Category Archives: Biographies
The dissolution of the United Soviet Social Republics (USSR) remains one of the most important and world changing moments in history. The lowering of the hammer and sickle on December 26, 1991, was the end of seventy-four years of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe. But the remnants of the Soviet Union can still be found today and the ghost of its founder, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), continues to haunt Russia. In Red Square, Moscow, Lenin’s corpse remains on permanent display and is maintained by a full-time staff of technicians. To believers in the old-guard and Marxism, Lenin is the eternal leader of the Bolshevik revolution. To his detractors, he was madman who unleashed a wave of terror and was outdone only by his successor Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Undoubtedly, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron grip built upon fear, intimidation and murder. But those tactics were not new methods of operation, having been in use long before he took power. During the reign of the Soviet Union, information regarding Lenin’s private life was kept secret and only the most privileged of researchers were able to see any official records. The passage of time and change in attitudes had resulted in the disclosure of Soviet records that many thought would never be revealed. The thaw which began with Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) has allowed the world to learn the truth behind the Iron Curtain. Author Victor Sebestyen has taken another look at Lenin’s life in this well-researched and revealing biography of the iconic and infamous Soviet leader.
It is not a requirement but I do believe that basic knowledge of the former Soviet Union will make the book even more enjoyable to the reader. There are many figures in the story, some of whom became pivotal figures in Soviet and world history. From the start, the book is intriguing and the author’s writing style sets the perfect tone for the book. Furthermore, at the end of each chapter are the footnotes which help aid the reader in following the narrative and developing a mental picture of the tense political climate that existed in Russia at the beginning of the 1900s.
Prior to reading the book, I had learned a significant amount of information regarding Lenin’s life but the story told here is simply astounding. Sebestyen leaves no stone unearthed, fully disclosing the sensitive parts of Lenin’s life including his marriage to Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1969-1939) and relationship with Inessa Armand (1874-1920). And as the author points out, Nadezhda or “Nadya”, was a supportive and valued voice in Lenin’s circle. Her comments throughout the book shed light on Lenin’s very private side and her commitment to the revolution and Lenin’s ideology made her a celebrated figure in her own right. She remained committed to Lenin after his death and up until her own in 1939.
Lenin’s early life is examined in through detail and reveals an interesting figure but highly unorthodox and complex. Ideology becomes a major focus of his life and his series of odd jobs come to an end when he finds his true calling as the man destined to lead the Bolshevik Revolution. But his path to get there had many obstacles along the way and it is his time away from Russia that is just as interesting as his time in Russia. As would be expected, his service as chairman is the crux of the book and Sebestyen delivers the goods. Sensitive readers should be aware that there are very disturbing events that take place and in their graphic detail here, they may prove to be too upsetting for some. But the author reveals them so that we may learn the truth about Lenin. In the title of the book, the author refers to him as a “Master of Terror”. I believe the title was earned and this book is proof of it. His deeds have been overshadowed by those of his successor but Lenin was a master in his own right and I have no doubts that Stalin took many notes. Death, deception, lies and even pilferage are part of the Soviet story, serving as pillars in the foundation upon which Lenin and his party established their system of brutality. Their acts were so surprising in some instances, that even after having finished the book, I am still shaking my head in disbelief. And to say that anarchy ruled, might be an understatement.
Sebestyen carefully follows Lenin’s rise and the formation of the Soviet Government. From the start, all was not well and cracks in the facade immediately began to form. The fragility of the coalition is on full display, allowing readers to grasp the unstable nature of Soviet politics and how quickly friends could turn into enemies. Jealousy, egos and diverging interpretations of true Marxism severed friendships, raised suspicion and helped create an atmosphere of distrust that remained with the Soviet Union for the next seventy years. And even today, Russia and the independent republics, sometimes struggle to to stand completely removed from the dark legacy of the USSR.
One subject which has always been up for debate is Lenin’s untimely demise at the age of fifty-four. His condition at the time was somewhat puzzling to doctors but all agreed that it deteriorated quickly. Sebestyen clears up a few rumors surrounding Lenin’s death but there is a slight chance that some details regarding Lenin’s death still remain hidden. However, I do believe the author presents a solid analysis of what contributed to his death based on facts and not mere speculation. Readers who are expecting to find any evidence of a conspiracy will disappointed. No such theories are presented or even acknowledged, keeping the book on track all the way until the end.
The existence of Lenin’s tomb is both a testament to his influence over Russia and his inability to envision a future without himself. He could have never imagined the heights that the Soviet Union would reach over time nor could he have pictured its downfall. I think he may have mixed feelings to know that today in 2019, people are still interested in his life, one that he was willing to devote to the success of the Soviet empire. In death, he became eternally etched into the Soviet experience and he remains one of history’s most polarizing figures. This biography is nothing short of excellent.
On September 11, 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown through a CIA backed coup, that resulted in the seizure of power by General Augusto Pinochet. The removal of Allende satisfied the Nixon Administration which had seen the democratic election of Allende as a threat to the Western Hemisphere. To Washington, it was inconceivable to think that the events in Cuba were spreading across Latin America. The consensus was clear, Allende had to be removed. McCarthyism and the red scare led to anyone having left-leaning political views to be branded as a communist determined to see the fall of Capitalism. Among Allende’s supporters was Chile’s national poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-193). Twelve days after Allende’s removal and death, Neruda died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was sixty-nine years old. Forty-five years later, his poetry is still beloved in Chile and other parts of the world. And he is recognized as being one of the world’s greatest poets. I had heard of Neruda before and have been fortunate enough to visit Chile. It is a unique country and there is something special about it which is not easy to put into words. Chile truly is a place you have to see in person, to experience Chilean culture and travel through Patagonia. I admit that I did not know much about Neruda’s life, so when I saw this biography in my recommendation list, I did not hesitate to buy it and start reading nearly instantly. And what I have learned is more than I could have ever imagined.
Mark Eisner has researched Neruda’s life and has compiled a biography that is nothing short of outstanding. Surely, Neruda took some things with him to the grave as all great figures do. But his large volume of work, speeches and other writings have survived, and they would all help Eisner in what was a monumental task. Neruda’s story begins in 1904, an era remotely differently from the era in which we currently live. Eisner has recreated early 1900s Chile and first tells us the story of Neruda’s parents. His father, José del Carmen Reyes Morales, is a central character in the story and the beginning of the book focuses on his life before Neruda enters the picture. On July 12, 1904, the story changed for good, when his wife Rosa gave birth to a happy baby boy, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, the future Pablo Neruda. The young child enters a world that is marred by affairs, illegitimate children, strict social class and backbreaking work on the railroad which in some cases proved to be deadly. Neruda would inherit some of his father’s nefarious traits and the would cause him consternation and scandal in his own life. And through his poetry, he allowed the world to read his emotions. But what many did not know then and may not know now, is that there was also a very dark side to the famed poet.
Eisner does not shy away from Neruda’s failings and when necessary, uses Neruda’s own words to drive home the point. As I read the book, there were some points at which I shook my head in both shock and disgust. In fact, there are several parts of the book that may prove to be upsetting to female readers. Incredibly, Neruda was able to compartmentalize his life and the ease in which he discarded those around him was quite frankly, disturbing. To the public, he was the rising poet and Eisner follows his developing career which threatened to place him in poverty. But through a series of events, blessed with luck, Neruda persevered and went on to create poetry that has changed the lives of millions of people. But what Eisner also shows, is the two sides of Neruda which were unable to be reconciled and a poet struggling with his own happiness while at the same time, oblivious to the errors of his ways.
Neruda was an outspoken leftist and his affinity for the Soviet Union and the communist system of government, earned him many enemies as well. The author explores this part of Neruda’s life and the fear of communism that spread across several continents. His devotion to communism following his admission into the Chilean Communist Party, would prove to be a thorn in his side until his final day. But for Neruda, staying in one place for long was never an option and this story is filled with travel around the world as Neruda works and creates in several countries. Through Eisner’s words, we follow Pablo and his many love interests across the globe as he travels to and from Chile both as foreign agent and fugitive. At times, it seemed as if his life was straight out of a Hollywood film. There is no let up and Pablo has forced Eisner to move full speed ahead. Once I started the book, it became increasingly difficult to set it aside for a later time in the day. I was glued to the pages, curious to see where Neruda ends up next and who makes an appearance in his life and who makes their exit. To say his life was unorthodox would be an understatement.
At over six-hundred pages, the book is not exactly a short read but the pace of the story will result in readers forgetting about the length completely. The story is engaging and Neruda was quite the character. But he possessed a natural gift and Eisner’s inclusion of his poems, gives the book an added air of authenticity to it. In those sections, he turns the floor over to Pablo who never failed to deliver.
Having completed the book, I have mixed feelings about Neruda. But that is a credit to the author’s talent. Eisner does not show the Neruda people want to see, he shows us the Neruda that we need to see in order to come to our own conclusions. A brilliant and talented poet was also at times a cold-blooded monster. He battled loneliness but had fans worldwide. Some would call him a walking contradiction and others might simply accept the label of eccentric. Regardless off the adjective, Neruda did not fit perfectly into any mold and Eisner has captured his complex character which at times did not function based on reason or logic. It is a great story of a unique person, who never faced his own demons but was able to capture the hearts and emotions of millions of people facing their demons. In death, he became a legend of nearly God-like status and remains a cultural icon in Chile. He is to Chile what Jorge Luis Borges is to Argentina. Those looking for a good biography of Pablo Neruda, will be more than satisfied with this gem by Mark Eisner.
Recently, I have become fascinated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, a culmination of long-simmering tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster Province. The conflict is among the longest running in the world and has claimed the lives of thousands. In each of the books that I have read, I kept coming across the name Bobby Sands (1954-1981). I knew he was one of several prisoners at the Long Kesh correctional facility who died following a hunger strike in protest of the conditions at the jail and the policies of London. However, I did not know much about his life. I became focused on him and eagerly searched online for whatever I could find. Amazon delivered yet again with this definitive biography of Sands’ life by author Dennis O’Hearn that is nothing short of riveting.
Here in the United States, Sands’ name is largely unknown but across Ireland and other parts of the world, he is remembered as a champion of resistance and an inspiration to others who have waged their own battles for freedom including the late Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). Mandel used Sands’ hunger strike as an example for strike of his own which proved to be highly successful. However, Sands also had his detractors and many of them still view him with disgust, particularly in the six Protestant dominated counties in Ulster Province. And similar to other famous figures, there are endless stories about his life, some true and others most likely fiction. Hearns sets the record straight here giving the best account of the life of one of the IRA’s most legendary leaders.
From the start, the book earned my undivided attention and at times I could not put it down. Curiously, the Sands’ story begins like many other kids in Northern Ireland. He was born several miles from Belfast and his childhood was a happy one by all accounts. He lived in a modest house with his parents and three siblings. His friends were a mix of Catholic and Protestant. But that would soon change as the battle between Republicans and Loyalists escalated and the induction of the British military further fueled tensions. As Hearns shows, these events began to shape the mindset of the growing Sands and the events of Bloody Sunday, were the spark that fully ignited the raging conflict.
The author’s writing style flows very easily and the pace of the book moves just right. Hearns follows Sands’ early life, showing his slow progression from the average young kid, to a young man learning about religion and complexities of life for Irish Catholics and finally to the wise and seasoned IRA member that launched the most famous and moving hunger strike in Irish history. I think Hearns showcases clearly, how and why many young men and women joined the IRA, knowing full well that jail and death were the most likely outcomes. To Americans, Sands might seem out of his mind. But that is far from the case and Hearns gives him a platform to spread his ideas. Sands’ writing samples are included in the book, giving him a voice in this incredible biography. Even if you do not agree with what Sands did, it will hard not to admire his dedication to his beliefs, his charisma, intelligence and willingness to sacrifice himself.
His incarceration at Long Kesh is without a doubt the crux of the book. As Hearns tells this part of Sands’ life, we step inside the walls of the prison and the different sections in which Sands and other IRA members were confined. The ugly and vindictive atmosphere that developed at Long Kesh is on full display and some readers will be repulsed at the actions of some guards and conditions in which Sands and the others lived. But the struggle inside the prison by no means was one sided. Sands and the others do their share of antagonizing the guards whom they affectionately refer to as “screws”. A daily war of attrition developed as each side sought to find out just how far they could push the other. And to say that some aspects were barbaric would be an understatement.
Prison time was an accepted part of life for the men and women of the IRA. Death came as well to those who were either unlucky or extraordinarily brave. The men at Long Kesh believed their fight was political and they decided they would not be confined within its walls without being appropriately labeled as political prisoners. London vehemently refused to agree to any such notion and thus, the stage was set for the battle between the IRA and the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). As this point in the book, the suspense heightens as the IRA becomes more defiant and the guards become more determined to break them into submission. It was an environment that would have driven most to insanity. But for Bobby Sands, this was the proving ground in which he could show his commitment to his cause. His studies of the works of Che Guevara, Franz Fanon and others became the backbone of his resistance and carried him through to the final moments of the second of two hunger strikes carried out by IRA prisoners. Hearns covers both in solid detail to give the reader an inside look into the battle behind-the-scenes battles within the IRA with regards to the impending doom by the hunger strikers.
As a sub-story to the events at Long Kesh, the author focuses on the turmoil in Sand’s personal life outside of the IRA. Marriage and fatherhood enter the story and the effect the movement had on his personal life will cause many to wonder if it was truly worth it. Sands would surely say yes but I am sure that if he could have gone back and done things differently, there is a good chance that he might have changed course. But by the time he had reached this point in his life, his fate was sealed and destiny was waiting. At the time of his death, he was only 27 years of age and joined a long list of other famous figures who died at age 27. In death, he became a martyr and his image can still be found on murals in Northern Ireland. To Republicans, he is a hero who fought against British Rule and to Loyalists, a criminal who caused his own demise. But to some of his enemies, as Hearns shows, he was still worthy of respect and the interactions with guards in various parts of the book are confirmation of this. I think that all can agree that he was one of a kind and remains a legend of the IRA. His hunger strike changed public opinion of the IRA and their cause for a united Irish Republic. Future generations of IRA members and Republicans will surely look to him as one of their greatest figures whose memory shall continue to live on. This is the life and death of Robert Gerard Sands.
Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition – Shirley Chisholm with Scott Simpson, Donna Brazile and Shola Lynch
Many years before Hilary Clinton decided to run for the office of President of the United States, there was another politician who had eyes on the White House. And although she did not win the Democratic nomination, she earned a significant amount of votes and in the process, showed that a women candidates were more acceptable to society than many have long believed. Her name was Shirley Anita Chisholm (1924-2005) and through sheer determination, she launched a political campaign that challenged many accepted norms in American society and helped to break down barriers, even today. In January, 2019, thirty-six women joined the House of Representatives following the success by Democrats in the 2018 mid-term elections. The number is now the record for the most women in the House of Representatives and if current trends are an indication, that number will continue to grown through future elections.
If Chisholm were alive today, she would have been thrilled and satisfied with the election of Barack Obama and the current roster of Congresswomen. Their elections to office would serve as confirmation that her life and struggle helped pave the way for women and minority candidates. This is her story in which she invites the reader into her personal life so that we can learn more about the first Black-American woman to run for president.
The first thing that I noticed about the book is the formatting. I chose the Kindle version and the text alignment is in dire need of correction. Other buyers have commented on the same issue. Putting that aside, the story is intriguing from start to finish and will satisfy any reader interested in Chisholm’s life. She was a product of Brooklyn, New York, born to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Barbados. From an early age, her life was anything but ordinary and throughout the book, we see that she possessed an uncanny drive and found herself typically in the right place at the right time. As she admits herself, politics was not her first choice as a career. But her fate was destined and through a series of events beyond her control, she makes her way into the political field of New York City, a Democrat stronghold.
To say that the book is inspiring is an understatement. Incredibly and sadly, it is only around two hundred pages but within those pages, is a wealth of wisdom that Chisholm passes on to those who are willing to listed. Her rise in politics to the position of congresswoman was a feat that many thought she could never pull off. But as the book progresses, it is clear that Chisholm was never a typical candidate. Her outspokenness, intelligence and fierce independence made her both an outcast and threat. Today, she would be labeled anti-establishment. But is a price that she was more than willing to pay in defense of her core beliefs. Her refusal to conform and tow the line is part of what keeps her legacy alive to this day.
However, not all of her story is smiles and cheers. She also reveals some of the darker moments in her life and how they changed her view on the world in which she was attempting to make her name known. Her relationship with her mother, is a case study for the many challenges American-born children face with regards to foreign-born parents. And yes, there is also the issue of race, which she addresses as well. However, I noticed that it does not take over the book but is mentioned only when necessary. Chisholm is speaking to everyone, about America as a nation and the many problems that existed then and still exist now, regardless of race.
To some, it may be regrettable that many of the things she discusses are still an issue. It may seem as if America has not learned much over the past fifty years. However, I do believe significant progress has been made and I feel that Chisholm would agree. I am confident that one day in the near future, America will have a female president. Whomever she is, she will have to confront many of the issues that faced Chisholm more than forty years ago. But if we remember her advice and keep our sights on the long-term goals, then the first woman president can be successful and become a beloved figure with a legacy to match.
This book should belong to the library of any woman running for public office or considering a political campaign. These words are the truth about the challenges women have faced and continue to face, as they amass a higher standing in American politics. Chisholm’s life, here on display, was a mix of love, God, education, success and motivation. If you have the time, sit back and listen to Shir speak in this truly good read.
When I first learned of the country called Burkina Faso, I felt a sense of shock at how little of it I had heard not only in school but through the media. The landlocked African nation was never mentioned in the history books that I had read and even today it remains a minor player on the world stage. But between the years of 1983 and 1987, events transpired there that were both remarkable and tragic. Had success prevailed, the world would know Burkina Faso today as the pioneer of progressiveness in modern day Africa driven by the ideas of its late leader Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (1949-1983).
Upper Volta was the name chosen by the French as they colonized the land that would produce one its most aggressive antagonists. The colony became prized possession but growing calls for independence succeeded and on August 5, 1960, Upper Volta became an independent nation and was formally recognized internationally. However, Paris still played a direct role in the nation’s affairs and continued to keep a stronghold over the country for the next twenty-three years. On August 4, 1983, Sankara seized power in a coup and installed himself as the new ruler. The country was renamed Burkina Faso and Sankara launched a campaign of reforms that were far ahead of his time. Agricultural reforms, anti-corruption acts, women’s rights and energy conservation were just some of the endless programs and ideas he began to institute to transform Burkina Faso from a poor developing nation into one that was self-sufficient and financially secure to maintain its independence.
Ernest Harsch knew Sankara personally, having worked with him on more than one occasion. This book is a collection of his memories of Sankara and what he observed during Sankara’s time in office. The account is remarkable and at times, Sankara appears to be a figure out of place on a continent plagued by exploitation and corruption. His voice was strong, and his actions were feared abroad for he advocated for a unified Africa, emboldened to reject foreign loans with high interest rates and the meddling of more powerful nations.
He has been compared by some as the African version of Che Guevara. Similar to Guevara, he led a frugal lifestyle and implored close relatives not to accept any gifts. His belief in selflessness are eerily similar to Guevara but both men were incredibly intelligent figures who posed a threat to many due to their growing number of followers. Washington once feared Guevara could spread the Cuban Revolution across Latin America. It also feared that Sankara could spread the Burkina Faso revolution across Africa. The tension between Sankara and Washington are discussed by Harsch and highlight the seriousness with which many viewed Sankara’s powerful rhetoric.
Abroad, eyebrows started to raise at the actions of the new revolutionary near the Ivory Coast. Domestically, Sankara was surrounded by many enemies, some of whom he could never have foreseen. Harsch explores what was really taking place in Burkina Faso up until and at the time of Sankara’s death. The actions of Blaise Compaoré are discussed as well and his true role in the events of that day are still a bit of a mystery. He is no longer the leader of Burkina Faso, having resigned on October 31, 2014. Currently, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré sits as the prime minister. The nation has seen power change hands many times but none can escape the ghost of Sankara.
Africa’s size and complex network of nations have made it one of the most diverse places on earth. In fact, no other continent has the number of countries contained within as Africa does. There are 53 recognized countries across the continent with each having its clear distinctions as to language, culture and history. Sankara hoped to bring these countries together under the banner of a Pan-African organization. Had he succeeded, he would have accomplished the goal envisioned twenty-years earlier by Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961). Although he did not live long enough to realize this goal, he did provide an example of the possibilities that exist for all of Africa if its people can come together as one.
The only negative part of the book is that I wish it could have been at least twice as long as I feel that there is so much to Sankara’s story that is still largely unknown. However, Harsch has done a great service to the memory of his late friend in showing world how brilliant Sankara truly was. I sincerely hope that in years to come, Sankara’s legacy is exposed to more parts of the world. To aid in that effort, we can rely on this sound and endearing account of Sankara’s life and death.
If you have traveled to or live in Louisiana, I think you will agree that it is one American’s most unique states. The City of New Orleans has a storied past on its own and each year, it attracts millions of visitors, curious to see Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the world-famous French Quarter. Baton Rouge proudly serves as the state’s capitol and an icon on the landscape of the deep south. However, there is also a dark history of Louisiana, one that filled with racism, corruption, crime and poverty. Louisianans with a long memory will remember that there once lived a governor who ruled the state with an iron grip until his reign was ended by an assassin’s bullet. He was Huey P. Long (1893-1935), the 40th Governor of Louisiana who left a complicated legacy that is nothing short of surreal.
Long’s self-proclaimed title of “Kingfish” matched his unrelenting quest for absolute power and projection of himself as the only person that mattered in any room he was in. Richard D. White examines his reign and the effect it had on politics in Louisiana and the United States. To say that America had not seen a candidate like him before would be an understatement. He exploded onto the scene and in the process seized control of the highest office in the state. Interestingly, Long never finished high school and today, that alone would earn him few votes. But in the late 1920s and after the depression, illiteracy was a far more common problem than it is today. Long understood this and had an uncanny ability to reach millions of people that felt as if they had been forgotten by the wealthy. Louisiana was often viewed as a backward place full of backward people that cam from the swamps. This casual prejudice against Louisiana, was found in many places in American politics and helped provide the spark for Long’s infamous reign and determination to make Louisiana the example to be followed by the rest of America.
From the start, Long was far from what anyone would have considered a candidate for public office. Boastful, confrontational, brutish and vulgar, Long earned the disgust of the political establishment but the hearts of poor white Americans. His popularity soared has he talked of improving the economy, providing free textbooks, building roads and other projects to improve the state. And while he did accomplish many of those things, his darker side tended to overshadow the good deeds and put him on a collision course with Washington, D.C. and his destiny, which he met on on September 8, 1935 when Dr. Carl Weiss fired a single and fatal shot. The story from start to finish is captured beautifully by White and will leave readers in shock at Long’s endless antics.
White takes us back in time to an era before air conditioning and political correctness. As I read the book, I felt as if I were sitting in the gallery watching Long launch into yet another vicious tirade against a perceived enemy. I found myself in shock at his actions and the vindictiveness in which he carried out his agenda. Corruption had plagued the south for years and New Orleans has long been known as a place where one can go to have a good time and find any vice known to man. The brash openness with which Long operated would result today in impeachment, indictment and undoubtedly prison. But this was the 1930s and Louisiana was like the wild west with pistol packing politicians who sometimes resulted to fisticuffs to settle disputes. Long himself brawled on more than one occasion after cooler heads failed to prevail.
In many ways, Long was everything that most Americans have come to despise and distrust. He was loud, obnoxious, uncouth, racist, flamboyant, drank too much and had enemies all across America. His larger than life persona and constant attacks on others, attracted the eyes of the FBI lead by J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Long’s battle with Roosevelt is explored in the book and highlights how serious of a threat Long became to the establishment. In Europe, Adolf Hitler had risen to power using a nationalist and populist platform. Here in America, there were many that feared Long could mimic his success. Long had no desire to be compared to Hitler but failed to recognize his own racism which is on ugly display in the book. And as the author points out, the true irony is that Long’s outlandish behavior did more to prevent Louisiana from becoming a true democracy than it did to push the state forward. While he was an advocate for the advancement of disenfranchised people, he had no intention of giving those advancements to Black Americans and his actions towards them are one of the darkest stains on his legacy. He truly did have the ability to change Louisiana in many ways, but ultimately became his own worst enemy as he became drunk with power and engulfed by paranoia.
Eighty-three years have passed since Long’s death and today is rarely mentioned in conversation. Visitors to Baton Rouge take photos in front of the statue erected in his honor but it is anyone’s guess if they know the story of his life. Richard White presents a clear and concise biography of the Kingfish who made himself the God of Louisiana. This is a good look at the life and death of Huey P. Long.
On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier. The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock. The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.
To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960. Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination. Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed. And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star. In less than one year, he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair. There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder. To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.
The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others. He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber. Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation. It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe. From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.
Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”. Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.
The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence. Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity. Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969). Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock. Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus. Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal. It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers. But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.
Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him. One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow. His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response. We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting. The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.
The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches. I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination. The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker. However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville. Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.
I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book. Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story. They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography. This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.
Legends never die, that is an absolute fact. Some legends never live past fifty years of age, often leaving their mortal coil through tragedy or illness. For Alexander Fu Sheng (1954-1983), a single car accident was the cause of his demise and in the early morning hours of July 7, 1983, he died at the young age of twenty-eight. He left behind grieving parents, siblings and his widow Jenny Tseng, an accomplished Hong Kong singer who has also performed abroad. At the time of his death, he had risen to become one of the most popular stars to come out of the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio. Before ceasing film production in late 1985, Shaw Brothers had released several hundred films which had been locked away until Celestial Pictures bought the rights to the films and digitally remastered the majority of the collection. As a long-term fan of the martial-arts film genre, I had amassed a large collection of films which included all of Fu Sheng’s movies. My favorite is the film that catapulted him to international stardom, The Chinatown Kid (1977). Terrence J. Brady gave this biography the perfect finishing touch by included the name of that film in the title of this book. His exhaustive efforts have resulted in the only known biography of the late film star.
If you have no idea who Fu Sheng was, I do recommend that you watch some of his films, a full list of which can be found here. It should be noted that the list does not contain The Mark of the Eagle which was being filmed at the time of his death. The project was shelved permanently. Readers familiar with Black Belt Theater will feel a sense of nostalgia as memories of Saturday afternoons filled with Shaw classics then distributed by the World Northal Corporation. It truly is an era that we will never again see. Today, CGI and fancy camerawork has replaced the old-school method of filming that relied heavily on coordination, training and relentless stamina. Many Shaw Brothers stars are still alive, well into their 60s, 70s and even 80s. The Shaw studio is long gone, but the magic they created will last a lifetime. Fu Sheng was part of that magic and Terrence J. Brady has finally put together the true story of his short and extraordinary life.
The book is without question a biography, but the author did a great job of providing a tremendous amount of back-story for the topics at hand. In fact, throughout the book, snippets of Chinese military and literary history are included showing the link between China’s past and what the filmmakers had intended to capture on-screen. Undoubtedly, Fu Sheng is the star of this story and Brady carefully retraces his steps from film extra to superstar. And along the way, he was surrounded by cinema greats who became mentors, friends and mourners. Their stories and their relationships with Fu Sheng show the very personal side to the individuals who helped create the films that I and scores of others have come to cherish dearly.
His widow Jenny is also a central part of the story and I firmly believe Brady lays to rest any rumors that have persisted about their lives together up until the time of Fu Sheng’s death. And following his demise, Jenny has a surprise of her own which I had never known of. Her revelation, whether it is true or not, adds to the tragedy of his life. But what is evidently clear, is the love they had for each other, which the late Chang Cheh (1923-2002) showcased in his most eccentric film Heaven & Hell (1980). The film has been written off as Cheh’s most bizarre work but personally, I found it to be highly entertaining. In the film, the couple performs a duet that complements the prior act perfectly. But there was more to their singing partnership than many might have known or remember. Brady covers that as well here and his research provides a steady stream of incredible information about the couple during their several year courtship and subsequent marriage. Of note, Tseng never remarried after Fu Sheng’s death.
Fans of the Shaw Brothers will absolutely love this book. It is an insider’s look into how the studio created its hit films and a good reference guide for a quick background information on some of the biggest names to work there. In this story, nearly all of the legends make an appearance including Ti Lung, David Chiang and the late Lau Kar Leung (1934-2013). A who’s who of stars is put on display and as I read the book, I could feel the Shaw Brothers studio come back to life again during what could only be described as a classic era in the Hong Kong film industry. In fact, this book has encouraged me to revisit the Shaw classics, some of which I haven’t watched in nearly two years I still have my entire collection which started in 1995 when my father took me up to 42nd Street. There, I purchased my own VHS English dubbed copy of the Five Masters of Death. The original Hong Kong title is The Five Shaolin Masters. Fu Sheng had a starring role in the film and it was in this movie that I first became a fan. It is just one of many great masterpieces he contributed to during his storied career.
This book truly is a blessing and I am forever grateful for Brady’s monumental effort. Fu Sheng is long gone, having died nearly thirty-six years ago, but his memory and legacy live on not only in Hong Kong but across the world. During his time at the Shaw Brothers studio, he rightfully earned the nickname of the Chinatown Kid.
Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out – Jason Rezaian
The United States and Iran share a long and storied past, defined in moments that changed world history. The removal of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, followed by the reinstatement of the Shah and the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, set the stage for decades of tension between the two nations. And incredibly, it was under this tension that the administration of U.S. President Barack H. Obama engaged in talks that resulted in the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, simply known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The deal was both heralded as a landmark achievement and a kowtow of the worst kind. But what many Americans did not know, was that there was far more taking place behind the scenes, including the release of U.S. prisoners held in Iranian jails. Among those prisoners, was American born journalist Jason Rezaian, of The Washington Post. You may remember him from his appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s (1956-2018) hit show No Reservations. The episode was beautifully done and Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh, appear as voices of insight into Iranian culture. At the conclusion of the episode, there is a message on the screen that they both had been taken by Iranian intelligence. The episode is my second favorite, the first is Vietnam in which President Obama makes a surprise appearance and enjoys a meal with Bourdain in Ho Chih Minh City. On January 16, 2016, Rezaian was released was repatriated to the United States. Joining him were his Iranian born wife and his mother who never stopped fighting for her son’s release.
The book came to me as a recommendation from Amazon and I have to say, it was right on the money with this one. I easily recognized Rezaian and was curious to know exactly what did take place during his incarceration. The goods are all here and at times, I had to shake my head at the words and actions of his captors. The Twilight Zone atmosphere, as Rezaian once describes it, is periodically broken by his recollections of his early life and his family’s history. He explains his reasons for leaving America in his early thirties and moving to Iran, the place of his late father’s birth. At first, the book reads like a typical story of a young man who found a home away from home. He meets the love of his life, Yeganeh and the two begin to build their life together as a married couple. But on July 22, 2014, that all changed when they were arrested, blindfolded and transported to the Evin Prison in Tehran.
Authorities are convinced Rezaian is conduction “spionage”, as they call it and have labeled him a master spy who has come to spread revolution in Iran, through the import of “avocados”. At first I could not believe my eyes but the insanity only increases. Interrogators employ endless mind tricks in order to get Rezaian to “cooperate” and “admit” his wrongdoings, even without being able to say for certain what they were. They assure him that they are there to “help”. Rezaian’s sharp wit, adds a level of comedy to the story that lightens the mood and keeps the reader glued to the book, anticipating the next page. But the reality is that the charges were serious, in fact, deadly serious. More than once he is threatened with execution. The jury is still out whether the Iranians ever intended to actually commit such an act or if it was strictly a scare tactic that they knew would have backfired publicly and politically. Their attempts to interrogate him and their obsession with American films and politics, has the effect of turning the affair into a three-ring circus in which Rezaian is the only one with a sane mind. How he kept his sanity, sense or humor and composure, many of us will never truly know. Perhaps it is the human will to survive which at times can be stronger than most would expect. Rezaian admits that he nearly gave in on more than one occasion but the world was rooting for him and the support of his family, in particular his brother, help provide the inspiration he needed to remain stoic and defiant, until he once again walked the streets as a free man.
As to be expected, the Iran Nuclear Deal is a significant back story to the book and integral to his eventual release. As a prison inside Iran, Rezaian was given an insider’s view into Iranian society and the mood in Tehran as its leaders and Washington hammered out an agreement that had been reached with the hope that the two nations could begin open dialogue which could eventually end in peace that has eluded both for nearly forty years. Rezaian discusses the process and the difficulties of reaching an agreement which also included himself and other prisoners. But even he admits that at the time, he had no idea of how many people were at work, doing everything in their power to secure his release and several others. The ending of the book plays out as if Hollywood sent its best writers but this is not fiction. It was a show of diplomatic power at its finest and a story in which the good guy does win.
Sadly, hopes of peace between Iran and America faded with the announcement of President Donald J. Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal. On May 8, 2018, the withdrawal went into effect and only time will tell what will happen but I sincerely hope that peace does prevail. For Jason Rezaian, peace came in a different form and his freedom from the Evin Prison, has given him an even deeper perspective of where Iran continues to go wrong. He also explains the many areas in which non-Iranians fail in understanding how and why its society operates in the manner that it does. But make no mistake, this is his story and how he survived incarceration in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Those of us who have visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, can testify to its seduction of visitors with a passion for treasured art. The second floor is home to Campbell’s Soup Cans and Other Works, 1953–1967, a collection of thirty-two pieces by the late Andy Warhol (1928-1987). February 22 will mark thirty-two years since his untimely death at the age of fifty-eight. Art students and museum aficionados have long studied his work as the shining example of the Pop Art movement that swept across the United Kingdom and United States during the 1950s. Warhol undoubtedly became the poster child for the movement with his sleek frame, white wig, large frame glasses and black sweater. His personal life, carefully hidden from the public, became a mystery to those seeking to know just who is and who was the real Andy Warhol? Bob Colacello worked for Warhol on their publication Interview, for twelve years and in this intriguing account of their time together, he reveals the Andy Warhol he knew with all his quirks, ingenuity and fears in life.
The book is not an autobiography and Colacello does not try to assess Warhol’s psyche. Further, this is Colacello’s story from start to finish but Warhol does play a critical role to the events that transpired in his life for obvious reasons. From the start, it is apparent that Andy is not the typical boss and writing for Interview will be no easy task. As Colacello explains, it was usually a test of wills with Andy believing everyone had a hidden story or “problem” and that Colacello should proposition them with the offer of a cover shot and even change his name to “Bob Cola” to sound more appealing. Their contrasting personalities and those of the other members of what Colacello refers to as the “factory”, created a magazine that grew into a serious contender and in the process, made Warhol’s name synonymous with modern pop art. His successes took him and his staff across several continents and through endless cities. Colacello was dutifully by his side along with a dedicated team of collaborators, each of whom would wage their own battles with Warhol over his eccentric behavior and domineering personality. They all recognized that within their boss was a visionary who straddled the fine line between genius and insanity.
Anyone who decides to read this book, probably has some inkling of who Andy Warhol was. His carefully crafted public facade, gave off an aura of chic that tabloids found irresistible. But behind the facade was a different person, and Colacello was there to witness those revealing moments when Andy let down his guard. The anecdotes from Colacello are amusing and in some cases puzzling as Andy’s behavior typically bordered on the surreal. Armed with his tape recorder which he called Sony and hindered by his social awkwardness, Andy sometimes became a square trying to fit into a circle. But yet, most could not resist being around him as his name grew in popularity. That fame resulted in a steady stream of film stars, foreign dignitaries and politicians giving Interview and Warhol the publicity they constantly needed. It was an unbelievable ride for the young artist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, born to immigrant parents from the small region of Ruthenia. Some of you may be wondering, where on earth is Ruthenia? It is located in the Carpathian Mountains, sitting between the meeting point of the borders of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Russia. Sadly, Warhol never addresses his family’s ancestry and often said that “I come from nowhere”. Perhaps it was just Andy being Andy or was a sign of a deeper inner struggle that manifested itself in his work. We will never know for sure as Andy took that and many other secrets with him to his grave.
Every story about a famous figure has the proverbial “elephant in the room”. For Andy, it was sexuality, a theme that was found in many of his works and which fueled his belief that everyone had a juicy sexual secret they were hiding. As Colacello reveals, Warhol was entranced by gossip and in particular, the sex lives of celebrities. But was this a defense mechanism to deflect from his own love life? Colacello provides great insight into Andy’s love life or lack of it. And even with his revelations, many questions still linger about what type of love life he actually had. Maybe that was Andy’s plan, to keep everyone guessing, on their toes and confused. But there are two people who appear in the story and Colacello explains their importance thoroughly and how they affected Andy’s personal life. One of them, Jed Johnson, tragically perished on TWA Flight 800 in 1996, which exploded shortly after takeoff from New York City’s JFK International Airport. The flight was bound for Paris and all 230 passengers perished in the accident. Johnson was with Andy the longest and their relationship provides some clues as to why Warhol behaved as he did.
Towards the latter part of the book, Colacello focuses on his increasing dissatisfaction working for Warhol and the impact upon the lives of his colleagues as a result of their boss’s behavior. Like a master manipulator, Warhol would push their buttons and then later soothe their egos, dangling them on strings in the process. Alcohol and drugs became coping mechanisms and flowed freely in their circle that consisted of Hollywood stars, music stars and the famous Studio 54, where Andy became a fixture. The image that appears as Colacello discusses working conditions at the factory, is one in which Andy keeps his subordinates in check, at odds and never in a position to amass too much influence in affairs. This system of dysfunction pushed many to brink and over time, nearly all left to escape from Andy’s off-handed and in some cases, callous treatment. However they remained loyal to him and his legacy, even when they no longer worked for him. Their commitment to Interview, the factory and Andy’s films, created a bond that could never be broken, not even with his death on February 22, 1987. Theirs is a story of a family with a broken parent that many of them tried to diagnose and piece back together. But Andy could never be the same after being shot several times on June 3, 1968. Valerie Solanas nearly ended his life that day but Andy survived and carried with him the scars from multiple surgeries and a life-long fear of being in public. His physical condition and paranoia of being attacked again, nearly crippled his social life, resulting in him needed a chaperone for nearly everything. More often than not, Colacello was assigned this task. However, the role he assumed gave him a very intimate look into the fractured life of his boss.
The mystery of Andy Warhol will continue for years to come. I do not believe there is one simple explanation for his life. Colacello even states that although he was close to Andy, he’s not sure if they were really that close as personal friends. Andy carefully kept everyone at a guarded distance. He avoided hospitals and even funerals, including that of his own mother Julia. His lovers had separate lives and seemed to come and go as they pleased. Andy threw himself into his work, pressuring all that worked for him to make sacrifices that at times were unrealistic. We can only assume that his constant drive to work, accumulate gossip with Sony and his prevention of letting anyone become close to him, may have been his way of protecting himself. Before his death, he said to close friends that he did not want to go into the hospital because you do not come out. But as his gallbladder became inflamed to the point of possibly rupturing, he was faced with having no other choice but going into the one place that he dreaded. And tragically, his prediction came true. But there is far more to Andy’s life and death, covered beautifully by his former employee and star writer. And fittingly Colacello has given us a very-welcomed portrait of what he calls the holy terror. Warhol fans will love this book.