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

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde – Franny Moyle

ConnieIt is no secret that I absolutely love books and this blog is proof of that. The discovery of new reading material literally gives me a dopamine rush that only fellow bookworms can understand. When I saw this book about Constance Wilde (1858-1898), the wife of the late playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), I knew that I had to purchase it. I often quote Wilde in conversation and when writing.  He had a keen sense of human nature and his quotes still hold true today.  At the height of his career, his plays were a hit, and the money was rolling in. But a scandal surrounding his sexual orientation changed all of that and left him a bitter and broken man. His story is complicated but what is often left out of it, is the role of his wife Constance whose own story is equally as moving.  Author Franny Moyle takes a look at her life in this biography that just might make you look at the Wildes in a very different light.

Admittedly, I did not know an extensive amount of information about Constance Wilde.  I knew that Wilde himself had been married and that he was also known to have relations with men.  But what I found in the book far surpassed any of my expectations.  Although Wilde made his fortune in England, their story actually begins in Ireland, where both of them are born.  Moyle provides a brief history of both families before the couple ties the knot.  Within a couple of years, they welcomed two sons, Cyril (1885-1915) and Vyvyan (1886-1967).  To outsiders, the Wildes’ marriage must have seemed like a fairytale come true but behind the scenes there was far more to the story. In fact, the argument could be made that the best part of their marriage was the wedding itself.  Oscar was not known to be simple by any means and the pictures that survive today emphasize that. Constance had signed for a roller coaster ride with a man whose life would be anything but ordinary.  And in the process, she would go through her own trials and tribulations, related mainly to the emotional turmoil created by the man she loved and his “sons”.  At first, the couple has a fairly normal existence with Oscar even attempting to obtain a regular job.  But as fame sets in and the playwright is allowed to indulge in his fancies, trouble slowly brews.  And in conservative Britain, it only spelled doom for the future to come. In nineteenth century, England, sexual freedom was restricted and to be homosexual or bi-sexual was extremely risky and opened on to blackmail quite easily.  Oscar did not seem to mind and his relationships with the same sex were carefully kept secrets by close associates.  His drift away from Constance took hold when Robbie Ross (1869-1918) enters the story and accelerates when he meets Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), known as “Bosie”.  The young Lord would play a crucial role in the lives of both Oscar and Constance in ways they could never have imagined.

There is so much material about the couples’ life that it is easy to forget that Constance is the focus of the book.  And although Moyle covers Oscar’s escapades to highlight the growing distance between husband and wife, she does make sure to tell Constance’s story as well which has its own interesting moments.  One of them is undoubtedly her interest in the occult and association with the Golden Dawn, which we would consider to be a secret society.  Whatever Constance did believe, organized religion was not at the top of her list.  Further, she comes across as quite liberal for her time and fully believed in woman’s rights. Her efforts to help other ladies of stature excel in life are shown to emphasize her standing in society.  But in spite of her successes and fame, her relationship with her own children was complicated as well in particular with younger son Vyvyan.  As Moyle explains, Vyvyan was aware of his mother’s feelings and she relays his thoughts in this passage:

“When he grew up, Vyvyan acknowledged the fact that he was something of a disappointment. He adored Constance, he said, but noted that I was always conscious of the fact that both my father and my mother really preferred my brother to myself; it seems to be an instinct in parents to prefer their first born … I was not as strong as my brother, and I had more than my fair share of childish complaints, which probably offended my father’s aesthetic sense … And most of all, both my parents had hoped for a girl.”

Mother and son started off rough but there are bright moments in the story, particular towards the end.  Constance’s brother Otho Holland Lloyd (1856-1943) adds a crazy sub-story that left me shaking my head. Oscar’s brother Willie Wilde (1852-1899) is perhaps the most tragic figure in the entire story, but he is mentioned only on occasion.  Readers will notice that Constance is plagued by a mysterious illness that becomes crippling as the story progresses.  At the time, doctors had very little knowledge of what was taking place but this article sheds light of what is the most likely explanation for her decline and demise.  It is clear in the story that the bouts of pain are debilitating, and I can only imagine the level of discomfort she must have been in.  Added to that misery was Oscar’s galivanting across Europe with young men, putting himself and the family at risk.  Oscar becomes engulfed in his new world without a care in the world, but every story has its antagonist and that applies here in the form of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900), who was Bosie’s father.  At this point in the book, the story takes a dark and tragic turn resulting in Oscar’s downfall, marriage turmoil and Constance’s flight to save herself and her two boys.

As I read through the story, I could not help to think that Oscar was either crazy, oblivious or so sure of his well-kept secrets that he did not stop to consider that his alternative lifestyle could be his demise.  Queensberry was certainly a rough figure and Oscar had too much ego to make a retreat.  Instead, he meets fire with fire and thus, the stage was set for the battle that changed Wilde’s life and that of his family.   A scandal of that magnitude would hardly register in 2020 but in 1895, tolerance was nothing like it is today and Oscar soon learned that a steep price was to be paid for his extravagance, and his life with Constance was never the same again.  Readers will feel a sense of loss and grief as the playwright’s mental and physical health declines while incarcerated. And although Oscar does get released, his best days are behind him but incredibly, his spirit is not completely broken. I stared in shock while reading about his actions after leaving prison.  It was one more episode in the crazy and unorthodox life of Oscar Wilde.

Constance plays a significant role in Oscar’s well-being while in jail and following his release.  But her duty was to her two sons and she does shy away from doing whatever is needed to protect her two boys.  However, her love for Oscar never wavers but she makes it clear to him where she stands.  And as the couple sees each other for the last time, a sense of dread hangs over the story.  Towards the end, they were separated geographically with Constance in Genoa, Italy and Oscar Paris.  They are two tragic figures bonded by marriage, parenthood, and their love for the stage. Today, Constance Wilde is hardly mentioned in discussions about the famed playwright, but she was far more important than most have realized.  Yet, she did live a tragic and scandalous life that is capture here for all to see.

““The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” – Oscar Wilde

ASIN : B009DA5RCE

The First Jet Pilot: The Story of German Test Pilot Erich Warsitz – Lutz Warsitz and Geoffrey Brooks

WarsitzEvery time I board a flight at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, I am amazed at the concept of flight. And while I do understand how an aircraft works from a technical standpoint, the process of taking off, cruising and landing still fascinates us and captivates our attention. Today, we reap enormous benefits from the trials and errors of those before us who sometimes gave their lives in the pursuit of flight. In June, 1939, a German pilot named Erich Warsitz (1906-1983) flew an aircraft named the Heinkel He – 176, equipped with a rocket booster for extra lift and speed. The flight was successful and the result of many years of dangerous tests.   The pilot and the engineers around him had just changed history forever and ushered the world into the jet engine era.  This book is a look back at that miraculous time and Warsitz’s life as presented by his son Lutz. 

Instead of writing a standard biography of his father from a third-person point of view, Lutz sat down with his father in the years before his death and conducted numerous interviews with him about his life.  The result is Erich presenting his story as the narrator, taking us back in time before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) started World War II and led Germany to the brink of total destruction.  And although Hitler does appear in the story, those appearances are few.  The majority of the story takes place at the development facility at Neuhardenberg, where he forms a trio of dedicated flight personnel with Walter Künzel and Wernher von Braun (1912-1977).  Warsitz was a bachelor at the time and as a result, the story remains highly focused on the developments taking place as the engineers get closer to achieving their dream.  He does however, make reference to his personal life on occasion but as readers will learn at the book’s conclusion, his personal life picked up and changed following his release from Soviet control.  Here, we become fully immersed in the world of flight engineering in what could be called an inside look into the development of the He 176. 

What I noticed as I read was the level of danger that the pilots courted each day.  Accidents did happen and in some cases, death was the end result.  Warsitz had his own brushes with danger and describes them in detail as he tells his story.  But with each experience, we see his knowledge as a pilot increase tenfold and by the time the He 176 was ready for final production, he was ready to take the skies.  It is also clear that flying was his passion and he makes this perfectly clear in the book.  His companions in the project also shared his enthusiasm and the success of the He 176 was lost on no one. In fact, the feeling among the crew is summed up by Walter Künzel:

“None of those involved will ever forget the great impression which this maiden flight made on us all. As regards myself personally, who had overall responsibility for the preparation, and gave permission for the take-off, I may say that though outwardly calm, after the successful landing I was absolutely bathed in sweat, and several of us, myself included, had tears in our eyes once the aircraft came to a stop on the ground.”

Because the Third Reich was in power at the time, the work on the He 176 was subjected to scrutiny and approval by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM).  Officials pay visit on several occasions to take note of the plane’s development.  Politics come into play and Warsitz duly notes the maneuvers required to keep the project afloat as eagle-eyed officials look for any reason to stop all work on the project.  Today, we have the benefit of hindsight to look back on the project’s success, but at that time, Warsitz and the other pilots and engineers walked a very fine line as they pursued jet flight and some of those close calls are described by the narrator. They provide the right amount of suspense in a story that is fascinating at its base. 

The collapse of the Third Reich saw the complete acquisition of Germany by Allied forces. Warsitz recalls his actions as the war came to a close, including his capture and incarceration by the Soviet Union.  He also mentions an interesting fact about German research and where it went after the war.  Upon his release from Soviet hands, he reconstructed his life and explains the path his life took as a former German pilot. But curiously, Warsitz was never officially in the German Air Force. In fact, he makes it clear that he had no interest in politics and regretted Hitler’s decision to ignite a war: 

“It is a dreadful period to look back on. The war took on a peculiar form and Hitler’s leadership became the purest madness. The worst was the deportation of the Jews: I had many working for me in Amsterdam and when I received the deportation orders I was able to help many by giving them ‘indispensable for the work’ status. I employed others intentionally in the hope of offering them protection. Money was the decisive factor. I could help many, but not in all cases and not all the time, and I had to be very cautious, for the Gestapo was present everywhere and always!”

Aside from this statement, there is no mention of the Final Solution or other nefarious acts by the Third Reich. This could be due to his isolation at the development facility and the fact that he was not in the “chain of command” so to speak. Whether he knew more and refrained from saying is lost to history.  But the focus here is on the aircraft and the story does stay on track. Further, there are plenty of books on the Third Reich and its horrible actions in World War II.  The story here is solely about the jet engine age which we all take for granted each time we board a flight at the airport.  Warsitz and others around him, realized the effect their success would have on the world and the importance of their mission was never far from their minds. But with determination, skill and brilliant minds, they changed world history in a way no one thought possible.  Good read. 

“At the time of writing in 1982, forty-three years have elapsed since the world’s first jet flight, and in the intervening years I have often been asked if I realized at that time that the German rocket and jet test programme would be the decisive step forward. We knew – from our technical espionage service – that the British and Americans had such a project but were not so far advanced as we were.”  – Erich Warsitz 

ASIN : B00AE7DHFY

Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art – Phoebe Hoban

BasquiatIf you look at cover of this book, you will see of deeply concentrated eyes staring back at you and it becomes instantly clear that behind those eyes is a long story yearning to be told.  When I saw this book in my list of recommendations on Amazon, I did not recognize the face. I had heard the name but admittedly, did not know anything about his life.  Those of us who find solace and deep interest in the arts are probably familiar with the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), who in death has earned a place on the list of the best artists from the 1980s. In this stunning biography, author Phoebe Hoban explores Basquiat’s brief and unorthodox life.  And it is a story that is both hard to accept and difficult to ignore.  

One definition for the word tragedy is “a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror“.  It feels as though the definition could accurately describe Basquiat’s life.  At the time of his death he was twenty-seven and joins the “27 Club” of which Janis Joplin (1943-1970), Jim Morrison (1943-1971) and Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970), among others.  His untimely death sent the art world reeling and came the year after the death of his idol and one time mentor, Andy Warhol (1928-1987).  Following his death, interest renewed in his work and today, his paintings can sell for several million dollars or more.  Yet at the time he died, Basquiat had reached rocked bottom as drugs took their toll on his mind and body.   He could not escape fate and his ending is a true tragedy of another young artist gone before his time.  But the question here is just who was Jean-Michel Basquiat?  And how did this young man from Brooklyn become one of the most prominent artists of his time? 

When I learned that Basquiat was a product of my borough, my interest piqued.  New York City has produced some of the greatest personalities across all spectrums and Basquiat is a perfect example. However, he had multiple fronts, one of which was very darka as we learn of in the book.  The foundation for the path his life would take is laid early in the book as Hoban explains Basquiat’s early life with his Haitian father Gerard and Puerto Rican mother Matilde. Life at home is volatile and Basquiat was never able to form the bonds with either parent that are needed through adulthood.  The facts about his life that we learn of in the book are early indications of the recurring theme of his life: masking pain by taking extremes. As the story picks up pace, Basquiat’s journey leads to some unexpected places and art is never far away.  Native New Yorkers will fondly recall the 1980s Village in Manhattan, where artists could be whomever those chose to be and eccentric behavior was treasured ad encouraged. Drugs and art are central theme in Basquiat’s world and remain so throughout the entire book.  Perhaps no one pulled it off as well as Warhol, only rivaled here by Basquiat.  

Of course, love is a part of the story and Basquiat had anything but a normal dating history.  To sum it up, those parts of the book are surreal.  The list of paramours is long and even includes a well-known singer whom some might have guessed would have been Basquiat’s love interest.  Readers should be warned that it is also these parts of the book that are somewhat challenging to read as they reveal a very disturbing side to the late artist who never truly learned what affection and empathy were. But surprisingly, many of the women remained dedicated to him even while on the path to self-destruction.  Some, such as Jennifer Goode, saw the writing on the wall and abandoned ship before the fatal collision.  I wondered as I read, what would have happened had he decided to settle down with one of them? Perhaps he could have saved himself before it was too late.  We will never know for sure, but it is one part of Basquiat’s life that is revealed in the book, showing the artist in a revealing light that leaves more questions than answers.  I am not sure that anyone truly knew him on a deep level.  Trust is a theme in the book and it is reaffirmed in the book several times that he did not trust anyone.  His father’s influence and effect on Basquiat’s life is never far away.  And the two remained at a distance until the day Basquiat died.  

As his fame rises, he draws the attention of those high up in the art world, both on an artistic level and financial level.  Those figures are discussed in the book and even provide statements regarding their time and experiences with Basquiat.  He was far from easy to deal with and what they say shows a young man who never truly grew up.  Mary Boone, a one-time promoter of his work, explained her take: 

“Jean-Michel was a time bomb, and he was going to explode. I knew this when I first took him on,” she admits. “Unlike most of my artists, whether they are still with me or not, like Julian Schnabel, or Eric Fischl, or Ross Bleckner, these are artists I took my time getting to know, and that I felt I would represent for a long time. From the onset with Jean-Michel, it was never like that. I knew this man was like a butterfly. I knew that I would keep my hand open, and he would light on it when he wanted to, and fly away when he wanted to.” 

Great artists walk a very fine line between genius and insanity. For Basquiat, it seemed as if he wanted insanity over anything else.  His hijinks and highly erratic behavior gives rises to questions about his mental state. But we are never really sure if he truly means what he says or if he created a persona that had to be lived up to.  Some people interviewed for the book felt that he was as genuine as one could ask for.  Others saw the dysfunction in him from his childhood and the closest to him knew that he was on a path to destruction and had no desire to change course.  Ironically, in death he achieved the fame that he had not yet quite reached in life, even as a protégé of Andy Warhol.  The story of their first meeting, later and falling out is included in the story, adding another dimension to his life.  To drive home the story, Hoban includes snippets of Warhol’s personal diary, in which Andy is frank about Basquiat and the direction his life is taking. Their relationship came to an end due to an infamous op-ed that gave the impression of Basquiat being Warhol’s sidekick.  However, Warhol’s death did affect him and Hoban relates that: 

“On February 22, 1987, Andy Warhol, who had reluctantly checked into New York Hospital for what should have been a routine emergency gallbladder operation, died. In a sense, so did Basquiat. According to those who knew him best, he never recovered from Warhol’s death.” 

Warhol was not part of the 27 Club but certainly died before his time as well. For Basquiat, it would only push him further down his ill-fated path.  But before then, he would create dozens of paintings that have gone on to achieve world-wide acclaim. 

The world may never see another Jean-Michel Basquiat but in this book, his continues to live on. And had he been able to read this book, I can only imagine what his reaction would be.  It has been said that great artists see life through a different lens. This is certainly true for Basquiat, who marched to the beat of his own drum.  And behind the brilliant artist was  Mr. Hyde ready to come out and embrace the darkest demons any of us could take on.  He loved art but struggled with personal demons and being a black artist in a white artistic world.  His life can serve as an example of the importance of the father and son relationship that guides a boy into manhood.  Gerard Basquiat never had the chance to reach his son but for the fathers that might read this post, this book will show you exactly why your role in the lives of your child or children is extremely important. But I believe you already know that. 

If you are a fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat, this book is a must read. It is not easy to go through at times and he never presents himself as an angel.  He was a man of several faces, each with its own set of issues.  But to accept him is to love him and author Phoebe Hoban shows this brilliantly as she brings him back from the past and to the present.  This book is an excellent account of his hauntingly short and tragic life.   Highly recommended. 

In Basquiat’s paintings, boys never become men, they become skeletons and skulls. Presence is expressed as absence—whether it’s in the spectral bodies and disembodied skulls he paints or the words he crosses out. Basquiat is obsessed with deconstructing the images and language of his fragmented world. His work is the ultimate expression of a profound sense of “no there there,” a deep hole in the soul.” – Phoebe Hoban

Michael Collins: The Lost Leader – Margery Forester

Collins

The story of Northern Ireland is long and complicated yet it cannot be told without mention of many key figures who played critical roles in the modern day status of country.   Among these figures is the former Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State Michael Collins (1890-1922). He played a direct role in the treaty of 1921 that partitioned the country and preserved Ulster Province for British Rule.  In less than a year he was assassinated at the age of thirty-one.  He lived a short life but within that time had risen to the top rank of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (“IRB”) as the movement for independence from Britain gained momentum. In later years, tensions between Protestants and Catholics would erupt into the Troubles which claimed the lives of more than three thousand people and placed the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) in the crosshairs of 10 Downing Street. However, the IRA can be seen as a continuation of the struggle in which Collins was involved for a free Irish Republic. This is the story of his life by author Margery Forester

The book was first published in 1971 and later updated in 1991, several years before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  And although peace was mostly achieved, the Crown still remains in place across Ulster Province with Derry or Londonderry as it sometimes called, being the ground zero for tensions that simmer below the surface. Republicans remain vigilant in the hopes that one day Ireland will be completely free of British rule. Nationalists remain loyal to the Union Jack flag and see British rule as essential.  If Michael Collins were alive today, he would undoubtedly push for British removal, a goal he had set for himself before his untimely death. In discussions I have had with others regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland, many people are unaware of who Collins was and why he was important.  For those and others in the same position, this is the book that tells his story in a way that all readers will appreciate.  I have written about Collins before, in my review of Tim Pat Coogan’s The Twelve Apostles: Michael Collins, the Squad and Ireland’s Fight for Freedom.  The book is outstanding in its own right but it is not a biography of Collins, simply his work during the rise of the Irish Free State and his crew of hitmen who carried out deeds in the name of the Republican cause.  But there is far more to his story, which we learn very quickly here.

When Michael Collins was born on October 16, 1890, his parents John and Mary Ann could have never imagined that their son would one day lead the resistance to British rule in Ireland. By the time Collins reached adulthood, both parents had died and did not get to see their son’s rise in power nor his tragic demise. He hailed from the town of Woodfield, Sam’s Cross but would make a name for himself in Dublin and London. But before we get to that point, we learn about Collins’ early life in Woodfield as the youngest child in a very large family. The early part of the book does read like a typical biography. Unquestionably, the story picks up pace when Collins joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood in November, 1909. From that point on, all bets are off as the IRB is determined t make its presence felt in across Ireland and in London.

Readers who are well-read in Irish history known the story regarding the 1916 uprising in Dublin and its surrounding areas. Forester does discuss it here but does not go into extensive detail. For those who are interested in the uprising itself, I do recommend Tim Pat Coogan’s 1916: The Easter Rising, which explores the revolt in extensive detail. Here, the author focuses mainly on Collins’ role but makes mention of fallen figures James Connolly (1868-1916), Patrick Henry Pearse (1879-1916) and Tom Clarke (1858-1916). The uprising did not end in the removal of the Crown but it should have been a warning to London of the mayhem that would come in later years as the “Irish question” proved to difficult to answer. The IRB was just getting started and Collins found himself in the middle of the fight for a free Ireland. But the road ahead would be difficult, far more so than even Collins could have thought. The author keeps the suspense at just the right pace as the stakes are raised and the reality of extreme violence becomes hauntingly real.

As the book progresses we learn a lot about Collins’ nature and his reception by those around him. Supportive, abrasive, off-putting and patriotic to the core, he was mixed bag of emotions and you could not always be sure what you would get. However, his commitment to Ireland never waivered. But one event changed the tide of the struggle and placed Collins on the most wanted list. On January 21, 1921, Redmond was shot and killed on his way home from work. He had been assigned to lead the Dublin Metropolitan Police and his murder earned Collins an infamous reputation. As Forester explains:

On the same day, 25 January, a putative offer was made of £10,000 for ‘the body, dead or alive, of Michael Collins

There would be no turning back and Collins rose to the occasion, ready to take on London in his capacity as an IRB member. The story picks up pace as negotiations are in progress for a treaty between Britain and the Republicans for an Irish Republic that will ward off an inevitable bloody war.

The Republican movement continued to gain momentum but sadly, some would be lost along the way. The death of Terence MacSwiney (1879-1920) is one that would repeated several times over years later and would result in Bobby Sands (1954-1981) becoming an immortal hero in Republican history. However, even with McSwiney’s death, London still seemed not to grasp the severity of the matter and the IRB’s determination. Negotiations became increasingly stressful but on December 6, 1921, a formal treaty was signed and the Irish Free State was born. But for Republicans, the war both internally and against Britain was far from over. It is this part of the book that shows the sharp differences of opinion Collins faced as he helped negotiate a treaty that gave the Republic of Ireland a sense of real power. Things became so tense that Collins even wrote directly to Winston Churchill (1874-1965) to preserve the treaty in place and avert a rebellion by the non-treaty faction of the IRB. Parts of his letters are included here to show the urgency with which Collins voiced his concerns. The later seizure of the Four Courts by anti-treaty IRB members is widely considered the first significant break from the mainline IRB position. Its aftermath and the damaged done internally to the IRB are both sad and regrettable. And even worse, it would manifest itself later in Collins’ final moments.

Arthur Griffith (1871-1922), the founder of (1871-1922) and former president of Dáil Éireann, died on August 12, 1922. As Collins walked in the procession, he had a encounter with a religious figure who gave him this warning as relayed by Forester:

Dr. Fogarty, the Bishop of Killaloe, spoke to Collins as he stood alone, gazing long at the grave of his friend. ‘Michael, you should be prepared—you may be the next.’ Collins turned. ‘I know’, he said simply. When the long, slow ceremony to Glasnevin was over, with its strain on men unused to processional marching, Michael sighed with relief. ‘I hope nobody takes it into his head to die for another twelve months’, he said.

Twelve days later, Collins would meet his fate and with his death, came a wave of grief to the Republican cause. Bu the movement continued and the memory of Collins remains firmly in place even today. He will always be one of the most iconic figures in Irish history as well as controversial. By all accounts he could be a rough person to be around but no one questioned his commitment to the cause. And provided here is a thorough examination of his life, his beliefs and how far he was willing to go to achieve a united Ireland.

Give us the future, we’ve had enough of your past. Give us back our country, to live in, to grow in, to love” – Michael Collins

ASIN : B00GJQ9WLW

Bowie: The Biography – Wendy Leigh

20201006_091423On January 11, 2016, the music legend David Bowie (1947-2016) died peacefully at his home with his family by his side following a nearly two year battle with cancer.  His passing deeply affected fans and he is fondly remembered as one of the most eccentric stars in music history.  His high profile marriage to former model Iman,  is one of the visions most recalled by fans of the late star.  But prior to finding his soulmate in Iman, David Bowie had crafted a persona over the course of several decades and to say that it was a wild ride would be an understatement. Author Wendy Leigh takes a look at his life in this biography that is sure to keep you asking for more.

Anyone who has followed Bowie’s career, knows very well that his life was anything but unorthodox. But how much do you know about his early life? Admittedly, my knowlege of his early life was quite limited. I knew he hailed from England but his family life prior to moving to the United States remained obscure. On a whim, my mother gave me this book to feed my appetite for books and warned me ahead of time that it was on the wild side. However, it is David Bowie and I think I would have been fooling myself to believe anything else. He was never interested in being ordinary and throughout his life, made an impression on everyone who came close to him. But the very personal David Bowie was complex and sometimes misunderstood by those who knew him best. Here, Leigh attempts to decode Bowie to show us what happened in his life to help create the larger than life figure we saw on-stage.

Readers should be aware that there is heavy emphasis on sex and drugs in the book.  Franky, this story is not for children.  From an early age, Bowie learns to experiment with sex and the list of partners he accumulates as the book progresses is nothing short of staggering. Some of the names are well-known while others are central to Bowie’s inner circle. Regardless of their level of fame, they are all part of the surreal world of intimacy surrounding the young David Bowie. If you have any aversion to sexual innuendo and unfiltered comments, then you might want to reconsider this story.  However, if you push forward, understand that Bowie embraced sex in many forms. His drug use is also a big part of the story and even Bowie himself knew he had a problem.  He kicked his habit later in life and even stopped drinking following his marriage to Iman. But the young Bowie was a large consumer of a very strong narcotic that has found itself the center of attention in many Hollywood parties.  And that addiction would lead to a life of sheer craziness that walked hand in hand with an surreal personality.

Incredibly, I noticed in the book that for all of David’s antics, nearly all of the people in his life remained devoted to him through thick and then.  There was Corinne “Coco” Schwab, his personal assistant of more than forty years, Ken Pitt (1922-2019) his publicist and of course, Mick Jaggger, a long-time close friend. Life with David Bowie was anything but normal and each plays their role to varying degrees.  Some of the stories are touching while others are out of control.  And the issue of infidelity rears its ugly head on both sides and David and Angie struggle to stay together.  Their escapades just might have put Caligua (31 August 12 – 24 January 41 A.D.) to shame. But such was the life of stars during that time and for David Bowie, he was being the person he wanted to be for better or worse.

Controversy always follows the most eccentric stars and for David it certainly did.  Accusations of being a Nazi sympathizer hounded him and his move to Berlin only fueled speculation.  But publicly, he never showed any signs of anti-Semitism or support for racial supremacy. In fact, he was well-known for his preference for black women.  And that would culiminate in his marriage to Iman that produced a daughter Alexandria. David could make statements to raise eyebrows but he never intended on being “normal”.  He saw life through a different set of eyes and his persona was what mattered in public.

The book is filled with wild escapades and those on the more prudish sight might recoil.  However,  he does come full circle and towards the end of the book, he has made the odyssey from a young explorer of sexuality to devoted husband and father whose passion for music never wavers.  I did notice that the section regarding his later years was shorter than the rest of the book and I would have like to have seen more material included on his later years.  The book was published in 2014, two years before his death so there is no information regarding his cancer diagnosis and the long battle that ensued. Regardless, I do believe that the book is a great introduction to the life of David Robert Jones, known to the world infinitely as David Bowie.

ISBN-10 : 9781476767079

ISBN-13 : 978-1476767079

Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany-Hans J. Massaquoi

20180602_234529January 30, 1933 – Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) becomes Chancellor of Germany and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party becomes the dominant political party in Germany.  As Hitler marched through the streets of Germany under the banner of the Third Reich, millions of Germans watched the history unfolding before them with both anticipation and apprehension.  Among them was a young Germany boy named  Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi (1926-2013), who was born to a Liberian father and German mother.  Over the next twelve years, he witnessed the transformation of German society in a bastion of racial ideology founded on Hitler’s unrelenting thirst for world conquest.  This is the story of his life growing up black in Nazi Germany.

The story begins in the wake of World War I in which the Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany into a financially grueling situation.  On a cold day in January, 1926, Bertha Baetz (1903-1986) and Al-Hajj Massaquoi welcomed the birth of their son Hans.  For the Liberian Ambassador to Germany Momolu Massaquoi (1869-1938), his grandson Hans was a welcomed addition to the family but just three years later, life as they knew changed permanently as upheaval in Liberia forced the ambassador to return home.  He was followed by his son Al-Hajj but Bertha and Hans remained in Germany, unaware that an ambitious and fanatical Austrian menace was plotting the future of an entire country.  In seven years time, the reality of Adolf Hitler became horribly real.  Those who were able to leave Germany did and in some cases, left behind nearly everything they had. But others remained such as Hans and Bertha.  What they would see as the Nazi Party began its mission of racially purifying Germany is hauntingly captured here by Hans in this book that is sure to leave every reader with even more of an understanding of how ideology can develop into atrocities.

The title of the book gives the reader a clear idea of what to expect.  But there is far more to the story than what one might assume.  Growing up in Hamburg, love for his country and heritage is instilled in him from a young age by his Tante Möller who shows him the way to become an outstanding German citizen.  As a single mother, Bertha is tasked with raising a biracial child in a country where race is becoming the deciding factor for some between life and death.  Young Hans is unaware of the concept of race as a child until he begins to hear the term “neger”.  School proves to be the battleground and those tasked with his safety and education come from different sides of the fence such as the welcome Fräulein Beyle and Herr Schneider. They stand in stark contrast to the sadistic Herr Grimmelshäuser, Herr Wriede and Herr Dutke.  Readers should be aware that these may not be the actual names of the teachers as Massaquoi points out at the beginning that some names were changed but the events are correct.

Outside of the classroom, other important figures in his life enter the story as he passes from young boy, adolescent youth and into adulthood.  In each phase, he goes through a transformation as the world changes around him but he is always aware of his status as a “nichtarien”. His mother Bertha proves to be his guardian angel and after one demoralizing day at school which results in Hans wanting to reject his own physiology, mother and son have the following exchange:

“Whether you know it or not, your hair is beautiful,” she tried to assure me. “It’s easy for you to talk,” I told her, pointing to her lustrous, wavy dark brown hair. “You’ve got straight hair like everybody else.” “I would give it to you if I could. I so much wish I could, if that’s what would make you happy,” she said, “but I can’t. So you just have to learn to like the hair you’ve got. One day, when you are older, you’ll understand and agree with me when I say that your hair is beautiful.”

As the book progresses, we witness Hans’ inner turmoil as he struggles to fit in with his classmates while coming to terms of the growing influence of Nazi ideology that had reached the classroom as well.   And the restriction placed upon “non-Aryans” all but closed off Hans and other minorities from mainstream Germany society.  In spite of the adversity,  he continues to develop physically, mentally and emotionally.  Love and friendship are two pillars in the story and come in the form of several people that we meet such as Gerda, Gretchen Jahn, the Giordano family, Onkel Karl, Tante Grete, Trudchen and Inge.  And as a bonus towards the end of the book, Massaquoi provides un update on all to the fullest extent possible. It is said that people come into our lives for a reason and I believe that is fully on display here.

The war soon becomes the central topic in the book when Hitler accomplishes the infamous Anchluss with neighboring Austria.  The Nazi empire began its steamroll across Europe but the first Allied bombing raid on Hamburg caught the attention of German citizens who had believed up until then that the Luftwaffe was invincible.  Without re-telling the story of the war, it can be said that as the war dragged on, Germany sank further into dire straits. The author reveals what he saw in Hamburg before and during the deadly bombing raid known as Operation Gomorrah in 1943 which killed over 41,000 Hamburg citizens.  After leaving Hamburg with his mother and staying with relatives in Salza, Massaquoi has a glimpse of the camp at Kohnstein known today as Concentration Camp Dora-Mittelbau. And while he never enters the camp, what he describes is more than enough to inform us of what was taking place.

Hitler’s death on April 30, 1945 sealed Germany’s fate once and for all. But surprisingly, the news was met with a range of reactions as will be seen in the book.  Post-war Germany found itself in ruins and under Allied occupation.  The author soon learns that everything has a price and provides us with interesting anecdotes regarding his interactions with both American and British Troops. Smitty and Warner are two of the prominent figures with the latter becoming a lifelong friend.  But Hans is determined to get out of Germany and reestablishes contact with his father Al-Hajj in Monrovia. It is here that his life takes a very big turn that results in him eventually making his way to the land of the free and home of the brave.

Massaquoi’s experiences in Monrovia and Lagos are certainly a mixed bag.  But his friendship with his half-brother Morris and determination to become his own man set in chain the series of events that culminated with his arrival in Chicago, Illinois in 1950.  But the story is far from over and even Uncle Sam comes calling.  His life story is simply unbelievable but also a testament to the human spirit to continue even in the most adverse conditions.  And his reunion in America with the most important people in his life bring the book to a fitting close.  The horrors of the Third Reich are well-known and there are no shortages of voices from within Nazi Germany that have told the world of what they saw.  Adolf Hitler, a man consumed by the idea of racial purity and hatred towards those of the Jewish faith, ignited the spark that set off World War II and nearly caused the completely destruction of Germany.  But he could have never guess that there was a young biracial child who would grow up one day and write of a time in world history that he was destined to witness.

ISBN-10: 0060959614
ISBN-13: 978-0060959616

 

Inconvenient Memories: A Personal Account of the Tiananmen Square Incident and China Before and After – Anna Wang Yuan

 

WangIn June, 1989, I vividly recall watching the newsroadcasts of the protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. There was much I did know know then about the factors beind the protests but the image of a lone Chinsese man staring down the barrel of a tank was seared into my memory.  He became known as “Tank Man” and his act of defiance is still one of the most moving images in history. The picture truly does speak a thousand words.  The protests began on April 15, 1989 and ended on June 4, 1989.  However, in order to bring the protests to an end, army troops employed a range of tactics including the firing of live ammunition resulting an a still unclear number of deaths.  Estimates ranges from several hundred to several thousand. To those of us in the west, the protests were the result of years of oppression by the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) and incompetent officials who had closed China off to most of the world.  However, there was far more to the story than many realized then.   And to understand what was happening and why, we must take a look behind the scenes to see what life in China was really like in the years leading up to the summer of 1989.

At the start of the protests, author Anna Wang Yuan was an employee at Canon Beijing, a sub-division of the Canon Copier Company.  Her boss at that time, Mr. Murata, asks her to take pictures of the demonstrations. And although she is not a protestor herself, she does provide a first-hand account of what was happening on the ground and why the students had refused to leave.  The memories she has compiled, show a China struggling to remove the failures of the past and confront a changing world and younger population with no interest in the constricting ideology of the CCP.   Wang sums up the ideology in this simple statement:

“The official narrative of the Communist Party of China is that Chinese history is divided into two eras by the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The two periods are referred to as the new society and the old society, or heaven and hell.” 

It could be said that China continues to sturggle in maintaining the “new society”.   The protests in Hong Kong and tensions with Taiwan have shown that the will to resist Beijing’s rule remains alive and strong.

As I read through the book, I soon realized that the story is not solely about the protests. In fact, it is in large part an autobiography.   It should be noted that the book is not intnended to be a full analysis of the protests from start to finish.  Wang is telling her life story which coincides with one of the most important events in China’s long history.  Westerners might express dismay and confusion at her early family life.  And while I found the events that took place to be quite surprising and also sad,  there are lessons she learns along the way that she never forgets.  The anchor in her early life is undboubtedly her grandmother.  However, their relationship is tempermental and goes through challenges of its own before the book’s conclusion.  What I did notice is that her parents seldom make an appearance and we learn early on that they live in another city called Tianjin with her younger brother Wang Yi.  Yuan relies heavily on friends as she grows up and the most important in the book is Zhi Hua who plays a prominent role in the protests. Their lives would continue to be interconnected years after Tiananmen.

On April 15, 1989, former General Secretary of the Chinse Communist Party Hu Yaobang (1915-1989) died in Beijing.  As explained by Yuan, Yaobang was a supporter of reform and more transparency in government.  He stood in contrast to hardline conservatives within the CCP.  As news of his death spread, students began to organize the protests that would later grip the entire country.   The students eventually drafted what was called the “Seven Demands” based on Yaobang’s ideas.  This manifesto helped lay the groundwork for the reforms sought by students and other activists.   And it is at this point in the book that the story picks up in pace.

Yuan continues to work with Mr. Murata and Ms. Kawashima, a native of Japan. Yuan’s position within the company allowed her to see the complicated relationship between China and foreign countries when it came to economic matters.  In fact, she provides a good explanation of China’s financial policies and international standing at the time of the protests.  Of particular interest was the label of “most favored nation”, a status prized by the CCP but put into serious jeopardy by the events at Tiananmen.  The fallout from the protest had long reaching repercussions that went far beyond satisfying student demands.  And complicating things further, was the decision by party leaders to enforce martial law.  This is by far the darkest part of the book and we can only guess as to how many people were killed as the army cracked down on protestors.  The actions of the military are chilling and it is clear that to remain on the streets is risky and possibly deadly.   As a counter measure, the students engaged in a hunger strike and Yuan serves as the voice on the ground, explaining their condition and how the situation played out.

In the wake of the protests, she eventually leaves her employer while Mr. Murata and Ms. Kawashima return to Japan.  Yuan moves from job to job and eventually makes the  decision to move to Canada.  This is the start of the final phase of the book in which she, her husband Lin Xiao and their two children embark on a long journey to find a final place to call home outside of China.  Her journey takes her down under and finally to North America.  It is a interesting account of the many ways people employ to navigate immigration systems across the globe.  The process from one place to another often seems endless but Yuan never gives up and her will to continue puts the finishing touches on an already incredible story.  And although this is not a memoir or glamorization of the “American Dream”, it does show the ideological and pratical differences between the East and the West.

After finishing the book,  I felt as if I had a far better understanding of Tiananmen and how it looked to some people on the front lines.  Tiananmen will always be one of the most remember events during the 1980s and the tank man cemented his place in the annals of history.   Sadly, China continues to struggle with freedom of speech, expression and the demands of the students in 1989.  Time will tell in the younger generation can change the ways of the old conservative guard.  The CCP is determined to maintain its grip over China but as we have seen throughout history, the will of the people can never be ignored.  If you are looking for a good story about life in China following Mao’s death and a discussion of the Tiananmen Square protests, this is a good read.

ASIN: B07PM9LS25

Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris

ethelI am constantly amazed that in spite of all of the things I learned in school and through my own studies, that there are endless stories from the Civil Rights Movement that are continuing to be told.  Amazon recommended this biography of Ethel Lois Payne (1911-1991) and as I looked at the cover, I recalled the name but the face did not ring a bell.  My curiousity continued to pull me in and I knew that I had to learn more about this intriguing woman.  Author James McGrath Morris has called her the first lady of the Black press.  It is quite the title but as I learned while reading the book, the title was not only earned but it may in fact may be an an understatement.

Payne’s story begins in Chicago, in the year 1911 when she enters the world becoming the fifth child of William and Bessie Payne.  Jim Crow and segregation were alive and well making life for Blacks unbearable at times.  And although racism does exist today, the America in which we live stands in stark contrast to the America in which Payne navigated as she made a name for herself as a respected journalist.  Chicago is a rough city but those of us familiar with it already know that.  And putting aside the modern day shootings that place, violence has been a part of Chicago’s history for well over 100 years. Morris recounts some dark moments in the city’s history which show the tense racial climate the pervaded throughout the city and America.  But Payne is unfazed and determined to blaze her own path.  After the conclusion of World War II breaks, the military comes calling and Payne finds herself as foreign correspondent in Japan. This first major assignment would kickstart the career that lasted until her final days in 1991.

Upon returning to the United States, she accepted a post with the Chicago Defender and eventually earned her White House press credentials.  The act in itself was almost unheard and Payne wasted no time in stirring the pot.  A tense question and answer session with President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) brings her more press than she could have bargained for but at the same time, earned her the wrath of supervisors.  Nonetheless it was the point of no return and Ethel Payne kept moving forward.  And what followed is a journey across several continents that included meetings with U.S. Presidents, foreign leaders and activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). It was an incredible journey, beautfilly told here by Morris.

I also found that the book provided interesting tidbits about American history.   And while the author does not present the book as a reference book for American history, he does bring the events of the past back to life which highlight the progression in civil rights made by America in the past several decades.  Surely, there are dark moments in the book where progressive minds come face to face with hardened racists.  Birmingham and Little Rock are just two cities whose names will be burned in the memories of readers.  The acts that are committed are horrific and will make some readers pause.  Personally, I find it difficult to fathom why people were filled with so much hate towards each other solely based on differences in physical characteristics.  But that was how things were and sadly, the events detailed in the book did happen and many lives were lost in the struggle for equality.  Payne’s voice through the Chicago Defender, was a bastion of hope that America was listening to what its black citizens were trying to say.

Throughout the story, there are big name figures who helped changed the course of American history.  Some are former presdients John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).  Further, the passage of the almost powerless Civil Rights Bill of 1957 is addressed as American continues to struggle with equality.   The back stories to the public facades are interesting and Payne’s obversations are spot on.  She possessed incredible acumen about the Washington and future of American’s black citizens.  In fact, as we see in the book, there were times where she was correct in her analysis without even knowing the underlying facts that proved her to be correct.

In later years after she moved away from Washington, her work was not done and Morris shows her continuing efforts at promoting civil rights not just at home but wherever possible.  And although her physical descent becomes apparent towards the later part of the book, she never slows down but instead keeps going as she always has.  Admittedly, the end of the book is without question the saddest as Morris chronicles here life that increasingly fades away from the spotlight.  And in her final moments, the reality of where she ended up is strikinigly real.  And I found myself scratching my head and the direction her life had taken as she continued to age.  However, that is only small part of a life that was nothing short of incredible.

What I did notice in the book is that Payne never married nor did she have children. She did however, care of a nephew for a short time but he was not totally reliant upon her.  The lack of a love interest becomes apparent in the story but the topic is only lightly discussed.  That might be due to Payne keeping her persona life highly guarded or in the alternative, her busy life made romance impossible.  I did feel a bit down regarding this part of the story and wished that she could have found someome to share her life with.  But she is long gone and the reasons she had for her single life have gone with her to the grave.  Notwithstanding this side-story, the book is still a very uplifting account of Payne’s accomplished life.

James McGrath Morris has certainly provided us with a fitting biography of Payne’s life that was a mixture of success, tragedy and defining moments in history.  Today her name is never mentioned and younger generations will most likely have the faintest idea about who she was and why she was important.  But I encourage anyone interested in American history and in particular the American Civil Rights Movement to read this book.  Highly recommended.

ASIN: B00KFFROFE

J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and The Secrets – Curt Gentry

20200510_190852The mere mention of his name was enough to cause fear and apprehension.  Politicans, film stars and celebrities of all sorts had learned that he knew all of their secrets.  Exactly how many secrets he knew is still a mystery as his most sensitive files were destroyed when he died.  But what is certain is that John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) stands out as one of the most feared figures from his time as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”).  During his time in office, he witnessed six presidential administrations and three wars, the latter of which would continue after his death. His reign was supreme and no one deared to challenge it out of fear that they would wall fall victim to the wrath of one of America’s most powerful investigators.  The public facade carefully crafted by Hoover, served him well in masking the many dark secrets he kept closely guarded. Curt Gentry peels back the layers in this look at the life of the legendary FBI director.

The book is exhaustively researched and is quite extensive, topping out at 760 pages including the epilogue.  But contained within, is an incredible account of Hoover’s life that will leave readers spellbound.   Some may be familiar with the FBI’s actions in the past, many of which came to light after Hoover’s death.  In fact, today we are still learning of the seemingly endless number of informants and secret investigations carried out under Hoover’s directions. The Freedom of Information Act has proven to be invaluable in the research that has been conducted in order to fully understand the nefarious actions of an agency under the control of a power hungry tyrant.

The book starts off on the morning of Hoover’s death, as driver James Crawford notices that something is not quite right at the director’s home.  Although he was seventy-seven, Hoover had refused to retire but age and time had caught up with him.  The news of his death spreads quickly, sending shockwaves throughout Washington, D.C., and across the nation.  Gentry provides the dramatic opening scene to the suspensful drama that developes as the book progresses.  We are provided background information on Hoover’s early life in the nation’s capital.  But the story picks up pace as he joins the Bureau of Information which is later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Although he could not have known it at the time, he had found the organization that he would call home the rest of his life.

What I found to stand out is that the book is not just a story about Hoover, but a good look at American history.  Figures of the past come into the story such as former presidents, attorney generals and intelligence figures.  Some would be allies and others would become bitter enemies such as the legendary William J. Donovan (1893-1959), the former director of the Office of Strategic Services.  The bitter feud between Donovan and Hoover is one of the most bitter fights I have ever read of.  Hoover was never short on enemies, and Donovan is only one of many who appear in the story.  The battles are fierce and filled with backstabbing and petty jealousy.  Gentry revisits many of them  showing the lengths to which Hoover went to make his authority absolute.   Also discussed is Hoover’s obsession with communists and the morality of those who did not live up to his rigid standards.

Clyde Anderson Tolson (1900-1975) is well-known as not just the former associate director of the FBI, but as Hoover’s closest friend.  Some have even proffered that Tolson and Hoover were even “closer” than many suspected.  And although homosexual rumors have persisted about the two, to date there has not been any semblance of irrefutable evidence that the two were lovers. Gentry addresses the topic but does not stray off track nor does he give into simply gossiping about the matter. It is discussed and quickly put to rest.  The author leaves it up to the readers to decided what may or may not be the full story regarding the pair’s relationship.   It is a shot in the dark, but their wills, discussed in the epilogue, may give some clues about their relationship.

As the story develops, Hoover’s importance in some of the key events in American history become apparent, some in disturbing ways.  In particular, his actions during World War II might send some readers over the edge.  I found myself staring the author’s words in disbelief and the shock that had settled in which also  took some time to wear off.  And if that were not enough, Hoover’s actions towards those who dared to challenge him, leave no doubt about his abuse of power. Further, his actions towards his own agents in particular famed outlaw pursuer Melvin Purvis (1903-1960), is just simply absurd. The stories are shocking and will undoubtedly leave readers shaking their heads.

Hoover ruled the FBI for over forty years and during that time six presidents came and went.  All had their opinions of the director and their true feelings about Hoover are also discussed revealing some very interesting facts about what really did happen behind the scenes between the FBI director and the commanders in chief.  Hoover proved to be even more devious than any of them could have ever suspected. However, his thirst for power and tendency to savor gossip about the sexual lives of those he surveilled, reveal a much darker and perverse side of Hoover that the public never saw.  But as those who worked for him would later admit, Hoover was bigoted, homophobic and a bully among many other things.  And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Gentry pulled out all of the stops here and no stone is left unturned. The battles between Hoover and those he despised take center stage.  Some of the people on his “hit list” such as Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1925-1968) fully recognized the man they were dealing with. When Roosevelt made it clear that she did not approve of the director’s methods, she became a constant target of Hoover’s rage as detailed by the author.  These two iconic figures are a small sample of a long list of figures featured in the book who became enemies of Hoover and in the process had their lives placed under constant surveillance by the FBI in direct violation of United States law.  These methods used by the FBI is perhaps one of the darkest stains on the records of J. Edgar Hoover.

There is one part of the story that I found to be highly interesting even though it is more a sub-story than anything else.  For all of the information that the author does provide on Hoover and the FBI, what emerges is that the director does not have very much of a personal life.  What I realized and what the author makes clear, is that the FBI was his life and when looking at things in that context, his dictator like methods are eaiser to understand.  Without the FBI, there was no J. Edgar Hoover and he himself realized that and did whatever he felt necessary to retain that power.  However, like all dictators he would fall from grace and had he not died, he eventually would have been removed from his post.  And it might have happened during the administration of the last president he served, Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).  This part of the book is when we finally see that Hoover is on borrowed time.  But the seasoned directly pulls a few tricks from up his sleeve first.  The drama that unfolds is captured with the right amount of suspense by Gentry and readers will be on edge waiting for the climax to arrive. And in a suprising revelation, Hoover’s relation to the Watergate scandal is explained putting Nixon’s actions into a whole new light.

The fallout from decades of Hoover’s rule over the FBI is stunning and for all involved, the gloves were off.  William Sullivan (1912-1977) emerges as the new arch-enemy and pulls no punches whene he goes after the FBI after resigning.  His statements and the later investigations by the Justice Department after Hoover’s death, will leave some readers speechless.  Corruption might just be an understatement.  The story is almost surreal and if you had any doubts about Hoover’s character before reading the book, then they will surely be confirmed.  The conclusion of this epic story highlights the biggest irony of Hoover’s life and readers will not fail to notice.

So far I have discussed many of the dark aspects of the book which are abundant.  If I had to choose a bright spot in the book, it would be that Hoover did in fact make the FBI the respected organization that it came to be and no one can take that away from him. However, the backstabbing, vindictiveness and illegal actions at his command, make it difficult to show him in a highly positive light.  Quite frankly, after finishing the book, I found myself repulsed at what I had learned.  If you are looking for a story of power in the wrong hands, look no further, this is it.  Highly recommended.

ASIN: B00630Z8GM
ISBN-10: 0393321282
ISBN-13: 978-0393321289