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The dissolution of the United Soviet Social Republics (USSR) remains one of the most important and world changing moments in history. The lowering of the hammer and sickle on December 26, 1991, was the end of seventy-four years of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe. But the remnants of the Soviet Union can still be found today and the ghost of its founder, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), continues to haunt Russia. In Red Square, Moscow, Lenin’s corpse remains on permanent display and is maintained by a full-time staff of technicians. To believers in the old-guard and Marxism, Lenin is the eternal leader of the Bolshevik revolution. To his detractors, he was madman who unleashed a wave of terror and was outdone only by his successor Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Undoubtedly, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron grip built upon fear, intimidation and murder. But those tactics were not new methods of operation, having been in use long before he took power. During the reign of the Soviet Union, information regarding Lenin’s private life was kept secret and only the most privileged of researchers were able to see any official records. The passage of time and change in attitudes had resulted in the disclosure of Soviet records that many thought would never be revealed. The thaw which began with Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) has allowed the world to learn the truth behind the Iron Curtain. Author Victor Sebestyen has taken another look at Lenin’s life in this well-researched and revealing biography of the iconic and infamous Soviet leader.
It is not a requirement but I do believe that basic knowledge of the former Soviet Union will make the book even more enjoyable to the reader. There are many figures in the story, some of whom became pivotal figures in Soviet and world history. From the start, the book is intriguing and the author’s writing style sets the perfect tone for the book. Furthermore, at the end of each chapter are the footnotes which help aid the reader in following the narrative and developing a mental picture of the tense political climate that existed in Russia at the beginning of the 1900s.
Prior to reading the book, I had learned a significant amount of information regarding Lenin’s life but the story told here is simply astounding. Sebestyen leaves no stone unearthed, fully disclosing the sensitive parts of Lenin’s life including his marriage to Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1969-1939) and relationship with Inessa Armand (1874-1920). And as the author points out, Nadezhda or “Nadya”, was a supportive and valued voice in Lenin’s circle. Her comments throughout the book shed light on Lenin’s very private side and her commitment to the revolution and Lenin’s ideology made her a celebrated figure in her own right. She remained committed to Lenin after his death and up until her own in 1939.
Lenin’s early life is examined in through detail and reveals an interesting figure but highly unorthodox and complex. Ideology becomes a major focus of his life and his series of odd jobs come to an end when he finds his true calling as the man destined to lead the Bolshevik Revolution. But his path to get there had many obstacles along the way and it is his time away from Russia that is just as interesting as his time in Russia. As would be expected, his service as chairman is the crux of the book and Sebestyen delivers the goods. Sensitive readers should be aware that there are very disturbing events that take place and in their graphic detail here, they may prove to be too upsetting for some. But the author reveals them so that we may learn the truth about Lenin. In the title of the book, the author refers to him as a “Master of Terror”. I believe the title was earned and this book is proof of it. His deeds have been overshadowed by those of his successor but Lenin was a master in his own right and I have no doubts that Stalin took many notes. Death, deception, lies and even pilferage are part of the Soviet story, serving as pillars in the foundation upon which Lenin and his party established their system of brutality. Their acts were so surprising in some instances, that even after having finished the book, I am still shaking my head in disbelief. And to say that anarchy ruled, might be an understatement.
Sebestyen carefully follows Lenin’s rise and the formation of the Soviet Government. From the start, all was not well and cracks in the facade immediately began to form. The fragility of the coalition is on full display, allowing readers to grasp the unstable nature of Soviet politics and how quickly friends could turn into enemies. Jealousy, egos and diverging interpretations of true Marxism severed friendships, raised suspicion and helped create an atmosphere of distrust that remained with the Soviet Union for the next seventy years. And even today, Russia and the independent republics, sometimes struggle to to stand completely removed from the dark legacy of the USSR.
One subject which has always been up for debate is Lenin’s untimely demise at the age of fifty-four. His condition at the time was somewhat puzzling to doctors but all agreed that it deteriorated quickly. Sebestyen clears up a few rumors surrounding Lenin’s death but there is a slight chance that some details regarding Lenin’s death still remain hidden. However, I do believe the author presents a solid analysis of what contributed to his death based on facts and not mere speculation. Readers who are expecting to find any evidence of a conspiracy will disappointed. No such theories are presented or even acknowledged, keeping the book on track all the way until the end.
The existence of Lenin’s tomb is both a testament to his influence over Russia and his inability to envision a future without himself. He could have never imagined the heights that the Soviet Union would reach over time nor could he have pictured its downfall. I think he may have mixed feelings to know that today in 2019, people are still interested in his life, one that he was willing to devote to the success of the Soviet empire. In death, he became eternally etched into the Soviet experience and he remains one of history’s most polarizing figures. This biography is nothing short of excellent.
In 1993, Loud Records released an album that re-defined the rap music genre. A group of nine lyricists from the borough of Staten Island in New York City joined together and created Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The album was a smash hit and before long, millions of hip-hop fans knew the names of each member by hard. As a New York City native, I remember when the single Protect Ya Neck was released and the buzz surrounding this new group that was in your face, raw and uncut. To some, the group was just another rap entourage from the streets, that was profane and too rough around the edges for mainstream society. But to fans, they represented a new concept and sound that no one had ever seen before from rap artists. The latter won out and through many albums, tours and even television appearances, the group cemented their legacy as one of rap’s greatest acts. But for all of the glitz and glamour, there also existed a behind-the-scenes story that was playing out in ways that no fan could have ever guessed.
Lamont Hawkins, known as “U-God”, is one of the founding nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan. In this gripping autobiography that is the first book by any member of the group, he opens up about his life as a young kid in New York City who grows into a young man and becomes part of music history. Readers sensitive to profanity should be aware that there is plenty to be found here. Hawkins speaks in a very frank manner but at the same time, gets his points across very clearly and drives them home with the right amount of force. Putting aside the strong language, the story is seductive right from the beginning. The book is so interesting that I finished it in forty-eight hours. The story picks up pace from the beginning and never slows down. It is an unbelievable roller coaster ride and fans of the Wu-Tang Clan will absolutely love this book.
I do believe that even those readers unfamiliar with rap, Hawkins or Wu-Tang will still be able to enjoy the book. His story is much more than just recording songs. This is also the story of personal triumph from a life that could have easily taken a much different path. Younger readers may find some of the anecdotes regarding New York City hard to believe. But anyone who lived in New York during the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s will easily recall the era when New York City was nearly bankrupt and crime was all over the Five Boroughs. Subway graffiti, burned out and semi-destroyed buildings littered parts of the city. Poverty, drugs and an astronomical murder rate made New York City one of the most dangerous places on earth. I vividly recall those days as a young kid growing up in East New York, Brooklyn during the 1980s. But my life was far different from Hawkins and his story will blow your mind.
Struggle is the best word I can think of to describe his early life. But his trials and tribulations also extended to the other members of the group and Hawkins introduces them into the story as the Wu-Tang Clan is slowly formed. The Park Hill housing complex figures prominently throughout the early part of the story, serving as home for several group members. Murders, shootings and drugs were a part of their daily lives and it was from this system of mayhem, that they sought to escape. Success finally does arrive but even then, personal demons followed the group like a dark cloud. But in time, they each are able to focus on the bigger picture and find their way out of the ghetto. Hawkins is our narrator and his observations about life on the streets as a drug pusher, his fellow band members and being aspiring rapper are food for thought.
It is clear that at his age now, Hawkins is seasoned and sees things through a much clearer lens. But he has never forgotten where he has come from and his rough and rumble background are what have shaped his unfiltered approach that surely is “raw”. As a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, this book showed another side to the group that I did not of before. Twenty-six years have passed since they released their debut album but it still sounds as good as it did then. Each band member has their own style and appeal but without each, Wu-Tang could have never existed. And what many of us who are fans may not have known, is that one of the anchors of the group is the man we have come to know as U-God. Hip-hop fans will find this book to be a true gem.
I decided to take a break from the reviews and address a question that I am often asked. “Why do you love to read?”, is the question I am presented with by people who are aware of my passion for books. I could offer a cliché answer but the truth is more intricate than that. I firmly believe that each bookworm, as we are often referred to, has their own personal reasons for reading and the category of material that he/she prefers. Regardless of the reason, their love of books is something that unites us.
Next to writing, reading is one of the most basic skills that a person can possess. I go as far as to say that at times, our lives can depend on it. Through the passage of time and a growing collection of books, I have come to realize that reading needs more promotion in the age of digital communication. Social media, online news and smartphones have permanently changed the ways in which humans communicate with one another. Hours long talks on the phone and in person have in some cases, been reduced to a “wall post”, SMS or a “Facebook like”. Our minds are constantly flooded with small snippets of information but the allure and satisfaction of a good book can never be replaced nor duplicated.
As bibliophiles, we are indeed a rare breed. We are looked upon with envy as our peers wonder how we can read as much as we do. Our passion to keep reading and learning is what sets us apart and increases our attractiveness to others. Personally, I read to satisfy my own hunger for knowledge and have never sought approval or envy from anyone. Each book that I read is a challenge to myself to see just how much more additional information my mind can process. And if I had to give just one reason why I read, it is simply because I love books. However, I do have other reasons and I share them below. Some you have probably seen before and if that is the case, I will reinforce them here.
Knowledge is Infinite
The human mind is an incredible invention that is still a mystery to even the smartest doctors and therapists. The development of the world over the course of the last two hundred years is a testament to the ability of humans to push the mind beyond limits that were believed to have been possible. Our brains crave new information and are eager to use that information in ways that advance our own lives and that of the societies in which we live. The greatest minds in history knew that reading was a mandatory skill. We are familiar with the stereotypical image of an old professor with a library of hundreds of books in the background but that image certainly is grounded in a fair amount of truth. Books have always been the key to knowledge that cannot be learned in the streets. As I begin each book, I find solace in the fact that I will be learning something new and like a sponge, my mind will soak up the material, resulting in a trove of facts and other bits of information that I may possibly use at a later time. But the real treasure, is knowing that knowledge is not finite. In fact, it is the exact opposite which means that there will always be something new to learn.
The Past Comes Alive
History has always been my passion and was one of my best subjects throughout my teen and adults years in school. That passion has resulted in my clearly obvious tendency to read non-fiction. Books have allowed me to travel back in time to endless destinations such as Ford’s Theater in 1865, San Francisco in 1977 and Havana, Cuba in 1959. Some of the places that I have read about, I have been fortunate to see in person. For others, I have been there mentally, transported by the words of passionate authors blessed with the ability to captivate their audience. Some might say that is better to leave the past in the past. But what I am reminded of, is George Santayana’s quote that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History shows us where we have come from so that we will know where we want to go but without making the same mistakes as those before us.
The Art of Conversation
Life today moves at an incredibly fast pace. Emails, text messages, instant messages and social media notifications have become ingrained into many of our lives, rarely giving us a reprieve. For some of us, electronic communication has become our preferred method of interaction. Yet I am old enough to remember a time in which not looking a person in the eye during a conversation was enough for a reprimand. My great-grandfather called every family member nearly nightly up until the time he became severely ill before his death. I shudder to think what he would feel about a text message as opposed to a formal hello in person at his apartment or on the telephone. In public, there are times in which I see a severe social awkwardness as two individuals struggle to have a discussion. The art of conversation has declined and some believe that it might become a lost art. For book-worms, we always have something to discuss and can start a conversation from any number of the books that we have read. Quite frankly, we never run out of things to discuss and always have an ice breaker on hand during new conversations.
A hallmark of a good author is to know when to use a certain word and why. In fact, a body of text can be completely re-written just by substituting certain words, giving it new life and a renewed interest. My growing library of books has resulted in a constantly expanding vocabulary which I call upon not only when I write blog posts but while at work and in discussions. I do not expect to know every word in the English language but I do intend to try. And in the process I can continue to improve and broaden my vocabulary which will serve me well for years to come.
Confidence in Writing and Speaking
An older friend who is a retired lawyer once told me that my tongue was also a muscle that needed exercise. He further advised that pronunciation was critical and when speaking to someone, the voice should be the right volume and clarity was essential. I was seventeen at the time and at times, I spoke so low that I was barely audible. Looking back, I realize that I did not have the confidence that I do now. Of course, most teenagers have yet to figure out who they are and where they want their lives to go so I do not punish myself younger self too much. I took his words to heart, practicing my speech and even taking a speech course in college which finally cured me of my mild stage fright. Today when I am speaking, I project the words in my mind, envisioning how they would read in written text. This allows me to make mental edits before I make any further statements, resulting in a clear presentation of my thoughts. And those same thoughts eventually become part of this blog which as been one of the decisions I have made in my life.
Travel Without a Passport
Travel is good for the soul, mind and body. It provides us with opportunities to learn about our world and ourselves. But realistically, not everyone has the means to travel the world. The internet has provided an avenue by which hopeful travelers can traverse as they embrace other parts of the planet. Books have always been a means to see the world without leaving home. Recently I learned of Ruthenia, a place I had no idea existed but through an excellent biography of Andy Warhol, which I am currently engrossed in, I learned about an entirely new culture that I am sure most of us have never heard of. Whether I can see it person remains to be seen but at least now I know that it exist. And if I do happen to visit, I have a small arsenal of facts to make the visit far more memorable.
You Might Be Inspired to Become an Author
It should come as no surprise that many great authors are avid readers. Their love of writing undoubtedly walks hand in hand with a love of reading. Inspiration, ideas and satisfaction are products of reading regularly. Young readers who are amassing their own libraries may one day become authors and will always remember the books that became their favorites. Personally, S.E. Hinton still stands tall and her classic The Outsiders, remains one of my prized possessions. Time will tell if I write a book of my own but what I can say for certain is that writing this blog has given me the confidence required to even attempt such a feat.
Your Health Will Benefit From It
Doctors have advised that the best way to prevent Alzheimer’s is to keep the brain stimulated. Reading is still one of the best ways to keep the mind sharp, long into our elderly years. I have always feared slowing down as I age but think of my great-aunt who is over ninety years of age and still goes on vacation. Her mind is still sharp and her words are crystal clear. She is an inspiration to our entire family and a reminder that there is rule that says elderly people cannot continue to enjoy all that life has to offer. Further, similar to other parts of our bodies, our minds also age but it is imperative that we do what we can to make sure that is never slows down. A good book is just what the doctor ordered.
These are the main reasons why I love to read. There are plenty of other reasons which I have not discussed as they take a backseat to the above. Other bloggers and book-worms who embrace their bibliophilism may agree with my reasons and I am sure that they each have their own. WordPress has given me the opportunity to cross-paths with others who love books and it is welcoming to see that they have followed their passion in maintaining their own blogs dedicated to the written word. If anyone ever ask you why you love reading, maybe some of these ideas will resonate with you and produce more than enough answers for inquiring minds.
June 5, 1968 – Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) (D-New York) concludes his speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California after scoring a critical primary victory in his quest for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As he walked through the pantry while exiting the hotel, he was shot and mortally wounded. Twenty-six hours later in the early morning hours of June 6, 1968, his life and the dream he inspired came to a tragic conclusion. He is survived by his widow Ethel and eleven children, the youngest of whom was born after his death. Her name is Kerry Kennedy and along with brother Robert, Jr., she keeps her father’s memory alive and well. Her book Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope: Kerry Kennedy in Conversation with Heads of State, Business Leaders, Influencers, and Activists about Her Father’s Impact on Their Live is a fitting tribute to her late father’s life and is yet another testament to the profound influence he had on those who knew him and even those who never met him. His alleged murderer Sirhan Sirhan, remains incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California. The official narrative paints a picture of Sirhan being a deranged lunatic determined to murder Kennedy at all costs. He was initially sentenced to life in prison after his conviction but several years later, his sentence was commuted to life. In the eyes of many, he is the man who killed Kennedy in an open and shut case. But there have always been questions surrounding Sirhan’s actions that night that cause many to pause before proclaiming his guilt. Did Sirhan Sirhan really act alone and did he fire the shots that took Kennedy’s life?
Tim Tate and Brad Johnson have taken another look at one of America’s most tragic murders fifty years after Kennedy gave his last speech, examining the crime from start to finish. And in the process they have raised many questions which have never been answered by the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) or the State of California. In fact, what we can see very clearly, is an investigation full of missteps, inaction and disturbingly, outright deceit by law enforcement. The investigation became a mixture of destruction of evidence, stonewalling and witness intimidation as the LAPD focused its attention on Sirhan with the intention of convicting him at all costs. But as Tate and Johnson show, there were many reason to doubt Sirhan’s guilt and proof that more than one gunman was in the pantry area that night. While they do not provide a smoking gun as to who the shooter may be, they do establish that there was more that occurred that night than police were willing to admit. And Sirhan may not have been the person he has been portrayed to be. We know that he did discharge a gun that night, but the authors have given reasons to believe here, that none of his bullets struck Kennedy.
As I read through the book, at times I could not believe my eyes. Similar to the murder of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Bobby’s death became shrouded in controversy as rumors swirled of a conspiracy. At the center of the many conspiracies is the infamous woman in the polka dot dress. The authors examine her role in the matter and give a strong explanation regarding her possible identity. Readers curious about the mystery woman will find Fernando Faura’s The Polka Dot File on the Robert Kennedy Killing: Paris Peace Talks Connection a good read regarding this infamous figure who official remains unidentified and ignored by supporters of Sirhan’s guilt. However, the authors have shown that not only did multiple witnesses see the woman, some had personal encounters with her, including Sandra Serrano, a worker in Kennedy’s campaign. Her experience with LAPD investigators is one of the most bizarre parts of the story but also reveals an important clue about the department’s motives in streamlining the investigation. We may never know who the woman in the polka dot dress is or was, but what is clear is that she was not a figment of anyone’s imagination.
Previously, I had read material on Kennedy’s murder but this assessment of the assassination, revealed many things which I did not have prior knowledge of. Sirhan’s trial was an easy win for prosecutors as they successful painted Sirhan with the image of a lone gunman with a deadly fixation on Kennedy. As the shadow of Dallas hung over the trial, authorities made sure Sirhan was tried and convicted as expeditiously as possible. However, there was one aspect of the trial that no one could completely put to rest which would come back to haunt the case until this very day. Sirhan’s claim of having no memory of the shooting was at first dismissed but as the authors show, there was and is strong evidence to support this theory. And at this point in the book, the story kicks into high gear as a cast of characters appear including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And we are forced to ask, was Sirhan a “Manchurian Candidate”? To some, the idea sounds like another crack pot theory. But as Tate and Johnson show, the CIA actively engaged in mind control through several different programs it admitted to conducting, the most well-known being MK ULTRA. I would like to stress the fact that the authors never claim to have a smoking gun regarding Kennedy’s death. However, they do succeed in providing ample evidence provides a strong basis for a new investigation into the murder of Robert Francis Kennedy.
If you are curious about Kennedy’s murder or have studied it previously, then this book is a must have. To say it is mind-blowing is an understatement. The authors pull no punches, leaving the reader with chills as they show the side of the investigation police never intended for the public to see. Highly recommended.
One of the definitions of the word irony is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result. What seems to be given can ultimately turn out radically different and such was the case in the life of the late Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. (1951-2005), known simply to fans and friends as “Luther”. To the world, he was a household name and his classic Here and Now has been played at countless weddings across the country. His voice was unique with no singer coming to close to its richness and smoothness. When he died on July 1, 2005, many fans were in a state of shock and the idea that Luther Vandross was no longer among us seemed surreal. Sadly, it was true and his voice was silenced as he departed this life and now rest in peace, having left behind a legacy that will far exceed his time on earth. But how much did we really know about Luther and what was happening in his life behind the hit songs and glamorous stage appearances? Craig Seymour once wrote for VIBE magazine, and interviewed Luther becoming very familiar with the singer but even he was unable to completely penetrate the walls Vandross had erected around his personal life, taking many secrets with him to the grave. But what he has captured is presented here in this sharp biography that will surely suffice for Vandross’ fans.
Typically, we tend to view the lives of celebrities strictly based on what we see in magazines, on television and even on the internet. Gossip has a dark tendency to follow any celebrity extremely successful or controversial. And for male celebrities, the absence of a female counterpart fuels the rumor mill of possible homosexual tendencies. Vandross fought all of these throughout his life and while many have their suspicions, the rumors have always remained just that. Vandross was adamant about maintaining the privacy in his persona life but upon closer inspection there was far more than meets the eye. The son of a working class couple, born in New York City, rose through the music industry to become a titan. However, no one could have predicted such feats on the 20th day of April, 1951 when May Ida and Luther, Sr., welcomed him into the world. Vandross’ life is typical of that time until tragedy becomes a staple and his family found itself struggling to keep itself alive. Words cannot truly express the surprise and possible shock the reader will encounter with regards to the lives of those that compose the Vandross family. Their plight would form a cloud over Luther’s head for his entire life, reminding him of the preciousness of being alive another day. But before he made his own departure, he created a legacy and a reputation that will remain with us for years to come.
Those that knew him either loved him or disliked him for various reasons. Personally, he never professed to being perfect but like every great artist, life is far from simple. The blessing of a voice full of soul and the inability to find the very love he sang so passionately about, created a cruel irony that he was unable to escape from. As a singer, he crossed paths with nearly every giant in the industry, collaborating on projects with several artists including the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018). The relationships were not always cozy and Seymour does not shy away from Vandross’ conflicts with Franklin or those with Anita Baker and even the 90s all-female group En Vogue. But one thing they can all agree on is that there was only one Luther and no one can ever take his place.
For years, it had been rumored that Vandross was a closeted gay singer. While he never confirmed or denied any rumors, he only permitted knowledge of being in a relationship. With whom was never known to the public. And while Seymour does not have a full proof smoking gun coming from Vandross himself, there is a revelation by someone close to Luther that might prove to be the clue many people have been looking for. Personally, I could care less about Vandross’ love life. I have always enjoyed his music and felt that whomever he was romantically involved with is his personal business. But as an entertainer in the public life, it is a subject which was and is unavoidable. Luther handle it exceptionally well but I am sure that inside, it took a toll on his mental and emotional well-being. Fitting that the title of this book contains the word longing for that is exactly what Vandross was doing as he belted out love songs while coming to terms with his own quest for love and closure regarding the death of his father Luther, Sr. In death I can only hope that he found the peace that escaped him here on earth. And if we listen closely to his many songs which we will play over and over again, we can listen carefully for the messages contained within their lyrics. The is the life the late and great, Luther Vandross.
The images that were published in Jet magazine of Emmett Till’s (1941-1955) mutilated corpse still cause readers and viewers on the internet to recoil in shock. With their graphic detail and macabre detail, the pictures of Till’s face become burned into the memory of anyone who has seen them. The story of Till’s murder at fourteen years of age because of allegedly “whistling or cat-calling a white woman” is a dark reminder of the ugly history of racism that prevailed in American culture. Today such a crime is unimaginable, but in 1955 it was not only very real but also encouraged by rabid racists with a vendetta against people of color. In January, 2017, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman at the center of the Till story, allegedly admitted that her claims were false. Regardless, the mere thought of such an act was more than enough to get a Black American lynched at that time and Till became one more victim on a long list of senseless murders carried out by maniacs emboldened by racist ideology. Till’s murder was creepy, appalling and downright shocking but another part of the story which is just as dark is the execution of his father Louis Till (1922-1944) by the Unites States Army in Civitavecchia, Italy, after being convicted of being part of the rape of two Italian women, one of whom was murdered during the crime. Till never gave any statements about his innocence nor did he confirm his guilt but the army had what it needed and he fell victim to the hangman’s noose taking any facts with him to his grave. After his death, details of the execution were withheld from his widow Mamie but were revealed ten years later. His final resting place is at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, France.
The thought that both father and son were executed because of perceived slights against white women is chilling and it is impossible to escape the aspect of race. Two young Black men accused of having committed crimes against white females could not and would not be permitted to survive. Their deaths are reminder of the misguided belief of the pursuit and dominance over white females by black males. Sadly, it is a misconception that still exist to this day. But what exactly did happen in Civitavecchia? Undoubtedly a crime did take place and most likely by the hands of U.S. servicemen. But there is always the requirement of conclusive evidence and in this case, there is much we do not know. But author John Edgar Wideman decided to take another look at Till’s case, even requesting and receiving a copy of the military’s case file by way of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the book he does not include the entire file and moves between excerpts of it and his own story which is recounts as he writes about Till. The style of writing might confuse some readers but I believe Wideman presented it that way because of the parallels between his life and Emmett’s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Wideman is presenting to the reader an idea of the struggle of many Black American families during a time of fierce racial prejudice. But the focus of the book is on Louis Till and it is here that I think it falls just short of hitting its mark.
Wideman’s personal story is highly interesting and he does a great job of showing the plight of Black families in America during his and Emmett Till’s childhood. But I think that more of the Louis Till file should have been presented. He concludes that he could not save Till from either prison or the hangman but from the portions of the file that he does include in the book, it is clear that reasonable doubt exist as to whether Till actually did the crime. And this is where the book should have reached its pinnacle. But this does not happen and the book’s slightly abrupt ending makes the reader yearn for more or some sort of closure. Sadly it never comes. And we are left to wonder about what actions, if any, Till did take on that night. In Wideman’s defense, the Army’s file had no index and was disorganized. I would not be surprised if some portions of it were removed or lost over the passage of time, making a definite conclusion beyond the reach of anyone today. None of figures involved with the case are alive preventing us from having the benefit of spoken words from those that were there. We are left to rely on the case file and our own beliefs. But I think one area where Wideman may have succeeded is igniting interest in Louis Till’s case in those that have read this book. I believe that there is more the Till’s case than we currently know and some day, another independent investigator may uncover the truth about his conviction and execution.
The book is a good read and just enough to get an idea of what did happen to Louis Till. But I believe it could have been much more effective with the inclusion of more of the file and some sort of definite conclusion even if it were the author’s belief. I do not know if Wideman will publish another book on the file but time will tell. For those looking to know more about Till’s sad and tragic life, this is a good resource to have.
When Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) died on March 5, 1953, the Soviet Union embarked on a change of course under its new leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). While the majority of government policy remained in effect, a “thawing” took place where the old ways of Stalin were slowly repealed. However, many secrets remained buried as the Politburo sought to maintain its public facade of a progression under communist ideology. Among those secrets was the deadly famine that engulfed the Ukraine between the years of 1932-1933. In history courses, the famine is not discussed and it remained a hidden secret to the west for decades after it ended. The death count stands at a minimum of three million people. The true number may never be known. But what is certain is that the famine was no accident and the product of disastrous and delusional planning from Moscow.
Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author, dives into the tragedy of the Ukraine famine head first with an accurate and riveting account of how and why the famine developed. But before the reader can understand the famine, it is first necessary to understand the complicated history between Russian and the Ukraine. It is a history of violence, distrust and the animosity was on full display in 2014 when Russian military units invaded the small nation. Russia, has never relented in its quest to reclaim the Ukraine, once part of the U.S.S.R. The history of Ukraine in the story at hand begins with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The new found political spirit did not end in Russia but crossed the border into the Ukraine as Ukrainian Bolsheviks launched their own cultural revolution. The culture, language, laws and traditions of the Ukraine were blacklisted and criminalized as the Bolsheviks sought to erase all traces of the Ukrainian way of life. Their seizure of the country set the stage for the deadly path of destruction the Soviet government would later embark on.
What I noticed as I read through the book was how much of a premonition the famine was for later communist governments that made the same mistakes. Stalin’s policy of collectivization, embraced by both Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro, was an utter failure just as it was in the latter mentioned regimes. Moscow’s refusal to change the policy, even in the face of reports coming back from the field, is horrific and ultimately mind-boggling. Malnutrition, distrust, resentment and crime evolved out of the doomed policy and reduced the people of Ukraine to a mass of bodies pushed to the extreme. Millions did not survive and for those who did, they carried the mental and emotional scars from a famine that could have been handled if not for a ruler dogged by paranoia and drunk on power.
Applebaum tells the story the way it should be told with the reasons and methods used to rid the Ukraine of those intellectuals who had the potential to lead it in a new direction. The smear campaigns and murders approved by the OGPU, predecessor to the KGB and FSB, removed anyone who Moscow believed to be a threat to its supreme rule. The common people, often referred to as the kulaks, suffered immensely and trust between neighbors and acquaintances became rarer than a solid meal. Like puppets on strings, Moscow played with the lives of millions of Ukrainians, doomed by their culture and religion as antisemitism and anti-Ukraine sentiments prevailed.
Today there are many sources of information about the famine that was once firmly hidden behind strategically placed propaganda. But not everyone was fooled. In fact, Nazi Germany was firmly aware of it as it invaded Ukrainian territory during World War II. The German occupation is a topic for another book as Applebaum mentions but it highlights the despair and hopelessness that Ukrainians found their selves subjugated to. Following the war, things were far from improving and it would not be until the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev that the truth began to come to light. His policy of glasnost, helped repeal the curtain of secrecy in the Soviet archives. The door became slightly ajar but authors such as Anne Applebaum have now kicked it wide open with the full story of one of the world’s deadliest famines. This book is key to understanding the tragedy and the tense relationship between Russia and the Ukraine.
Assault On The Liberty: The True Story Of The Israeli Attack On An American Intelligence Ship- James M. Ennes, Jr.
On June 8, 1967, the USS Liberty was on a reconnaissance mission in the Mediterranean Sea near Sinai, Egypt. The morning started off normally until members of the ship’s crew noticed Israeli fighter jets circling above. The process was repeated several times more before a full-scale attacked was launched upon the unsuspecting ship. Thirty-four men perished in the attacks. Nearly all of the survivors were severely wounded with injuries that could only be described as horrific. The attack caused international outrage as the American and Israeli governments acted to contain the fallout from the nefarious attack. The official statement was that the attack was a grave error committed by Israeli forces upon a ship that allegedly had no clear markings identifying it as a United States Naval vessel. Members of the crew disputed this and some have made their voices heard in an attempt to tell what they know about that day tragic day in June, 1967. James M. Ennes, Jr., was a member of the crew and survived the attacked with a severely broken leg and other mental and physical injuries. He was one of the lucky ones and never wavered in his conviction to tell the truth about what he remembers from that day. Here he tells us the story from his recollections on record for the reader to digest and form an informed opinion.
The book was published in 1979, roughly about twelve years following the attack. Mysteries of that day still remain but it is here that we have a more accurate picture of what really did happen and a possible explanation as for why it happened. Ennes states that there are some aspects of the incident that will probably remain unknown for a long time. But what he does reveal about the incident is shocking and confusing. Perhaps the biggest question is why would Israeli fighter planes attack a U.S. vessel clearly marked and not on a combat mission?
The story begins before the Liberty arrives near the coast of Egypt. Orders were dispatched for the Liberty to change its position but were never received by the ship due to poor communication channels. If the orders had been received, then maybe this book would not exist. Ennes’ memories are very candid and show some what life is like for men on the seas, far away from home and surrounded by water on all side. The anecdotes at the beginning of the book are entertaining and slowly we are introduced to the characters in the story. Their mission appears to be moving along slowly until June 8, when all hell broke loose. It is at this point in the book, where we reach Defcon 1 and the fallout is horrifying. Readers with sensitive stomachs may find the latter part of the book highly uncomfortable to read. The descriptions of the injuries sustained by survivors and the deaths of other crew members are told in detail giving a graphic picture of the carnage that ensued. And what is even more appalling is the lack of support from Washington and the conflicting orders given to military personnel that sought to provide assistance to the critically injured ship and its crew.
As we make our way through the book and the attack is over, the period of recuperation and investigation comes into focus. This is the point in the book where shock turns into anger. Nearly all of the major political figures involved are deceased and unable to answer questions we may have. But what did happen as Ennes shows us, is that a cover-up was initiated at the highest levels of government for reasons which eluded the crew. Citations for bravery and reparations by the Israeli government followed but the manner in which they occurred will stun even the most hardened readers. The lives of the surviving crew members were changed forever and few have been able to fully tell their stories without repercussions from military brass and the White House. Even today, fifty years later, secrets remain about the motives behind the attack. We may never know all of the details of the attack but we do have a place to start here. Ennes deserves an additional acknowledgment for being able to distinguish between the actions of the Israeli government and people of the Jewish faith. Having survived an attack of such nature, it would have been fairly easy for him to cast all Jews as perpetrators of an unthinkable crime. But Ennes avoids the pitfall and makes it clear that the attack was carried about by Jewish people but by individuals with motives of their own.
Towards the end of the book, Ennes touches on the possible motive behind the attack. And while there is no conclusive evidence that his belief is correct, it is a highly plausible explanation. In time his words may prove to be true but for now, we are still saddled with a number of unanswered questions surrounding the attack. But with this story of tragedy and perseverance, we are closer to fully understanding the events of that day.
Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy-David O. Stewart
The American Civil War remains a key turning point in United States history. The nation nearly tore itself apart as the Union and Confederacy engaged in deadly conflict over several issues including States’ rights, secession, and the system of slavery. Prior to its conclusion, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) met his tragic end on April 15, 1965, falling victim to assassin John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Andrew Johnson, then Vice-President and Democrat, succeeded Lincoln as the 17th President of the Unite States of America. He would only serve in office through 1869 when Lincoln’s term would have ended, but in that short period, his administration would be the center of one of the most critical trials in United States history.
David O. Stewart takes a look back in this well-researched and well-presented investigative account of the trial of Andrew Johnson, who faced impeachment by the Radical Republicans led by U.S. House of Representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868). From start to finish the book is spellbinding and Stewart writes in a style that never bores the reader while presenting the material in an easy to read and streamlined format. And as a result of his work, we now have one of the finest books on the attempted impeachment of a President who nearly pushed the nation into a second Civil War.
The book begins after Lincoln has passed and Johnson has become the next Commander-In-Chief. And nearly instantly, the dark side of Johnson is put on full display as he commits the first of several acts that will turn the Radical Republicans against him and dictate the course of history for the deep south for decades to come. It is not enough to say that Johnson was unfit for office. Stewart realizes this and details the nefarious policies which Johnson advocated. In time they would come to be viewed as the end of the legacy of Lincoln and an insult to those who truly believe that all men are created equal. Further, we come to learn about the personal side of Johnson or lack of it. Generally viewed as cold and rarely in good spirits, Johnson comes off as vindictive and in some cases delusional and out of his mind. Actions such as circumventing Congress to deal directly with southern states, vetoing the Reconstruction Acts and Civil rights bill of Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896), are just several of many that earned Johnson the wrath of many Americans. But his attempted removal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869) was the straw that broke the camel’s back and resulted in the Radical Republicans commencing impeachment proceedings against the despised President.
The impeachment trial is one of the best parts of the book. Johnson came extremely close to impeachment from office, saved only by one vote. Stewart revisits the trial and the events leading up to the trial as each Senator mulls over which way he will vote in deciding Johnson’s fate. For some of them, we see why they voted in the way that they did and for others, the question remains, did they really feel that way or were the allegations of bribery true? It may seem shocking to some to even think that bribery occurred. And while Stewart does not convict anyone with his words, he examines the evidence available reaching a quite startling conclusion.
Today it would be fair to say that the Civil War still haunts America. In the south, it is sometimes referred to as the war of “Northern aggression”. The tearing down of Confederate monuments and the tragedy in Charlottesville remind us of the struggle we continue to deal with in confronting the war that divided our nation. Reconstruction can been seen as a missed opportunity in American history. Millions of freed slaves and White Americans had their lives changed permanently by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Confederacy’s defeat. Congress realizing the opportunity before it, attempted to seize the opportunity but was confronted by a President deeply prejudiced and intent on maintaining the social structure of the south. His efforts would eventually come to pass in the system of Jim Crow that took decades and a Civil Rights Movement to finally defeat. We can only guess what would have happened if Johnson had not only complied but encouraged Congress to pass more legislation to move the nation forward after a brutal conflict and protected the lives of newly freed and disenfranchised Americans.
America now finds itself at a crossroad as we grapple with a political climate that borders on surreal at times. But regardless of what happens, America will survive as it always has. But while we continue to maintain the nation that we have, it is imperative that we do not forget the dark legacy of Andrew Johnson and remember why it is imperative to have a President that is able to unify us all and serve each and every citizen of the United States of America. Stewart’s book is an excellent place to start in understanding the rise and fall of Andrew Johnson.
The title alone is enough to grab a person’s attention. Because of the subject matter, it was bound to stir controversy for it touches a topic that remains taboo thirty-seven years after its publication. And with the events this past week regarding the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, the contents of this book are as important now as they were then. Before you attempt to read this book, it is critical to understand the difference between Judaism and what is referred to as Zionism. There is a fundamental difference between the two that is often forgotten as charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias are leveled against those who dare to speak out. However, what I have learned from this book, is critical to understanding how our world functions and why peace is seemingly an impossible objective to accomplish in the Middle East.
For those who are of the Jewish faith, before reading this book, you must understand that you will learn many things that are not pleasant. And the temptation to feel or believe that the author is an anti-Semite might rise to the surface. But I caution you that any notion of Paul Findley (1921-) being anti-Semitic is far from the truth. In fact, Findley was U.S. Representative from Illinois from 1960-1982 and supported Israel at many times during his career. I firmly believe it is underestimated by many Americans, how much power and influence the Israeli lobby holds over the U.S. Government. Foreign policy and aid is highly scrutinized by the lobby and anything deemed to detrimental to the existence of Israel is quickly condemned and crushed, even at the expense of possible peace with its Arab neighbors.
I can only imagine how much pressure Findley had to endure to see this book all the way through. He discloses the difficulty in finding a publisher for a subject which many were reluctant to touch out of fear of severe backlash. In staying the course and braving the opposition, he has compiled the book that should be read by every American concerned with the past and future of the United States. You might ask yourself, is I agree with the material in the book, does it make me anti-Semitic? No it does not. Personally, I have Jewish friends and even dated a woman of the Jewish faith. I was never taught hate growing up and my parents invited everyone into their home regardless of creed, ethnicity and even sexual orientation. However my parents did teach us to examine all sides of an issue and make a decision based off of what is known and not by what is assumed. And it is for that reason that I believe this book is a critical read.
The book is not only an account of Findley’s difficulty in taking a strong stance on the Israeli lobby, but other politicians throughout history who have taken on the machine. Some of the names will be familiar to readers such as Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) and William J. Fulbright (1905-1995). Other names will be known only by few but their stories are as important as the rest in understanding the costs associated with speaking the truth about U.S. foreign policy regarding Israel. Careers were destroyed and lives ruined by those with a vested interest in maintaining a power hold over legislation and the media. The stories are too high in number to reveal here but I can say is that you might be surprised at how many people have had their lives ruined by the Israeli lobby for even questioning U.S. foreign aid to Israel of the occupation of the Gaza strip. Others have had their lives ruined for even meeting Arab officials from the PLO including Yassar Arafat (1929-2004) himself.
Findley has provided a staggering amount of information which is bound to confuse and in some cases anger the reader. But it is imperative that the reader recognizes that difference between the Israeli lobby and ordinary Jews in America who do not support what Israel does but are obligated to remain in silence and show unwavering support. As with any story, there are multiple sides and what sometimes seems to be black and white, will be revealed to have many shades of grey. The truth is rarely pleasant and in some cases upsetting. But if that is what the reader seeks, then books such as this are a necessity. The courage exemplified by Findley and others who have dared to speak out has give us the knowledge we need to make informed decisions before we lend our support to movements and causes.
As the book approached its end and I continued to digest everything that Findley had disclosed, I was haunted by the thought that there may never be true peace between Israel and Palestine. But if that is the ultimate goal then the first step is re-examine U.S. foreign policy. And doing so does not make anyone anti-Israel or anti-Semitic but an advocate of genuine and long-lasting peace. Furthermore, we are forced to remember that Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions, observed by millions of great men and women and unrelated to many of things we learn through Findley’s words.
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple” – Oscar Wilde