Overnight Code: The Life of Raye Montague, the Woman Who Revolutionized Naval Engineering – Paige Bowers and David Montague

MontagueA friend once asked me why I loved history. I replied that there was always something to learn and that the history we learn in school is a fraction of the information that can be found regarding humanity’s evolution. When I saw the title of this book, I paused instantly and decided to investigate further. A brief synopsis on Amazon told me what I needed to know: there was an important story within that I did not previously know. My intuition was correct, and I felt a sense of shame at not knowing who the late Raye Montague (1935-2018) was and what she accomplished during her time working for the U.S. Government.  This book by Paige Owens and Montague’s son David, sets the record straight and ensures that her story will never be lost to history.

The story begins in Arkansas where Raye is born during the dark Jim Crow era in America. The descriptions of life for blacks in the South are exactly what you would expect to find of that era. And reading what life was like in America is still disturbing. But it is also a testament to the strength to be found in the people who moved forward in life despite their difficult origins. Montague’s story is typical for a Black American at that time, but it changes when she goes to work for Uncle Sam. She found herself in a brand-new environment with a young son she was raising as a single mother. Her trials and tribulations in the dating and marriage markets are discussed throughout the story and what we learn is surreal. But Montague never lets her personal life interfere with her professional life, and even goes to extreme lengths to keep her career going. However, she had to confront two obstacles in the forms of racism and sexism. As a black woman, she stepped into a world dominated by white men. And though she lacked the training they had been afforded, she learned on the job and by chance, is given an opportunity to work on the computers when the main engineers are unavailable. Her supervisor took notice and her life changed permanently.

To say that she accomplished incredible feats would be an understatement. Frankly, she embodies the concept of determination. And her uncanny intelligence is on full display and what she accomplished is amazing. Some of her awards are mentioned as the story progresses but after the book’s conclusion, a full list of her awards is provided, along with photos of Montague and her family. She was nothing short of brilliant. Yet despite her talent, knowledge, and ability to socialize anywhere, opposition to her advancement remained an issue throughout her entire career. She speaks frankly on the issues in the story but never speaks ill of anyone. I am sure she kept many grievances close to the chest as we say, but never lost sight of her goal to be the best engineer in her department. She reached that goal when she generated the first computer designed blueprint for a United States Naval vessel.

There are both antagonists and protagonists in the book. Her guardian angel comes in the form of Wallace “Wally” Dietrich whose guidance helps push her career forward. But there were also detractors, surprised to see a black woman as a peer. But to be fair, there are no acts of violence towards her, and she did form close relationships with co-workers both black and white. And through her hard work and perseverance, she was opening doors for women following her lead. Her personal struggles are the dark side of the book, and I could not believe what she went through in multiple marriages. But her son David was always her priority and she never wavered in making sure he was well taken care of. Today he continues to keep his mother’s legacy alive.

After I finished the book, I took a moment to think about everything I read. And I realized that this book is a perfect example of why history is important. The adage is true; if we want to know where we are going, we must know from where we came.

“I was put here for a reason,” she said. “That reason is to open doors for other people.” – Raye Montague

ASIN:‎ B085175PYS

Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope – Albert Woodfox

AlbertThe late rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur (1971-1996) soberly noted that prison kills one’s spirit. Each day becomes a repeat of the day before with instructions from guards and strictly observed times for each day’s events. Shakur served eight months in 1995 being bailed out while his conviction was on appeal. Tragically, he died on September 13, 1996, without the appeal having been decided. His story is unique but there are millions of others who are still in prison, serving extensive sentences in some of the country’s most dangerous facilities. Albert Woodfox (1947-2022) was one of those people, having served forty years in prison with most of the time served at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola also known as “the Farm”.  Woodfox’s story stands out because he not only served four decades but spent that time in solitary confinement for crimes he did not commit. This is the story of his life and time behind bars as he put his criminal past behind him and transformed himself into a civil rights activist and advocate for prison reform. 

The story begins in Louisiana where Woodfox was born to a mother who could not read and write, and a father who did not stay around to raise his son. But his mother meets another man who becomes his stepfather and fills the void left by his biological father. However, the happy family did not last, and a series of events fractured the once happy household, changing the lives of everyone for good. And it is not long before Woodfox begins his career on the street with drugs and petty crimes which result in early yet short prison sentences. But ironically, the crime that sends him to Angola was not one he was a participant in. Despite his conviction, he should have only served a few years there before being released. But that all changed on April 17, 1972, when corrections officer Brent Miller was stabbed to death. Woodfox did not know it at the time, but the murder of this guard would be the catalyst for keeping him behind bars for forty years. 

Miller’s murder is terrible, and readers should be aware that his last moments were nothing short of horrific. Woodfox becomes an immediate suspect due to his clashes with prison officials over living conditions. Even before Miller’s death, Woodfox was on the warden’s radar and the reasons for this will shock readers and force them to question whether prison is truly for rehabilitation. The conditions he describes are inhumane, but Angola has always had a reputation for being a place you do not want to go to. Despite knowing this, I still found myself aghast at what I was reading. Admittedly, when I read that Miller had been attacked, I did not think Woodfox was responsible. In fact, he was the last person I suspected. For him to murder Miller would have been completely insane due to his high profile and the fact that he had never met the guard. But there is far more to the story that will leave readers shaking their heads and questioning the criminal justice system. 

The saying a “jury of your peers” is supposed to carry significant weight but as can be seen in the book, for Woodfox and others accused of Miller’s murder, the State of Louisiana had other ideas. And we cannot overlook the issue of race which plays heavily in the events that follow. Woodfox had turned to the teachings of the Black Panther Party during his incarceration and had come to understand how his life was affected by the lack of a stable home. But that did not deter him from helping other inmates change their lives. Further, he speaks on a topic that will be upsetting to some readers and that is the dehumanizing experience of sexual assault. If there are any doubts that incarceration destroys what is left of someone, Woodfox removes it here. Frankly, what he describes is out of control but flourished with the knowledge and cooperation of guards whose goal was to break each man down to a shadow of his former self. But as the author explains, he refused to be broken and along with others committed to their cause, remained strong in the face of unrelenting racial hostility and pressure from prison officials. 

Unbelievably, Woodfox was convicted of Miller’s murder with two co-defendants. As someone who works in the legal field, I could not believe my eyes. To say that the investigation into Miller’s death was “sub-par” would be an understatement. In fact, there was hardly any investigation, and the real murderer never paid for the crime. Officials had who they wanted to be convicted and they succeeded. But, over time the story falls apart and attracts the attention of people outside the Angola becoming aware of the horrors the prison system inflicts on inmates. And even those who initially believed in Woodfox’s guilt, change their opinion after learning the truth about Miller’s murder. The efforts of his supporters were not in vain, and he does get a new trial but is convicted again for Miller’s murder. But the way the trial is conducted and the ways in which the prosecutors present their case is absolutely infuriating. Yet Woodfox remains unbroken. But that is not to say he didn’t suffer emotionally as well. He openly discusses his frustrations and the impact on his mental health from the deaths of loved ones he could not be with in their last moments. 

While Woodfox is focused on maintaining his sanity behind bars, outside of Angola interest in his case increases. He and his two co-defendants, Robert King, and Herman Wallace, become known as the Angola 3. King was released 2001 after accepting a plea deal which is explained in the book and Wallace died in 2013. I must warn readers that Wallace’s story is tough to read and the way the State of Louisiana treated this man even at the end of his time in Angola is surreal. Following his release, King becomes the spokesman for Woodfox’s release and the movement to change Angola. The author receives a guardian angel in the form of former U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana Judge James J. Brady (1944-2017) whose commitment to the law provides hope for Woodfox to keep his faith. This part of the story is interesting because we are witnesses to the legal battles between Brady and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, each wrestling with the questions of Habeas Corpus, cruel and unusual punishment, and Woodfox’s right to fair trial. But in the background is the book’s antagonist, former Louisiana Attorney General James D. Caldwell, also known as Buddy Caldwell. His actions towards Woodfox are disheartening. Woodfox was eventually released but not in the way he would have preferred. However, it brought an end of over forty years of confinement, and he was able to live out his days free from Angola. Sadly, in August 2022, Woodfox became another victim of the Covid-19 virus and passed away at the age of seventy-five. He is now gone but this story will live forever and remind us of the horrors of solitary confinement, prosecutorial misconduct, racial injustice, and the tolls they take on one’s physical and mental health. 

“My fear was not of death itself, but a death without meaning.” —Huey Newton (1942-1989)


JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century (1917-1956) – Fredrik Logevall

20230304_180326“Never be without a book in your hand”. Those words, spoken by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) to his youngest sibling, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009) stayed with me after finishing this Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece biography by Fredrik Logevall. As I read those words, I pictured bibliophiles all over nodding their heads in agreement. At the age of forty-six, John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet in an act that changed America. The hopes and promise of significant changed died with him in Dallas, Texas on November 22,1963.  And though his successor Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973) was successful in pushing forward groundbreaking legislation, the wound from Kennedy’s murder was destined to never heal.  As someone who has read countless books on his assassination and incredible life, I had a firm grasp on the Kennedy story before starting this book. However, there were parts of Kennedy’s story I learned for the first time. But more importantly, I witnessed a young man coming of age in the century that saw profound change across the globe.

This November will mark sixty years since Kennedy’s sudden death, yet he remains one of the most popular politicians in history.  His legacy is complex with successes and failures. The world came to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962 but was resolved without a weapons exchange to the relief of all. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a nightmare but not without its warnings. But those events await readers in volume two. Had Kennedy secured a second term, I believe he would have been able to accomplish more of the goals he envisioned for the nation. And the key to understanding why his death was so devastating is to find out how who he was as a person and what shaped his views of the world. Logevall begins as expected with a short biography of the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families, and their roots in Ireland. After the marriage of former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) and Rose Fitzgerald (1890-1995), the story picks up in pace as the Kennedy children begin to arrive.  Joe Jr. (1915-1944) arrives first and becomes the son chosen for the dreams Joe Sr. has of a Kennedy in the White House. Jack arrives next and from their childhood to their service in World War II, they maintain a rivalry that may surprise readers. In fact, Logevall sheds light on a plausible reason for the final mission Joe Jr. embarked on that claimed his life. Next in line is Rosemary (1918-2005) whom author Kate Clifford Larson `called “the Hidden Kennedy Daughter” in her book of the same title.  She is followed by Kathleen, who is known affectionately as “Kick” and her closeness to Jack should not be underestimated. The author highlights the importance of Kick in his and the impact of her death at the age of twenty-eight. In short order siblings Eunice, Pat, Bobby, Jean, and Ted arrive and the Kennedy story is never the same again.

Kennedy’s story is well-known, but there are key elements which I believe Logevall expertly homed in on that sets this biography apart from others.  The sibling rivalry with Joe Jr. is interesting because not only is it filled with ironies but because each son was unique, though they did complement each other.  Joe’s physical abilities contrasted with Jack’s intellect, but both excelled in many ways.  When Joe Sr. is appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom, the family’s life changes significantly and Jack’s exposure to the world takes shape, and until the day he died, never lost touch with events around the globe. The list of countries he visited even before serving in the military is staggering. From an early age, it is clear in the book that Jack had his eyes and ears glued to the world around him and was not content to sit still.  However, the Kennedy story was nearly cut short multiple times as Jack found himself at death’s door.  Logevall revisits the episodes in which Jack’s health took turns for the worst and the young man who later became president nearly met the Grim Reaper. Jack’s famous humor is on display throughout the book, and in one instance where he learns about his own health status and refers himself as “2000 to go Kennedy”.  There is one revelation in the book that caught me off guard but looking back, I can say that I should not have been surprised. This health issue would come back to haunt him later in life but played no part in his demise.

In 1939, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) set his sights on dominating the European continent and on September 1 of that year, the Third Reich’s armed forces invaded Poland, and ignited World War II.  Joe Sr. was widely known to be an isolationist and that view contrasted with his son Jack, whose travels abroad and extensive knowledge of history had shown him that Hitler had to be stopped and America could not avoid getting involved forever.  After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the fates of Joe Jr. and Jack were sealed but by the war’s end, Joe Sr.’s plans for his children’s lives had been unexpectedly altered. Jack, and not Joe, would become the Kennedy who took the family to new heights. And to reach those heights, his father instinctively tapped into Jack’s service record and heroic actions after his PT-109 cruiser was destroyed by a Japanese naval vessel. It is an incredible story and almost unbelievable, but Kennedy had earned his stripes and returned home a war hero. Joe Jr. was not so lucky and the murky details about his death are cleared up by the author.

Following Jack’s service, he returns home and begins his journey in the world of politics. Logevall also refutes the idea that Joe Sr. pushed his kids into public office.  In fact, Jack was acutely aware of politics and had his own ambitions. But before he reaches the Senate, the Kennedy family is forced to confront more heartache as the lives of Kick and Rosemary take sharp turns. Without dwelling too much on the circumstances, Logevall explains both events with the right amount of detail to explain what happened and how the family reacted. Kick was the sibling that resembled Jack the closest in spirit and her defiance directly challenged Rose’s puritanical views.  And her choices in men push Rose to the brink and readers will be surprised the family’s response to her passing in 1948.  All of this was not lost on Jack, who confronts his own mortality throughout the book.

Towards the end of the story, Jack’s future wife Jacqueline Bouvier (1929-1994) (“Jackie”) enters the story but the two do not immediately become an item. In fact, there were maneuvers behind the scenes to bring them together and the author shows, and after they do become a couple, issues remain due to a notorious habit of Jack’s which serves as the “elephant in the room” in the book.  Kennedy was widely known for his romances and affairs after marrying Jackie. Personally, I did not pay much attention to the women he had romances with, though I knew of the stories beforehand.  As a young attractive bachelor with money, I am sure Kennedy had his pick of women, but I also had to remember that his roving eye was no secret.  However, after marrying Jackie, it was disheartening to see that his philandering did not slow down. His father had his own affairs, and it was something that Jack may have normalized. Or it might have been a side effect of the treatment plan for his medical condition which was carefully kept a secret from the public as he ran for office.  And at times, he does show an aloofness to his actions, including his habits of not keeping cash at hand and leaving his places of residency is disarray. But if everyone knew about Jack’s ways, then why did women flock to him? The answer is found in Logevall’s biography, which shows that there was no one like him and he was one of a kind.  His uncanny ability to absorb knowledge (enhanced by learning how to speed read) set him apart from peers. And by the time he enters the Senate, his core support unit of Irishmen is formed, and they supported Jack all the way until the last visit to Dallas.  People loved Jack, and women loved him more, and he knew how to reach people. And that is a recurring theme throughout the book. He came of age and was destined to make his mark on the world. His college thesis “Why England Slept‘ still holds a place in World War II literature and a place on my bookshelf.

In the Senate, Jack makes friends from both sides of the aisle, including a young politician from California named Richard Nixon (1913-1994) whom he later faces in the first televised presidential debate during the 1960 election campaign. But that is for the second part of the biography. Here, Jack’s eye is on the 1956 Vice-President nomination, but he finds himself up against fierce and seasoned competition in former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) and Senator Estes Kefauver (1903-1963). And though he did not secure the nomination, a star had been born. The electricity surrounding the Democratic convention can be felt as the author replays the buildup to the climactic moment when the crowd shows it support for the upstart Kennedy. Logevall closes the book out with Jack ready for the future and the years 1957-1963 will bring a whole new set of challenges in his life and his own demise. But I am sure Logevall will tell that story as beautifully as he told this one which was written in a style that did not require any significant notetaking. The story flows so smoothly and is so interesting that I was able to retain what I read with ease. Following Jack was a breeze, and I am ready to see where he goes next.

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0812997131
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0812997132

Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World’s Greatest Scientist – Andrew Robinson

einsteinOn January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) became Chancellor of Germany and established the Third Reich, formed under the banner of national socialism, as the country’s ruling party. The Sturmabteilung known informally as the “Brown Shirts”, embarked on a campaign of terror across the nation persecuting opponents of the Reich and those determined to be “undesirable” of Aryan citizenship. Millions of Jews had already fled the country, alarmed by the rise of Hitler’s party and the anti-Semitism spreading like wildfire. Among those who left was famed scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who never returned to the nation of his birth after his departure in 1932. And though he had left Germany, he remained on the radar of the Third Reich which moved swiftly to erase his name from Germany literature. After leaving, Einstein moved across Europe before finally settling in the United States. But what is often neglected in discussions of his life and fame is the time he spent in England as the Nazi party gained strength and war with Germany became a reality.

Admittedly, I knew little of Einstein’s life after fleeing Germany. Today he is remembered for the theory of relativity and his equation E=mc2. Both were groundbreaking events in science but while Einstein was making a name for himself in Britain, Hitler was ramping up efforts to eliminate his opponents abroad and those around Einstein remained keenly aware of the threat. Author Andrew Robinson has examined the late scientist’s time on the run and compiled a story that is both unbelievable and tragic. And though it contains biographical information on Einstein, the book was not written as a definitive account. But the information is crucial to understanding Einstein’s motives and his complicated life.

There is an incident revisited in the book that played an integral part in Einstein’s decision to leave. The murder of journalist and government official Walter Rathenau (1867-1922), served as a wake-up call for German Jews indifferent to growing anti-Semitism and a new group of rebels calling themselves National Socialists. Rathenau’s assassination remains one of Germany’s darkest moments and a pivotal moment in resentment towards Jews. Einstein knew Rathenau personally and was disturbed by his murder. The crime removed any illusions that he would be safe in Germany should Hitler gain power and ten years later, Einstein and second wife Else (1876-1936) left for good. Their arrival in England as captured by the author, shows a Britain receptive and in awe of the Germany scientist. And it is here that Einstein accomplishes some of his greatest feats. However, he was still a man without a home and as Robinson shows, no one knew where he would finally end up. The couple moved around quite a bit and, in the book, Einstein reports from multiple locations playing host to the man awarded the Noble Prize in 1921.

Though the threat of assassination is always present and one on occasion, a high possibility, the author provides valuable insight into Einstein the person. I did not know previously, how Einstein felt about Zionism and his Jewish faith. His relationship with Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), the First President of Israel, is interesting and shows that Einstein was able to view an issue from both sides when necessary. Further, his relationships with both wives, his son Eduard (1910-1965) and stepchildren from Else are complex and reveal his shortcomings. Fans of Einstein will find these parts of the book both shocking and hard to accept but the reality is that despite his brilliance, he struggled in other aspects of his life. Frankly, we see the human side of Einstein and all his faults. But despite his personal life, he remained at the forefront of science and paved the way for nuclear fission. Interestingly, Robinson provides information about the atomic bomb and Einstein’s role that is often misunderstood. Further, the idea of nuclear fission did not belong to Einstein who was quite indifferent to his own successes. However, after the bomb’s development and use against Japan in August 1945, Einstein became an ardent opponent of its use and earned himself a spot on the subversive list of none other than former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). I cannot say I was too surprised by this as Hoover was fanatical about “communists” and others he deemed threats to the United States.

Einstein’s stay in England was temporary and the couple eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey. The author provides plausible explanations for the decision to leave Europe for America and the simplest reason is correct, in that Einstein needed to be far away from the threat of Nazi terror and in a place where he could find peace. America was not perfect, but it was nothing like Europe being forced to confront the growing German menace. Einstein never returned to Europe, remaining in America until his death in 1955. Today his image can be found on posters, t-shirts, websites, and other memorabilia, but there was a time when his image meant persecution and death. Hitler never succeeded in punishing Einstein, but the Nazis did confiscate everything they found belonging to him. Had they succeeded in capturing Einstein before he left, history and World War II might be quite different today. But as the saying goes, everything happens for a reason. Fans of Albert Einstein will appreciate this book.


Miseducated: A Memoir – Brandon P. Fleming, Foreword by Dr. Cornel West

flemingEvery so often, a recommendation shows up in my list that catches me completely off guard. This book is one of them. At first, I was not sure what to make of it and had not heard of it previously. But after seeing the high rating, I decided I had to see for myself and now that I have finished the book, I can state with certainty that it is a true gem. As stated on the cover, the book is a memoir by Brandon P. Fleming, a former debate coach at Harvard University and the Founder & CEO of The Veritas School of Social Sciences. The school was formerly known as the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project. And though he has found success through years of challenging work, there was a time when Fleming could have become an inner-city statistic.

The book begins with all the makings of a story about a kid who falls victim to the streets. Fleming and his siblings are being raised by a single mother enlisted in the military. Added to the mix are multiple fathers and a stepfather concerned only with himself. From the very beginning, I noted the lack of a stable family structure and the impact it had on the author’s life. By his own admission, he was a problem child but for reasons that are understandable. The section about Lucas was difficult to accept but it is a common occurrence that sets the stage for future dysfunction. Around 2007, the author’s mother receives orders to deploy with her unit as United States Armed Forces landed in Iraq. For the author, this meant a change of scenery and he soon began to spend more time in the belly of the beast: on 227th Street in the Bronx, New York. It is here that Fleming admits he learned how to craft the persona that nearly derailed all his hopes in the years to come. And his term for the form of education he learns there is jolting but also an aspect of life in the ghetto. As the author and siblings age, they are ushered through the school system sometimes without care for their development as students and individuals. The author somberly reflects that:

“I had not learned a thing since middle school, or before. I had never read an entire book. I did not know how to write essays. I knew nothing about thesis statements or citing sources. My SAT scores were so low that I was put into remedial, 100-level English and math courses.” 

As I read his heartbreaking story, I thought of the young children who are in similar situations. Fleming emerges as a prime example of how young black kids are “miseducated”. Surprisingly, Fleming advances far enough to enroll at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and has a promising basketball career. But a devastating injury changed those plans and left the author reeling and on the brink of self-destruction. And this is where his life takes a sharp turn, and the story becomes more uplifting with each passing chapter. Of course, there are setbacks, but through chance encounters with several people who influence his mind, and determination, he pushes forward. And before long, he finds a group of kids who he begins to cultivate as future debaters, giving birth to the ideas that have provided him with the platform he has today. Upon reflection, he asks this crucial question that will resonate with Black Americans:

Why is it that basketball was all I ever wanted? It’s because passion is born through exposure and affirmation.

Towards the end of the book, Fleming’s students evolve as a force to be reckoned with. And after a successful performance, he is approached with the suggestion of working at Harvard. And though I was only reading the book, I too felt elation at this point in the story. I also felt sad because a move to Harvard would mean moving away from the other young kids who need mentoring. But as Fleming explains to the young minds looking to him for guidance, they are all part of a movement. His arrival at Harvard is smooth but he soon notes that the debate program suffers from a lack of diversity. At this point, the writing is on the wall. Administrators agree and give the author the freedom to bring his vision to life and give readers the happy conclusion we patiently wait for throughout the book.

There is one part of the book that really stands out and it is the section in which he takes his first group of students out to eat. He is downcast because he cannot seem to reach them but suddenly an opportunity presents itself for debate and the light goes off in Fleming’s head. What he learns and explains is absolutely gold in the field of education and even teachers who read this book may learn something from it. Old dogs can learn new tricks.

Fleming’s story is a true rag to riches account but in no way is it standard. In ghettos across America, children remain stuck in homes that are dysfunctional and neighborhoods that are deadly. Brilliant minds are hidden due to the environment in which they live that dictates survival over anything else. Yet, that does not have to be the final word in their lives. They too can succeed but first need a path that leads from the darkness to awakening. And to drive this point home, the author sums up his experience and that of other black kids with this quote that says it all:

“Too often, Black youth, no matter how gifted or talented, miss out on opportunities because their family’s earning power is less than their white classmates’. Lack of access, not lack of ability, often keeps Black people from accomplishing what they could in a more equitable world.”

Brandon Fleming is only one person, but his story and success is a template for what can happen when brilliant minds are presented with the opportunity to create their visions and test the waters. Every action and decision do not always mean success but as he explains to one of his Harvard students, you always get back up. Highly recommended.


Meyer Lansky: The Thinking Man’s Gangster – Robert Lacey

LanskyIn September 1971, reputed mobster Meyer Lansky (b. Maier Suchowljansky)(1902-1983) was denied Israeli citizenship by Dr. Yosef Burg after a careful review of the evidence presented to him. Prior to his ruling, he had consulted with Prime Minster Golda Meir (1898-1978) who proclaimed, “no Mafia in Israel”. Lansky was dejected and continued to seek out ways to live abroad beyond the reach of the U.S. Government. His next stop was South America but there he refused entry and accepted his fate as he returned to the United States. When he arrived at Miami International Airport, I am sure onlookers wondered what the commotion was regarding one man who stood about five feet four inches. The media dubbed him “the Mob’s Accountant” due to his uncanny ability to process figures in his head. And rumors have persisted that he once had three hundred million dollars hidden from investigators. The allegations are grandiose, but the truth is that Lansky was a figure of his era, nothing more and nothing less. Robert Lacey first published this book in 1991 under the title ‘Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life‘. It was republished in 2016 under the current title and includes an updated account by the author. It is by far, a definitive biography of the late Lansky.

Mob aficionados will know Lansky’s story and readers who have viewed ‘The Godfather Part II‘ (1974) will recognize the inspiration for the fictional character “Hyman Roth” which was based on the real-life Lansky. Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) nailed the role and as Lacey discusses in the book, Lansky contacted the actor following the film’s release to discuss the portrayal of himself on screen. Lansky must have been thrilled to serve as an inspiration for a character in a film but the belief that he was a larger-than-life mobster who bankrolled La Costra Nostra may be misleading. In fact, the real story, as presented here, shows a complicated life that was anything but glamorous. There is more than meets the eye. Two marriages, a son with special needs and emotionally dysfunctional children are only parts of the Lansky story which begins in Grodno, Belarus in 1902. Like his contemporaries, Lansky emigrated to the United States as a child and the family settled in New York City. Max Lansky (1879-1939) found a new life for his family in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. I took notice of this part because the author touches on a part of the borough’s long forgotten history. In comparison to the Brownsville that exist today, known for a high crime rate and low income, the area was once a hotbed for Jewish immigrants. However, the story is just beginning and the move to the Lower East Side in Manhattan changed all their lives for good.

The section about Meyer’s childhood in Manhattan is key for it is here that he forms the alliances he would keep for decades with other immigrants, Italian and Jewish, who learned the way of the streets and the money to be made. The most famous of these friends are Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1896-1962) and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (1906-1947). Lacey takes us back in time to the era of prohibition and crime fighting politicians such as former Governor Thomas E. Dewey (1902-1971) and former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947). Luciano fell victim to Dewey’s administration and was convicted on prostitution charges on June 7, 1936, and subsequently incarcerated. But his story was far from over. In fact, the United States Government would later need Luciano as the war effort heated up. And at the center of the events was Lansky himself. The covert operation and Lansky’s role are covered in the book and show that when it came to defeating the Axis powers, all avenues were open.

As his underworld life evolved, Lansky also became a family man, and that story is far more complicated and unglamorous than his criminal exploits. His two marriages and the three children he had with first wife Anna (1910-1984) provide some of the most emotional parts of the story. The family’s struggle is nothing short of heartbreaking and the private side of Lansky’s life stands in stark contrast to the public facade of the seasoned mogul who helped build casinos and fill the Mafia’s coffers. Lansky’s oldest son Buddy has a story of his own in the book and the trials and tribulations of father and son are difficult moments. Second son Paul and daughter Sandra are equally chaotic, and Sandra plays another role in the book that will shock readers. And throughout the story is the importance of Judaism and Lansky’s adherence to his faith. It can be argued that his life was anything but Jewish and one that no believer would subscribe to. But in his defense, he was one of hundreds of Jewish mobsters in the early 1900s. There is never a shortage of gangsters in America.

On New Year’s Eve, January 1959, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) fled the country, evading capture by Fidel Castro (1926-2016) and his Revolutionary Army. For Lansky and other gangsters, the source of income Cuba had become was now over. The events of that night were fictionalized for the Godfather Part II and Lacey provides additional facts about Batista’s last flight from the island which I was unaware of. I also noticed that after Castro seizes power in Cuba, there are no further moves by Lansky that could be considered “big”. In fact, I saw the opposite. Aside from investments and miscellaneous sources of income, there is nothing in the book that alludes to him being a financial mogul with streams of hidden income. Even when Lansky moves to Florida later in the book, the belief that he had hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed income continued to haunt him. The stress from relentless investigations combined with his failing health only added to the tragedy his life slowly became. His second wife Teddy (1907-1997) stayed by his side, but also found herself under the prying eyes of the press. Her response to the press upon her return to Miami International Airport following Meyer’s failed attempt to establish residence in South America, was captured by television cameras and must be seen to be believed.

Despite the increased pressure by investigators, Lansky evaded prosecution for major crimes and that is one of the ironies in the book. If he was a criminal mastermind, he shrewdly kept himself out of long prison sentences. The reality I gleaned from the book is that Lansky was not the person he was portrayed to be. He did have dealings with mobsters and earned significant amounts of cash, but the only section in the book that shows extravagance is when he took his second wife Teddy on a first-class European vacation. Lansky did have income and the author provides details of his earnings as the story progresses, but the figures are well short of what would be expected from the “mob’s accountant”. Added to Lansky’s financial woes in Florida are the struggles each of his children had throughout their lives. This is a sobering reality in the story; Lansky could control hardened gangsters but struggled with his own kids. And what we see in the book about the Lansky home is all too familiar in mobster stories. Long nights out, weeks away from home and secrets of the streets combine to strain even the most committed marriages and bonds between a father and his children.

Lansky’s life in Miami during his final years closes out the story, but before it is over, the decline of the aging mobster plays out in the final act. Years of chain smoking and stress took their toll, and the decades-long health issues he endured came to a head. He dutifully walked Teddy’s dog Bruzzer but on the inside, his body was slowly breaking down. Readers will see the writing is on the wall and that Lansky does not have much time left. But when death comes for him, there are no last words in the form of a confession but instead Lansky affirmation that he was ready to go. He lived and died on code as the thinking man’s gangster. This is the legacy and tragedy of Meyer Lansky.


The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald – Arthur Mizener

fitzOn the morning of December 21, 1940, American writer Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940), better known as F. Scott Fitzgerald, was reviewing the Princeton Alumni Weekly when he felt discomfort in his chest before succumbing to a heart attack at the youthful age of forty-four. The author who had published The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise had struggled with his health in the years before his death. In the years following his untimely passing, his novels have gained popularity and Fitzgerald is considered one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. In 2013, actor Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the Hollywood production of The Great Gatsby, which earned mixed reviews. Fitzgerald remains a literary icon, but I could have never imagined the turmoil that existed in his personal life. I saw this book in my recommendation list and was intrigued by the high ratings. Having finished the book, I can say that it was worth the purchase and revealed a side of the author that highlights the lines between genius, insanity, and tragedy.

This book was originally published in 1951, eleven years after Fitzgerald’s death but reading it on an electronic device removes the sense of time and the story flows as if it were written today. However, there are clues in the form of now outdated terms that set the time definitively. Mizener’s account is written beautifully and after revisiting Fitzgerald’s childhood spent between St. Paul, Minnesota, and New York City, we are introduced to the writer who made a name for himself in his shorty yet extraordinary life. And the person that emerges is a complicated figure in a complicated life. As the author points out, 

“There never was,” as Fitzgerald said in his Notebooks, “a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He’s too many people if he’s any good.”

Thus, the search begins for the real F. Scott Fitzgerald. His friend and author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) provides his observations of Fitzgerald in the story as do several others. But surprisingly, it is Scott himself who provides an open window into his innermost thoughts due to the collection of materials he left behind. Like every great writer, he was both tormented and encouraged by his success. And he was not immune to the seduction of intoxicants. This is undoubtedly one of the darker aspects of the book in addition to the impact of his wife Zelda (1900-1948), whose story is equally as tragic as Fitzgerald’s but not as widely known. In fact, Mizener accurately points out that, 

“A good deal of injustice has certainly been done the Zelda of the twenties because she later went insane and it is difficult not to let the knowledge that she did so affect one’s view of what she was like before 1930.”

As I read the book, I could not help but to notice the stark contradiction between the successful writer known the public and the financially inept and abusive person under intoxicated. For all his success, he is always close to destitution throughout the story. And the tumultuous relationship between him and Zelda should not be overlooked. Fitzgerald comes across as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he was aware of his insecurities and struggles. However, he could not overcome his demons and that theme forms the crux of the narrative. Regardless of whom he was interacting with, Fitzgerald could be his own worst enemy. And as can be seen in the book, his unpredictable nature and dark habits resulted in scandalous situations and the involvement of law enforcement. The story is not easy to read, and a forgotten victim is the couple’s daughter whose voice does not appear in the story. Paradoxically, Fitzgerald was devoted to her and his concern for her well-being despite his own fragile condition is heartwarming. 

Zelda plays a crucial role as his wife in the story, for better and worse. When her symptoms first appear, it is not clear why she is having issues, but the author slowly reveals her plight. And as their conditions deteriorated, they became co-dependent and continued to exist in a relationship that is nothing short of surreal. Readers will see the writing on the wall and following their decline is like waiting for a car wreck to happen. We know they will not come out of this the same way but to say that they had rough lives would be an understatement. They lived fast and died young but along the way, they also left their mark. Towards the end of the story, Zelda is removed from the story for reasons readers will discover and later in life, Fitzgerald became involved with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (1904-1988). Their relationship was no less turbulent than his marriage with Zelda, as the story reveals. Sheilah’s appearance in the story is brief but she remained with Fitzgerald until the end. Despite their differences, she did have a positive influence over him. Ironically, at the time of his death, he had finally come to terms with the demons he had been fighting and repaired strained relationships. But the damage he had done to his body was extensive. Even Sheilah could not prevent the inevitable. 

Though the book is a biography, Mizener does discuss selected works of Fitzgerald’ and the back stories behind them. But he makes sure not to let the book become a critique of Fitzgerald’s work and keeps the focus on his life, and despite the tragedy playing out, there are bright moments in the book, and when not under giving in to his demons, Fitzgerald shines brightly in personality and creativity. Sadly, he did not think he would live to old age and in the end he was right. The warning signs had been there, but Fitzgerald lived on his own terms. The roaring twenties were a remarkable sight and for F. Scott Fitzgerald, some of the best times in his life. His story, as told by Arthur Mizener, is one of success, tragedy, self-sabotage, and the painful reality of addiction. The genius in him left us with books that have stood the test of time. But the insanity that became his life, resulted in him leaving the world before his time. After his death, Zelda has a rare moment of clarity about her late husband. Mizener relays the fitting quote, 

“Though she was ignorant of much of Fitzgerald’s life after 1934, Zelda was substantially right when she wrote, a few days after his death, “Scott was courageous and faithful to myself and Scottie and he was so devoted a friend that I am sure that he will be rewarded; and will be well remembered.”

More than seventy years later, he is still remembered. 


James Garfield & the Civil War: For Ohio and the Union -Daniel Vermilya

GarfiledOn September 19, 1881, United States President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) died in Elberon, New Jersey seventy-nine days after he was shot and mortally wounded by Charles J. Guiteau (1841-1882) on July 2, 1881. The assassin, motivated by a desire to see Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) become president. Arthur did become the next president, but Guiteau was on borrowed time and was executed on July 30, 1882. Garfield was shot after two months in the White House and died in less than one year as president. His remarkably short tenure as president is often overlooked by history but there was far more to his story that has been taught in history classes. The story of his life is equally as intriguing as its ending and in this short but concise examination of the late president, Daniel Vermilya focuses on Garfield’s early life and his time as a Union officer in the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Admittedly, my knowledge of Garfield’s life was restricted to his assassination which placed him in the group of presidents cut down before their time. I was not aware of his service in the Union Army. It became clear as I started the book that I was in for a history lesson. Although the story is not a definitive biography of Garfield, there is enough information regarding his life to provide readers with an image of who he was behind the photographs. Of course, Garfield’s early life in Ohio is discussed and the tragic demise of his father Abram, whose death affected the family in profound ways. The story picks up in pace as Garfield matures, becoming a lawyer in 1861 and turning his focus to politics. But that all changed on April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops opened fired at Fort Sumter. To anyone paying attention, it was clear that the war was on. And Garfield could not have known that his life would change permanently.

The section about his Civil War experiences is the crux of the book and the author brings the past alive with a writing style that keeps the story moving at the right pace. Not once did I feel my attention waning and was in awe of the material becoming known to myself regarding Garfield’s service. I knew none of this as a student in school. Interesting, Garfield was one of several former Union officers who later became president. In fact, the author is far blunter in his assessment when he states:

“Without his service during the war, James Garfield never would have enjoyed the postwar political career that he did. His status as a leading Republican in the later 1860s and 1870s was based on his military record above all else.”

His posting, however, was in Ohio with the 42nd Infantry Regiment and the battles in which they engaged were among the war’s most important. All are discussed here showing the savagery of the war. Further, Garfield was a dedicated abolitionist and his commitment to slavery’s destruction is on full display. And fittingly, the late John Brown (1800-1859) enters the story in years preceding the war.

Regarding the war, the elephant in the room is undeniably the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) shortly before the war’s bloody conclusion. Garfield had admired Lincoln, but as Vermilya shows, the relationship was not without its issues. Garfield had a strong moral compass and anyone who did not measure up was subject to his judgment. Expectedly, Garfield is crushed by Lincoln’s death but satisfied at the South’s defeat. His time in the Union ended and the book moves on to his next destination in politics. I found myself surprised at Garfield’s accomplishments which occurred in a remarkably brief period. His belief in the destruction of slavery and change in America was not just rhetoric. The author summarizes this in explaining that:

“In the time he had, Garfield appointed African Americans to positions within the federal government, including making Frederick Douglass the recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C. Garfield believed strongly that a federally backed education system in the South would be the key to helping to lift Arican Americans from poverty and degradation.”

We can only wonder about the other things he would have done had he lived. He was far from the only Republican focused on civil rights and rebuilding the South but sadly, opportunities were lost through the failure of the Reconstruction Acts failed and rise of Jim Crow. Garfield would have been disappointed had he survived yet we can only guess as to what he would have been able to do following his time as president. However, his service record and time in the White House provide strong clues. If you are in search of an enjoyable book about the Civil War and the life of James A. Garfield, this is a good place to start.

ASIN:‎ B01A6061A

Donovan: America’s Master Spy – Richard Dunlop

DonovanIn December 1963, one month after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), former President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) authored an op-ed piece in the December 22, 1963, edition of the Washington Post about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its role in America. While reflecting on what the CIA had become, he stated “there is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.” The agency had been established through the National Security Act of 1947 which was intended to both centralize and simplify national defense and the intelligence apparatus. Five years before the National Security Act was signed into law, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) had also addressed the need for foreign intelligence and through Executive Order 9128 on July 13, 1942, he formally established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). And to lead the new agency, he turned to former director of the Coordination of Information (COI), the legendary William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan (1883-1959). Though he was never director of the CIA, Donovan is credited as being the father of intelligence. Author Richard Dunlop examines Donovan’s life in this intriguing biography and historical account of how the intelligence community came to exist.

Dunlop provides a thorough discussion of Donovan’s early life in Buffalo, New York, and it soon becomes clear that Donovan is a person of action and determination. His life changes with the start of World War I, a conflict in which Donovan would play a direct role as soldier in the U.S. Army. His exploits on the battlefield and recognition by others give credence to the name Wild Bill as readers will learn. Following his service in the military, Donovan returned home to resume his law practice. But as he would see, fate had other ideas for his life. After being appointed U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, Donovan became a rising star in Washington circles as a prosecutor with an impeccable record. But unbeknownst to American citizens, a dark cloud was forming over Europe in the form of a young Austrian name Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and his political party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (N.S.D.A.P.). As the Nazi threat became real, Washington realized that it needed information about Europe and the truth about its future. Donovan had foreseen things to come and as Dunlop explains:

“Donovan was convinced in the late 1920s that Poland would be the first European nation to be torn apart by the next war in Europe.”

As part of his duties as a traveling businessman, Donovan came face to face with individuals who later played crucial roles in World War II. One meeting in Berchtesgaden will catch the attention of readers. America did not formally enter the war until December 1941 but prior to that the White House was deeply concerned with the events unfolding. Roosevelt knew that America could not ignore the conflict. And this action he took as explained by Dunlop set the stage for the future of intelligence:

“On July 11, 1941, President Roosevelt established the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), making Donovan its chief. When the COI was transformed into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942, Donovan continued as America’s wartime intelligence master.” 

On the surface it was just what America needed but as the author shows, not everyone was on board with a central agency. Readers with an affection for U.S. history will know that no one escaped the wrath of former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). The tension between the two is on full display and exemplifies Hoover’s thirst for power and obsession with controlling every aspect of gathering intelligence both domestically and abroad. To say that Hoover was displeased with the new intelligence agencies would be an understatement. And his threats to the Republican party that he would release damaging information is a move all too familiar. I found this passage by the author regarding events after the attack at Pearl Harbor to be a perfect example of the disdain held by Hoover towards any type of intelligence apparatus:

“On Tuesday, December 9, Roosevelt ordered Donovan to coordinate all North American intelligence agencies, including the recalcitrant FBI. The lesson of Pearl Harbor was fresh in his mind: The welter of conflicting intelligence agencies had contributed to the tragic unpreparedness in the Pacific. But when J. Edgar Hoover refused to cooperate with Donovan, Roosevelt backed off and on December 23 lamely reaffirmed the authority of the FBI.” 

Hoover could not control the war and regardless of his personal ambitions, the war mandated a different approach to intelligence and Donovan was the man Roosevelt and Truman turned to. Dunlop discusses the triumphs of the OSS but does not fall into the trap of going into too much detail. There is sufficient information to provide readers with an understanding of its importance without taking the story away from Donovan who is the central figure. And while leading the OSS, he provided the blueprint for the CIA. His agents came from all social classes and the OSS conducted missions that were unbelievable. Donovan was far ahead of his time and realized that intelligence was a vital component if America were to remain secure and powerful.

Following the defeat of Germany, Italy and Japan, the days of the OSS were numbered. However, Donovan knew that his work and that of others following his path was far from over. Truman knew that intelligence was vital and that there was no turning back. Another war was possible, and America could not afford to be caught off guard. Donovan’s importance cannot be overstated, and his legacy is captured with the author’s remark that:

“When on September 18, 1947, almost two years to the day after his OSS had been abolished, the Congress authorized the Central Intelligence Agency, Donovan was delighted. The new CIA in most important respects followed the blueprint that he had submitted to Franklin Roosevelt three years before.” 

In the wake of the dissolution of the OSS, Donovan returned to his private life but remained connected to the intelligence community, issuing warnings and advice. His statement about Vietnamese icon Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969) and his communist organization sent chills down my spine. When Donovan died on February 8, 1959, America lost one of its greatest intelligence assets. The former intelligence chief was far from perfect and the information about his personal life stands in contrast to his professional life. Tragedy, marital issues, and time away from home, took their toll on Donovan at times. But he never wavered in his service to America. This book by Dunlop is an important story that needed to be told about a man who helped change American history.


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