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Hue: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam – Mark Bowden

BowdenSeveral months ago, my uncle and I had a discussion about aging and how health becomes more important as the years pass by.  He recalled when he left the military following his service in Vietnam.   His hearing is permanently damaged as a result of being stationed near the 50 caliber machine gun while out on patrol.  Over the years, he has spoken about Vietnam on rare occasions but I know for a fact that he and millions of other veterans of the war, carry with them many dark memories and emotional scars from their time in a war that has been viewed negatively for several decades.  Author Mark Bowden revisits the war in this phenomenal account of the battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  My uncle was not stationed in Hue but in another part of the country and has told me many things about the war that made my skin crawl.  For the United States Armed Forces, the battle of Hue and the Tet Offensive changed the war in Vietnam and the for the first time, it became increasingly clear, that this was a war that America could possibly lose.

Bowden opens the book by setting the stage for the events that led up to Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration that marks the first day of the lunar new year.  American forces led by Gen. William Westmoreland (1914-2005) had assumed that Khe Sanh would be the place where the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would launch a surprise attack during Tet.  Some downplayed the attack as rumors with no basis of truth.   However, when the NVA launched its operation on January 30, 1968, it was a wake up call for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and Washington, where President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) became haunted by a war with no ending in sight.  The book picks up pace at this point and it never slows down.

Instantly I was pulled into the story. Memories of Olive Stone’s ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ by Stanley Kubrick came back to me as different but very vivid portrayals of the conflict in Vietnam.  Both films are classics but neither touches in depth on the Tet Offensive.  This book is different and what Bowden reveals shows a side of the war that neither filmmaker had enough time or resources to cover.  The story at hand follows the Marines and Hue is ground zero. The battle was bloody, protracted and tragic for both sides.  The concept of a happy ending does not apply here.  In fact, not one person Bowden interviewed, viewed the war in a positive light.   What I did find was that there is bitterness, heartache and the question of why the United States became entangled in Vietnam to begin with.  It is a question America has struggled to answer.  Former Rand employee Daniel Ellsberg revealed much of what Washington was thinking when he provided confidential memos that have become known as the The Pentagon Papers.  The memos are striking and reveal monumental failures among the brightest minds in Washington.  We may never know all of the details regarding the decisions to become engaged in Southeast Asia.

I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart.   The injuries and deaths among the Marines are nothing short of horrific.  We meet many of them, learn about their lives and follow the paths they took to Vietnam.  Some of them do not survive and for those that do, Hue became a permanent memory that would haunt them for years to come.  What shocked me, among many things, were the ages of the Marines we become acquainted with.  Some are as young as 18 years of age and deposited into a place that they see as hell on earth.  The scenes are savage and young men are forced to make decisions and carry out orders that cause them to question what is truly right and wrong. The common adage is that war is hell and it certainly applies here.

The author focuses not only on the battle at Hue but also on the domestic issues raised in the United States.  While Gen. Westmoreland, known to many as “Westy” gave figures on the death toll and the successes of U.S. troops, many were skeptical including the late American journalist Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), whose trip to Vietnam is covered in the book.  Americans had started to learn that something was not quite right about the reports coming back from Saigon and Cronkite became one of the leading voices in holding Washington accountable to what was happening to the boys overseas. Cronkite’s  findings and Johnson’s realizations are one of the pivotal parts of the book and for the troops in Vietnam, a sobering reality.

The book is primarily centered around Hue and is not intended to be a full discussion of the war’s origin.  In fact, the leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969),  makes only a brief appearance in the story.   The author never loses focus and the story remains on the dedicated Marines, the constant reality of death and the mission to retake the City of Hue.  Throughout the book, we come to know many of them intimately and towards the end, Bowden relays what happened to some of them after leaving Vietnam and how they adjusted to life back in the United States.  Each does their best to put Vietnam behind them upon rotating back to America.   As I read the book, I could not help but to wonder where many other veterans of the conflict are.  Undoubtedly, some are now deceased but there are many others who served and fought in Hue who have done their best to forget that experience.  This book is a testament to the bravery and perseverance required by the Marines in Hue.  It is also a painful look at the misguided policies of Washington that plunged America into a conflict with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

After finishing the book, I thought of the the Ken Burn’s Netlfix documentary series The Vietnam War, which I watched several months ago.  The series is riveting and Burns captures the era and conflict perfectly through remastered archival footage and interviews with those who served.  It is an amazing work of art and highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the Vietnam War.

ASIN: B071Y87H9H

And the Liebster Award Goes To…

I am honored to announce that the Free Thinking Bibliophile has been nominated for the Liebster Award. Thank you to Rebecca at Fake Flamenco for her nomination. And a very big thank you to my followers for your support and feedback as this blog has grown.  When I started the blog in the summer of 2015, I had no idea it would become such a big part of my life.  It has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made.

The Liebster Award helps good blogs get deserved attention so more followers discover them. Lieb is the German word for kind, nice, or good.  If you are unfamiliar with the Liebster Award, you can read more about it here.

Here’s an excerpt of my letter to Rebecca of Fake Flamenco:

Dear Rebecca,

I am honored to be nominated for the Liebster Award. Thank you for the nomination. I proudly accept it with deep appreciation and happiness. Per your request, here are three facts about me:

  1. Besides blogging, I am also an IT Administrator and when I’m not blogging, building, fixing and maintaining servers and computers.
  2. I’m left handed
  3. I love to travel.

Here are my answers to the three questions that you have asked:

  1. Which book have you read more than twice? Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”
  2. What is your favorite meal? Old-fashioned Dominican cuisine of rotisserie chicken with beans, rice and freshly fried tostones (plantains).
  3. Where in the world would you like to travel? Having seen some of the UK, the next place I would like to see is Scotland.

Blogs I nominate for the Liebster Award:

i Write in Books Excellent book review blog
Human Pages The Best of History, Literature, Art & Religion
Book Concious Blog that posts great book reviews

My three questions to nominees are:

  1. If you could meet any historical figure of your choice, who would it be?
  2. Which event in world history shocked you the most?
  3. What led you to create your blog?

Gerard

Godspeed

Today’s post will be quite different and discuss a subject that many of us are loathe to speak of let alone contemplate . This afternoon I received the unfortunate news that a friend and former co-worker died yesterday after a short and aggressive illness. And although the two of us hadn’t seen each other in a few years, we did keep in touch and her death has been usually tough to handle. When she came to the office in 2003, she was originally hired as temporary labor. But the boss liked her so much that he offered a full-time position and for thirteen years she served as the office manager. When she left the office in 2016, it was a tough moment to get through but I understood that employer and employee relationships do not always have a happy ending. Several weeks ago, she called me randomly at a new job because she needed some advice with regards to Microsoft Office. On the phone, she sounded full of life and excited about her new job. I had no idea at the time that she was sick and about to have a battle that would eventually take her life. Her death hits home as I get older and think of my own mortality. I have become aware of the fact that my time on this earth is finite and that no one is promised tomorrow.

The news of her death opened the floodgates of memories and I instantly recalled when she first came over to introduce herself. We instantly hit it off and remained friends ever since. I vividly recall the time I helped her move after a fire destroyed her previous apartment. I vividly recall when she phoned me at 2:00 a.m. on the night of her sister’s death. I vividly recall her mother’s passing and attending the wake with my own mother. And I vividly recall how she went to bat for anyone close to her if she felt that they were being taken advantage of. She was an extremely welcoming person but could be sharp as a knife when needed. And if you looked at her, you would have no idea that she was of Puerto Rican descent. She loved her Salsa music, Puerto Rican cuisine and her beloved Motown music which she played all the time in the office. When I think of her I can truly say that the good times far outweigh the bad.

Sometimes we never know why people come into our lives until they are gone. When I look back on our friendship, she helped me grow in many ways and was always a voice of reason when I had questions about many things in life. She could be tough at times but she was always genuine. And when she loved you as a person, you certainly knew it from the big smile and hug that she greeted you with.

During our last conversation, before she hung up, she said to me “I have to go, I’m at the new job, but we’ll catch up soon”. We never got the chance to make that happen. But I do have many great memories of Christmas parties, bowling, office lunches and tons of laughs as we passed the time at the office. She made sure I knew all of her immediate family, some of whom are also deceased. Some of our friends are in our lives every day and others may drift away but when we see each other, it is as if nothing has happened. No matter how much time had passed since we last saw each other, we were still close as ever and there was nothing I would not do if she needed it. And I knew that I could count on her for the same. Tonight, as I think of her and how she affected many lives, I can take some solace in the fact that she is no longer in pain and may she truly sleep in peace. Godspeed Miriam, Godspeed.

To my subscribers, cherish those around you while you can because while death is certain, life is not. Hug each other, talk to each other and understand each other. Love is tough and it forces us to become vulnerable. But it is that vulnerability that teaches us what true love and friendship really is. And to have a friend, you first have to be a friend. We do not know when our friends will leave us, but until they do, enjoy each moment and be sure to let them know that you are there for them but most importantly that yes, you do love them. For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee (Selected from the writings of John Donne (1572-1631)).

In loving memory of Miriam Irina Burgos (1958-2019). Vaya con dios amiga.

Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror – Victor Sebestyen

vlThe 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.

B06WLJZNBH

Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang – Lamont “U-God” Hawkins

Ugod_RawIn 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.

ASIN: B074ZLTDJG

Why I Love to Read

20190206_230007I 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.

Vocabulary Improves

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Luther: The Life and Long of Luther Vandross – Craig Seymour

LutherOne 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.

ASIN: B00JNL0TK8

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File-John Edgar Wideman

20180824_065115(0)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.

ISBN-10: 1501147293
ISBN-13: 978-1501147296

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine-Anne Applebaum

Ukraine

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.

ISBN-10: 0385538855
ISBN-13: 978-0385538855

Chrissie Morris Brady, psychologist, writer

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