time in office was not perfect by any means. Though she was progressive in her thinking, there were mistakes along the way. But what I found is that she genuinely loved India and despite the mounting opposition to her administration, she continued to move forward when possible. But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that the opposition is not only growing but becoming more extreme. And their rage culminated with the events at the Golden Temple, the holiest site in Amritsar, Punjab, for followers of the Sikh faith.

Between June 1 and June 10, 1984, Indian security forces conducted Operation Blue Start to remove Damdami Taksal, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and their followers from the buildings of the Golden Temple. The operation was successful but in the eyes of devout Sikhs, Gandhi had committed a mortal sin. She was not oblivious to the tensions caused by the mission and sought to soothe them. But the seed had been planted and her opponents began to plot her demise. The author revisits the events surrounding Operation Blue Star and the time leading up to October 31, 1984, Gandhi’s last day on earth. The murder and its aftermath as discussed but she does not go into extensive detail about the legal proceedings and results. One assassin was killed immediately after Gandhi’s murder, thus escaping the justice system.

Following the assassination, the story winds down but the author is far from done. She pays homage to Gandhi by including quotes and short statements which show her devotion to India. Some might say she was ahead of time and others may say she was taken before her time. I would argue that both are fair assessments. Indira Gandhi survived heartache on multiple occasions. The losses of her mother Kamala, husband Feroze Gandhi (1912-1960), and son Sanjay Gandhi (1946-1980), were always with her as reminders of the unexpected twists and turns that come in life. She will forever be remembered as a trailblazing woman in world politics. And as India continues to examine itself to improve, Gandhi’s legacy is a reminder of what was and what is possible moving forward.

“The meaning of independence is not only to have one’s own government, but its true meaning is that we should be able to take decisions ourselves. These decisions may be wrong, but they should be our decisions, they should be the decisions of India” – Indira Gandhi

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B06W55L1ZV

Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote Scum (and Shot Andy Warhol) – Breanne Fahs

SolanisOn June 3, 1968, artist, and film director Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was shot and severely wounded as he talked on the telephone in his office located at 33 Union Square West in Manhattan. He was rushed to the hospital and declared clinically dead by doctors before being resuscitated. He underwent grueling surgeries that left a myriad of scars across his torso and required him to wear a surgical corset for the remainder of his life. Hours after the shooting, a young woman walked up to a police officer in Times Square, handed over her weapons and confessed to shooting Warhol. She was arrested and booked for the crime. The public soon learned the name of Valerie Solanas (1936-1988). Today she is best remembered as the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Her actions were horrific and nearly took Warhol’s life, however her story is not as widely known. Breanne Fahs decided to change that and find out the truth about Solanas’ turbulent life. This biography explores the life of Solanas, her relevance to the radical feminist movement and her descent into anarchy after shooting one of the biggest pop icons in history.

I must point out that the book is not heavily focused on the Warhol shooting or on the artist himself. Readers who are learning about Warhol for the first time will find a wealth of information in Bob Colacello’s “Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up“. There, Colacello does discuss the shooting and its aftermath but also provides an invaluable glimpse into the private side of Warhol. The author here discusses the shooting as expected but does not let it consume the book. In fact, the shooting is only part of the story, and we quickly learn that Solanas’ life was more chaotic and mysterious than one might expect. It is all on display here. Readers who are fans of Warhol may find this book difficult to read and wonder why anyone cares about her life. I struggled with this question too but decided to read the book and learn who she was and what propelled her to commit such a heinous crime. I received more than I bargained for.

Valerie Solanas is tragedy herself and I could not find one word to describe her. Her mental state is both well-known and well-documented but surprisingly she was also a college graduate and known to be highly intelligent. It has been said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity.  Her belief in radical feminism is also on display and culminates with the publication of the SCUM manifesto. The Society for Cutting up Men (SCUM) became Solanas’ crown jewel and part of her legacy. But her statements about the male species and desire for an all-female society have all the markings of fanaticism. And while she was moving forward with her manifesto, she was also coming apart at the seams, beginning a downward spiral that led her to shoot Warhol. Following her arrest, the need arose for legal counsel, yet her crime was so horrific that even hardened feminists second guessed supporting her and Valerie soon found herself persona non grata within the movement she believed in. The struggle over the moral issues at play are discussed in the book and readers may find themselves angered by the support that Solanas did receive. As my dad has always said “the 60s were a crazy time”.

I found myself saddened and surprised at what Fahs discovered regarding Solanas’ early life. Clues to her actions as an adult are in abundance and no one should have been surprised that she committed an act of violence. Years after shooting Warhol, she gained her freedom but would never have a normal life. And what we witness in the story, is the dark side to mental illness. I warn readers that her final descent into mental instability is disheartening. And her final days in San Francisco, California serve as the final curtain on a performance that was horrific and earth shattering.

Despite her brilliance, Valerie ensured that her legacy would be the attempted murderer of Andy Warhol. She was a gifted writer and aspiring filmmaker, but she could not overcome her demons and the mental illness that prevented her from living a stable and productive life. In fifty-two years, she authored a book, worked with a pop-culture icon, and even became a mother of two.  Her adult years would be consumed by a nomadic lifestyle in and out of homelessness.  However, she managed to keep moving until time was no longer on her side. To this day, Andy Warhol is a topic of conversation, and his art remains on display in Manhattan galleries. But if we discuss Warhol, we also must discuss Valerie Solanas. Thirty-three years have passed since her death, yet her actions and writings will live forever in infamy but also as part of American history. This is the definitive account of Valerie Solanas’ life and a time in America when social change was taking the United States into unchartered waters.

“Valerie’s truth was lost to the world of mental health diagnoses, treatment, imprisonment, abuse, and ultimately, descent into the intensifying paralysis of paranoia and self-destruction.” 

ASIN:‎ B00IWGQAG2

The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts – Andrew E. Stoner

shiltsThe first time I watched the HBO film “And the Band Played On“, I found myself speechless after it had finished. The AIDS crisis had grown exponentially and the invisible enemy that was originally thought to be a “gay disease” had shown the world that it did not discriminate. The HIV virus that can develop into AIDS spread fast and furiously, claiming the lives of people no one would have expected to succumb to it. Among those figures were movie star Rock Hudson (1925-1985), tennis great Arthur Ashe (1943-1993) and music legend Freddy Mercury (1946-1991). And no one can forget the story of teenager Ryan White (1971-1990), whose experience captivated America. I personally will never forget the announcement on national television by former NBA star Ervin “Magic” Johnson that he had tested positive for HIV. The HBO film was a success and the adaptation of the book by journalist Randy Shilts (1951-1994) for the silver screen has continued to honor his legacy decades after his death. Prior to writing “the Band” as it is called in this biography, Shilts had also written “The Mayor of Castro Street” about the life of the late San Francisco City Supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk (1930-1978). Having read both books, I instinctively knew that this biography of Shilts was a book that I needed to read.

Admittedly, there was much about Shilts’s life that I did know prior to reading this book. I was aware that he had succumbed to AIDS. But his personal life still held an aura of mystery. This book removes the mystique and peels back the layers to Shilts’s short but incredible life that began in Davenport, Iowa and ended in Guerneville, California. At the time of his death, Shilts was only forty-two years old and had authored his final book titled “Conduct Unbecoming”, about the experience of LGBT personnel in the military. Here, author Andrew Stoner takes us back to Aurora, Illinois where we are given an inside look into the home of Bud and Norma Shilts who raised six sons. At first the story feels like a typical mid-western account. We soon learn that the Shilts household has its problems that would affect everyone within.

It is evident early in the story that Randy is “different” from his siblings. But he was able to maintain relationships with them to varying degrees. It was here that I learned the story of all six sons for the first time and what the author reveals is interesting and mystifying. In fact, readers may find themselves puzzled as the story of brother Ronald Shilts is told. The boys’ parents also have their own demons to confront but it is a story that we have seen many times before. But despite the issues at home, Shilts never wavered in his love towards them and in later years comes to understand them in separate ways. But I do believe his childhood experiences explain in part why he left home in search of acceptance. Ironically, he later finds acceptance from one person I did not expect. As Shilts gets older, his life takes unexpected turns and when he lands in San Francisco, the story quickly picks up in pace. I do not believe that he had any idea how San Francisco would change his life and American history.

Shilts soon finds himself working for the San Francisco Chronicle, writing about issues in the gay community of which he is a part. As I read this section of the book, I felt as if I were transplanted back in time to Castro Street as Harvey Milk and others were challenging the establishment emboldened by the actions of anti-LGBT activist Anita Bryant. Shilts is a first-hand witness and covered the issues extensively while at the same time struggling to confront his own demons and vices that threaten to derail his life and career. The author left no stone unturned and allows us to see the battle in private that Shilts was waging against himself. Happiness became a lost item in his life as one challenge after another presented itself. And lurking in the shadows was a virus that would leave death and devastation in its wake as it ravaged communities and exposed the dark side of politics and the health care industry.

In some ways this biography rivals the story told in “the Band”. In particular, the complicated situation Shilts found himself in must have been difficult and emotionally draining. As the issue of the bath houses comes to a boiling point, Shilts nearly becomes an enemy of the state in the LGBT community. Readers will find his interactions with both Harvey Milk and former California State Senator John V. Briggs (1930-2020) highly interesting. The AIDS epidemic continues to gain speed and it becomes clear that it is a threat no one had seen before. Shilts eventually makes the decision to author the book that catapulted him into the national spotlight but the path to complete was anything but simple. Further, the author provides an interesting assessment of the patient zero origin and the truth about Gaëtan Dugas (1953-1984), the Air Canada flight attendant who was demonized and accused of intentionally spreading HIV. In October 2016, news reports surfaced that Dugas did not spread HIV to the United States. However, at the time of Shilts’s work on the book, the flight attendant was believed to be the main person responsible for the destruction in San Francisco’s gay community. Shilts did not live to see Dugas vindicated but I believe that if he had lived, he would have regretted the turmoil press reports caused the Canadian until his death on March 30, 1984.

Shilts’s masterpiece did have its flaws but has stood the test of the time as a literary classic. But the HIV virus spared no one, not even Shilts himself. Exactly when he learned he had HIV is lost to history but as the virus progresses and develops into AIDS, his life becomes a race against the clock. His decline and realization that he cannot escape his fate spurs him to author his final book. If you have read other books that describe death from AIDS, you know that this story will not be easy to finish. The information presented about the final years of his life as he struggled with his health and the raging AIDS crisis will remind older readers about a time in history when no one knew how to interact with someone who had AIDS yet many of us knew someone who had contracted HIV. Today the virus that causes AIDS is no longer a death sentence but in the 1980s, the diagnosis of Kaposi sarcoma and a positive HIV test result meant a trip to the grave as doctors struggled to develop medication to combat the growing menace. If Shilts were alive, he would have the benefit of modern medicine and the ability to live a full life. He is gone but his work will never be forgotten. And I am glad that I decided to read his life story which has left me with a better understanding of what inspired him to author the classics that continue to give knowledge and wisdom to new readers. This is a good look at the life of Randy Shilts.

ASIN: B07SHLKGZ1

Survival in the Killing Fields – Haing S. Ngor

ngorOn March 25, 1985, the 57th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles. During the ceremony, the category of best supporting actor was called, and the winner was Haing S. Ngor (1940-1996), a doctor born and raised in Cambodia, who had survived the Khmer Rouge dictatorship under the notorious Pol Pot (1925-1998). Ngor had starred as Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (1942-2008) in the 1984 film The Killing Fields starring Sam Waterston, John Malkovich, and Craig T. Nelson. The movie is tough to watch due to its sensitive subject matter but also an important work of art that captured a time in world history when a revolution nearly destroyed an entire nation permanently.

I was familiar with the Khmer Rouge before starting the book and I have seen the film more than once. I have also read Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, a gripping account of life under the Khmer Rouge. Her story was adapted for the big screen and in 2017, Netflix released the film of the same name directed by Angelina Jolie. Though there are some modifications to the story in the film, it is follows the book fairly closely and shows how Cambodian society was turned upside down during the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Ngor is even more blunt in how life changed for Cambodians:

“The truth was that under the communists the country was much worse off than it had ever been during my lifetime. We had no electricity. No clocks or automobiles. No modern medicines. No schools. No religious worship. Very little food. And we lived in constant fear of the soldiers.”

The book begins with Ngor remembering his early life and fragile relationship with his father. A volatile temper and determination to resist anything he felt was unfair, resulted in Ngor going through a series of inconvenient situations, including one with his father that placed their relationship under great strain. However, he eventually graduates from medical school and begins to practice medicine. Life as a doctor is good and at home, his wife Huoy performs the traditional duties of a wife in Cambodian society. On April 17, 1975, their lives were changed permanently when Pol Pot and his revolutionaries seized control of Cambodia under the guise of rebuilding society. Millions of Cambodians had no idea what would come next as the extremists dismantled society piece by piece. To give the reader an idea of how extreme their ideloogy was, Ngor explains that:

“The Khmer Rouge wanted a complete change of society, from top to bottom. Gone was everything that had governed our lives in the old times. Lon Nol was gone, airlifted to America before the fall; Sihanouk was gone, his fate a mystery. The monks were gone.” 

Following the takeover, families were uprooted and forced to move, typically to distant parts of the country to engage in heavy manual labor. Famine, inhumane treatment, and lack of crucial resources gave rise to disease, hunger, and death in work camps across the country. Ngor himself suffered illness on more than one occasion as he explains in the book. Had it not been for his medical training which he kept secret for reasons also disclosed in the book, he surely would have perished. The aid of his wife Huoy was invaluable and she served as his guardian angel on more than one occasion. But her fate and that of those around them, are among the difficult moments in the book. And when not facing death from hunger or disease, workers were reminded through vicious and bloodthirsty guards that Angkar was  watching. This system of surveillance gave men and women incentive to spy on each other and tell what they saw, even if it meant death to those accused. Ngor becomes a first-hand witness to the brutal system of torture that Angkar notoriously used to break the spirit of those needing “reformation”.

As time progressed, cracks in the surface began to show and Ngor realizes that the regime is slowly falling apart. The Khmer Rouge’s idea of transforming society was a complete failure and in its attempt to flex its muscle, it had angered the North Vietnamese Government which soon made it a goal to deal with Cambodia. In April 1979, the Vietnamese invaded and put an end to the reign of the Khmer Rouge. But for Ngor and millions of his fellow citizens, the occupation by Vietnam did not end their ordeal overnight. Cambodia had been freed of one communist government only to be replaced by another. Those who were able realized the only option was to cross the border into Thailand. The journey was not easy and bandits along the way were just as ruthless as the Khmer Rouge if not worse at times. But in Thailand, the full weight of his ordeal comes crashing down when he reflects that:

“By 1979 Cambodia was utterly destroyed. Next door in Thailand were paved roads, beautiful temples and more rice than the people could eat. As a refugee, the more I saw of Thailand, the angrier I became. It was the anger of a man who finds out he has been lied to all his life.” 

After arriving in Thailand, Ngor slowly puts his life together and through a series of chance encounters, he befriends John Crowley of the Joint Volunteer Agency who paves the way for his next journey to the United States where he is joined by his adopted niece Sophia. His entry into America was rough at first but it is clear from the start that in comparison to the Cambodia he had left behind, America was a brand new and welcomed experience. And luck was on his side again when he was scouted and picked to star in the Killing Fields. His performance and win at the Oscars transformed Ngor into a celebrity but the experiences in Cambodia remained fresh in his mind and a heavy burden to bear. Ngor never ceased to labor on behalf of those still in Cambodia who never wanted to see another Khmer Rouge takeover. IN spite of his fame and success, Ngor remained haunted by what he saw and experienced. He reminds the reader that the Khmer Rouge destroyed nearly every part of Cambodian society. And I believe that this sombering statement bythe author sums up the experiences of those held under the iron grip of the Khmer Rouge:

“The Cambodian holocaust ripped through our lives, tossing us randomly, leaving none of us the way we were. You can blame who you want, the outside powers for interfering, or our own internal flaws like corruption and kum, but when the talking is over we still do not know why it had to happen. The country is still in ruins, millions have died and those of us who survived are not done with our grieving.”  

The book closes with more reflection by Ngor of Cambodia and his life in America. By this time, Sophia had moved out and the two had not spoken. In the epilogue, we learn more of their relationship and future interactions. Also, more information is provided about Ngor’s return to Cambodia, his business dealings and difficulties in life while living in Los Angeles. After finishing Ngor’s heartbreaking account of his life, readers will need to prepare for another difficult part in the book: Ngor’s final days.

On February 25, 1996, Ngor was returning home when he drove past three Asian street gang members. The trio was high on crack cocaine and saw him as their next target to score more cash. It is believed that after asking for his money and other valuables, the thieves also wanted a chain he wore which contained a locket holding a picture of his late wife Huoy. Ngor undoubtedly would have refused, and readers will understand why after finishing his story. Prosecutors stated that shots were fired and Ngor fell to the pavement gasping for air. He died on the scene at the age of fifty-five. It should be noted that the killers did not take Ngor’s car or money, leading people to believe that the killing was related to his past in Cambodia. It is difficult to say but there is one clue provided in the epilogue related to the political climate in Cambodia at the time that might explain who would have wanted him dead. We may never know the real motive for his death, but the shooter was sentenced to life in prison and his accomplices each received a sentence of twenty-five years to life.

In the future when I watch The Killing Fields again, I will now have a deeper appreciation for Ngor’s performance. I wish I had known more about him upon viewing the film for the first time. However, my lack of knowledge regarding his personal life does not detract from the viewing experience. The film is haunting as it should be to show viewers the danger of poisonous rhetoric. Voltaire had it right when he wrote that “any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices“. Haing S. Ngor was witness to one of history’s greatest crimes and lived to tell the tale of Cambodia’s darkest days. And even today, this book can server as reminder of the dangers that come with extremism and importance of addressing extreme ideology before it is too late.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B019NFEM42

Trumbo: A Biography of the Oscar-Winning Screenwriter Who Broke the Hollywood Blacklist – Bruce Cook

Trumbo2On March 9, 1954, CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) prepared for a scheduled broadcast of the television program “See it Now“.   In that episode he confronted the growing menace of the witch hunt for suspected communists in America. During the show, he stated that “no one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices”.  Viewers were aware that he was referring to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), whose hunt for communists had destroyed countless lives and reputations. Anyone even suspected of having communist affiliation was surveilled and, in some cases, forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.   One witness was the screenwriter James Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) who was blacklisted for his political beliefs and affiliations.  The blacklisting of suspected leftist ended decades ago but Trumbo has remained forgotten, but during his era, he was one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood.  In 2015, the biopic Trumbo was released with actor Bryan Cranston in the lead role.  The film received high reviews and earned Cranston an Academy Award.  What may surprise some is that one source of information for the movie is this biography of Trumbo written by Bruce Cook (1932-2003).   The book was originally published in 1977 but has been re-published with a foreword by screenwriter John McNamara.

I have not seen the film and did not know what to expect when starting this book.  That was a good thing as it allowed me read Cook’s story without any pre-conceived ideas about who Trumbo was.  My ignorance of his contributions to the silver screen speaks volumes about his ordeal which is contained in the pages of this well-written and treasured biography.  Cook sat down with Trumbo towards the end of the writer’s life as he was battling lung cancer.  However, the book contains not just Trumbo’s words but is filled with interviews of those who knew him best, including his widow Cleo Trumbo (1916-2009).  Through their words, the personal life of Dalton Trumbo takes shape.  The late painter Charles White (1918-1979) talked with Cook and had this to say about his old friend:

“There are only two ways to relate to Dalton. You either love him or you hate him. Picasso is like that. Chaplin is, too. There are people in Hollywood, a lot of them, who hate Dalton.”

Trumbo’s life was anything but orthodox.  His childhood is revisited through the memories of siblings and friends.   His parents Orus (1876-1926) and Maud Trumbo (1885-1967) are pivotal figures in the story, and each influenced young Dalton.  But Maud remained a crucial figure in his life until her death at the age of eighty-three.  Orus exits the story early due to a series of events that clearly affected his son Dalton and his daughters.  However, what Orus could not have known when he moved the family from Colorado to California, was that Dalton would find a place in an industry most people can only dream of.  Some might argue that Trumbo was made for Hollywood and as Cook explains, his entry into screenwriting was not entirely by chance.  In fact, what I learned about Trumbo’s early life make his entry into the film industry more understandable.  But that is not to say that there were not obstacles along the way.   What can be seen in the book is that the young Trumbo was quite the character and through anecdotes and research, the incredible tale is revealed with fitting detail.

The crux of the book is unquestionably the Hollywood blacklist.  Cook goes into the matter but not simply to re-hash what has already been explained elsewhere but to focus on Trumbo’s actions and why he took the positions that he did.  Trumbo could have chosen not to associate with leftists and maintain his place among the Hollywood elite, at least publicly.  But he chose the path that was right for him, and never wavered in his beliefs.   And as his widow Cleo tells cook, Trumbo never gave up once he had an idea in his mind.  Yes, despite the harsh criticism and blacklisting by Hollywood, Trumbo was not an extremist by any means.  He was driven for sure, but not an anarchist determined to rage against the machine.   However, he was a firm believer in freedom of expression and constitutional rights. And to reinforce that image of Trumbo, Cook includes snippets of his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (“HUAC”) and parts of a letter he wrote to a friend who had taken issue with a statement he made to the media.  Prior witness testimony to the HUAC had set the stage for a showdown when Trumbo made his appearance and Cook explains that:

“Except for Lawson, Dalton Trumbo was probably the Committee’s least cooperative and most “unfriendly” witness. He came to the stand on October 28, 1947, at ten-thirty A.M., just one day after Lawson had caused such an uproar in the caucus room. Trumbo was met by hostility from Chairman J. Parnell Thomas, and he gave as good as he got.” 

His statements and refusal to answer various questions resulted in a contempt of Congress conviction.  Trumbo served his time at the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky and upon his release, resumed his career as one of Hollywood’s most gifted writers.  The blacklisting of public figures was still in full force and Trumbo resorted to slick maneuvers and loopholes to continue screenwriting.   Some readers may be surprised to learn of Trumbo’s extensive involvement in several blockbuster films that are considered all-time greats.  Frankly, Trumbo was all over the place lending his talent to a respectable number of filmmakers who needed the expertise of the master.  It is a shame that Trumbo was prohibited from openly working in Hollywood when he had not committed any punishable offense prior to his congressional appearance.  But the “red scare” was in full force, and it did not take much to see a career ruined completely.

Eventually the blacklisting crumbles and those who once could not find work openly in Hollywood begin to resurface and move on with their lives and careers.  For Trumbo, recognition for his talents would take many years to become legacy.  But this book and the biopic have vindicated him as a brilliant screenwriter who suffered immensely for seeing things a separate way.  His story is a reminder of the dangers that come with baseless rumors and unfounded persecution.  Hollywood had a mend to make when it came to the blacklist, and it did right some wrongs.  As the book closes, Cook leaves us with this fitting note:

“But at last they did. In a kind of collective and symbolic act of contrition, the officers and board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on May 5, 1975, awarded replica number 1665 of the “copyrighted statuette, commonly known as ‘Oscar,’ as an Award for the Motion Picture Story—The Brave One (1956).” It has Dalton Trumbo’s name on it. That made it official: the blacklist, now acknowledged, was behind them all. Trumbo had done his job. He died a little over a year later on September 10, 1976.” 

If you want to know more about the life of Dalton Trumbo, this is a good place to start.

ASIN:‎ B00US1STWC

Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932-1975 – Neal Gabler

GablerWhen most of us hear the word “Kennedy” we immediately think of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968).  Although he was in office only for one thousand days, John F. Kennedy set into motion numerous plans, many of which became reality during the administration of his successor Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973).  Kennedy was a gifted orator and skilled politician but struggled to move legislation through Congress.  Johnson lacked the flair and polish of the Kennedys, but he was a master politician and he excelled in the one area that is crucial to presidential success: the Senate.   The Kennedys knew that to move the Senate, the old guard would have to be removed one by one.  And do that meant putting younger senators in office with moderate and liberal views.  As part of this plan, the youngest of the Kennedy clan, Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009) followed his brothers into politics and made the Senate his home.  And though he never became president or even vice-president, Edward M. Kennedy or “Teddy” helped changed the course of American history during the forty-seven years he served in the U.S. Senate.  In this first volume of a two-part biography, author Neal Gabler explores Edward Kennedy’s life from his birth in 1932 until the year 1975. 

I do warn readers that the book is a behemoth and not light reading. However, the author’s writing style keeps the narrative flowing smoothly and it never feels like a standard delivery of biographical facts.  Instead, Gabler makes the book feel like a journey and in many aspects, it is, but the journey of Edward Kennedy from an aspiring athlete to a U.S. Senator who would have a profound impact on crucial legislation.  And while there is a wealth of interesting information about Kennedy himself, the author takes us back in time to an era when America was undergoing significant social change.  The early part of the book rightly focuses on the Kennedy household and the dynamics as play between parents Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1968), Rose F. Kennedy (1890-1995) and their nine children.  Readers who are looking for a book that provides a good analysis of the Kennedy family will find this to be what they are searching for.  True, it is Teddy’s story but without telling the Kennedy story, there is no way to fully recall his life.  Behind the cameras, speeches and glamour, the Kennedys had their issues like thousands of other families.  And that part of the story is why the book is so good. Through Gabler’s words, they become more relatable as they go through trials, tribulations, and tragic deaths of siblings.  Behind the money, there was an enormous amount of grief, insecurities, and family secrets.  Teddy comes of age and his life would a mix of many things known all too well to the Kennedy family. 

Kennedy was the youngest of the family but in time he became one of the most important. His early life is interesting and Gabler left no stone unturned.  Some of the information is widely known but there are some tidbits of information that even season readers will appreciate. Inevitably politics comes in play and as Jack once said about his own entry in politics: “It was like being drafted,” Jack said. “My father wanted his eldest son in politics. ‘Wanted’ isn’t the right word. He demanded it.”  Teddy’s battle ground would be back home in Boston against the McCormack family.  This early battle in Kennedy’s political career is crucial for many reasons but served as his starting point to a career in the U.S. Government.  And to give readers an idea of just how important and bitter the feud was, Gabler states: 

“There was no love lost between the McCormacks and the Kennedys. If the Kennedys boiled with resentment at the Protestant establishment, the McCormacks boiled with resentment at the lace-curtain Irish Kennedys. In the hurly-burly of Boston Irish politics, the two clans had fought over the Democratic State Committee in 1956, when Jack attempted a takeover to reform the state party and John McCormack counterattacked.” 

Of course, we know that Kennedy was eventually elected to the U.S. Senate, and it is here that the book picks up in pace. With Jack in the White House and Bobby in charge of the Justice Department, Washington was under the thumb of what author David Halberstam (1934-2007) called “the best and the brightest”. But while his older brothers were battling the Soviet Union, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and right-wing elements within their own party and the Republican party, Teddy was sharpening his skills as a Senator determined to move America forward.  But his plan would not be easy and there were setbacks along the way. But Teddy never gives up and his determination to his causes epitomizes the true meaning of committed.   He would have help in the form of legendary figures in Senate history such as the liberal leader Mike Mansfield (1903-2001) (D-MT) and segregationist James Eastland (1904-1986) (D-MS).  Some readers may be wondering how a figure like Eastland could have helped Kennedy.  That is explained in the book and what transpires highlights the unusual alliances needed at times to get bills passed. 

In any Kennedy story, there are always the elephants in the room in the form of Jack and Bobby’s murders.   The events in Dallas and Los Angeles nearly shattered Kennedy completely.  Compounded with his grief was the state of his wife Joan, who struggled with her own demons which are discussed in the book.   Further, Ted Jr.’s health issues are one more piece of the puzzle that became Teddy’s life.   Another person might have given up on everything, but Teddy Kennedy did not and could not.  Kennedys don’t lose as they have always maintained.  Regardless of how strong he was, Teddy was not immune to demons as well and his personal struggles are also discussed. Gabler pulls no punches in revealing the darkest aspects of his life and revisits Teddy’s brushes with death.   And things become very dark when Kennedy decides to visit Chappaquiddick.  

On July 18,1969, Kennedy was visiting Chappaquiddick to attend a small meeting that included former members of Robert Kennedy’s campaign staff.  At some point during the night, he decided to leave and agreed to give a lift to former Kennedy staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (1940-1969).  While crossing the Dike Bridge, the vehicle went over the side and plunged into the murky waters below. Kennedy survived but Kopechne did not.  Her death and the aftermath would haunt Kennedy for the rest of his days.  There are many stories about Chappaquiddick but was Kennedy negligent that night?  Was he too intoxicated to drive?  And was he romantically involved with Kopechne?  Gabler tackles each question and I leave it up to readers to decide what they believe is the definitive version of the Chappaquiddick story.   Readers who are interested in Kopechne’s life might enjoy Georgetta Potoksi and William Nelson’s Our Mary Jo, which is a short but delightful book about a remarkable young woman that died too young. Whatever one believes, the tragedy made it certain that Kennedy would never be president.  And it had also drawn the eye of the most paranoid man to ever hold of the office of the presidency, Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).   I had no idea how bitter the rivalry was between Nixon and the Kennedy family.   Gabler quickly clears that up with this summary of Nixon’s rage: 

“It was incontestable that a disproportionate amount of Nixon’s underhandedness and abuse of power had been directed at Ted Kennedy, and it was even arguable that Nixon’s so-called dirty tricks were hatched by his attempts to destroy Ted after Chappaquiddick, leading to Nixon’s later subversions of democracy.” 

To say that the two loathed each other would be an understatement.  Teddy does not show his disdain as much, but Nixon’s obsession knew no bounds and his willingness to subvert democracy to punish rivals us what contributed to his downfall.  The Watergate saga and Teddy’s battles in the Senate to press the White House play out in the book and it is spellbinding.  I now understand more why older relatives used to say that Nixon had to go.  But before he did, he did his best to punish Ted Kennedy for his own insecurities and shortcomings, one of which was undoubtedly his loss to Jack Kennedy in the 1960 election.  Quite frankly, Nixon was a very dark person, and it becomes clear who Ted Kennedy was so determined to prevent him from reaching the White House.   Although that effort failed, Nixon did their work for them by engaging in behavior both illegal and unprecedented. His resignation still stands as one of the most shocking moments in American history.  His successor Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006) enters the picture and seems to be the breath of fresh air needed after Nixon’s dark reign.  But Ford pardons Nixon which sends shockwaves through Washington.  Kennedy is among the many senators appalled by the act as Nixon’s crimes were still fresh in the public’s consciousness.  The book finishes with Kennedy returning to his home state of Massachusetts to do battle over the issue of integration.  Readers sensitive to descriptions of racial discrimination may find this part of the book difficult to go through.  Personally, I had no illusions about integration and my father has told me stories of the nightmare it was for him, my uncles and others sent to all-white schools in accordance with federal law.  But the venom with which the Irish in Boston react to integration is disturbing and a reminder that America is not that far removed from a time when racial violence and prejudice were unrestrained.   That is not to say that it does not exist currently.  We all know discrimination is a problem not just in America but in every country on earth.  But I do believe that Robert Kennedy had the right mindset when he would quote Aeschylus whose quest to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world” is as important now as it was then.   Ted Kennedy embodied those words through his time in the Senate which will continue in the next installment of this exceptional biography.  I cannot wait for the second volume. Highly recommended.  

As a bonus, I strongly recommend that readers fascinated with the 1960s and America’s political landscape during that time, should take a good look at Richard Goodwin’s (1913-2018) Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, which is an invaluable look into the biggest political moments during that decade. 

ASIN:‎ B085BW13XF

Coroner: America’s most controversial medical examiner explores the unanswered questions surrounding the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Robert F. Kennedy, Sharon Tate, Janis Joplin, William Holden, Natalie Wood, John Belushi, and many of his other important cases – Thomas Noguchi with Joseph DiMona

NoguchiThis may come as a shock to some, but I have always found the topic of death fascinating.  I find it so because how we leave here often explains how we lived when we were alive.  I am sure we have all asked the same question upon hearing of someone’s death:  what was the cause?  To determine the cause, care and faith is entrusted to the talents of forensic pathologists who become masters at unraveling the mysteries behind the final moments in the lives of humans.  In the City of Los Angeles, pathologists have often faced heavy workloads in a city has seen its share of violent crime. For many years, Dr. Thomas Noguchi was the lead coroner in the County of Los Angeles and was tasked with performing some of the most important autopsies in history.  In this short but highly engaging account of the cases that stand out, he explains what he found as he examined the bodies of larger-than-life figures Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)(D-NY), actress Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) and several other Hollywood stars.  And though there are no “smoking guns”, Noguchi does a masterful job of explaining the forensic approach and how mysteries are sometimes simpler than they appear.

The book opens with the case of Natalie Wood (1938-1981) who drowned while on a pleasure boat with film stars Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner.  The circumstances surrounding Wood’s death have given rise to numerous theories including murder.  But Noguchi is not prone to conspiracy theories and searches for the facts.  He does give his opinion for her death and the explanation is certainly plausible.  However, his position caused a stir at the time and even today the official explanation for her death is viewed by some with skepticism.   As I read through his account of the process to determine how she died, I took notice of his approach which is as detailed as one could ask for.  Wood’s tragic death remains one of Hollywood’s darkest moments, but Noguchi is not done. In fact, the book becomes even more fascinating as the cases keep coming in.

In between discussing each high-profile case, Noguchi recalls his personal life starting with his father’s career as a physician and Noguchi’s decisions to leave Japan for the United States.  His journey exemplifies the saying by President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) that America is “a nation of immigrants”. As a Japanese immigrant there were hurdles to be faced but Noguchi was determined and eventually landed a position with the County of Los Angeles.  But he could not have known that he would find himself the center of attention despite the deaths of major stars.  But it is the nature of the beast in the City of Angels.  His skill and fame would catapult him into in the public spotlight and give others reason to engineer his downfall.  Noguchi’s fight to remain in his position is also discussed and it is unbelievable to learn just how far some were willing to go to remove him from his post.

As we move on from Natalie Wood, Noguchi shifts his focus to the life and death of Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962).  To this day, questions surrounding her death persist and the official cause of suicide is often disputed.  But was there a sinister plot to murder Monroe? Noguchi takes on the case and explores all possibilities and what he discovered does answer some questions regarding her death.  But for those who are searching for a conspiracy, his words may not prove to be persuasive.  To be fair, Noguchi does acknowledge that initially some aspects of the scene did not make  sense and raised more questions.  However, after considering the evidence before him, he makes his final analysis and if there is more to what happened that night, the truth may be lost to history.   Readers interested in Monroe’s story might enjoy Donald Wolfe’s The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe which I believe will satisfy the curiosity of most.

Of all the cases in the book, perhaps none is as high profile as that of Robert F. Kennedy.  His assassination on June 5, 1968, sent shockwaves through the world and we will never know if he would have become president. After learning of Kennedy’s shooting, Noguchi steadies himself to conduct an autopsy that would prove to be the most controversial of his career. And the reason why is sure to have some readers scratching their heads.  Thoughts of “not another Dallas” reverberated throughout America as investigator pieced together the Senator’s final moments in the pantry area of the now demolished Ambassador Hotel.  The question that has haunted many is did Sirhan act alone? There is reason to believe that he did but there is also reason to believe that he did not. The coroner is on the job and the facts are laid out for all to see.   Noguchi is not a conspiracy theorist but what he finds combined with the testimony of witnesses at the scene does give rise to more disturbing questions about Kennedy’s murder.  However, the focus here is on the forensics and Noguchi delivers the goods.

After concluding the discussion on Kennedy, the book moves into darker territory with the murders of actress Sharon Tate (1943-1969) and several friends by followers of Charles M. Manson (1934-2017).  This is by far the most graphic part of the book and the descriptions of the victims may be a bit much for some readers.  Discretion is advised.  As the lead coroner, Noguchi was responsible for examining the victims and putting together the puzzle of what happened that night.  His account is haunting, and I cannot imagine the scene waiting for police officers as they arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive.  It must have been disturbing enough for many of them to wonder how one human being could do these things to another.  Manson and his followers were eventually tried and convicted. Their heinous crimes at the Tate residence and the LaBianca home remain some of the most macabre crimes in American history.  Noguchi explains how he was able to uncover which weapons were used and show the full savagery of the crime from the wounds alone.   I think it is safe to say that forensic science is an invaluable tool.

The author is still far from done after the Manson family crime spree and moves on to other cases such as that of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army (“SLA”) and the deaths of stars Janis Joplin (1943-1970), John Belushi (1949-1982) and William Holden (1918-1981).  All of the cases are gripping but the Hearst file is surreal.  Noguchi’s recollections of the final standoff and its aftermath feel as if they are straight out of Hollywood but they did happen in real life. And with regards to Belushi’s final moments, Noguchi performs what could only be called a one man show as he leaves officers shocked to discover that their original assumptions about the actor’s death were wrong.  But as Noguchi puts it himself:

“It is a system of observation at the scene which I’ve tried to teach young investigators over the years. Don’t worry about the body; the body will stay there. (If it gets up, that’s another story.) First, examine the room in a systematic, preplanned way, beginning with the ceiling. Clues may be up there: bullet holes, bloodstains, chipped plaster.” 

The book was completed in 1983 and Noguchi has been retired for many years.  At the age of 94, he is still going strong and carries with him a wealth of knowledge about forensic science.  Here he takes us behind the scenes allowing us to witness a master technician at work as he reveals what really killed some of the biggest names in history.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B00L5M8U68

Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties – Richard N. Goodwin

GoodwinOn more than one occasion my father has commented that the 1960s was the scariest decade of his life.  The threat of Nuclear War, increasing tensions in Southeast Asia and the growing Civil Rights Movement captivated American society and the world.  During one conversation he turned and said to me “at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we didn’t know if we would live to see tomorrow or die in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union”.  The assassinations of several activists and politicians spread fear across the nation and to many, it seemed as if America was on the verge of total anarchy.  Richard N. Goodwin (1931-2018) worked in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and helped draft some of the most memorable speeches given by the iconic figures.  In 1988 he completed this memoir which was re-published in 2014, of the decade he spent in politics with two presidents and two presidential candidates.  And the result is a spellbinding account of a critical time in American history during which the country underwent profound heartache and change.

Goodwin’s account is in part an autobiography in which he revisits his upbringing as part of a Jewish family in the City of Boston and State of Maryland.   His exposure to racism came early as anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in the Old-Line State.  In stark contrast to his comfortable existence in Boston, Maryland would help shape Goodwin’s views that would remain with him throughout his life.  Age and opportunity is on his side and he is blessed with the fortune of working for former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965).  The experience further sharpened Goodwin’s legal and writing skills which later became highly valued and sought after.   As 1960 approached, President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) focused on the remainder of his term and the upcoming election that would determine his successor.  All eyes were on the two candidates engaged in battle for the White House: John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).   The Vice-President at the time, Nixon,  represented all that Goodwin opposed and he had come to like and admire Kennedy who won the election with one of the slimmest margins in history.  The young Irish-Catholic president soon embarked on a mission to change America and usher in “the New Frontier”.   Goodwin became a clutch player and Kennedy’s point man on Latin American affairs.  Some readers will recall that it was Goodwin who met and conversed with famed revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967).  Excerpts of their discussion are transcribed, and the dialogue is interesting for it shows the missed opportunity by Washington to understand the Cuban point of view.   As the story progresses, the two develop a mutual respect and upon learning of Guevara’s death years later, the author laments:

“And I like to think that I would have done what little I could to prevent Guevara’s execution. We were both trapped in the contending forces of a world we had not made; passionate adversaries in the struggle to control the future. Yet I liked the man. He had humor and courage, intellectual gifts and an unmistakable tenderness of spirit. I understood that he also contained ruthlessness, self-defeating stubbornness, and a hatred strong enough to cripple the possibilities of practical action. It is the paradox of the revolutionary that such divergent feelings must coexist in the same man.” 

Cuba proved to be the biggest test of Kennedy’s career in 1961 and again in 1962.  Goodwin takes us behind the scenes to witness the key events from another angle and observe the inner workings of the administration as it grappled with one crisis after another.  His proximity to Kennedy allowed him to make some keen observations about the president and behind the cool public image was was another side to John F. Kennedy.  I can only say that Bobby was not the only Kennedy with a temper.  The actions and reactions by Kennedy shed light on the frustrations of running an administration that struggled to stay in cohesion.  After each debacle Kennedy did shuffle around his cabinet and had become wise to game being played by figures loyal to the establishment.  And Goodwin does not hold back regarding his issues with speechwriter Ted Sorenson (1928-2010).   However, there is no gossip here but only what Goodwin witnessed and knew for certain.  And it is because of this streamlined focus that the story moves forward as fluidly as it does.  Over time, the Kennedy Administration began to fire on all cylinders and the seasoned president began to tighten his grip over Washington.  But with every story about Kennedy’s time in office, there is always the elephant in the room and his trip to Dallas soon approaches.  Goodwin was not with Kennedy that day and can only revisit how he learned of the assassination and the events that took place later that day in Washington.  There is no smoking gun about the crime or conspiracy theories about what happened that day.  Kennedy’s death affected Goodwin deeply and he grieved with millions of Americans.  John F. Kennedy was dead but far from forgotten.  Although his time in office was short he had set into motion a chain of events.  Goodwin is far more eloquent than I and this statement explain’s Kennedy’s importance:

“John Kennedy was not the sixties. But he fueled the smoldering embers, and, for a brief while, was the exemplar who led others to discover their own strength and resurgent energy; their own passion, love, and capacity for hate.”

America had begun the process to give John Kennedy a proper send-off while adjusting to a new leader in the White House. In just a few years, Lyndon B. Johnson would change America in ways no one thought possible. Goodwin had left Washington but soon receives a call from Johnson himself who uses his trademark influence to coerce Goodwin into joining the team.  He accepts and begins to draft statements that Johnson would use to increase his popularity and push legislation through the Senate. The passage of the Civil Rights Bill was a monumental feat but like a master puppeteer, Johnson knew which strings to pull to accomplish the unthinkable.  On July 2, 1964, the bill became reality as Johnson signed it into law and a year later he signed the Voting Rights Act.  Further, he also begun to initiate programs that were part of his vision for American that he famously labeled the “Great Society”.  But a little country in Southeast Asia would change all of that and seal his fate in 1968.  Goodwin was a firsthand witness to the rise and fall of Johnson and sums up the tragic figure he becomes as follows:

“For in the single year of 1965 — exactly one hundred years after Appomattox — Lyndon Johnson reached the height of his leadership and set in motion the process of decline.” 

In 1954, the French military suffered a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and soon withdrew their forces from Indochina.  The staggering amount of U.S. financial aid was not enough to turn the tide against the North Vietnamese Army and the movement spearheaded by Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) known affectionately as “Uncle Ho”. Followin the Geneva Accords, the country was divided into a Communist North Vietnam and Democratic South Vietnam.  Washington continued to eye Hanoi with suspicion and tensions regrettably began to simmer.  Things came to a head in August 1964 as U.S. patrol ships traveling through the Gulf of Tonkin encountered North Vietnamese patrol boats. The events of August 2 and August 4 are still subject to examination, but Johnson used them as a pretext for Congressional approval to escalate the growing war in Vietnam.  Initially, public support is behind Johnson and the fear of the “Domino Theory” combined with misleading intelligence reports resulted in increasing numbers of U.S. troops arriving in Vietnam.  But as we see in the book, the truth about Vietnam could not be hidden forever and became increasingly clear and more disturbing as the war dragged on.  On an interesting note, there were many figures who strongly opposed the war, including Kennedy himself who was highly aware of the dangers of a war.  Goodwin revisits this earlier statement by Kennedy who was still senator at the time and several years away from the throne in Washington:

“No amount of American military assistance in Indochina,” said Senator John Kennedy in April of 1954, “can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”

As 1965 progresses, Lyndon Johnson’s fall from grace begins to accelerate.  Goodwin recalls the series of events that transpire as Vietnam becomes a dark cloud over Washington and the Civil Rights Movement gains momentum.  Although the book is not a biography of Johnson, Goodwin captures the multiple sides of of him perfectly.  And what we see is man self-destructing one step at at time due to a war he cannot end and a country turning against him.  Paranoia soon takes hold and his final descent into madness begins.  Everyone becomes a suspect and unworthy of his confidence and trust. Goodwin would also become the target of his wrath and be accused of being one of those “Kennedy people”.  A sad reality is that throughout his presidency, Johnson struggled with Kennedy’s legacy and never ceased to believe that “they” were out to get him along with the “liberals”.  The revelations by Goodwin are simply mind-boggling and as I read the story, I believe that had Johnson not stepped down, it is possible that a commission might have been formed to study his behavior.  He was clearly losing touch with reality and perhaps the entrance of Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy (1925-1968) into the 1968 election saved Johnson from himself.

After departing from Johnson’s administration and publicly voicing opposition to the war, Goodwin became public enemy number in Johnson’s eyes.  The continuing war and domestic turmoil became too much for Goodwin to accept and he begins to work for presidential candidate and Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005) who sought to capture the Democratic nomination for president.  Upon his arrival at the McCarthy campaign headquarters, he soon finds that there is much work to be done. But Goodwin is a seasoned professional and soon helps to transform the campaign into a well-oiled machine. However, the looming threat of a Kennedy campaign is never far away and after the New Hampshire primary, Bobby formally announces his candidacy.  Goodwin is now placed in a difficult position and must make a decision between McCarthy and Kennedy, with whom he had become remarkably close friends. The saga and its aftermath are thoroughly explained by the author whose observations about politics are some of the sharpest I have ever seen.  And Goodwin was correct in his belief that McCarthy was a great candidate, but Bobby was presidential.  As Kenedy’s campaign kicks off, the author witnesses a transformation of the Senator from New York.  Bobby was reinventing himself and challenging any notion that he was not fit for president. In one gripping scene, Goodwin recalls this experience that shows the passion for America that served as the basis for Kennedy’s actions:

“Kennedy asked, “How many of you left school or good jobs to work in the McCarthy campaign?” Almost every hand went up. “How many of you are going to stick with it to the end, even if it goes all the way to November?” Again, nearly all the hands were raised. “I know some of you might not like me,” Kennedy continued, “think I just jumped in to take your victory away. Well, that’s not quite the way I see it. But it doesn’t matter what you think of me. I want you to know that you make me proud to be an American. You’ve done a wonderful thing. I’m only sorry we couldn’t have done it together.” With that Kennedy got up to leave, and, as we began to start down the street, he turned and waved. Every person on the steps waved back.” 

Readers who are interested in Kenney’s campaign will thoroughly enjoy David Halberstam’s (1937-2007) The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy which shows the incredible change in the candidate as the race for Washington heated up.  Like Jack Kennedy, we know that Bobby’s tragic destiny awaits, and I steeled myself as it approached.  Kennedy is riding the wave of popularity and arrives in Los Angeles determined to win California.  He won the state but was shot and mortally wounded after his acceptance speech. Doctors performed emergency surgery but the wounds to Kennedy had proved to be too devastating and ruled out any chance of survival. Goodwin goes in to see his friend for the last time and his description of Kennedy’s final moments in the hospital bring the story to a melancholy conclusion.

When I finally put the book down, I felt as if I had just taken a ride for the ages.  This is an incredible story about pivotal moments in America’s story that continue to play themselves out.  Many years have passed since Robert and John Kennedy were murdered but their messages and the issues they fought for and against are still with us. However, the past is always prologue and I do believe America can and will make great strides.  Goodwin was also a believer in America and in looking back at that decade of the 1960s, he provides the following quote that confirms his optimism:

“We cannot, of course, go back to the sixties. Nor should we try. The world is different now. Yet, two decades have passed since that infinitely horrifying day in Los Angeles which closes this book. And a new generation is emerging. They can pick up the discarded instruments and resume the great experiment which is America. There is no question of capacity, only of will.”  – Richard N. Goodwin 

ASIN : B00L8FBEWO

The Water is Wide: A Memoir – Pat Conroy

conroyWhile reviewing my list of books to read, I did a double take as I read the title of this memoir by Pat Conroy.  I had added it for a reason yet at the time, I could not recall why.  But I put that aside and decided that there is no time like the present and it might be a hidden gem.  It turns out that I was right in my assessment.   However, I was not prepared for the incredible story within by Pat Conroy (1945-2016) that sheds light on the lives of those who have been forgotten even in the most powerful nation on earth.   I knew that the story centered around education but of course, teaching is never as simple as writing on a blackboard.  In fact, what is revealed in the book should remove all doubt that teaching is by any means as easy task. Some of us are naturally gifted to handle a classroom full of students, each with their own peculiar personality.  In many ways, the teacher is conductor working the orchestra to fine tune all the instruments and produce a symphony that is pleasing to the ears. Conroy is the conductor here and what he accomplished on Yamacraw Island, South Carolina, will leave you sad, angry, and happy at the same time. 

As I started reading the book, I asked myself where on earth is Yamacraw Island?  The name is fictitious, but the land mass is known as Daufuskie Island which is located off the southeastern coast of South Carolina, close to Savannah, Georgia.  It is only accessible by ferry or barge and has a population of less than one thousand people at any given time.  The island has a rich history and is part of the region once home to the Gullah, African Americans who resided on the island and the nearby islands in South Carolina and Georgia.  I had to take a break and look up the Gullah people as I did not know much about them. But Conroy points readers in the right direction: 

“The island blacks of South Carolina are famous among linguists for their Gullah dialect. Experts have studied this patois for years and they have written several books on the subject. It is a combination of an African dialect and English; some even claim that remnants of Elizabethan English survive among the Gullah people.” 

After doing some research, I came back to the book with a better understanding of the environment awaiting Conroy as he begins his teaching assignment on the island.  Readers interested in the Gullah culture will find that this article contains a wealth of information.  After arriving for his assignment with the blessing of Dr. Piedmont, Conroy is given a baptism by fire and soon learns that life of Yamacraw is unlike his comfortable existence in Beaufort and other parts of the South. Further, it will challenge his idea of blacks, largely formed by his middle-class background.  The author is brutally honest and even discusses his own prejudice against blacks that had been cultivated in his youth.  His transformation throughout the book is remarkable and it is fair to say that the kids of Yamacraw left their mark on him. Conroy also leaves his mark on the island which becomes evident as Piedmont seeks his departure from the school.  The people in the book grew on me as well but there are many disturbing issues that come to the surface in the story as Conroy learns that he is really one of the very few people who cares about the island and its inhabitants. 

The book is set in the 1960s and in the South, bringing the issue of race to the forefront.  Race is everywhere in the story as one might expect and even those who try to appear as upstanding citizens are not free of bias that is shockingly horrific at times. The casual use of racial epithets and deranged ideas of communist hippies invading the island might make some readers recoil in disbelief and anger.  Conroy feels the rage increasing within and after one unsettling experience, he remarks: 

“Christ must do a lot of puking when he reflects upon the good works done in his name.” 

As a Black American, I was not surprised at the attitudes in the book and even today there are people who strongly feel that way.  But Conroy and others critical to the story, go above and beyond to change the lives of those students in any way possible.  And although he stayed on the island just a couple of years, what he accomplishes is more than had been done previously even though the school is part of the larger Beaufort public school district.  His work was not easy and on more than one occasion he crosses swords with Mrs. Brown who earns the wrath of the students.  But surprisingly, some of the biggest challenges come from the natives themselves and not the administration in Beaufort.  The author soon learns that he is embarking on difficult journey to break through a wall surrounding a culture that those outside of Yamacraw would never understand.  Superstition, illiteracy, and the fear of whites make his job increasingly difficult as he implements an unorthodox program to help the students learn basic arithmetic, geography, reading and writing.  The most basic skills a student should have are lacking and Conroy is in disbelief at how far behind the kids really are. All throughout the story, the backwardness of the island becomes hauntingly clear and changes his perception of the entire school system:

“Something was dawning on me then, an idea that seemed monstrous and unspeakable. I was beginning to think that the schools in Beaufort were glutted with black kids who did not know where to search for their behinds, who were so appallingly ignorant that their minds rotted in their skulls, and that the schools merely served as daytime detention camps for thousands of children who would never extract anything from a book, except a page to blow their noses or wipe their butts.”

The story is impossible to read without experiencing a range of emotions. But there are some beautiful moments such as their trip off the island for Halloween and the second excursion for a fair. The children absolutely love the experience and Conroy had opened their eyes to the world outside of Yamacraw.  And the main characters among the children are charismatic in their own right.   Mary is one of Conroy’s favorites next to Saul who is always interacting with the teacher whom they call “Mr. Conrack”.  They are beautiful souls who have been failed by those closest to them and a school system that had no intention on improving their education which was virtually non-existent.   When I finished the book, I wished that Conroy had written an epilogue that would have explained what did happen to the kids on the island. Some may have never moved away from it while others may have made the decision to see the rest of America and the world.  If they have read this book, the memories of “Mr. Conrack” and his efforts to give them an education must surely bring back a flood of memories, some of which are quite painful.  But if there is any solace to be found, it is that Conroy has put on the record, just how bad the education system in America was for many blacks living in areas that were neglected horribly. 

The New York Times listed the book as a best-seller, and it is not hard to see why. It truly is an incredible story even if it seems unreal at times.  However, Conroy reveals that in the United States, the “American Dream” is a myth for those whom society has forgotten about.  And the account here can serve as an example of educational policies that are dismal failures.  If you are looking for a good book about American society that explores a social issue which still rears its head, this is must-read. 

ASIN : B003XKN65U

Out of the Silence: After the Crash – Eduardo Strauch, Mireya Soriano & Jennie Erikson

StrauchThe Chileans have a saying that the Andes do not give back what they take.  The survivors of Uruguyan Air Force Flight 571 are reminded of this each year as the anniversary of their ordeal is observed. On October 12, 1972 athletes from the Old Christians Rugby Club and selected family members departed from Montevideo, Uruguay en route to Santiago, Chile for a scheduled match.  Inclement weather forced a stopover later that day in the Argentine city of Mendoza.  On Friday, October 13, their plane departed Mendoza for the final leg of the trip but none of the passengers could have known that their flight would never reach its final destination.  At 3:34 p.m., the plane impacted the mountains below causing the aircraft to break apart, killing several passengers nearly instantly.  As the fuselage came to a rest, survivors found themselves in the valley of a mountain during the winter season and in unfamiliar territory.  And for the next seventy-two days, the fuselage became their home as they struggled to keep going in the face of severe adversity.  Eduardo Strauch was on the plane that day and survived the crash.  But for more than thirty years, he has kept his silence about what he remembers and how it impacted his life. This short but poignant memoir is his account of what is known as the “Miracle in the Andes”.

Previously, I reviewed two books that have been written by those who survived the ordeal. The first was Nando Parrado’s Miracle in the Andes which I found to be the most extensive account.  And in the History Channel documentary on the crash, he is the narrator and most prominent speaker of those connected to the event.  The second book is called I Had to Survive by Roberto Canessa and is also a very moving account of the ordeal. However, Canessa’s life took a slightly different path, leading him into the medical field instead of public speaking. Parrado and Canessa are by far the more popular of those who survived the crash. But Strauch has plenty to say here about what he remembers of that day.  And although his account is shorter than the other two, there is much to be learned here as he takes us back in time to a day when he was a optimistic young man anxious to play a football match in Santiago, Chile.

Interestingly, Strauch nearly missed getting on the departing flight in Montevideo due to his travel documents being left at home. But fate was at play and he managed to sort his affairs only eight minutes before takeoff.   For the young athlete, the flight was the first part of what was intended to be a joyful weekend.  In less than twenty-four hours, that journey turned into a nightmare.  Following the impact,  survivors went into action to help the wounded, move the deceased and figure out how to obtain any type of help.  Strauch was a key eyewitness to all that transpireddand he relays play-by-play, the grim reality of their situation that eventually begins to settle in.  His description of key events are direct and to the point, sparing the reader from more gut-wrenching anecdotes. However, what he does say is sure leave readers with a chill running down their spines.

As the ordeal extends from hours to days to weeks, the survivors begin to realize that there is no guarantee of rescue. Yet, they never give up and rely on each other during an event that no one could have predicted.  Strauch reflects that:

“Friendship had been a constant in our story, such a crucial part of our survival from the beginning that it was difficult to separate one from the other.  What we suffered together only depened the friendship that had existed amoung the majority of us before emabarking on the trip, turning it into an unbreakable brotherhood.”

Throughout the story, Strauch is always insightful, even at times when it seems as if all hell has broken loose.   It is evident that the experience remains with him to this day and for the survivors of that crash, they share a bond that can never be broken.

As I mentioned, the book is not very long and the story moves quite rapidly.  He recalls the moment they realized that Nando and Roberto had found help and that they would be resuced by authorities.  Without question, the rescue after seventy-two days, is one of the highlights in the book, next to Strauch finding love and becoming a father. But regardless of what he has accomplished in life, he never fails to remind us that the mountain is always in his thoughts. The Andes took a part of him that will remain in the Valley of Tears for an eternity.  However, the Andes also gave him several things which he explains beautifully here in this excellent account of a very dark moment.

“The capacity of the mind to embrace infinity, that path toward an authentic spirituality, is one of the most beautiful lessons that my life on the mountain left me with.”  – Eduardo Strauch

ASIN : B07H7GKR9R