The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

20200519_212040One of the things that I love about books is that there are so many that I have yet to read.  Many of them will be classics that I will never forget.  I had always been aware of Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) but remained in the dark about this classic book which was published in 1952.  I noticed that I had it on my shelf and decided to see for myself why it remains so highly regarded. Having finished the book, I now understand why Ellison was ahead of his time and why this book is still relevant to this day.

The main character is the invisible man who begins by explaning that he lives in the basement of a building and gets his electricity by tapping into a power source.  We are not sure why he is in the basement or for how long he will be there.  He has very keen observations about society and its inablity to see him for the man that he is.  It is clear that he has a story to tell and to do that he first tells us the story of his time in college.  The short story about the incidents involving Mr. Norton set the course for the rest of the book and each development occurs almost like a chain reaction.

One day he is assigned to drive a trustee around the campus, however Mr. Norton as we soon learn,  is not interested in the campus as he helped build the university.  Mr. Norton desires new sights and the two take a detour on the back roads outside of school grounds.  They soon encounter a farmer named Trueblood who has been ostracized by the larger community for an act which might make some readers recoil.  Mr. Norton is mesmerized by his story but the tale leaves him physically exhausted and he asks for whiskey to revive his spirits.   The duo continue to drive on eventually stopping at the Golden Day, a watering hole patronized by black students and others nearby.  However the bartender refuses to let the whiskey leave the premises and Mr. Norton is brought inside to be revived.  Once inside, he comes to and witnesses complete mayhem before once again becoming physically depleted. He is taken upstairs where he rests on a bed while a character names Supercargo tends to his condition.  Mr. Norton soon comes around and engages Supercargo in a discussion.  Towards the end, Supercargo turns slightly hostile and the pair leave hastily with Mr. Norton not exactly in the best condition. Upon arriving back at the school,  the invisible man is forced to tell Dr. Herbert Bledsoe that Mr. Norton had an incident.   Bledsoe is furious and although Norton is forgiving, Bledsoe tells him that he will give him a chance by sending him to New York to earn money for the following year’s school fees but that he is to leave school grounds in two days.

Ashe departs for New York,  the invisible man finds himself on the bus with Supercargo and another passenger named Crenshaw.  They engage in discussion and we learn that Supercargo is being transferred to Washington D.C. Crenshaw also gets off in Washington.  At first Supercargo seems to be just a rambling character but he gives the following advice which later proves to be accurate:

Come out of the fog, young man. And remember you don’t have to be a complete fool in order to succeed. Play the game, but don’t believe in it — that much you owe yourself. Even if it lands you in a strait jacket or a padded cell. Play the game, but play it your own way — part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate — I wish I had time to tell you only a fragment. We’re an ass-backward people, though. You might even beat the game. It’s really a very crude affair. Really Pre-Renaissance — and that game has been analyzed, put down in books. But down here they’ve forgotten to take care of the books and that’s your opportunity. You’re hidden right out in the open — that is, you would be if you only realized it. They wouldn’t see you because they don’t expect you to know anything, since they believe they’ve taken care of that.

The invisible man arrives in New York with seven letters given to him by Dr. Bledsoe under the guise of finding a job.  Surprisingly, none of the people whom the letters are addressed to respond. So taking matters into his own hands, he decideds to see the last recipient, Mr. Ellison for himself.  However, Ellison’s son meets with him and in the course of their conversation, he drops a bomb that shatters the invisible man’s whole existence and sets him on the path that takes him to the very place we find him at the beginning of the book.

The invisible man be a country boy but he soon learns the ways of the north and through a shrewd act, lands a job at Liberty Paint in Long Island.  After a series of mishaps at Plant No. 1, he is sent down to the lower levels to work under Lucius Brockway. But a misunderstanding and accident lands the invisible man back in New York City where he meets Mary Rambo who is literally at the right place at the right time.  On a night out, he comes across an elderly black couple being evicted and gives a speech before the angry crowd surrounding the marshalls. His oratorical skills do not go unnoticed as soon he is approached by a mysterious character named Brother Jack who is part of the Brotherhood.  It is at this point in the book that the story picks up in speed significantly as he becomes more involved in the movement.

As I read through the second half of the book, I felt a chill go down my spine because although the book was published in the 1950s, the scenes that take place could have very well been written today.   The internal battles in the Brotherhood, brutality by the police, frustrated spouses and people trying to find themselves and sense of purpose form a toxic stew that threatens to consume anyone in its path.   The invisible man is by far the most talented of the Brotherhood and rises to become a hero to the people of Harlem, akin to the late Malcolm X (1925-1965).  However he is no Muslim nor does he seem to be religious at all.  He is simply committed to the Brotherhood and truly believes in what he is doing.  But every hero has an antagonist and in the story here, it is in the form of Ras the Exhorter, an extremist who believes in using violence when needed.  The battles between the Brotherhood and Ras were some of the chilling parts of the book and after the first encounter, it is clear that Ras will come back later in the story to wreak the havoc he so desperately seeks.

The invisible man continues to make a name for himself in-spite of petty jealousies within the organization.  And even when he focuses on the Woman Question while becoming familiar with Brotherood member George’s wife Sybyil,  he is at the top of his game intellectually.  But little by little the facade begins to crumble and the events surrounding Brother Clifton set the ball in motion for the book’s final act.  Clifton’s story is one that has played out across America over the years and some readers will simply feel a sense of digusts.  It is almost as if Ellison predicted these events and the rise of Black Lives Matter.  While I read the part about Brother Clifton, the hair on my neck stood up as I thought about the actions of law enforcement towards people of color.  Further, the response by the Brotherhood and private lecture by Brother Hambro serve as the catalysts that make the main character focus in on the concept of what it truly means to be invisible.

Towards the end of the book as the invisible man is attempting to part ways with Sybil for the night, a series of events occur in Harlem that bring everyting building up in the book to the surface and what transpires next is nothing short of shocking.  But it is critical to understanding the plight of the invisible man.  By the time the book finished, I felt as if I had just stepped off an aircraft on a long journey full of bumps and surprises.  The story is simply breathtaking and a critical look at American society.  And I find it be a testament to Ellison’s genius that his words here can still be applied to modern day America.  Great book. 


The Liebster Award

A big thank you to Rebecca of Fake Flamenco for nominating me for the Liebster Award! I appreciate her choosing Free Thinking Bibliophile for this award. Please take a moment to look through her blog.  When I first started this blog, I was not sure how far it would go or if I even had the time to devote to it.  Nearly five years and hundreds of posts later, I look back on it as one of the best decisions I have ever made. And I would like to extend a big thank you to everyone that has followed its progression.  I hope that everyone is safe and in good health during what are surely strange and scary times.

Rebecca asked all nominees to answer her Fibbing Friday questions. My creative answers:

  1. What event became known as “The Shot Heard ’Round the World”?  Cannon fire after Covid-19 is contained.
  2. What exactly is a duvet?  Proof that you’re not a bachelor in his early 20s.
  3. What was “The Man in the Iron Mask” about?  A couple who took role playing a bit too far.
  4. Divan, Chesterfield, settee, and Davenport are all examples of what? Items that 95% of people couldn’t pick out in a photo.
  5. Why was the Eiffel Tower built?  The French were bored.
  6. The Harry Potter series wasn’t about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard. What was it about?  Testing the stamina of readers.
  7. What was Moby Dick about? A terrible first impression.
  8. What was “The King’s Speech” about?  The right to remain silent.
  9. If you go to a pub and ask for a “black & tan”, exactly what do you get?  Silence and a lot of stares.
  10. What is “shepherd’s pie”? A dessert for sheep.

And Now for The Official Rules Of The Liebster Award 

If you have been nominated for The Liebster Award AND YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT, write a blog post about the Liebster award in which you:

  1. thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog.
  2. display the award on your blog — include it in your post and/or display it using a “widget”. (Note: save the image to your computer, then upload it to your blog post.)
  3. answer 11 questions about yourself, provided by the person who nominated you.
  4. provide 11 random facts about yourself.
  5. nominate 5 – 11 blogs you feel deserve the award, who have a less than 1000 followers. (Note: you can ask the blog owner; not all blogs display this information!)
  6. create a new list of questions for the blogger to answer.
  7. list these rules in your post (You can copy and paste from here.) Once you have written and published it, you then:
  8. Inform the people/blogs you nominated them for the Liebster award and provide a link to your post so they can learn about it (they might not have ever heard of it!)


Eleven Facts About Gerard of Free Thinking Bibliophile:

1. What makes you smile? Genuine empathy, one of hardest emotions to show.
2. Favorite book as a child? The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.
3. Last book you’ve read? I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
4. Favorite spring flower: Tulips
5. Favorite landscape? Natural landscapes, mountain views
6. Favorite view? Mountains near Moab, Utah
7. Analog or digital? Analog mostly with occasional digital.
8. Horse or bicycle? Horse, one of the most magnificent creatures on earth.
9. First non-essential place you’d go after living shut-in for a while?  The movies.
10. Monument you’d like to live in for a weekend? Taj Mahal
11. What musician plays your life soundtrack? Marvin Gaye


I nominate:

Try to Get It 

Book ‘Em, Jan O

The Miniread

People & History

The Historical Diaries

If you’d like to accept the nomination, please answer the some or all of the questions I did above under “11 Facts” or come up with your own list of facts about yourself.  And  also feel free to answer the Fibbing Friday questions as well.



Peace is the Way – Deepak Chopra, M.D.

Chopra1We hear the word peace often, typically while watching news broadcasts regarding ongoing conficts around the world.  The search for peace remains the ultimate goal of mediators intent on resolving long standing feuds that have claimed lives and destroyed cities.  Cease-fires and treaties are signed by which all parties agree to end hostilities.  However, conflict resolution and geunine peace are two very different concepts.  Many of us seek peace in our lives, away from those who have wronged us or others who remain a source of irritation.  The American pacifist A.J. Muste (1885-1967) believe that there is no way to peace, but instead that peace is the way.   That is the central theme of this book by Deepak Chopra, M.D., who along with brothe Sanjiv, wrote the beautiful memoir Brotherhood Dharma, Destiny and the American Dream. As he explained there, the became a proponent of transcendental meditation and his practice of it, has led to him becoming a world reknown figure whose name is now synonymous with it.  Here, he is focusing on the concept of peace, showing how and why so many of us fail to find it in our lives.

Skeptics might be tempted to write off the book as yet another attempt by a “guru” to tell us to be nice to each other.  Those beliefs are not only misguided but inaccurate.  At no point in the book does Chopra tell us to that peace comes about by simply being nice to each other.  Peace is far more involved than that and if we pay close attention to what he says, the place where it can be found is within. All of us go through life experiencing joyful moments and other times of fear, tragedy an uncertainty.  Peace, along with happiness, are truly what we all crave regardless of our backgrounds. However, out methods to attain each are what ultimately lead us astray and sometimes to our destruction.

To describe this book as eye-opening is an understatement.  There is a profound amount of information to digest which surely will cause many of us to rethink what we knew about peace, not only towards those we meet but within ourselves.  Early in the book, he sets the tone right when he says “the way of Peace isn’t based on religion or morality. It doesn’t ask us to become Saints overnight, or to renounce our feelings of anger or out thirst for Revenge. What you ask for is something new: conscious evolution“.  From that point on it is clear that to fully understand this book, requires the reader to open the mind, clear it and be willing to learrn a new approach to life.  And to set us on the right path, he includes a seven day plan for introducing true peace in our lives.  I have yet to try it but have made a note of it and do believe that it can be beneficial especially in light of the current events in our world.

Chopra makes each point by drawing our attention to the very things which are supposed to result in “peace” such as Iraq War that began in 2003, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and others that have either achieved an outcome devoid of true peace or in other cases, failed to truly find it.  Today, animosity and acts of aggression continue on the Gaza Strip making peace seem like a very distant possibility. But Chopra has hope for all of us and believes that one by one we can change the world simply by the way we live our own lives.  And while you may not believe that to be true, there is certainly nothing wrong with living your own life in true peace.

Religion is also discussed as Chopra frames a very interesting discussion of how it relates to peace.  Those of us who are devout in our beliefs will remain committed to our convictions.  But Chopra is not asking you abandon your faith. He simply wants us to see where religion can sometimes lead us astray as we profound the utmost belief in the system of principles and scriptures we have been taught from a young age.  In essence, religion is neither the cause or the cure.

There were many moments when I had to take a step back and reflect on my own life.  And what I found is that Chopra had provided tools for me to personally understand how I can have peace in my own life.  In particular, there are three concepts that he writes about early that could be seen as pillars for a way of peace: Seva:  Your actions harm no one and benefit everyone, Simran: You remember your true nature and your purpose for being here and Satsang:  You belong in the community of peace and wisdom.  The book contains a far more detailed discussion of each but in their simplest forms, each speaks volumes.

Pain, turmoil and violence are parts of our world.  We do our best to navigate life and avoid them as much as we can.  But simply avoiding them does not automatically give us peace.  Peace is a person process that requires deep introspection and an understanding of ourselves.  Once that happens, we will truly understand that peace is the way.

ISBN-10: 0307339815
ISBN-13: 978-0307339812

Once Upon a Time in Compton – Tim Brennan, Robert Ladd and Lolita Files

compton1Compton, California has earned a reputation over the last fifty years as a place where people are tough, life is dangerous and unless you are from there, you stay away.  Gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips have proliferated across the city in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the dawn of the crack cocaine epidemic in the United States.  In what could rightly be described as a civil war, thousands of black men, women and children have died on the streets of Comptom and in Los Angeles county as gang wars escalated.  In 1888, the City of Comptom had formed its own police department to patrol city limits and at the time of the deadly gang wars erupted, it was pushed to its limit.  Some officers would leave the department for much quieter neighborhoods with lower crime rates.  Others would stay until it was disbanded in 2000.  Among the two most well-known as respected officers were Tim Brennan and Robert Ladd.   The duo have been interviewed numerous times in recent years, expressing their thoughts on Compton, the murder of Tupac Shakur (1971-1996) and his alleged killer Orlando Anderson (1974-1998).  However, there is far more to their story than what we have come to learn on screen and here the two join with Lolita Files, whom some may recognize from the A & E multi-part series Who Killed TupacIn the show she is assisting famed attorney Benjamin Crump who takes another look at the murder of the slain rapper.  This is their story about their lives and time in Comptom as part of a police department located in the middle of a war zone.

Those of us who live outside California may find the gang culture to be both mistifying and tragic.  The Crips, who feature prominently throughout the book, have a long past of their own.  The gang’s formation is rightfully captured by Zach Fortier and Derard Barton in I am Raymond Washington: The Authorized Biography About the Original Founder of the Crips, which I highly recommend to readers interested in the development of the Crips.  Brennan and Ladd became intimately familiar with them and other outfits that compose the fifty-five known gangs of Compton. The two were so well known on the streets that Brennan earned the nickname “Blondie” as a result of a song by DJ Quik.  But just how did the two end up in Compton and become partners for fifteen years? Lolita Files narrates their story in this book that is a both a biography and an investigative look into one of America’s most violent cities.

Files provides a short history on Compton which I found to be very interesting and informative.  The city’s later history is similar to other cities across America where white flight helped give way to the ghettos that developed. Compton is no different and its descent into madness in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots, is an American tragedy that unfornately is not unique.  However, nothing could have prepared Compton for what would come next and when the gangs arrived, the city was transformed into hell on earth.  It is not long into the book before Brennan appears and we learn about his migration to California where he makes a home in the Compton Police Department.  He is schooled as a rookie and moves up through the ranks.  However, it is not until he meets California native Robert Ladd that the dynamic duo is formed and through their work, become nationally recognized experts on gang culture.

The book is not solely about the two officers but Files also discusses the city’s most notorious gangsters whom Brennan and Ladd became very familiar with.  Nightly gang shootings, drug transactions and even domestic disputes, kept the Compton Police Department busy and Files takes us back in time when Brennan and Ladd found themselves in the middle of open gang warfare.  They are joined by Reggie Wright, Sr., whom some may recall as the father of Reggie Wright, Jr., a former Compton Police Officer himself who later provided protection to Death Row Records through his company Wright Way Security.  The stories are crazy and some unreal but Compton was akin to the wild wild west except the gang members were not using six shooters but heavy artillery designed to cause mass casualties.

Politics play a part in the story as one would expect and some of the events that take place are both head scratching and amusing.  And the takeover by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was the final nail in the coffin and officialy marked an end to the Compton Police Department.  However, before that took place, the gang unit had been making waves and putting a dent in gang activity.  But there were a couple of events that were even too large for Brennan and Ladd.

No book about Compton would be complete without the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the acquittal of several officers who took part in the beating of motorist Rodney King (1965-2012).  The verdict set off riots across the county of Los Angeles and I remember watching the events on television with disbelief and fear of what would happen next.  Files revisits the tragedy and the response to the mayhem by the Compton Police Department. It is a dark time in American history, but one that can never be forgotten, especially by the people of Los Angeles.   By this point in the story, we come to know Brennan, Ladd and other officers in the Compton Police Departmentve very well.  However, the story picks up its pace after a deadly shooting takes place in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 7, 1996.  That night, Tupac Shakur was shot and mortally wounded after an altercation at the MGM Grand Hotel with South Side Crip Orlando Anderson.  Shakur’s death on September 13, 1996, unleashed a wave of violence across Compton between Bloods and Crips that placed Brennan and Ladd on the front lines in the investigation.  Files takes on the role of our reporter and delivers the full inside scoop on the deadly retaliation that took place.  Anderson is also a point of focus and his story is revisited including his own death in May, 1998.

Readers who have followed Brennan and Ladd will undoubtedly find this part of the book to be of high interest. Further, Files has proven herself to be highly knowledgeable  about the crime as evident by her appearance alongside Crump.  The scuffle at the MGM, the events leading up to it and its aftermath are covered completely.  Further, the efforts of former detectives Russell Poole (1956-2015) and Gred Kading are examined in detail.  Viewers of the USA show Unsolved, will be familiar with Kading’s name as well as those who have studied the Shakur case.  The death of rap star Christopher”The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace (1972-1997) on March 9, 1997, also enters the story and Files discusses it in depth.  The writing is good and I even learned an intersting fact about Duane “Keefe D” Davis which I had not previously known and possible connections between Wallace and the South Side Crips.  I also learned more about Brennan’s interactions with Kading’s task force which had been assembled to learn the truth about Wallace’s death.  Motives for both murders are presented and some viewers may feel that perhaps the simplest explanation is the most likely.  Sadly, both Shakur and Wallace’s murders remain unsolved.

What I have described so far does not come close to acknowledging everything that will be found in the pages of this book.  It is simply a great read about the Compton, and a must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about the city that gangs and rappers put on the map.  There is a cast of characters to be found in the story ranging from former Death Row Records CEO Marion “Suge” Knight to the deplorable racist gang known as the “spook hunters”.  Compton is full of history  and it is still being written.  And only time will tell if its residents can make peace with the past and move away from the violence that has claimed far too many lives.  Great book.


Message to the Blackman in America – Elijah Muhammad

muhammad1The recent Netflix series Who Killed Malcolm Xrenewed my interest in the death of Malcolm X (1925-1965) and the Nation of Islam (“NOI”) under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975).  Malcolm’s death is still revisited as one of the darkest moments in the Civil Rights Movement.  Muhammad and his star pupil had long fallen out of favor after Malcolm’s death, rumors swirled that the leader of the NOI had ordered the assassination.  No proof ever surfaced of it and whatever Muhammad did know, he took with him to his grave.  He left behind a trove of writings, speeches and statements from public appearances that shed light on his thoughts regarding Islam, race and the future of America.  In 1965, this book was published as Muhammad’s message to the black men of the United States.

Although I am not Muslim, I was curious to see what Muhammad had to say and if it would be relevant to me being a black American.  I am familiar with some of the rhetoric from the NOI which Malcolm later sought to distance himself from.   But the fact remains that Malcolm did receive from Muhammad many of the teachings that guided him as his responsibilties in the NOI continued to increase and hecame its brightest star.  If there was one thing I was sure before starting the book, it was that Muhammad would not mince words.  In fact, no one in the NOI minced words and their belief in full freedom and equality for black people is well-known and documented.  But this is Muhammad’s show and he waste no time in getting his points across.

From the start, Muhammad directs his attention to Christianity and its role during slavery in America. Those who are devout Christians may find this argument to be difficult to read but it is imperative to remember these are his thoughts only and it is up to you to decide which religion is right for you.  Further, he is speaking from the point of view of a member of the Islamic faith and there is no doubt that he believes in Allah as the savior for black people.   He does make compelling arguments and in fact, uses scriptures from both the bible and Quran to make his case.  However, the rhetoric is strong and the use of the term “devils” for white Americans and Europeans will undoubtedly be unsettling.   I had to remind myself that today we would not see anything like this but in Muhammad’s era, the United States was a very different and violatile place.  And perhaps if I had been born at the same time as Muhammad, I myself may have felt the same way.  In end, some who read the book might decide to convert to Islam while others accept his argument and continue on with their lives as things are.

By far, the part of the book which seemed the most outlandish is the section about  a scientist named Yakub, who apparently “created” the white race.  I have never seen any documented evidence of such a person or evidence of notes, test, etc.  I am inclined to believe that the story of Yakub is nothing more than a myth that continues to endure. Followers of the NOI may feel differently and I say to each his own.  However, this theory of Yakub, forms the base of Muhammad’s arguments about the nature of the “white devils”.   Some readers will surely roll their eyes at this part of the book.

Muhammad was a very sharp thinker but it is apparent in the book, that his voice is also laced with fierce emotion.   It is almost as if you can feel him raising his voice as the book progresses.  At one point, he does bring up the issue of the black woman which I found to be interesting and mystifying considering Muhammad’s well-known philandering.  Much of it has flown under the public radar but I recommend Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention for a thorough discussion of what exactly did happen between Muhammad and the multiple secretaries he procreated with that helped cause the eventuall split with Malcolm.  I could not help but feel that it was quite hypocritical for Muhammad to preach about taking care of the black woman while stepping out on his own wife Clara Muhammad (1899-1972).

In spite of the heavy rhetoric that relies on shock value, Muhammad does make a very good argument in his belief of black people not waiting for help from anyone but instead, going out and doing.  Of all of the topics in the book, I firmly agree with him on this one in particular.   His message about self-sustainability and actual progress is spot on and can be used by anyone regardless of race. His words about changing the future of black people are still relevant today and many more people should hear this argument.  It is clear that he truly wanted the best for all black people.   However, I do not agree with his views on integration.  But again, I did not live in America in 1965 and did not experience the racism that black people faced on a daily basis.  If I had, perhaps I would agree with Muhammad.

Today we can see in hindsight that Elijah Muhammad was right about some things but wrong on others. His prediction of America meeting its doom did not come to pass.   And his argument against interracial marriage is still believed by some but interracial marriage continues to increase as more people turn to online dating and long-distance romance.  The world that he knew is far different today and will be even more different by the time I reach my senior years.  But Muhammad has his view and explains his position. It is up to the reader to accept or deny the argument.

Overall, the book is a mixed bag.  Within its pages is truth, rhetoric, religious arguments and even outlandish theories.  But Muhammad was not just an ordinary person.  The NOI remains today but its public presence is scaled down considerably.  But at one time, it was the focus of many Americans, seen as a group of black Muslims who were no longer accepting any excuses for the advancement of black people and other minorities.  These are the words of its most famous leader for audiences of all types.

ASIN: B0054R9C1M

History of the Donner Party, A Tragedy of the Sierra – Charles Fayette McGlashan

DonnerIn the spring of 1846, a group of settlers left home in Springfield, Illinois en route to either Oregon or California.  A popular destination for many was the City of Yerba Buena, known today as San Francisco.  By the first week of may, the party had reached Independence Missouri and soon continued on their route.  They soon learned of an apparent shortcut through what is known as the Hastings cut-off near Salt Lake City, Utah. The trail was named after Confederate General Lansford Hastings (1819-1870).  It was believed that the shortcut would eliminate as much as three hundred miles off of their trip. The group separated and eighty-seven people continued on the trail.  Instead of elminating travel time, their journey was extended by another month.   Deeply behind schedule, their provisions began to run low and winter soon set in.  By the time their ordeal was over, only forty-eight had survived.  Some managed to survive by turning to cannibalism and that act has earned them a permanent place in American pop culture.  We have come to know this group pf settlers as the Donner Party.

The book was originally published in 1880 and this Kindle version is a digital transformation to permanent preserve a book that remains invaluable. When we think of the Donner party, cannibalism typically comes to mind. However, there was far more to the story and the true tragedy of their journey is often lost during discussions of the events that took place.  So just what exactly did happen and why?  McGlashan has the full story, having done the research needed and he even conducted interviews with survivors of the tragedy.  What emerges is a full picture of what really did happen although I am sure some minute parts of the story are lost to history.

The journey west by the Donner and Reed families was typical of the era as settlers sought a new life “out west”. California was destination number even years before the gold rush of 1849.  For the Donners and Reeds, it was a chance at new opportunity far removed from the daily life in Springfield, Illinois.  As their plan picked up, the number of travelers increased until reaching a staggering ninety people.  A number of those who had joined, were not related to either family but had heard about the expedition and expressed interest.  When they set out in early 1846, none of them could have imagined the disaster that lay ahead.

The author details the tragedy as food becomes scare and a brutal winter ravages the party.  Their deaths are sobering and also tragic.  But interstingly, cannibalism plays a minor role in the tragedy in contrast to what has been portrayed in the media and in pop culture.  Nature and lack of food combined to prove the biggest obstacle to survival instead of the treat of being murdered for food.  The cannibalism comes about as a necessity similar to the experience of Nando Parrado, Roberta Canessa and the surivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 as detailed in his book Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home.  External factors as opposed to some internal predatory nature, are the factors behind those in each story making the decision to do the unthinkable.

Those in search of an uplifting read will be quite disappointed. However, if you choose to read about the Donner party, then I have to assume you already know something about their story.  And if so, you know every well that the traditional “happy ending” does not apply here.  Some members did survive but remained scarred by what they saw and experienced.  American history is filled with tales of finding a new life and exploring new terrority, but this book reminds us that for some, that curiousity also led them down a path from which very few have returned.  If you are interested in the Donner party and the truth about the events in 1846-1847 as a group of settlers sought refuge in a new part of the United States, this is a good read.


Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination – Herb Boyd

Boyd1When I think back to my youth, I recall various automobiles that were own by my father, uncles and friends.  Their cars were American made and typically products of General Motors. Buick, Pontiac and Cadillac were the cars of choice and hardly anyone then owned a foreign car. If you owned a Cadillac, it meant status and success in the America.  Detroit  became Motor City and its dominance over the U.S. auto industry remained in place for several decades until automakers from Japan and Germany stormed into the American market.  The city has an extensive past, beginning with French explorer Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac (1658-1730) for whom the luxury automobile is named after.  In 1701, he established what is now Detroit before eventually returning to France where he lived out the rest of his days.  The evolution of Detroit is one of America’s greatest success stories and also one of its greatest tragedies.  Throughout all, its black citizens have always remained firm in their dedication to seeing Detroit become a city to be envied. Herb Boyd takes another look at his city and the role of black men and women in the development of a famed city.

Boyd starts at the beginning, when Detroit is under French rule and North America is an open plain upon which Native Americans, white settlers, slaves and the wild call home. A new nation known as the United States was established in 1776 and over the next few years, slavery was been abolished in the majority of norther states.  In 1701, Detroit entered the Union as part of Michican and although slavery was abolished, it was still practice in many parts of the country.  Detroit became a gateway to freedom as many slaves escaped into Canada before returning free men and women due to loopholes in U.S. laws at the time regarding slavery in particular fugitive slaves. The case of Peter Denison is revisited and I feel many readers will find this section regarding the methods of freedom for slaves to be quite interesting.   However, not every story has a happy ending and the racial tension discussed by the author highlights how far as a nation we have come.   In what could be called race wars, we witness episodes of violence that will send a chill down the spine of many readers.

The Civil War marked a turning point in United States History.  Thousands of African-American troops took part in the conflict but the battle for freedom was far from over.  Racism was still prevalent and slavery died a slow and agonizing death.   However, years prior to the emancipation proclamation, the abolitionist made it their goal to erase slavery from the entire United States. Boyd discusses the lives and actions of the legendary John Brown (1800-1859) and others who sought freedom through armed resistance.  Those of the more peaceful approach were responsible for the founding of the Second Baptist Church and Dunbar Hospital.  Yet they could not escape racism and Detroit would have its many ugly incidents between white and black citizens that nearly caused its destruction and will make readers wonder why humans treat each other in the ways that they do.

Similar to many American cities post-Civil War, Detroit continued to undergo significant change.  In 1914, the world went to war as Europe became ground zero.  Thirty years later a second world war began and Detroit sent some of its best which included many of its black citizens who returned home from war energized to defeat Jim Crow.  It is at this point in the book that the story picks up considerable pace and descent of Detroit into the ghost town it became takes center stage.  As Berry Gordy’s Motown Records were turning out hits, white flight was in full swing, changing the demographics of many neighborhoods which saw an increase in the number of black residents. The landscape of Detroit was being remade and the effects would reverberate for decades.

Throughout the book it seems as if Detroit is where who’s who of important figures can be found.  However, their presence is offset by the rise in violence that spared no one, including the late Rosa Parks (1913-2005) and Rev. C.L. Franklin (1915-1984).  Detroit had earned a reputation as a dangerous city that threatened all who entered.  But within its borders there were those working to change it for the better and that has never changed.  The story of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young (1918-1997) is highlighted as well as the rise and fall of future Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.  Despite their best efforts, the image of a violent city stuck to Detroit and the gun violence increased.  And shootings by law enforcement officers of civilians had placed Detroit at the top of the list of police related shootings in America.  The police unit STRESS, an acronym for Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets, had become infamous and in May, 2010, the murder of  seven-year-old Aiyana Jones provided the ultimate proof of a police department in need of upheaval.

Currently, Mike Duggan serves as the Mayor of Detroit.  Time will tell if he will have ultimate success in rehabilitating a city that was once one of America’s brightest.  The bailout of the auto industry by the administration of President Barack Obama marked a low point in the history of Motor City.  It was sobering experience that taught American automakers many painful truths and showcased Detroit’s fall from the position of ruler of the U.S. auto industry.  There are many bright spots and if there is anything we can take from Boyd’s book, it is that the people of Detroit never give up and have always found ways to survive.  The future is bright for Detroit but only if all hands are on deck.  I have no doubt that they will be.   But what is imperative to remember through Boyd’s work, are the stories of the people of color who helped build the City of Detroit.  Good read.

Detroit turned out to be heaven, but it also turned out to be hell.” – Marvin Gaye (1938-1984)

ASIN: B01I9B5466

You Are Always With Me: Letters to Mama – Frida Kahlo

Frida1I was in search of a quick read and saw this book which I had added previously to my list of books to buy. In my neighborhood, there is a building with a mural dedicated to Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and as I walk past each time, I think of the fact that so many years after her death, she is still revered by millions of people both in the United States and in her native Mexico. In September, 1925, Frida was a passenger on a bus with her boyfriend Alejandro Gómez Arias. Their bus collided with a street car and left Kahlo with devastating injuries.  She suffered broken bones in several parts of her body and the accident displaced three vertebrae in her back.  She never fully recovered from the accident and was plagued with constant pain until her death on July 13, 1954.  On August 21, 1929, she married Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and accompanied him to the United States, first landing in San Francisco, while he worked as painter.  Over course of her time living in the United States and later visiting, she received medical treatment for the lingering effects of the 1925 bus accident.  She never failed to write home to her mother whom she loved deeply.  Those letters have been translated into English and are composed here to show readers the very intimate relationship between mother and daughter.

It should be noted that it is strictly Frida speaking here.  There are no letters from her mother. And it appears that Frida did most of the writing to her parents Wilhem and Matilde.  The letters are short and to the point but filled with love and sharp insight by Friday regarding her surroundings.  However, throughout the letters, her health and the couple’s earnings are always a main topic.  After leaving San Francisco, Frida and Diego later visited New York City.  Her observations are interesting and as a native New Yorker, I can say that they are not far off the mark.  She adores New York but is not blind to the many faults that one can see in America.  These words are more than eighty years old but much of what she says remains true.  Perhaps Frida knew something then that we fail to understand now.

Although the book is quite short, there is a wealth of interesting comments and thoughts presented by Frida.  She was a keen observer of people and found ways to adapt to the environment she found herself in.  Diego comes and goes during the story and the letters reveal no trace of the tension that existed during their marriage on more than one occasion.  Whether she was shielding her mother or herself we cannot say for sure.  Her mother Matilde, died on September 15, 1932, before Kahlo’s marriage to River went literally to hell and back.

I plan next to read an extensive biography of Frida  to truly understand the woman behind the fame.  Her letters have provided insight into who she was and what she believed but surely, only the tip of the iceberg.  If you like Frida Kahlo and want to know more of her personal side, these letters to her mother are exactly what you need.


Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo -Anjan Sundaram

On 20200202_203242June 30, 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was formed after fifty-two years of Belgian colonization.  Its charismatic leader, Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), served as an inspiration and hope for the people of Congo, who wished to govern themselves and move their country into a new direction.  Less than one year later on January 17, 1961, Lumumba was executed in Katanga as a result of a coup by military colonel Joseph Mobutu (1930-1997).  The assassination and seizure of power by Mobutu, set in motion a cycle of violence that has continued for more than five decades.  Between 1994 and 2003, the conflict known as “Africa’s first world war” ravaged the country and caused the deaths of an estimated five million people.  Rebel groups continue to operate in various regions of the country, continuing the system of violence. In 2005, Anjan Sundaram was finishing his final semester at Yale University, where he graduated with a degree in advanced mathematics. After forming a friendship with a cashier, he made the decision to abandon a career in corporate American and move to the Congo, where he would ply his trade as a foreign correspondent in one of the most tumultuous places on earth.  This book titled “Stringer’ is a memoir of his time in the Congo and the many people that became a part of his life.

As the book opens, Anjam has just had his phone stolen and is trying desperately to get it back with no luck at all.  He eventually finds his host family, who are relatives of the cashier at Yale.  His dwellings are primitive by western standards and his fan soon becomes the desired object in stifling heat.  He soon learns that as the saying goes, he is not in Kansas anymore.  Kinshasa is gritty and daily life is hard without relief.   His housemates, Nana and Jose, do their best to help him along but even they have their moments that nearly push Anjan to the brink.  He soon begins to run low on money and realizes that soon desperation will set in.  At the suggestion of a friend, he offers his services a field reporter for the Associated Press. He is quickly hired and his job as a journalist soon takes him into the belly of the beast far removed from the polished campus at Yale University.

As the story moves forward, the author provides information on the Congo’s history where needed to give the reader an idea of why certain conditions currently exist.  And though he does mention Lumumba, the book is not meant to be a thorough history of the Congo.  For additional reading, I do recommend Leo Zeilig’s “Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader“, which is an excellent biography of the late leader.  The focus here is about what Sundaram sees and hears as he moves throughout the Congo consider by many to be parts unknown.  The scenes he describes are surreal but a reflection of the turmoil that continues to engulf the country.  The threat of death hangs over him throughout the book in the form of rebel patrols, shady cab drivers and even a touch of malaria. As I read the story, I was sure I had the same thought as many others who have read it: he must be crazy to give up a promising career to migrate to the Congo.  The author realizes his choice would be surprising to many but it is clear that his decision was based on a real desire to truly experience a conflict that remains one of the worst in modern history.

The true gift of the book is Sundaram serving as eyes and ears on the ground to show others the truth about life in the Congo.   The descriptions he gives sound like hell on earth with the lack of sanitation, devalued currency, corruption and the near total collapse of a political system.  Mock elections and the continuing cycle of dictatorship do little to inspire the people with the belief that one day their nation will embrace true democracy.  Hanging over the book is the ghost of Mobutu, whom the author discusses at several points in the book.  His grip on the country, many years after his death, is apparent all over.  It is a nightmare that replays itself as conflict rages between government forces battling insurgent rebel patrols.  Massacres, pillage and systemic murder are the tools of the trade, highlighting the prevalence of death in the Congo.  Sundaram is the Associates Press’ eyes on the ground and soon moves over to the New York Times.  As an American of Indian descent, his presence in the Congo is both the source of curiosity and hostility.  Ethnic divisions and fears of the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in Congolese affairs, result in a cloak of suspicion traveling with him everywhere he goes.  On more than one occasion, his admission to being a “reporter” is the source of agitation to those who prefer to operate in secrecy.

Undoubtedly, there is more to the Congo story than what it presented here.  And while I would have liked the book to have gone just a little longer to see how Sundaram eventually leaves the Congo for good, the story stands on its own merits. It is a very profound account of life in the Congo, where nothing is guaranteed.  Life is expendable and democracy is reduced to a catchphrase.  The reality is painstakingly explained here in an account that will open the eyes of many who are only vaguely familiar with the country that had the potential to set a new course for the continent of Africa.  Good read.

ISBN-10: 0385537751
ISBN-13: 978-0385537759

Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850 – Roger Daniels

20200118_220256President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) is known primarily from his time in the White House and untimely death but many forget that he was also an accomplished writer.  In the well-received “A Nation of Immigrants“,  he gives his take on how immigration built the nation known as America.  Images of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty will surely come to the minds of readers who decided to read Kennedy’s work.  However, there is more to the immigrant story in America and often forgotten are the many other groups who have emigrated to the land of opportunity.  Roger Daniels decided to take a further look into the Chinese and Japanese experience in America and what he found may surprise many of us.

The story begins in 1849 as California becomes ground zero for the gold rush.   We learn right away that over 300,000 Chinese came to America to work in mines and in other trades, such as building cross-continental railroads.  By 1882, the gold rush was over, the railroads had been nearly completed and hundreds of thousands of Chinese now found themselves out of work.  They were far away from China in a new country that did not rush to embrace them. In fact, what happened after the gold rush opened my eyes to the Asian experience in America and revealed many dark parts of American history.

This book could easily be added as required reading in high school classroom and in a college syllabus.  It reads like a textbook but the exception is that is has not been heavily sanitized. Daniels had no intention of sugar coating anything and the facts that are presented here are beyond sobering. Paranoia, suspicion and fear of a “yellow invasion”, gave birth to some of the most discriminatory laws passed in United States history.   Beginning with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1870 and the later Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the anti-Chinese movement gained in momentum and threatened the very existence of Chinese-Americans. Similarly, Japanese immigrants who arrived to America by way of Hawaii, soon found that their new home was not so welcoming.  The anti-Chinese movement soon became part of larger anti-Asian sentiment spreading across the United States.  And contrary to what we may think about Asian immigration, the Pacific played an even more important role than the Atlantic.  Exactly how is explained in detail by Daniels.

As the world found itself embroiled in two world wars, the Chinese and Japanese in America were struggling simply for recognition as human beings.  California remained the battle ground in the struggle between natives and new immigrants from the Far East.  San Francisco was the scene of some of the most absurd moments in the book and will cause readers today to wonder at how such inhumane treatment of others  was tolerated and endorsed in the late 1800s into the early 1900s.  The Alien Land Act of 1913 is a prime example of  some of the draconian laws passed to disenfranchise America’s Asian citizens.  However, in spite of outright racist treatment and propaganda, the Chinese and Japanese remained firm in their belief of the American dream.  World War II became the moment where life for the Japanese in America was turned upside down and would test the patriotism of even the most ardent believers in the United States.

The book is not a full examination of the Japanese internment in camps during the war. However, Daniels does a thorough job of explaining how the program developed, what President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) knew and the effect it had on the Japanese mindset both during and following the war.  High focused is placed on the Japanese American Citizens League, which played an integral role in the affairs of Japanese Americans in many ways, some of which will surprise some.  However, its importance cannot be understated.  What I did find to be mind-boggling was that the U.S. Military never had a deep suspicion on a whole of Japanese Americans taking up arms in defense of Toyko, but the media and politicians clearly had a different agenda.

Today, the treatment revealed in the book would cause shock and outrage.  I have many friends whose families originate throughout Asia.  They are as American as I am but the thought of legislation being passed to bar them from citizenship, prevent them from assimilating in society or to prevent them from even entering the country,  is beyond horrifying.   However, this was the reality for thousands of Chinese and Japanese in the United States before the passage of civil rights bills and Supreme Court decisions that struck down bans of segregation and interracial marriage.  America has come a long way but there is still work to be done.

While reading Daniel’s words, I could not help but to feel that some of the divisive rhetoric employed by politicians then is also heard now.  Fears of “invasion” and “threats to our way of life” permeated beliefs in the 1800s and 1900s, resulting in regrettable treatment of Chinese and Japanese Americans.  And in some cases, that rhetoric proved to be deadly.  That same danger exist today.  If we are to continue to move forward, then we must remember that less than one hundred and fifty years ago, anyone who was not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, found that life in America was a contradiction to the belief that all men are created equal.  If we fail to remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it. I truly hope we do not.  Roger Daniels has given us a guide to study and learn from so that we do make the same mistakes. Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0295970189
ISBN-13: 978-0295970189