Category: Biographies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN: B00KFFROFE

Biographies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biographies

20200427_182446The City of Chicago has earned a reputation as being a tough metropolitan landscape in which winters are harsh, politics fierce and the streets are dangerous.   In recent years, the rise in shootings on the south side of the city have made news headlines across America. The violence has been featured in documentaries and articles that are both eye-opening and horrific.  No one yet knows if or when the violence will end but authorities in Chicago continue to grapple with gun violence that shows no signs of slowing down.  The battles are reminiscent of another era in American history where blood flowed on Chicago’s streets as gangsters gunned each other down during the 1920s and 1930s.  Of all the gangsters that called Chicago home, only one has retained a permanent place in American pop culture as the icon for organized crime.  His name was Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947) and this is the story of his life by author Robert J. Schoenberg.

Although he died in 1947, Capone still remains an egnimatic figure that many have come to view as the prime example of  the dark legacy of Italian-American organized crime.  Several films have attempted to tell his story, including Brian DePalma’s 1987 box office hit The Untouchables starring Robert DeNiro as Capone.  The film is good entertainment but not completely accurate historically.  Nonetheless, it is classic DePalma and I have it today in my collection of films.  I firmly believe that there is still more to Al Capone that we may never learn but there does exist enough material in the form of public records, newspaper articles and even Capone’s own statements that help compose a picture of his life. Schoenberg took on the monumental task of researching all of those materials and more which are presented here  in a gripping account that will keep readers glued to the book from begining to end.

Similar to other larger than life figures, there is much about Capone’s life that has probably been either miscontrued or possibly even fabricated.  In pop culture, he is seen as a ruthless killer who had enemies wiped out regularly.  In reality Capone was indeed a brutal gangster when necessary, but his eagerness to kill and for gratuitous violence is perhaps quite overblown.  But make no mistake, Chicago was violent and Capone was firmly entrenched right in the middle  of the gang wars.  However, before he reached Chicago, he was another product of my own New York City where he entered the world on January 17, 1899, the fourth son of Gabriele and Theresa Capone.  The young couple could have never imagined that their fourth son would become the most notorious gangster in American history.

The early part of the book is more on the routine side, explaning Capone’s early family life.  But it soon changes when he meets Frankie Yale (1893-1928) who introduces Capone to his calling.  And after an encounter in a bar with an Irish gang member, Capone is dispatched to Chicago where Johnny Torrio (1882-1957) is eagerly waiting.  At this point in the book, the story takes on a whole new dynamic as the roaring 20s come to life. Readers are advised to buckle up because business certainly does pick up.  It is a roller coaster ride that is told in a way that makes you feel as if you are right there next to Capone.  Fans of DePalma’s film might find it difficult at first to separate fact from fiction.  However,  movie buffs will recognize the changes made by Hollywood during production to the actual story.  But I do feel that to truly enjoy this book, it is necessary to cast aside any pre-conceived notions about the story one may have.  Frankly, for some it may feel as if they are re-learning Capone’s story for the first time. But that can be a good thing as it forces us to pay closer attention to details that may have been ignored by mainstream media in recreations of the era’s critical events.

Any story about Al Capone would not be complete without a discussion of his feuds with the North Side Gang lead by Charles Dion O’Banion (1892-1924) , Joseph Aiello (1890-1930) and several others.  The events leading up to each are detailed here, allowing the reader to see how and why Capone took certain actions.  Alliances with Yale, the infamous Genna brothers and Jack “Machine Gun Jack” McGurn (1902-1936) helped Capone reign supreme over Chicago. Fueled by prohibition, rackets, prostitution and other vices,  the streets of Chicago ran red with blood.  Capone soon became public enemy number one, even attracting the attention of President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964). Today, it may be hard for some to imagine one man being so powerful but Capone had risen to the stop of the crime world and his ascent is captured justly by Schoenberg.  The recreation of key events is told with the right amount of suspense and not once did I feel that the author was either weak in his telling of the story or too reliant on shock effect.  The deaths are violent but the violence is never glorified and neither is Capone.

If there is any area where the book comes up short is with regards to Capone’s life at home which is discussed sparingly.  Schoenberg does provide glimpses of the Capone family home where the mobster lived with wife Mae Capone  (1897-1986) and their son  Albert Francis “Sonny” Capone (1918-2004).  But the bulk of the book isfocused on his public persona as the head mafia boss in Chicago.   I do warn readers that Capone comes off in his own words as the villain you hate and love at the same time. He was a charismatic figure who fully embraced the public light.  Some of his public statements and good will gestures are included showing the well constructed public facade he used to cover his underworld dealings.  As I read the book, I felt as if Capone was the preview for future mobster John Gotti (1940-2002), whose public displays bravado were straight out of the Capone playbook.

I mentioned before that Brian DePalma did take certain liberties when making his film, but some parts of the film were accurate.  Capone was indeed indicted for income tax evasion but the real method in which the case developed is less impressive but still highly important in understanding Capone’s downfall.  The composite characters created in the film will be not be found here but the inspirations for them are.  And readers who have seen the film will quickly pick up on this.   Ironically, prohibition would not as a big of a role in his downfall as one would think.  The incredible story is told here with rich details although nowhere close to being as spectactular as the silver screen.  And yes, Elliot Ness (1903-1957) is part of the story as well, just as one would expect.

As Capone serves his time, another enemy emerged, this time from within and he would not be able to fix it.  Schoenberg makes it clear that the disease which afflicted Capone later in his life most likely came from a certain source although the jury may still be out.  Putting that aside, he does explain how Capone’s condition deteroriated. and whether or not it should have reached the point that it did is left up to readers who may be highly familiar with it through medical training of their own.  The progression of the disease and Capone’s descent stand in stark contrast to the earlier parts of the book where he reigned as king of the Windy City.  Schoenberg does not drag out the downfall but tells the story at just the right pace, including only the most important details as the end nears. And when Capone made his final depature, it felt as if I had just stepped on a ride that moved at full throttle from start to finish.  And as a bonus at the end of the book, the author provides a follow-up on all of the important figures who did survive the Capone years.  Their fates are a mixed bag that will leave some readers in shock and others content.

I do not believe the world will ever see another Al Capone.  The era in which he lived is long gone.  Crime will always exist and racketeering  will be an attractive and lucrative career in crime for gangsters.  But the personality and seductiveness of a figure like Capone is from a bygone era never to return.  And as much as we can persecute him for the havoc he wreaked on the streets of Chicago, we can also study him as a master manipulator, dedicated father and a Robin Hood figure beloved by those who knew him well.  If you want to learn more about the real Al Capone, this is a great place to start. Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 9780688128388
ISBN-13: 978-0688128388

Biographies

Chopra1The unexpected increase in spare time that that I now have, has allowed me to catch up on books that I had planned to read over the next several weeks. Among them is this inspiring memoir by brothers Deepak and Sanjiv Chopra. I was familiar with Deepak, having seen him in interviews and on social media.  Sanjiv was a bit more obscure but also just as accomplished as we learn in the book.  But there is far more to the story than their known accomplishments. In fact, what I found is a story of the challenges a person faces when deciding to leave one home and make another in a place thousands of miles away.  It is the story of immigration and two brothers finding the Amerian Dream, a concept which many today do not always believe in or in other cases, have come to misunderstand.

The story as to be expected, begins in India where Dr. Krishan Chopra and wife Puspha, welcome their first child Deepak. Several years later he is joined by brother Sanjiv.  As each brother recalls his life as a child and experiences with his sibling, we are able to learn about India culture which includes a significant amount of diversity that still remains unknown to many.  Each discusses the traditions in their culture from the appendix “chahca” onto the name of the father’s youngest brother to fascinating aspects of Hinduism.  Those who are accustom to a monotheistic faith may possibly find Hinduism completely at odds with their belief system. However, I found many intriguing lessons to be found in the book that can be applied regardless of religious convictions.

Family plays an important role throughout the story and what remains strong are the bonds they have with their parents, uncle Rattan Chacha and their own children.  As an American, I could relate to their story but I also do see where family relations are different in the United States.  Does that mean one system is better than the other? Not all and it truly does depend on where we find ourselves.  For Deepak and Sanjiv, a new place known as America would be their calling and New Jersey became the first stop.

As they get older and advanced through medical school, the Unied States becomes the focus so that they can advance their education.  What is interesting, is that neither expected to stay their permanently but rather get the right education and return to India where they could put it to use.  And that is the true irony of the book: two doctors who had no intention on staying in America, became citizens and have led incredible lives living out the American Dream.  I think  Sanjiv said it best when he remarks ” When you start on your path there is no way of knowing where it will take you or even where it will end. It’s just the natural way to go.”  Boston eventually called both brothers where each makes a name for himself.  Sanjiv’s wife Amita also established herself in the medical field and Sanjiv never fails to praise her accomplishments.  Deepak also gives his wife Rita her rightful place in the story and each brother shows their devotions to the women they fell in love with.

The Chopra brothers find success in America, through trials and tribulations.  Similar to many new immigrants, they learn about supermarkets, credit, American holidays and even the element of crime which confronts Deepak in his own home.  Thankfully no one was injured and he survived to later co-author this book.  The issue of race does appear in the story as Indian doctors are forced to prove themselves in a new culture which knows very little about India.   Their actions, in particular those of Deepak, shed light on a dirty secret with the medical professional community but one that is not unique to it.  But while they adapt to life in America, India is never lost on them and and I felt that the decision by Sanjiv and Amita to celebrate the holidays Diwali and Holi is one of the most moving moments in the book.   And as their children grow up, along with Deepak and Rita’s, both families make it a point to never forget India and their roots.   As a black American, my roots are mostly to be found here in the United States so the concept of the “old country” does not always fit into my existence.  As a result, this part of the book caused a stir of emotions and if I did have the “old country” to return to, I would also want my own children to maintain that ancestral connection.

Anyone familiar with Deepak will be aware of his association and promotion of transcendental meditation.  He discusses how and why he came to practice it and the interest taken by Amita and finally Sanjiv.  The holisitic system of Ayuverda is also discussed by Deepak, who maintains his commitment to western medicine while at the same time embracing the thought that altnerative medicine also has a place in treatment regimens.  It is a good discussion but also one that needs several books to be covered fully.  However, Deepak presents his own compelling reasons for becoming a proponent of transcendental meditation and it has prompted me to take a deeper look at it myself.

Sanjiv is not as much of an explorer as Deepak and he gives his own reasons. He remains committed to western medicine but fully supports his brother’s exploratory nature.  Their relationship reminds me of my brother and I,  who are very different in ways but always committed to each other.  Brotherhood is a truly beautiful thing when all of the right pieces are in place.  I think in our situation, I would be Deepak and my brother certainly is more like Sanjiv.  But we have our common ground and genuine love for each other.

If you are looking for a great story about brotherhood, love and success in America, this is an excellent read that will surely improve your mood after you have finished it.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and being able to fully understand the importance of Dharma in our lives.  Great read.

ASIN: B00GPI01D2

Biographies

20200319_191037The past several years have given way to a rise in the number of opioid related deaths in the United States.  Cities across America have struggled with a surge in drug overdoses and lack of proper facilities to handle the deceased.  I knew several people who battled an addiction to opioids and all but one are now deceased.  It is a soul crushing and life depleting addiction that cuts across all ethnic lines.  Many of us know someone who is currently battling an addiction or once did in the past, whether it was opioids, alcohol or some other substance. And what we all know is that addicts do not get clean until they have realized there is no where else to go but in the ground.  Dan Peres is a former Editor in Chief for Women’s Wear Daily Details and in this revealing memoir, he details his own struggle with a drug addcition that nearly took his life.

His story begins in Pikesville, Maryland in a run of the mill Jewish family.  He recounts his early life growing up in the suburbs before his life changes course and he finds himself at New York University.  It is there that the story picks up pace and Dan continues his ascent in the social scene in the city that never sleeps.  Journalism soon becomes his calling and he makes his entry into the fashion wold where he exceeds as a journalist and even gets to meet his childhood icon David Copperfield.  His job took him to Europe where he makes a home in Paris.  His recollections of his time there are some of the best parts of the story.  Upon returning to New York, he decides to pull a physical stunt that goes terribly wrong.  Two back surgeries and a bottle of Vicodin later, the addict was in the making.  And what starts out as simply medication to recover from back surgery,  soon turns into a habit which took him to hell and back.

Peres is blessed with sharp wit and his observations of the situations he found himself in and his own behaviour, add a touch of lightheartedness to a story that is quite serious.  Professionally, he was able to get by while personally, his life became a mix of drugs, escorts, lies and more drugs.  All the while, his maintained a public facade misled most until the demons caught up with him and his life began to unravel.  Two pills a day escalated into nearly a two dozen and then even more as the monster of addiction took hold of every facet of his life.  Throughout the book, Peres is frank about just how crazy things had become and his state of mind.  The story is simply mind-boggling and it truly is a miracle that he did not die.

Before meeting the woman who would become his wife, several women enter and exit the story under assumed names including one known as “Chickpea”.   The relationships or what could be better described as unspoken arrangements,  highlight the dysfunction in his mind as a result of an addiction that refused to release him from its grip.  His addiction pushed him to the brink and the episodes in Tijuana, Mexico and Skid Row in Los Angeles are the moments in the book where we realize he truly went off the deep end.  But Peres knows this and in the book, he literally takes himself to task for what could only be described as lunacy.  But such is the mind of an addict and Peres succeeds in showing us how addicts function under the influence of the drugs they consume.

After becoming a husband and expectant father, the addiction refused to let him go.  The actions of his family and in particular his Aunt Lou, are part of the what saved his life.  Their efforts are a prime example of the battles being waged across America today as families struggle to get loved ones the help they need. Peres provides a textbook example of the importance of intervention.  This story is a roller coaster ride and I am sure that readers whill find it enjoyable yet sad at the same time.  Peres is still alive to tell his tale but others were not so lucky.   But just maybe, this heartbreaking story of addiction will be enough to deter the next person from going down the same path. Good read.

ISBN-10: 0062693468
ISBN-13: 978-0062693464

Biographies

editors1Each of us carry to this day, memories of our childhood both good and bad. It is hoped that the memorable experiences far outweigh the forgettable. When I think back to my own childhood, I am filled with many great memories. And although my family has gone through its share of loss and disappointment,  I have no complaints and will remain grateful to my loving parents.  Further, I do believe that there is something about being a kid in America during the 1980s that truly is hard to put into words.   The shows I remember watching on television influenced millions of children like myself across America.  Most of us are familiar with Jim Henson’s (1936-1990) Sesame Street  and the show Reading Rainbow starring LeVar Burton.  But there was another program that my brother and I could not wait to see and the anticipation that consumed us was shared by our peers.  The show was  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood  , the brainchild of the late Fred McNeely Rogers (1928-2003) whom the world knew simply and affectionately as Mr. Rogers.  This biography of Rogers came up in my list of recommendations on Amazon and I knew instantly that I would have to read it.  It is the second book I have read by Charles River Editors, who also published Operation Condor: The History of the Notorious Intelligence Operations Supported by the United States to Combat Communists across South America, a short yet thorough examination of the murderous policies of the right wing dictatorships that once plagued Latin America.

Before starting the book, I asked myself just who was Fred Rogers? As a kid, I knew nothing about the man himself and the image in my mind of him was with his trademark cardigan sweater.  But as can be seen in this short but informative biography, there was far more to his life than we could have imagined as kids and his on-screen persona was not that far off from who he was in real life.  The native of Latrobe, Pennsylvania could have ended up in just another blue collar job but found his calling in the world of television.  The author retraces Roger’s path, paying close attention to his early show The Children’s Corner, which helped set the stage for the show that made him an icon. Rogers undoubtedly had a great supporting cast that incredibly included the late George Romero (1940-2017) and Michael Keaton.

Learning about Rogers’ personal life was equally as interesting and from what the author has written, he was a devoted family man who also showed that same love to the kids of other parents through his show which he believed truly needed to be formatted in a way that helps children be who they are.  His efforts and the finished product are a testament to his enduring ingenuity.  And by the time his show ended in 2001, Fred Rogers had rightfully earned a place in the homes and hearts of families in American and abroad.  Less than two years after the final episode he succumbed to stomach cancer but his legacy remains firm and in 2019, Tri-Star Pictures released A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Hollywood legend Tom Hanks in the role of Fred Rogers.  I have yet to see the film but I am sure that Hanks delivered the goods as he always does.

Without question, this is far more the Rogers’ story than we know but this book is a good start to understanding who the real Fred Rogers was. My only complaint is that I wish the book was longer. As I read further through it, I became even more intrigued by Rogers’ rise to stardom and the enormous amount of work that went on behind the scenes.  However, the biography as it is here is written beautifully and tells Rogers’ story directly and without fanfare.  Essentially, we learn who he was and why he is still important and always will be.  And when I do step outside and enjoy the weather, I am reminded of Rogers’ words that it is a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Great read.

The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.” – Fred Rogers (1928-2003)

ASIN: B07QLNQ6N3

Biographies

ElijahIn 2019, streaming giant Netflix premiered “Devil at the Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story“, in which focused is placed on the life of guitarist Robert Johnson (1911-1938).  In the years following his death, Johnson was elevate to near mythical status as a pioneer of blues music.  The documentary is captivating and received a positive rating by yours truly.  Filmmakers took a long look at Johnson’s life to clear up the mysteries that surround it to this day.  And while there is a significant amount of information regarding his life that is known, there remains an equal amount that is a question mark.  By all accounts, Johnson kept very few friends and was a loner in the classic sense.  However, he did record formally and his recordings stand as the only part of his life that has survived to this day.

Legendary guitarist Eric Clapton idolized Johnson and stated emphatically:  “ It came as something of a shock to me that there could be anything that powerful…. At first it was almost too painful, but then after about six months I started listening, and then I didn’t listen to anything else. Up until the time I was 25, if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was I wouldn’t talk to you…. It was as if I had been prepared to receive Robert Johnson, almost like a religious experience that started out with hearing Chuck Berry, then at each stage went further and deeper until I was ready for him…. I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice”.  If only going by Clapton’s words, it would appear that Johnson was the end all and be all for blues music.  But one question that remains is what exactly was Johnson’s role in the development of blues?  Author Elijah Wood tackles this question a book that will surely change the way you view the concept of blues music.

I should point out that this is not a biography of Johnson in the traditional sense.  Wald does discuss Johnson’s life, but the main focus of the book is to examine the music of the  Mississippi Delta, which was home to some of the best musicians that performed the music that society has labeled blues.  And while Johnson does fit into the story,  he is part of a much larger picture composed of many artists, some of whom remain obscure to music fans today.   In some ways, the book is encyclopedic and provides thorough discussions of the lives of music greats of the era such as W.C. Handy (1873-1958), Son House (1902-1988) and Charley Patton (1891-1934).  Their trials, tribulations and contributions take center stage as Wald takes us back in time.

But what exactly is blues?  Did the musicians who played in the Delta consider their art to be blues?  The questions are pertinent and what Wald reveals to us here just might surprise some readers.  His work challenges long held beliefs about the definition of blues music.  And while he is not attempting to re-write music history, he does intend to get the reader to see the concept of blues in a light that is often unseen.

There can be no discussion about blues music and America without  addressing the issue of race.   In the 1920s and 1930s, Jim Crow was alive and strong.  Artist such as Johnson had to navigate their way through a country that afforded very little protection to people of color.  Lynchings and segregation were constant reminders of the ugly side of America and helped fuel the music that would later captivate the minds of fans both black and white.  However, to black and white Americans, what came to be known as blues looked very different depending on the person’s race and it is through both lenses that Johnson takes his place in the history of blues music.  Wald’s discussion of Johnson’s place in the lives of both black and white Americans is interesting and clarifying.  And I do believe that he provides a solid argument for Johnson’s place in the official narrative.

To be clear, Wald is a fan of Johnson and pays homage to his musical genius.  He is not attempting to discredit Johnson in any way but simply provide a historical narrative that is closest to the truth.  Johnson’s talents can never be denied and he is rightfully recognized as a pioneering singer in his field.  But as Wald explores, even during his time, Johnson was not nor would he ever be, the founding father of blues music. Instead, he was one of many who helped create the sound that stands in a league of its own.

Blues music has no equivalent and once you have heard it, its sound remains with you.   It is soul touching and extracts the rawest of human emotions.  Listeners may be tempted to conjure up images of smoke filled shacks, filled with hard liquor, unbearable heat and enough soul to fill an entire state. It is an image that we love to imagine but in truth, the real story is far more complex. Wald’s analysis here is just what the doctor ordered and I feel that the author accomplished his goals.  And understanding why musicians were escaping the Delta, is key to understanding the passion and emotion that gave way to the blues.  Highly recommended.

ASIN: B003JBHW1W

Biographies

cooganThose of you who follow my blog probably know by now that I have covered quite a number of books regarding Northern Ireland the conflict known as “The Troubles”.   My curiousity with the conflict in Northern Ireland stems partly from my love of history and partly from my visit to Ireland in 2016.  I sought to fully understand the battle being waged by Republicans to unify the country and the opposition mounted by Loyalist who remain in support of British rule.  Author Tim Pat Coogan has written of the 1916 Easter uprising, the lives of Michael Collins (1890-1922) and his Twelve Apostles, and others who remained focuses on Irish independence from the Crown. This book is his own memoir of his life in Ireland, time as a member of the Irish press and author of several significant books one of the world’s longest running feuds.

Coogan opens the book by recounting his family’s involvement in the development of tensions between Republicans and Loyalist.   His grandfather once belonged to the Royal Irish Consabulary (RIC) and his father Edward worked on behalf of Republican forces even being tasked with organizing an unarmed police force during the Irish Civil war which erupted in the wake of the establishment of the Irish Free State.  As a child, he grew up in Monkstown, County Dublin, far removed from the dangers of the north.  However, fate would take him back to the Northern Ireland and land him right in the mix of the Troubles which would consume his writing material much later in his life.

Readers should be prepared to learn a lot about Irish history.  Coogan has written extensively on the conflict and in particular the life of Eamon de Valera (1882-1975).  As a journalist, he would form a working relationship with de Valera’s son Vivion (1910-1982), whose actions as owner of the Evening Press, played a critical role in the path Coogan’s life took over the years.   The Irish press, of which Coogan was a part, figures prominently throughout the story as the Troubles rage and Ireland finds itself in the middle of fierce debate over aborition, divorce and even contraception.  Coogan and other journalist walked fine lines as they tried to remain ahead of the competition and get the jump on new stories.  His experience and zest for journalism took him to foreign nations, including the United States and Vietnam, where he was able to witness the war in person to report back about what he saw in comparison to what politicans in Washington were being told from commanders in the field.

The story is a roller coaster ride that shows the organized chaos of journalism and printing.  Coogan is fully embroiled in this world while being married and the father of six children.  As the Troubles heat up, the press is forced to take notice and Coogan remarks in the book that:

another form of cancer that was to affect me profoundly during my career as editor, as it did the political life of the country as a whole, was the Northern Ireland situation“.

At the time the Troubles erupted, Coogan could have never imagined that one day he would be one of the most respected authors on the subject.  The book is a not mean to be a complete history of the Troubles but rather an explanation of key events that pushed the two sides in Ulster province to engage in violence.

Some have accused Coogan of being Republican friendly in his writings.  While his books do cover the Troubles mostly from the Republican view, I have found that in the books I have read to date by him, that he has so far provided balanced and detailed accounts of what actually happened.  What is clear in this book is that his relationship with Vivion de Valera was strained by the time it ended and he came to realize many truths about de Valera which he reveals here.  As part of his job, he was required to meet with the IRA which included figures such as Mairead Farrell (1957-1988), Joe Cahill (1920-2004) and Brendan Hughes (1948-2008).  His visits to Belfast and the prison maze at Long Kesh helped form the discussion of the Troubles that he wrote after his final parting of ways with de Valera.

The demise of the Evening Press and affiliated publications are also examined in detail, showing the mis-steps and complex nature of de Valera, who was unable to see the larger picture.  As one would expect, the long hours and story chasing proved to be a heavy burden on Coogan’s personal life.  This part of the book is tough to read but not completely unexpected. In fact, the stage is set early in the book as Coogan describes the different lifestyles he and his wife lead.  The entry of other figures into his life, helped seal the door on other parts and the complicated situation is explained by Coogan.

In spite of everything that happens, he did lead an incredible life which is sure to leave you with as much Irish history as any textbook on the market.  Coogan is a wealth of knowledge on the Troubles and the history of the Irish Republic.  He remains one of the best in the business and his books on on the conflict will surely stand the test of time. This is his story and that of Ireland, composed of the good, the bad and the tragic.  Highly recommended.

ASIN: B00GVG173Q

Biographies Northern Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN: B008VDJGDA

Biographies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biographies