Category: Biographies

zahedOn September 22, 1980, the Iraqi military marched into neighboring Iran under the orders of President Saddam Hussein (1937-2006).  Tensions between Hussein and Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) had been brewing over control of the Shatt al-Arab river, Iraqi nationalism and Khomeini’s calls for the Ba’ath party to overthrow the Iraqi government.  The conflict raged for eight years before a cease-fired was signed in August, 1988.  It is estimated that the war resulted in the deaths of nearly 1.5 million Iraqis and Iranians.  On both sides, villages were destroyed, leaving thousands homeless and families permanently separated.  Children as young as thirteen were conscripted to serve, becoming trained killers before the age of twenty-one.  After the cease-fire, prisoners of war remained held in prisons on both sides before they were slowly repatriated.  This book is the story of two of those prisoners who survived the war, living to tell their story about the war that changed their lives.

Zahed Haftlang was born in the town of Masjed Soleyman in Khuzestan Province, Iran. His relationship with his father, whom we come to know as “Baba”, is not good and serves as the main catalyst for his flight from home. At the age of thirteen, he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary and for six years he fought in the war before being captured by the Iraqi army. in 1982.  By Iraqi protocols, he should have been executed, but his captor showed mercy and transported him back to base for medical treatment.  Along the way, he suffers more injuries at the hands of Iraqi soldiers but arrives in stable condition.  He was then joined by other captured Iranian soldiers and for the next seventeen years, he remained there as a prisoner of war before being released in 1999.

Najah Aboud was born in Iraq and grew up in the Shula neighborhood in Baghdad. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Iraqi army and was formally discharged in his early twenties.  He was called back to serve at the age of twenty-eight when the war broke out.  In 1982, he was captured by Iranian forces and and spent seventeen years as a prisoner of war.

The two stories are interesting and although parallel, they show two different sides of the war.  What is clear from the beginning is that neither man wanted the conflict but rather a normal life that would include a career, marriage and children.  Their goals are simple and under normal circumstances achievable.  In fact, Najah had been operating the Bruce Lee Restaurant before the war destroyed his efforts.  The arrival of the war changed all of their dreams each one recounts how destruction settled in as the bombs fell and all hell broke loose. It is at this point in the book that the stories change gears and the ugly realities of the war become vividly clear.

What I noticed in each account is that on both sides of the war, chaos reigned. Neither goes through any type of basic training but rather are thrown into positions and forced to learn through baptism by fire. Their recollections of battle scenes and the horrors of war are graphic and sobering.  Make no mistake, they do not sugar coat this part of the book, it is as real as it gets.  Eventually, both are captured and their experiences as prisoners of war are where their accounts diverge, showing a very stark difference in treatment of prisoners of war.  For Najah, his time served in Iranian camps is quite mild although mundane. He longs for his fiance Alyaa and son Amjad.  But for Zahed, the Iraqi camp is nothing short of a nightmare.  The descriptions given by him of his time as a prisoner of war are beyond shocking.  Inhumane would be an understatement to describe his treatment at the hands of officials, most notably the antagonist Mira Sahib, whose sadistic behavior is repulsive. By the time Zahed is released, he is a shell of himself and man haunted by the war in which he fought. A shining light comes in the form of Maryam, whose entry into his life influences the decisions he makes as love becomes a very real possibility.   Najah continues to carry his own own scars as well without any information of his future wife and son.

The realization that both Iraq and Iran suffered tremendously during the war hits home and they both realize that moving abroad is the only way to help their families and themselves.  In a twist of fate, both end up in search of a new life in North America.  Vancouver, Canada is the destination and fate intervenes in ways that no one could have ever imagined for them both.  Upon arrival life is tough for both, but various figures enter the story, each to serve a different purpose in their lives.  And even after adjusting to life in the U.S., there is still much they must deal with regarding their former lives as soldiers on the front line.

The ending of the book is beyond moving and puts the finishing touch on two incredible stories.  Both express their gratitude to author Meredith May for writing this book and I do too.  It truly is an exciting and emotional book to read but crucial in understand the effect of war on all involved.

ASIN: B01IA7TLL8

Biographies Middle East

eastmanThe history of Native Americans was for many years, untold and in some cases omitted.  the trail of tears is just one example of the systematic process of relocation enforced by the United States Government as America continued to expand.  The natives were seen as uncivilized in comparison to their American and European counterparts.  The natives would readily say their lives were uncomplicated and simple.  Many resisted the influence of soldiers on their land and fought to the death to preserve their homes.  Others did not resist and accepted the lifestyle and religion of the white man. Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman (1858-1939) was one of those who migrated from one world to another and in this short but interesting autobiography, he recalls his life and his path from the deep woods to civilization.

Eastman was a member of the Sioux tribe in Minnesota and explains his early life in Minnesota.  From the beginning, he mentions the relationship between the Sioux Indians and white settlers.  And while there are a few acts of violence discussed, the book does not contain a lot of text devoted to it. In fact, his story is mainly about his development as a person.  There are White Americans who enter the story, but in a peaceful role and their actions help propel him to his next destination.  That is not to say that all in the book is glorious and without incident.  In fact, Eastman is fully aware of the plight of Sioux people and the deceit used by the American government in prior agreements with Native American tribes.  There are a couple of people who are not exactly “friendly” but in the end do him no harm.

About midway through the book, he makes the fateful decision to go to Dartmouth College.  And it is here that his life changes completely.  In time he met and married Elaine Goodale and the couple would go on to have six children.  The book ends before the fourth child is born but not before he accomplishes many things first as a doctor and then later as a representative on behalf of private business before the Indian Bureau, the President, and Congress. His time in Washington, afforded him the opportunity to meet several presidents and scores of congressmen. His observations about Washington are still relevant today.

Eastman possessed a very radical and freethinking mind for his era.   His ability to have empathy and see things from all sides is on display and I found myself nodding in agreement at many of his thoughts.  As an Indian and American, he was forced to navigate two worlds yet he never forgets his position in either.  And that is a true mark of maturity and character.   I have yet to read the other books he has published but have now added them to the list. Good read.

ASIN: B007X18D9O

Biographies

Janis1 On October 4, 1970, singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) died from a lethal combination of heroin and alcohol at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles.  The building is still there but has been renamed the Highland Gardens Hotel.  In death, she joined the 27 Club, a group of famous stars who all tragically died at the young age of twenty-seven.  In stardom, she had come to symbolize the culture change taking place across America as the ideals of the 1950s and 1960s were replaced by the liberated generation of the 1970s.  To some, she was everything wrong with the “hippie” culture and to others she was inspiration and an example of someone who came from humble beginnings to leave their mark on the world.  To a small group of people, she was simply Janis, daughter and older sister. This book is a look at her life from the eyes of her younger sister Laura, born six years after her famous sibling.

Laura begins the story by revisiting the day she learned of her sister’s death.  The news hits like a lightning bolt and no one wants to believe it.  Her father had come to dread the moment, always concerned about his first born.  Both parents had long realized that Janis marched to the beat of her own drum.  She was different from her siblings and from an early age, showed all that she was counter-culture and willing to stand up for what she believed in.  As we move into Janis’ story, Laura retraces the family’s genealogy, explaining the migration of both sides of the family from abroad to the United States.   The story is similar to other stories men and women who gave up their lives in search of a better life proving that America truly is a nation of immigrants. On January 19, 1943, Janis Lyn Joplin entered the world and before she would leave it, millions of people would know her name.

Admittedly, I had the inclination to believe that the book would be more focused on Laura but it really is a biography of Janis as told by her sister.  And while there are other books on Joplin, I felt that Laura’s version is by far a definitive account. In fact, the book is done so well, that at one point, I completely forgot that her sister is telling the story.  It was only during the moments where Laura recalls a family issue of one of Janis’ visits, that I was reminded that Laura is the narrator.  And I believe that is a testament to the skills required a well-rounded writer and editing team.

Early in the book, the story focuses on the family’s life in Port Arthur, Texas.  Janis’ time in high school shows that early on, her fiery spirit was already on full throttle.  Her stance on racial discrimination was a bold and telling move by a teenager who grew up in what her sister reveals was an isolated community in which no minorities lived.  Her acts of defiance would help form the person she became and stayed with her throughout her life.  And in spite of transgressions, it is clear that sister Laura truly admired her old sister and still does.

The book picks up pace after Joplin’s return to San Francisco to join the band Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Janis is coming into her own and the band is gaining recognition in the music world.  After several slow starts, Joplin and the band hit pay dirt and her life takes a new direction from which she would never return.  Laura chronicles all of it, following her sister’s footsteps as she moves through the music world which found her on The Ed Sullivan Show and signing a record deal with Clive Davis.  As Laura shows us, Janis’ life was a roller coaster ride composed of fame, lovers, drugs and ultimately heartache.  But Janis lived on her own terms and this piece of advice to her sister which Laura vividly recalls is perhaps the theme of the book: “Let yourself go and you’ll be more than you’ve ever thought of being.”

The pace of the book maintains its speed never slowing down.  As a result, I found myself glued to the pages and before I knew it, several hours had passed by before I even looked at the time.  It is an enjoyable read regardless of the ending that we know is coming.  But Janis has a way of pulling people towards her and as Laura tells the story, I found myself happy at her success and down during the moments where her demons took over.  Her times of sobriety are scattered and the letters she sends home are moving, standing in stark contrast to the woman who took hard drugs in a game of chicken with death.  But she was not a one-dimensional personal, rather a complex individual with no single adjective to describe her.

In 1995, Janis Joplin was inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In death, her fame was catapulted and she has earned mythical status as a rock star.  In just a few short years she went from a struggling performer in San Francisco to one of America’s biggest stars.   Forty-nine years have passed since her death but in recent years, a resurgence of material about her life has re-surfaced, including the 2015 documentary ‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’.  The archival footage is good and once again she graces television screens.  Yet, no examination of her life would be complete without this heartfelt and moving account by her sister. Highly recommended.

ASIN: B0776T6FYB

Biographies

20191222_223548On December 31, 1972, a DC-7, loaded beyond its maximum capacity, taxied down the runway at San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico.  The plane had been chartered by Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker (1934-1972), who set out to deliver supplies to the Central American nation of Nicaragua that was struggling to recover in the wake of a devastating earthquake.  There were no survivors and Clemente’s body was never found.   He was 38 years of age and left behind a widow Vera (1941-2019) and three sons. He was posthumously inducted in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and his number, 21, was officially retired by the Pirates in 1973.  More than forty years have passed since his death, but to this day he is regarded as one of the greatest Latin baseball players to have ever played the game.  This is the story of his life by fan and author David Maraniss.

It goes without saying that baseball fans will more than likely be highly interested in this book if they have not previously read it. But even if you are not a baseball aficionado, I firmly believe that you will enjoy this biography of the late star.  Personally, I could not put it down and the time flew by as I read through the book.  As one would expect, the story begins in Carolina, Puerto Rico where we are introduced to Clemente’s parents, Melchor and Luisa.  On August 18, 1934, Roberto enters the world but no one at the time had any idea of the fame and tragedy that laid ahead. If you have been to Puerto Rico or even the Dominican Republic, then you know how important baseball is on those two islands.  For young Roberto, baseball quickly became a way of life and before the age of 20, he finds himself already being scouted by the big players in the United States.  However, his path to the Pirates was more intricate than has been publicly acknowledged.  Maraniss pieces the story together so that we can see how race, money and baseball acumen combined to create a chain of events that resulted in Clemente being signed by the team he would play for during his spectacular career.

Once in the major leagues, his career takes off but off the fields, many other things took place that highlight the strong conviction with which Clemente held his beliefs.  In the era of Jim Crow, segregation and horrific discrimination were widespread in the many parts of the United States.  The difference in social attitudes between Puerto and the states was not lost on Clemente and his determination to combat racial discrimination is truly one of the best parts of the book and shows why he was and is so revered.  Maraniss provides Clemente’s own statements as added emphasis to show the seriousness of his beliefs and actions.   And until his final days, he never stopped in is beliefs of equality and the responsibility that we all have to help each other in times of need.

The book is a little heavy on statistics and descriptions of some of Clemente’s best games including the 1971 World Series in which Pittsburgh defeated the Baltimore Orioles four games to three.  Batting averages and percentages are found throughout a good portion of the book and readers unfamiliar with baseball might find b studying a quick reference of what each means and its importance.  Baseball fans will recognize the importance of each in relation to Clemente’s story.   Something that I did learn which added to my view of Clemente, was his physical condition throughout his career.  His ability to perform at the professional level in spite of his ailments is nothing short of miraculous and a testament to his durability and strength as a person and professional athlete.

The author does briefly mention Clemente’s service in the United States Marines but does not go into much detail about that which I felt slightly detracted from the book. Clemente served in the Marines from 1958 to 1964, during off-season periods while in the major leagues.  He did not see any combat and his service is largely unmentioned in discussions about his life.  Perhaps the author did not feel it added much importance to the story and could very well have been the case. But I was surprised that it received scare attention.  Regardless, the book is still phenomenal and there is so much to the story that the reader will quickly move forward as Clemente’s life continues to evolve.

Maraniss does his due diligence as a biographer and does not shy away from showing us the dark side of Clemente which manifested itself in some surprising acts.  Also highlighted is the morbid vision Clemente had of his own death.  Those parts of the book gave me chills and I am sure that for those present at the time he made remarks about his own death,  they also must have felt a strange sensation rush through their body.  Sadly, his visions came to pass and the story behind how and why his plane crashed shorty after takeoff.  And like all crashes, there was no single event that could be blamed for it but a series of events that are outlined by the author.  As I read the recreation of the events leading up the crash, I could only shake my head in disbelief and anger.  Before he died, Clemente remarked to a friend that no one dies the day before they are supposed to. The words are beyond chilling but also prophetic.

As a sub-story, the events in Nicaragua are worth researching independently of the book. The Somoza regime had been in power for decades and its relationship with the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations are some of the darkest moments of American foreign policy.   And although this book is not focused on that subject, the earthquake and its aftermath does bring it to light as Maraniss shows the reaction of Washington amid fears of a political upheaval in the wake of the disaster.  Clemente’s decision to go to Nicaragua is both admirable and surprising but he was not one to shy away from what he truly believed in and it shows throughout the entire book.

To say that I enjoyed reading this definitive biography would be a severe understatement.  It is one of the best biographies that I have read.  If you are interested in the life of Roberto Clemente, this is a great place to start.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 074329999X
ISBN-13: 978-0743299992

Biographies

RosemaryThe life of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), former dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (“USSR”), has been the focus of endless books, articles and documentaries.  His tyrannical reign over the Soviet Union resulted in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens, persecuted for the slightest of offenses.  The Gulag known in English as a forced labor camp, was the place most were exiled to in particular the Siberian region known for its desolate geography and brutally cold winters. The very word itself caused fear and stroked paranoia across the USSR.  No one was safe, not even members of Stalin’s family, some of whom would find themselves banished to Siberia. This climate of distrust, violence and vengeance would cause a ripple effect that culminated with his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva’s (1926-2011) defection to the United States in 1967.  Undoubtedly, the news was explosive and if her father had been alive at the time, he surely would have issued an order for her death no matter where on earth she would have attempted to find refuge.  When I saw the title of this book, I had to take a second look.  I knew of Stalin’s family but I did not know the life story of his daughter Svetlana.  In fact, in the books I had read that discuss him, his sons are mentioned but rarely his daughter.  Rosemary Sullivan has changed all of that with this biography that is simply outstanding.

The story begins on March 6, 1967 when Svetlana arrives at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.  At first, she is waived off by the night guard but after showing her Soviet passport, it is clear to the guard that this is no ordinary visitor and Washington will have to be notified.  A cat and mouse game develops to smuggle the new defector out of India before Soviet officials become aware of what was possibly the greatest defection in Soviet history.  The very opening of the book is riveting and sets the stage for the roller coaster ride that follows.  But before we can learn of her life post-defection, we must first go back and Sullivan acts as the driver, transporting the reader to the early days of Svetlana’s life while her father controls the USSR with an iron fist.  This part of the book is actually the most critical.  Svetlana’s childhood and the tragedy contained within, shaped her views and actions throughout her life.  Sullivan recreates the atmosphere at the dacha where Stalin holds court, surrounded by party officials trying to curry favor with the dictator.  The charade is not much different from meetings at the Politburo.  It is an insider’s look in Stalin’s family life and the climate of fear he created that resulted in a series of events.  Among them was the suicide of Svetlana’s mother Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva (1901-1932), which had a profound effect on her young daughter and permanently changed the relationship between father and daughter.

Some readers might find this section about the Stalin household to be quite shocking.  I could only shake my head in disbelief at the number of arrests that took place of family members.  Like a master puppeteer, Stalin pulled was pulling all of the strings behind the scenes, sometimes feigning ignorance of acts that he surely would have been privy too.  Those of us who are American may find that this part of the book reinforces many of the things we heard and saw growing up with regards to the USSR.  As a young student, I easily recall how I and my friends viewed the Soviet Union as a mysterious superpower that operated on secrecy and rigidness.  To say that we only knew part of the story would be an understatement.  Sullivan’s reconstruction of the time period between Nadya’s suicide and Stalin’s death in 1953, highlights just how treacherous life could be under his rule.   History buffs will certainly love this part of the book, I know that I truly did. But suffice to say, it is only a part of the story which is even more unbelievable as it progresses.

The book takes its expected turn as Svetlana is allowed to travel to India to spread the ashes of Brajesh Singh (d.1966), whom she had intended to marry in Russia.  Soviet rules prevented marriages between Russians and foreigners but in a cruel twist of fate, she was allowed out of the country to satisfy Singh’s request that his ashes be spread in the Ganges River.  While in India, she makes the difficult decision to defect to the United States.  For Svetlana, life would never be the same again and would soon take a number of twists and turns, resulting in her moving across several continents and having to confront the ghost of her father in her homeland once more.  Following her defection, a cast of characters enter her life as friends, business associates, U.S. officials and lovers.  Her fame becomes both a blessing and a curse but she is determined to survive and find her true purpose in life.  Her personal thoughts, conveyed in letters to friends and lovers, are resurrected by the author showing the intellectual and emotional side of Stalin’s daughter.

While in America, she has another child named Olga in addition to the children she left behind in Russia, Joseph and Katya.  Her life with Olga and attempts to reconnect and reconcile with her older children are some of the most heartbreaking moments in the book.  I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to defect from the USSR knowing her children would be left behind.  Her relationships with her older children are clearly fractured and the times where they do have contact, are cloaked under the all knowing eye of the KGB.  Svetlana’s movements and actions did not escape the eye of Moscow.  Declassified cables and memos, upon which the author relies to tie the story together, show that even Moscow did not fully know what to do at times with its biggest defector.  She had become even too hot for Moscow to handle.  And many who met her soon realized that when crossed, she was in fact Stalin’s daughter.

Sullivan has done a masterful job of putting Svetlana’s life into a chronological narrative that starts off with a bang and never slows down.  The story is gripping and refuses to let the reader go. From the very beginning I found it hard to put the book down as I continued to learn more about life in the Stalin household and Svetlana’s growth into a young woman who comes to see the truth about her father.  I do urge caution for World War II buffs though and point out that this book is not about World War II.  The conflict is mentioned but only briefly so that the story does not stray away from its intended subject.  Those looking for a discussion of the war will not find it here for that was not Sullivan’s purpose in writing the book.  This is Svetlana’s story from beginning to end and it is far more than I could have ever anticipated.

As I read the book, I found myself thinking that there were probably millions of other women and men who thought of defecting but never did.  The collapse of the USSR in December, 1991, allowed the opening of Soviet archives that revealed many ugly truths.  Svetlana believed that the election of Vladimir Putin would take Russia back to its days under Stalin.  I would hard pressed to argue differently.  The daughter of the most infamous ruler in Russian history leaves behind a life story that shows the privileges we enjoy in the west that did not exist in the Soviet Union.  It also shows that people make life changing choices when confronted with realities that change the way they see their existence and the lives of others.  Great read.

ASIN: B00LEXL6VY

Biographies

Jimmy1Martin Scorcese’s recent film ‘The Irishman’, reunited the legendary director with ‘Goodfellas’ stars Robert Dinero and Joe Pesci.  Al Pacino also joined the cast, taking on the role of former Teamsters President James “Jimmy” Hoffa (1913-1975).  The movie is great cinema and Scorcese delivers the goods with an all star cast.  However, Hollywood is known to take liberties with films and here is no different. In fact, there is a lot of Frank Sheeran’s (1920-2003) story that is up for debate.  His book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses‘ is an interesting read and served as the basis for the film.   I had read Sheeran’s book prior to creating this blog and thought that while it was a good story,  there were many claims therein that needed deep cross-referencing for validation.  Sheeran is no longer here and cannot defend himself or answer the large number of questions undoubtedly generated by the release of the film.   Al Pacino plays the role of Hoffa with the energy that we have come to expect from him, bringing the former Teamsters boos back to life on the silver screen.  But there was more to Hoffa than is shown in the film.  And it is here in this short but eye-opening book, that Hoffa tells his own life story to Oscar Fraley

The book was being written at the time of Hoffa’s disappearance.   As a result, the story ends about a few weeks prior to July 30, 1975 when he told his wife Jo that he had a meeting with Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (1917-1988) and Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone (1919-2001).  The book is really an autobiography which Hoffa had intended to finish once he regained the Teamsters presidency.  Although he never finished it, what he did write is highly informative.  He takes us back to his childhood in Brazil, Indiana, highlighting the rough way of life that developed in the wake of the Great Depression. His words are frank and straight to the point.  For those who have always wanted to know how he rose to power, he lays it out here, recalling his immersion into the world of unions and ascent in the Teamsters, which became the most powerful union in America under his guidance.

From the book, it is clear that Hoffa was born to be involved with unions.  And despite several brushes with violence that could have killed him, he never wavers from the goals set by the union in support of its workers.   The battles between employers and unions still place to this day and if Hoffa were alive, I am sure he would be right out front leading the way. In the book, things are going well with the Teamsters until the arrival of his arch enemy Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968).  It is at this point in the book that the story takes a sharp turn.  To say that Hoffa and Kennedy were enemies is an understatement.  There is no love lost between the two and here Hoffa explains how and why he found himself on Kennedy’s radar.  And some readers may even wonder, was Hoffa really guilty of the charge he was convicted of?  Or was he the victim of an ego trip of an Attorney General often ridiculed as being in his brother’s shadow?  There is compelling evidence that both are true.   Hoffa presents the case for readers to reach their own conclusions. One thing I can say is that I have rarely seen a feud as tense as what is found in this book.

Kennedy is not the only person who draws Hoffa’s wrath.  In fact, he unloads on his successor Frank Fitzsimmons (1908-1981) and Charles “Chuckie” O’ Brien, his former protege.  Hoffa does not mince words and makes it clear that he was dead set on purging the Teamsters and returning to power as its president.  Tragically, his intentions never came to pass and his disappearance remains unsolved to this day.  There are many theories about what did happen to him that day.   Some are plausible while others have no basis in reality.   Perhaps we may never know what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa but I am sure that whoever was responsible for his disappearance intended it to be that way.  Tony Pro and Tony Jack are mentioned in the section about his disappearance but aside from that, their names appear briefly throughout the book.  And to be clear, there is no smoking gun here regarding his disappearance.  However, I do think what Hoffa says, offers some insight into why he disappeared.  Readers that are well versed on the subject will probably agree.

If you loved the Irishman and are curious about the life of James Riddle Hoffa, then this book is a must read.

ASIN: B07ZJRTP5Y

Biographies

IshikawaWhen I read the synopsis for this book, I was a bit surprised.  Stories by defectors from North Korea are not uncommon, but the name of the author caused my interest to rise.  The surname is clearly Japanese but the connection to North Korea was the part that pulled me in.  Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Korean father.  In 1959, the Japanese Red Cross Society and the Korean Red Cross Society secretly negotiated a “Return Agreement”, allowing any native born North Koreans living in Japan to return to their homeland.  The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, then initiated a repatriation campaign which reached the Ishikawa family.  His father was convinced by the league to return to North Korea in 1960, the family moved to North Korea under the illusion of a bright and prosperous future.

Soon after their arrival, the Ishikawas soon realize that North Korea is no paradise.  In fact, it was a far cry form life in Japan and over the next thirty years, they would endure trials and tribulations that will cause the reader to recoil in shock at the extent to which humans can degrade each other.  In Japan, life was good and although the family was not wealthy, they lived a stable and middle class lifestyle.  In North Korea, the facade easily cracks and the Ishikawas are now just another family in the communist regime under Kim ll Sung  (1912-1994).  The rhetoric is strong and the propaganda endless.  The people are taught that American invaders could attack at any minute and one must use Juche to become a good party member.   Young Masaji is forced to navigate this new world as a foreigner who does not speak Korean and is routinely called derogatory terms for Japanese returnees.  This was the reality that many Japanese faced while living as minorities in North Korea.

I have read other books about defectors from North Korea but this one stands out.  The author reveals life in the country and all of its gritty reality.   There are no moments of joy. In fact, as Ishikawa points out on several occassions, it is like being in hell and the misery with which the people live will undoubtedly shock some readers.  While the tanks rolled in Pyongyang and the Dear Leader gave his speeches attacking the West, the people lived a much different reality.  To readers who live in a western culture, there will be many things that make no sense at all. However, Ishikawa discusses this and explains very frankly how and why North Koreans believe what they do.   His observations about the North Korean mindset and the actions of Pyongyang are keen and an inside look into the fallacy of the Dear Leader.

One question I have always wondered to myself is if things were so rough, how did the population continue?  Ishikawa reflects on this as well.  His personal life took many twists and turns before his defection, including marriage and fatherhood.  He discusses the many challenges of bringing a child into the world and then finding support to raise a new family.  His plight and that of others who had the misfortune of coming down with an illness, highlight the climate of distrust and deception created by Pyongyang.  Human nature is on full display in the book, at times in its its ugliest form.  The actions of neighbors and those who are part of the system are a reflection of the deep social dysfunction that plagued a country in which people were simply trying to survive.  The State was succeeding with its divide and conquer technique working perfectly.

On July 8, 1994, Kim II Sung died and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il (1947-2011).  At this point in the book, things take an even sharper turn.  What was already hell becomes Dante’s inferno.   Ishikawa recalls the descent into further misery for many Koreans as food became even more scarce, work non-existent and fear more prevalent.  Mentally he is at the breaking point and soon makes a decision that changes his life and those of his family forever.  He makes the difficult decision to defect but knows that it is a one way ticket with no such thing as returning to visit.  He is a father and husband about to leave his family behind in a country sealed off from the rest of the world.  But he is also determined to escape misery and certain death in North Korea, and his journey to return to Japan is nothing short of miraculous.  Readers will find this part of the book uplifting and confirmation that at times, hope and faith are indispensable.  Ishikawa’s story is incredible and I believe that anyone can find many things to learn in this short but appreciated memoir.

ASIN: B06XKRKFZL

Biographies

baurA few days ago I was browsing recommendations on Amazon and came across this book whose title caught my attention. I have not read anything on Nazi Germany in quite some time so I decided to take a closer look.  I was unaware of Hans Baur (1897-1995) and his relationship with Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).  As the Fuhrer’s pilot, I knew Baur would have very intimate knowledge of Hitler’s life behind the scenes and the book does not disappoint.  However, it should be noted that it is really Baur’s story with Hitler filling many of the pages for obvious reasons.  The story is interesting but I could not help feel that Baur left many things out.  Readers may also feel the same way for reasons that will be discussed below.

Baur begins with his early life but quickly moves forward to his career as a pilot.  It is apparent from the start that he was a very gifted aviator with an extraordinary career.  His recollections about the early days of aviation are fascinating and will remind the reader that flying today is exponentially safer than it once was.   He does not go into too much technical detail but just enough so that anyone can follow along.  He even discusses some monumental moments in aviation including the founding of the German airline Lufthansa.  From a historical standpoint, it is a good summary of the development of air travel in Europe. But by no means is it the only source of information and Baur never implies as much.  He was a devoted pilot and you can feel his love of aviation in his words.  With hundreds of thousand of air miles, the future for him was bright but his entire life changed when he was summoned to appear before Adolf Hitler.

It will be no surprise that at this point in the book, the story picks up pace sharply.  Hitler is no ordinary passenger, but instead the Fuhrer who ruled Germany and began a world war.  Curiously, the image of Hitler given by Baur is in stark contrast to the man who plotted to take over Europe and gave the go ahead for the Final Solution. The Hitler we see here comes across as an affable uncle type character who dotes on his close acquaintances and their children.  In Baur’s defense, his time with Hitler was mainly spent in the air and in private conversation.  And according to his words, Hitler did not discuss future plans for the war with him, typically resulting in Baur finding out major news at the very last minute from someone else working for the Fuhrer.

Because the book is about the Third Reich, there is the elephant in the room regarding the treatment of the Jews.  Baur barely discusses it and only brings it up once in the book.  Without Baur here to answer for himself, it is nearly impossible to say what he believed about Jewish people.   At no point in the book does he display any antisemitism but it is possible that even if he did have those feelings, he would not have stated such in his memoirs.  I was honestly mystified about this and felt that if he was against the Final Solution, he would have made a statement clarifying his position.  But that is simply my opinion.  0Most likely, he had very good reasons to avoid discussing the Final Solution.   This may not satisfy some readers but I caution that the book is still good regardless.

His inside position in Hitler’s circle gave him unrestricted access nearly everywhere and he interacted with all of the major figures of the Reich.  Hermann Goering (1893-1946) and Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) are frequent flyers with Baur, whose criticisms of Goering are quite amusing.  But what is more incredible is that he was present at nearly every major moment in the history of the Reich.  And although he had no military power or responsibilities in planning aerial missions against the Allies, he was a keen observer of the reality facing Germany as it started to become clear that the war would be lost.  Baur is frank in his assessments of those around him and the German war effort.  He confirms what historians have written for years and what many Germans began to realize as the Allies started to make gains and bomb in broad daylight.

In April, 1945, the Allies began to close in on Berlin.  Hitler knew the end was near and had buried himself inside his bunker.  Baur stayed with him until the very end, resisting Hitler’s efforts to send him off.  He provides a detailed account of the final days with Hitler and what happened inside the bunker.  The information he provides can be crossed-referenced and readers will find that it matches with the descriptions given by other authors. However, I believe that the entire dialogue between Baur and Hitler is not provided anywhere else.  As I read this part of the book, I found myself in disbelief at some of the scenes that play out even as the Red Army is only hundreds of yards away.   They are surreal and caused me to wonder if those involved believed they were in a film and waiting for the director to yell cut.

Following Hitler’s death, Baur escapes with several others before falling into Soviet Hands.  The last part of the book is about his time as a prisoner of war being held in Russia.  It was clearly a rough experience and he explains in detail all that happened.  His title and rank resulted in never ending questions and Soviet officers maintained disbelief that he had no knowledge the Reich’s war plans.  After ten hard years, he was released and returned to Germany in a homecoming.  I leave it up to readers to decide whether he was a hero or a war criminal guilty by association.  Yet it is also possible that he was simply Hitler’s pilot.

ASIN: B00FOGG0ZE

Biographies World War II

jspeierForty-one years ago, over nine hundred men, women and children died at the People’s Temple compound in Jonestown, Guyana.  Their charismatic and paranoid leader, Jim Jones (1931-1978), died of a gunshot wound to the head, avoiding the lethal liquid concoction given to a majority of his followers. Disturbingly, many of the deaths were not in fact suicide, but outright murder.  Children and infants were forced to ingest the deadly brew that took their lives in a matter of minutes.  The events of November 18, 1978, concluded the final tragic chapter in Jones’ tyrannical reign.

Earlier in the day on November 18, Congressman Leo Ryan (1925-1978) and a group composed of staff and reporters, were preparing to leave the Jonestown compound with defectors that had come to despise Jones and his lunacy.  Many Temple members knew early on that something was not right about Jones and his continuing descent into madness raised their suspicions and confirmed their belief that they had to leave before it was too late. As the group prepared to board the plane for the short flight to capital of Georgetown, shots rang out on the air strip.  Five people, including Ryan were killed and nine others would seriously wounded.  Among them was Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-California).  She sustained five bullet wounds but miraculously survived the attack.   Her experience at the Jonestown and the death of Ryan, compelled her to enter a life of politics.  This is her story of Jim Jones, U.S. Politics and all that life has to offer.

I should point out that the book is not solely about Jonestown. In fact, the events there compose only a section in the book.  Readers looking for a more focused discussion Jones and his following will like Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. This is primarily a biography but undoubtedly, the attack permanently changed her life, leaving her with physical and emotional scars will never completely heal.   Her early life is typical of the average American girl growing up in the 1950s.  But as she gets older, she comes into her own as a teenager and decides to apply for a position on Ryan’s staff.  To her surprise she is accepted and embarks on a path that would take her all the way to Washington, D.C.

Jones eventually enters the picture as Ryan becomes more concerned with reports filtering in from those desperate to leave Jonestown and others who have already departed.   Jones’ decision to move the People’s Temple, allowed him to evade the eyes of reporters, law enforcement and elected officials. Its remote location in the jungles,  added a valued layer of secrecy that prevent prying eyes from observing Temple activities.  Ryan is determined to see Jonestown for himself and Speier is right by his side to provide legal advice and offer support to those who are determined to leave.  The group eventually arrives in Guyana but is forced to wait several days before being allowed into Jonestown.  Once they are admitted, Speier quickly realizes that there is a dark cloud hovering over the compound and that her group is in grave danger if they continue to stay.  Ryan had seen enough to know that Jonestown was not what Jones had claimed it to be.  The congressman was attacked himself while conducting interviews with various Temple members.  The group’s departure, scheduled for November 18, came a little too late; Jones had made his final descent into the depths of hell.

She recalls the story of her will to survive and the grueling medical treatment she received during her recovery.   Her path was a long process, requiring multiple surgeries and extensive therapy .  However, she never quits and incredibly jumps into politics not long after being discharged from the hospital.  The damage caused by the bullets was extensive and physically she found her herself challenged, but she does her best during her campaigns and success eventually came over time.  All of the highs and lows are discussed, showing the tenacity and devotion of Speier to effecting real change in America.

And as if Jonestown was not enough, her private life is also a roller coaster ride and to say that she has been through a lot would be a severe understatement.  At times, I was literally in shock at everything she has had to endure, even after being shot several times.  Perhaps another person would have broken down for good but Speier does not give up and keeps moving forward even in the face of unrelenting adversity.  Her drive and determination will certainly inspire every reader.  And by the end of the book, you might find yourself in awe of her unwavering spirit and commitment to her beliefs.

The book is a bit short and I wish it had been longer. But in this case, it is quality over quantity.   I truly enjoyed reading it and have a new found understanding and respect for Congresswoman Speier.   Highly recommended.

ASIN: B07GPBS6T2

Biographies

SalmIn 1955, Warner Brothers released ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ starring the late film icon James Dean (1931-1955).  And though the film cemented Dean’s legacy in Hollywood, the actor tragically died the month before the film’s release in a violent car crash while en route to Salinas, California.  In death, Dean became the poster boy for the new sense of rebellion sweeping across America.  In the film, he was joined by actress Natalie Wood (1938-1981) who played the role of Judy and Sal Mineo (1939-1976) in the role of Plato.  The film was a hit and is considered a classic.  The enormous success enhanced the careers of the three stars and Mineo quickly became one of Hollywood’s hottest new stars.  The Italian kid from the Bronx had arrived with charming good looks and acting skills to match.   For the next twenty-one years, he would leave his mark on Hollywood and television before his tragic departure on February 12, 1976.  In just thirty-seven years, he had lived what could be considered for some, a lifetime.   I knew of Mineo before reading this book but there was much about his life that I was completely unaware of.  This book came up as a recommendation and I decided to see for myself, why Mineo is still revered.

Author Michael Gregg Michaud presents the story of Mineo’s life, based on meetings with his former lovers, friends and interviews Mineo gave during his career.  The story begins in the borough of the Bronx in New York City where Salvatore, Sr. and Josephine Mineo welcome their youngest son Salvatore, Jr. into the world on January 10, 1932.  As we see in the book, from an early age Mineo was a performer and it was destined that he would later make it to Hollywood.   But before the film industry came calling, he was a young kid in an immigrant family trying to make ends meet in the city that never sleeps.  Michaud takes us back in time to the early 1930s post-depression.  The Mineo family story highlights the challenge faced by many immigrants making a life in America then and even today.  The struggles and successes of Salvatore, Sr., are a prime example of the attainability of the American Dream.   He and his wife do whatever they can for their children and Sal would need and benefit from their never ending support.

The story moves along as a typical biography until Sal is offered a role on Broadway at the age of eleven.  As the roles start to come in, the pace of the book picks up as we follow Sal along his path to stardom. Guided by his mother Josephine, he climbed up the ladder to stardom.  Michaud wisely inserts Sal’s own words which gives the appearance that he is telling the story along with Michaud.   The book does not come off as simply a collection of facts.   By the time Sal made to Hollywood, his life took twists and turns that no one could have ever anticipated.  Michaud covers it all brilliantly and tells Sal’s story in a way that keeps the pace of the book moving just right and at no point did my attention wane nor did I ever feel that Michaud had strayed off track.  The book is focused and stays on point.

One surprise that I did find in the book was the topic of Mineo’s sexuality, of which I had very little prior knowledge.   The revelations are eye-opening and even shocking considering the time period in which Mineo lived. However, he was undoubtedly a free spirit and Michaud captures it in the story.  Readers that are more on the reserved side with regards with sex might find the book a bit of challenge to read.  While there are no graphic details of sex provided, it does feature prominently as Sal matures in manhood.  The idea of normal becomes subjective and it is up to the reader form their own opinion about Sal’s adventures.  I can say that as I read the book I was reminded of the novel ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ by James Baldwin (1924-1987). The author here offers no personal opinion and rightfully remains neutral.  He is simply telling Mineo’s story and does it  showing both the star’s bright side and also his dark side.

As to be expected,  other Hollywood stars make an appearance in the book including Yul Brynner (1920-1985),  Jill Haworth (1945-2011) and Don Johnson.   The story begins in the Bronx, but as Sal moves through life, we follow him to California, France and even London as he searches for the next big project.  There are highs and lows, which show just how difficult it can be in Hollywood to stay relevant.  Michaud addresses Sal’s inability to get work through the words of those who knew Sal best and Mineo’s words on why he believed Hollywood was not knocking on his door.   Today we call it typecasting and it is a vicious cycle many actors work hard to avoid.

As we approach 1976,  you can feel that something is about to change in Sal’s life.  His casting in ‘P.S. Your Cat is Dead‘ after two prior auditions brightened his spirits. On February 12, that spirit was dimmed when the lives of Sal Mineo and Lionel Williams intersected and changed history.  Michaud discusses the crime, the investigation and the trial that followed.  However, it is not an exhausted analysis of the legal proceedings but rather a summary of what happened after Sal’s death with regards to the law and his family.   The encounters between Sal’s family and Courtney Burr are tense and telling.  Mineo was quite open about his sexuality and Burr had an intimate role in Sal’s life.  But incredibly, Mineo was never officially “out of the closet” .  And he was not the only star with a voracious sexual appetite as many of us know.  The tales of Hollywood sexual scandals are endless.  And I think back to my father who has always said “they don’t call it tinsel town for nothing son”.  Sal was free, open and lived with no regrets.  That is a lot more than many of us can say for our own lives at times.

Michael G. Michaud has written what I believe is the definitive biography of Sal Mineo.  It is an incredible story with a sad ending.   A star was taken too soon but this book ensures that along with his films and television appearances, that Sal Mineo is never forgotten.  Had he lived, we can only guess as to where his career would have taken him.  But regardless, he was and is still considered one of the greats from a pivotal time in the history of Hollywood.  He is gone but certainly not forgotten. Great book.

ASIN: B003F3PMN4

Biographies