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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B00L5M8U68

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN : B00L8FBEWO

The Water is Wide: A Memoir – Pat Conroy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN : B003XKN65U

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN : B07H7GKR9R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN : B009DA5RCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN : B00AE7DHFY

Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art – Phoebe Hoban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Collins: The Lost Leader – Margery Forester

Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN : B00GJQ9WLW

Bowie: The Biography – Wendy Leigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISBN-10 : 9781476767079

ISBN-13 : 978-1476767079

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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