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.
On September 11, 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown through a CIA backed coup, that resulted in the seizure of power by General Augusto Pinochet. The removal of Allende satisfied the Nixon Administration which had seen the democratic election of Allende as a threat to the Western Hemisphere. To Washington, it was inconceivable to think that the events in Cuba were spreading across Latin America. The consensus was clear, Allende had to be removed. McCarthyism and the red scare led to anyone having left-leaning political views to be branded as a communist determined to see the fall of Capitalism. Among Allende’s supporters was Chile’s national poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-193). Twelve days after Allende’s removal and death, Neruda died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was sixty-nine years old. Forty-five years later, his poetry is still beloved in Chile and other parts of the world. And he is recognized as being one of the world’s greatest poets. I had heard of Neruda before and have been fortunate enough to visit Chile. It is a unique country and there is something special about it which is not easy to put into words. Chile truly is a place you have to see in person, to experience Chilean culture and travel through Patagonia. I admit that I did not know much about Neruda’s life, so when I saw this biography in my recommendation list, I did not hesitate to buy it and start reading nearly instantly. And what I have learned is more than I could have ever imagined.
Mark Eisner has researched Neruda’s life and has compiled a biography that is nothing short of outstanding. Surely, Neruda took some things with him to the grave as all great figures do. But his large volume of work, speeches and other writings have survived, and they would all help Eisner in what was a monumental task. Neruda’s story begins in 1904, an era remotely differently from the era in which we currently live. Eisner has recreated early 1900s Chile and first tells us the story of Neruda’s parents. His father, José del Carmen Reyes Morales, is a central character in the story and the beginning of the book focuses on his life before Neruda enters the picture. On July 12, 1904, the story changed for good, when his wife Rosa gave birth to a happy baby boy, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, the future Pablo Neruda. The young child enters a world that is marred by affairs, illegitimate children, strict social class and backbreaking work on the railroad which in some cases proved to be deadly. Neruda would inherit some of his father’s nefarious traits and the would cause him consternation and scandal in his own life. And through his poetry, he allowed the world to read his emotions. But what many did not know then and may not know now, is that there was also a very dark side to the famed poet.
Eisner does not shy away from Neruda’s failings and when necessary, uses Neruda’s own words to drive home the point. As I read the book, there were some points at which I shook my head in both shock and disgust. In fact, there are several parts of the book that may prove to be upsetting to female readers. Incredibly, Neruda was able to compartmentalize his life and the ease in which he discarded those around him was quite frankly, disturbing. To the public, he was the rising poet and Eisner follows his developing career which threatened to place him in poverty. But through a series of events, blessed with luck, Neruda persevered and went on to create poetry that has changed the lives of millions of people. But what Eisner also shows, is the two sides of Neruda which were unable to be reconciled and a poet struggling with his own happiness while at the same time, oblivious to the errors of his ways.
Neruda was an outspoken leftist and his affinity for the Soviet Union and the communist system of government, earned him many enemies as well. The author explores this part of Neruda’s life and the fear of communism that spread across several continents. His devotion to communism following his admission into the Chilean Communist Party, would prove to be a thorn in his side until his final day. But for Neruda, staying in one place for long was never an option and this story is filled with travel around the world as Neruda works and creates in several countries. Through Eisner’s words, we follow Pablo and his many love interests across the globe as he travels to and from Chile both as foreign agent and fugitive. At times, it seemed as if his life was straight out of a Hollywood film. There is no let up and Pablo has forced Eisner to move full speed ahead. Once I started the book, it became increasingly difficult to set it aside for a later time in the day. I was glued to the pages, curious to see where Neruda ends up next and who makes an appearance in his life and who makes their exit. To say his life was unorthodox would be an understatement.
At over six-hundred pages, the book is not exactly a short read but the pace of the story will result in readers forgetting about the length completely. The story is engaging and Neruda was quite the character. But he possessed a natural gift and Eisner’s inclusion of his poems, gives the book an added air of authenticity to it. In those sections, he turns the floor over to Pablo who never failed to deliver.
Having completed the book, I have mixed feelings about Neruda. But that is a credit to the author’s talent. Eisner does not show the Neruda people want to see, he shows us the Neruda that we need to see in order to come to our own conclusions. A brilliant and talented poet was also at times a cold-blooded monster. He battled loneliness but had fans worldwide. Some would call him a walking contradiction and others might simply accept the label of eccentric. Regardless off the adjective, Neruda did not fit perfectly into any mold and Eisner has captured his complex character which at times did not function based on reason or logic. It is a great story of a unique person, who never faced his own demons but was able to capture the hearts and emotions of millions of people facing their demons. In death, he became a legend of nearly God-like status and remains a cultural icon in Chile. He is to Chile what Jorge Luis Borges is to Argentina. Those looking for a good biography of Pablo Neruda, will be more than satisfied with this gem by Mark Eisner.
Recently, I have become fascinated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, a culmination of long-simmering tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster Province. The conflict is among the longest running in the world and has claimed the lives of thousands. In each of the books that I have read, I kept coming across the name Bobby Sands (1954-1981). I knew he was one of several prisoners at the Long Kesh correctional facility who died following a hunger strike in protest of the conditions at the jail and the policies of London. However, I did not know much about his life. I became focused on him and eagerly searched online for whatever I could find. Amazon delivered yet again with this definitive biography of Sands’ life by author Dennis O’Hearn that is nothing short of riveting.
Here in the United States, Sands’ name is largely unknown but across Ireland and other parts of the world, he is remembered as a champion of resistance and an inspiration to others who have waged their own battles for freedom including the late Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). Mandel used Sands’ hunger strike as an example for strike of his own which proved to be highly successful. However, Sands also had his detractors and many of them still view him with disgust, particularly in the six Protestant dominated counties in Ulster Province. And similar to other famous figures, there are endless stories about his life, some true and others most likely fiction. Hearns sets the record straight here giving the best account of the life of one of the IRA’s most legendary leaders.
From the start, the book earned my undivided attention and at times I could not put it down. Curiously, the Sands’ story begins like many other kids in Northern Ireland. He was born several miles from Belfast and his childhood was a happy one by all accounts. He lived in a modest house with his parents and three siblings. His friends were a mix of Catholic and Protestant. But that would soon change as the battle between Republicans and Loyalists escalated and the induction of the British military further fueled tensions. As Hearns shows, these events began to shape the mindset of the growing Sands and the events of Bloody Sunday, were the spark that fully ignited the raging conflict.
The author’s writing style flows very easily and the pace of the book moves just right. Hearns follows Sands’ early life, showing his slow progression from the average young kid, to a young man learning about religion and complexities of life for Irish Catholics and finally to the wise and seasoned IRA member that launched the most famous and moving hunger strike in Irish history. I think Hearns showcases clearly, how and why many young men and women joined the IRA, knowing full well that jail and death were the most likely outcomes. To Americans, Sands might seem out of his mind. But that is far from the case and Hearns gives him a platform to spread his ideas. Sands’ writing samples are included in the book, giving him a voice in this incredible biography. Even if you do not agree with what Sands did, it will hard not to admire his dedication to his beliefs, his charisma, intelligence and willingness to sacrifice himself.
His incarceration at Long Kesh is without a doubt the crux of the book. As Hearns tells this part of Sands’ life, we step inside the walls of the prison and the different sections in which Sands and other IRA members were confined. The ugly and vindictive atmosphere that developed at Long Kesh is on full display and some readers will be repulsed at the actions of some guards and conditions in which Sands and the others lived. But the struggle inside the prison by no means was one sided. Sands and the others do their share of antagonizing the guards whom they affectionately refer to as “screws”. A daily war of attrition developed as each side sought to find out just how far they could push the other. And to say that some aspects were barbaric would be an understatement.
Prison time was an accepted part of life for the men and women of the IRA. Death came as well to those who were either unlucky or extraordinarily brave. The men at Long Kesh believed their fight was political and they decided they would not be confined within its walls without being appropriately labeled as political prisoners. London vehemently refused to agree to any such notion and thus, the stage was set for the battle between the IRA and the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). As this point in the book, the suspense heightens as the IRA becomes more defiant and the guards become more determined to break them into submission. It was an environment that would have driven most to insanity. But for Bobby Sands, this was the proving ground in which he could show his commitment to his cause. His studies of the works of Che Guevara, Franz Fanon and others became the backbone of his resistance and carried him through to the final moments of the second of two hunger strikes carried out by IRA prisoners. Hearns covers both in solid detail to give the reader an inside look into the battle behind-the-scenes battles within the IRA with regards to the impending doom by the hunger strikers.
As a sub-story to the events at Long Kesh, the author focuses on the turmoil in Sand’s personal life outside of the IRA. Marriage and fatherhood enter the story and the effect the movement had on his personal life will cause many to wonder if it was truly worth it. Sands would surely say yes but I am sure that if he could have gone back and done things differently, there is a good chance that he might have changed course. But by the time he had reached this point in his life, his fate was sealed and destiny was waiting. At the time of his death, he was only 27 years of age and joined a long list of other famous figures who died at age 27. In death, he became a martyr and his image can still be found on murals in Northern Ireland. To Republicans, he is a hero who fought against British Rule and to Loyalists, a criminal who caused his own demise. But to some of his enemies, as Hearns shows, he was still worthy of respect and the interactions with guards in various parts of the book are confirmation of this. I think that all can agree that he was one of a kind and remains a legend of the IRA. His hunger strike changed public opinion of the IRA and their cause for a united Irish Republic. Future generations of IRA members and Republicans will surely look to him as one of their greatest figures whose memory shall continue to live on. This is the life and death of Robert Gerard Sands.
Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition – Shirley Chisholm with Scott Simpson, Donna Brazile and Shola Lynch
Many years before Hilary Clinton decided to run for the office of President of the United States, there was another politician who had eyes on the White House. And although she did not win the Democratic nomination, she earned a significant amount of votes and in the process, showed that a women candidates were more acceptable to society than many have long believed. Her name was Shirley Anita Chisholm (1924-2005) and through sheer determination, she launched a political campaign that challenged many accepted norms in American society and helped to break down barriers, even today. In January, 2019, thirty-six women joined the House of Representatives following the success by Democrats in the 2018 mid-term elections. The number is now the record for the most women in the House of Representatives and if current trends are an indication, that number will continue to grown through future elections.
If Chisholm were alive today, she would have been thrilled and satisfied with the election of Barack Obama and the current roster of Congresswomen. Their elections to office would serve as confirmation that her life and struggle helped pave the way for women and minority candidates. This is her story in which she invites the reader into her personal life so that we can learn more about the first Black-American woman to run for president.
The first thing that I noticed about the book is the formatting. I chose the Kindle version and the text alignment is in dire need of correction. Other buyers have commented on the same issue. Putting that aside, the story is intriguing from start to finish and will satisfy any reader interested in Chisholm’s life. She was a product of Brooklyn, New York, born to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Barbados. From an early age, her life was anything but ordinary and throughout the book, we see that she possessed an uncanny drive and found herself typically in the right place at the right time. As she admits herself, politics was not her first choice as a career. But her fate was destined and through a series of events beyond her control, she makes her way into the political field of New York City, a Democrat stronghold.
To say that the book is inspiring is an understatement. Incredibly and sadly, it is only around two hundred pages but within those pages, is a wealth of wisdom that Chisholm passes on to those who are willing to listed. Her rise in politics to the position of congresswoman was a feat that many thought she could never pull off. But as the book progresses, it is clear that Chisholm was never a typical candidate. Her outspokenness, intelligence and fierce independence made her both an outcast and threat. Today, she would be labeled anti-establishment. But is a price that she was more than willing to pay in defense of her core beliefs. Her refusal to conform and tow the line is part of what keeps her legacy alive to this day.
However, not all of her story is smiles and cheers. She also reveals some of the darker moments in her life and how they changed her view on the world in which she was attempting to make her name known. Her relationship with her mother, is a case study for the many challenges American-born children face with regards to foreign-born parents. And yes, there is also the issue of race, which she addresses as well. However, I noticed that it does not take over the book but is mentioned only when necessary. Chisholm is speaking to everyone, about America as a nation and the many problems that existed then and still exist now, regardless of race.
To some, it may be regrettable that many of the things she discusses are still an issue. It may seem as if America has not learned much over the past fifty years. However, I do believe significant progress has been made and I feel that Chisholm would agree. I am confident that one day in the near future, America will have a female president. Whomever she is, she will have to confront many of the issues that faced Chisholm more than forty years ago. But if we remember her advice and keep our sights on the long-term goals, then the first woman president can be successful and become a beloved figure with a legacy to match.
This book should belong to the library of any woman running for public office or considering a political campaign. These words are the truth about the challenges women have faced and continue to face, as they amass a higher standing in American politics. Chisholm’s life, here on display, was a mix of love, God, education, success and motivation. If you have the time, sit back and listen to Shir speak in this truly good read.
Several years ago, I visited Dublin to finally see Ireland for myself. And while I admit that I was not swayed by the Irish breakfast, there were many other things about Dublin that made up for the first morning and I left Dublin with a sense of warmth and humbleness. During my visit, I stopped by the General Post Office (“GPO”) to send out a few postcards. As I stood on line with other tourists, I marveled at the beauty of the building. After some time, I and the other customers departed and went our separate ways. But I do not believe that many of us on line that day, recalled or were aware of the historical significance of the post office. On April 24, 1916, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (“IRB”), staged an uprising across Dublin to force an end to the rule of the British Crown (“the Crown”) across Ireland. The GPO was one of many occupied buildings but is recognized as “ground zero” for the various seizures that occurred. The events of that day have become known as the Easter Rising and contained within the pages of this book, is the story from start to finish by author Tim Pat Coogan.
Recently I have covered a couple of books on “the troubles” in Northern Ireland’s Ulster Province. Each makes reference to the 1916 uprising but are primarily focused on the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”). I knew that at some point I would need to examine the Easter Rising and this book did not disappoint. It came as a recommendation on Amazon and I purchased it rather quickly. Having finished the book, I can firmly state that Coogan created an invaluable tool to learn the truth about the long and violent struggle by Republicans for a united Ireland.
Reviews on Amazon.com are generally positive with the only drawback being that the book is geared towards readers with a good amount of knowledge of Ireland’s history. I do concur that the book is not an easy read but I do believe that readers who choose to explore this book already have a strong interest in the subject matter and will be somewhat familiar with the events at the GPO. Regardless of the reader’s knowledge, it is an enjoyable read. Coogan sets the right pace from early on and the book picks up speed as we move closer to the deadly climax.
While the book is focused on the uprising, there is far more to the story than meets the eye. In fact, not only do we learn about Coogan’s life growing up in Ireland, we also learn about the social conditions for most Irish men and women. Life in Ireland was hard, famine was real and being Catholic was a cardinal sin. London had meddled in Irish affairs for several hundred years and calls for a United Ireland grew exponentially. Protestant rule was enforced through gerrymandering and outright discrimination. For Republicans, there was only thing to do and that was to force the Crown out of Ireland. To some, it was the only hope of an Ireland in which poverty was gone, religion did not divide society and the whole country was united as one.
Through Coogan’s work, I have come to learn the names of the Republican martyrs who whose legacies live on. The names of Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and James Connolly (1868-1916), among others, are now etched into my memory. The uprising proved to be their downfall but in death they have become revered as the fathers of the Irish Republic. Coogan provides samples of Pearse’s written correspondence to family members and short speeches he gave prior to this death, giving the reader a better idea as to who he was and his ultimate goal for Ireland. To the Crown, the IRB was a group of agitators whose actions were insubordinate, treasonous and outright disrespectful. And to some Irish, particularly those of the Protestant faith, it was further confirmation that they were vindicated in their distrust and rejection of Catholics. London took the position that the rebellion had to be resolved and Britain retaliated sharply. Ironically, the crackdown by the Crown had many unintended effects that changed the course of Irish history. Readers will find this part of the book highly interesting.
Coogan created what is with without a doubt, a definitive account of the Easter Rising. There are many characters involved and certainly a lot of information to process. But I think that readers who have the patience and interest to make it through the book will find that it is well worth the effort. The troubles in Northern Ireland could reignite at any time and the war between the Republicans and the Crown could once again become full scale. Inevitably, foreign nations will intervene and try to broker peace. But in order for peace to prevail, all involved must understand what is truly at stake and why each side has the strong convictions that they do. For those that live outside of Ireland, it may be necessary to first go back and learn the truth about the Crown’s presence in Ireland and the birth of the effort of Republicans to see it come to an end.
The conflict in Northern Ireland between pro-British Protestants and Republic Catholics, is the longest running feud to date. The planned exit by England from the European Union has resulted in suspense and apprehension throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The Irish have undoubtedly been watching closely as any movement by England will have a ripple effect that will eventually reach their shores. Belfast remains a major tourist attraction in the north, similar to its southern counterpart Dublin, and receives millions of visitors each year. History buffs may recall that Belfast is the city in which Harland and Wolff built the world-famous RMS Titanic for the White Star Line. But behind the fame of the doomed ocean liner, lies a dark side that has taken more lives than anyone could have ever imagined. Belfast and Londonberry (“Derry”) have served as the battlegrounds for the deadly war between Nationalists and Republicans forces. Across Ulster province, six of the nine counties are protected by the British Crown (“the Crown”) and unofficially by the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association. The Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) stands firm as the opposition force founded to defend the minority Catholic population from what they believe to be the refusal of the Crown to let Ireland become a united country. Kevin Toolis is a journalist and screenwriter born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Irish parents. In this eye-opening and chilling book, he travels back to the country of his ancestors, seeking to understand what drives the men and women of the IRA.
I believe that anyone interested in this book probably has a fair amount of knowledge regarding the IRA and “the troubles” as they are known by the Irish. Toolis does not simply relay their well-known attacks but instead seeks to understand the mindset and conviction of those who have taken the pledge to see the Crown removed from Irish soil. He interviewed many high-ranking members, some of whom are now deceased such as Martin McGuinnness (1950-2017), families of fallen IRA members and even those on the other side of the conflict. And what he has come away with will shock readers who live outside of Ireland and are not of Irish ancestry. To outsiders, the conflict seems surreal and the deaths of so many beyond needless. It is a conflict that has no restrictions on violence and the ideology that fuels both sides is as strong as any found throughout the world. However, as I read the book, I did find myself aghast at the ease in which so many accepted jail and death as part of the plan. As the author shows, to nearly all of the figures, taking up the IRA flag is seen as an act of honor, even if it means certain death and/or prison time. It is a thought process that neither I nor many readers outside of the United Kingdom will be able to associate with. But for those that remain in Northern Ireland, the troubles have never gone away.
The author provides a clear and thorough explanation for the origins of the conflict and the imposition of the Crown more than 400 years ago when Oliver Cromwell led the Crown in the War of Three Kingdoms, setting the stage for British rule. As the book moves along, we are introduced to the IRA through polarizing and deadly figures. The uprising of 1916 by Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) marked a new era in the Republic of Ireland. His life and last moments are revisited here, showing the reader the level of conviction behind the Republican cause. The IRA has been home to a large number of larger-than-life characters including the late Bobby Sands (1954-1981), whose hunger strike and death at HM Prison Maze, Long Kesh earned the IRA a major publicity coup against the administration of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). Sands’ legacy and spirit are alive and well as a martyr in the cause for a united republic. Toolis moves through IRA circles with bravado and fear, knowing full well just how dangerous the interviewees were. But his journalist background, allowed him to continue his research as he descended deeper into the IRA’s soul.
The book is far more than just a collection of missions carried out by the IRA. Here we learn the names and personal stories of several figures who became popular and infamous in IRA lore. Some were heroes, others informers and the rest, tragically became casualties of war. Regardless of their roles, each has their own story to tell about their life in Ireland and whey they feel that the Crown should no longer remain in power in the north. One thing that did stand out is that in nearly every story, a common theme is terrible poverty and discrimination as a result of the majority Protestant rule. In fact, not one person in the book that Toolis interviewed, came from a family of extreme wealth. The opposite was more often than not true, and their prospects in life were grim. But the IRA and the dream of a united Ireland, was enough to lure many into committing acts intended to drive the British away once and for all. Frankie Ryan, Mairéad Farrell (1957-1988), Sean Savage (1965-1988), Daniel McCann(1957-1988), Joseph MacManus and Patricia Black (1972-1991) are just some of the names listed in the long register of IRA members who died tragically on behalf of the IRA. Their goal to force the Crown to leave Ireland has not materialized but the IRA continues to stick to its core mission.
At first glance, it is easy to write off the voices in this book as delusional militants whose numbers were never any match for the Crown of the British military. The six counties in Ulster province are still under the Crown but the IRA is recognized world-wide as the Catholic voice across the north. As I read the stories of the figures being interviewed, I continued to ask myself if there was any possibility that they could have taken a different path in life. For some, it almost seems that they were destined to join the IRA. In fact, as a few explain, it is what they grew up with and a part of life that became accepted. But those of us looking from the outside in may ask is the heartache and death truly worth it? Those part of the IRA will undoubtedly say yes it is. Even those that have been forced to bury siblings and even children, remain committed to the IRA’s cause: a British-free and unified Republic of Ireland.
Those who decide to read the book through pure fascination with the violence and gore that occurs will miss the point of the book. What Toolis has done is to allow us to see how and why young men and women who could have led ordinary and long lives, made the decision to join a cause that many of them knew from the beginning would result in prison and death. Their rationale for answering the call to arms and joining the IRA will provoke a range of reaction in readers. Some of us will be empathetic while others may dismiss them as nothing more than rebel hearts. But regardless of our own personal opinions, these are their stories and the reasons behind their decisions and actions. We do not have to agree with them but we can make the effort to understand their position. Furthermore, we are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in their place.
The British side of the question is not left out and the Crown does make an impact in the story through counter-intelligence missions spearheaded by MI5 and the Special Air Service (“SAS”), police action through the Royal Ulster Constabulary and informers within the IRA’s ranks. Deadly games of espionage, double-agents and collateral damage, turned Northern Ireland and even London in battlegrounds to force change to 10 Downing Street’s foreign policy toward its Irish neighbors.
Today there is a form of peace in Ireland but the Provisional IRA, which split for the traditional IRA in 1969, continues to operate. Time will tell if peace will continue or if the troubles will once again be re-ignited. As Britain struggles to find a suitable exit from the European Union, many eyes are on Ireland and the fears abound of the possible deadly impact of London’s final decision. There may indeed come a day when the Crown is finally removed from Irish soil and the dream of a united Irish Republic becomes reality. Protestants will have to make life changing decisions and for some that might include the use of violence. We can only hope that cooler heads prevail and a British exit from Ireland will be done in an orderly and peaceful fashion. But until that day comes, the IRA remains a force to be reckoned with and a voice for an oppressed minority seeking to change social conditions that have caused thousands of deaths. They are supported throughout Ireland and even here in the United States. But if peace will have a chance of prevailing through a long term solution, we must first understand those that have served and died in their commitment to the IRA. Some of those incredible and heartbreaking stories are captured here by Kevin Toolis in this breathtaking journey into the heart of the IRA.
When I first learned of the country called Burkina Faso, I felt a sense of shock at how little of it I had heard not only in school but through the media. The landlocked African nation was never mentioned in the history books that I had read and even today it remains a minor player on the world stage. But between the years of 1983 and 1987, events transpired there that were both remarkable and tragic. Had success prevailed, the world would know Burkina Faso today as the pioneer of progressiveness in modern day Africa driven by the ideas of its late leader Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (1949-1983).
Upper Volta was the name chosen by the French as they colonized the land that would produce one its most aggressive antagonists. The colony became prized possession but growing calls for independence succeeded and on August 5, 1960, Upper Volta became an independent nation and was formally recognized internationally. However, Paris still played a direct role in the nation’s affairs and continued to keep a stronghold over the country for the next twenty-three years. On August 4, 1983, Sankara seized power in a coup and installed himself as the new ruler. The country was renamed Burkina Faso and Sankara launched a campaign of reforms that were far ahead of his time. Agricultural reforms, anti-corruption acts, women’s rights and energy conservation were just some of the endless programs and ideas he began to institute to transform Burkina Faso from a poor developing nation into one that was self-sufficient and financially secure to maintain its independence.
Ernest Harsch knew Sankara personally, having worked with him on more than one occasion. This book is a collection of his memories of Sankara and what he observed during Sankara’s time in office. The account is remarkable and at times, Sankara appears to be a figure out of place on a continent plagued by exploitation and corruption. His voice was strong, and his actions were feared abroad for he advocated for a unified Africa, emboldened to reject foreign loans with high interest rates and the meddling of more powerful nations.
He has been compared by some as the African version of Che Guevara. Similar to Guevara, he led a frugal lifestyle and implored close relatives not to accept any gifts. His belief in selflessness are eerily similar to Guevara but both men were incredibly intelligent figures who posed a threat to many due to their growing number of followers. Washington once feared Guevara could spread the Cuban Revolution across Latin America. It also feared that Sankara could spread the Burkina Faso revolution across Africa. The tension between Sankara and Washington are discussed by Harsch and highlight the seriousness with which many viewed Sankara’s powerful rhetoric.
Abroad, eyebrows started to raise at the actions of the new revolutionary near the Ivory Coast. Domestically, Sankara was surrounded by many enemies, some of whom he could never have foreseen. Harsch explores what was really taking place in Burkina Faso up until and at the time of Sankara’s death. The actions of Blaise Compaoré are discussed as well and his true role in the events of that day are still a bit of a mystery. He is no longer the leader of Burkina Faso, having resigned on October 31, 2014. Currently, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré sits as the prime minister. The nation has seen power change hands many times but none can escape the ghost of Sankara.
Africa’s size and complex network of nations have made it one of the most diverse places on earth. In fact, no other continent has the number of countries contained within as Africa does. There are 53 recognized countries across the continent with each having its clear distinctions as to language, culture and history. Sankara hoped to bring these countries together under the banner of a Pan-African organization. Had he succeeded, he would have accomplished the goal envisioned twenty-years earlier by Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961). Although he did not live long enough to realize this goal, he did provide an example of the possibilities that exist for all of Africa if its people can come together as one.
The only negative part of the book is that I wish it could have been at least twice as long as I feel that there is so much to Sankara’s story that is still largely unknown. However, Harsch has done a great service to the memory of his late friend in showing world how brilliant Sankara truly was. I sincerely hope that in years to come, Sankara’s legacy is exposed to more parts of the world. To aid in that effort, we can rely on this sound and endearing account of Sankara’s life and death.
If you have traveled to or live in Louisiana, I think you will agree that it is one American’s most unique states. The City of New Orleans has a storied past on its own and each year, it attracts millions of visitors, curious to see Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the world-famous French Quarter. Baton Rouge proudly serves as the state’s capitol and an icon on the landscape of the deep south. However, there is also a dark history of Louisiana, one that filled with racism, corruption, crime and poverty. Louisianans with a long memory will remember that there once lived a governor who ruled the state with an iron grip until his reign was ended by an assassin’s bullet. He was Huey P. Long (1893-1935), the 40th Governor of Louisiana who left a complicated legacy that is nothing short of surreal.
Long’s self-proclaimed title of “Kingfish” matched his unrelenting quest for absolute power and projection of himself as the only person that mattered in any room he was in. Richard D. White examines his reign and the effect it had on politics in Louisiana and the United States. To say that America had not seen a candidate like him before would be an understatement. He exploded onto the scene and in the process seized control of the highest office in the state. Interestingly, Long never finished high school and today, that alone would earn him few votes. But in the late 1920s and after the depression, illiteracy was a far more common problem than it is today. Long understood this and had an uncanny ability to reach millions of people that felt as if they had been forgotten by the wealthy. Louisiana was often viewed as a backward place full of backward people that cam from the swamps. This casual prejudice against Louisiana, was found in many places in American politics and helped provide the spark for Long’s infamous reign and determination to make Louisiana the example to be followed by the rest of America.
From the start, Long was far from what anyone would have considered a candidate for public office. Boastful, confrontational, brutish and vulgar, Long earned the disgust of the political establishment but the hearts of poor white Americans. His popularity soared has he talked of improving the economy, providing free textbooks, building roads and other projects to improve the state. And while he did accomplish many of those things, his darker side tended to overshadow the good deeds and put him on a collision course with Washington, D.C. and his destiny, which he met on on September 8, 1935 when Dr. Carl Weiss fired a single and fatal shot. The story from start to finish is captured beautifully by White and will leave readers in shock at Long’s endless antics.
White takes us back in time to an era before air conditioning and political correctness. As I read the book, I felt as if I were sitting in the gallery watching Long launch into yet another vicious tirade against a perceived enemy. I found myself in shock at his actions and the vindictiveness in which he carried out his agenda. Corruption had plagued the south for years and New Orleans has long been known as a place where one can go to have a good time and find any vice known to man. The brash openness with which Long operated would result today in impeachment, indictment and undoubtedly prison. But this was the 1930s and Louisiana was like the wild west with pistol packing politicians who sometimes resulted to fisticuffs to settle disputes. Long himself brawled on more than one occasion after cooler heads failed to prevail.
In many ways, Long was everything that most Americans have come to despise and distrust. He was loud, obnoxious, uncouth, racist, flamboyant, drank too much and had enemies all across America. His larger than life persona and constant attacks on others, attracted the eyes of the FBI lead by J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Long’s battle with Roosevelt is explored in the book and highlights how serious of a threat Long became to the establishment. In Europe, Adolf Hitler had risen to power using a nationalist and populist platform. Here in America, there were many that feared Long could mimic his success. Long had no desire to be compared to Hitler but failed to recognize his own racism which is on ugly display in the book. And as the author points out, the true irony is that Long’s outlandish behavior did more to prevent Louisiana from becoming a true democracy than it did to push the state forward. While he was an advocate for the advancement of disenfranchised people, he had no intention of giving those advancements to Black Americans and his actions towards them are one of the darkest stains on his legacy. He truly did have the ability to change Louisiana in many ways, but ultimately became his own worst enemy as he became drunk with power and engulfed by paranoia.
Eighty-three years have passed since Long’s death and today is rarely mentioned in conversation. Visitors to Baton Rouge take photos in front of the statue erected in his honor but it is anyone’s guess if they know the story of his life. Richard White presents a clear and concise biography of the Kingfish who made himself the God of Louisiana. This is a good look at the life and death of Huey P. Long.
The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (The New Cold War History) – Chris Miller
On December 26, 1991, the world watched in shock as the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) dissolved, splitting the once mighty Soviet Union into fifteen separate nations. I vividly remember watching the news broadcasts and seeing the flag of the Soviet Union lowered for the last time. It was the end of an era highlighted by the Cold War in which Washington and Moscow viewed each other as a threat to world peace. Paranoia, suspicion and espionage propelled the two to the brink of nuclear war on several occasions. In October, 1962, the world watched in gut-wrenching suspense as the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up and threatened to be the spark that ignited the next world war. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) found their selves in a situation that could have resulted in the physical destruction of half the planet within a matter of minutes. Diplomacy eventually prevailed through the use of back door channels encouraged by the realization of figures in both governments that the looming showdown would produce no winners. Tensions between the two super powers cooled but never full subsided and as the dissolution of the USSR played out on television, Washington closely monitored the events while re-examining its global position as Russia emerged from the post-Soviet empire as the country to watch. Twenty-eight years later, the USSR is still recalled as one of the greatest powers in history. Its fall was earth shattering and left so many wondering, how and why did it happen?
Author Chris Miller is an Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And here in this investigative report into the struggle to save the Soviet economy, he explores and explains why the USSR met its demise. The story is focused on the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev who is the head of an empire that is struggling financially. Failed Marxist policies and hard-liner policies have become anchors that are weighing the USSR down heavily. Its neighbor China, has found a solution that has allowed it to move away from the policies of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) known as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Under a new leader, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), China chartered a new course that allowed more economic freedom to ignite the nation’s struggling economy. While never fully leaving its Marxist ideology, China does in fact go through an economic rebirth and in the process becomes part of the “Asian Tigers”, joining Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. In the USSR many eyes were watching and Miller perfectly explains the resurgence of the Asian markets and how they have grown into the financial hubs they are today. But this story is about the USSR which found itself in a similar position as China and sought to emulate the success of its left-leaning ally.
As the author wades deeper in the scenes taking place in the Kremlin, we become witnesses to the struggle Gorbachev became engulfed in with his own government. Incredulously, he was not allowed to see the USSR’s budget nor was he privy to significant information held by the Soviet Army and the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). The hold over the country by the military and intelligence apparatus is strikingly clear and highlights the uphill battle that Gorbachev was forced to fight as he struggled to save the economy.
It is said that old habits die a hard death and in the case of the USSR, this was painfully true. Miller shows the stubbornness of the old guard who clung to ideology in order to maintain the status quo even as the country slid closer to implosion. The arguments that are put forth against Gorbachev are at some points mind-boggling and mind-numbing. Little by little, Gorbachev becomes a man on his own whose radical ideas fly in the face of what the hard-liners believed to be true Marxism. Unwilling to waver from their commitment to the memories of Karl Marx (1880-1883) and Fredrich Engels (1820-1895), they oppose Gorbachev at nearly every turn and the USSR becomes an empire at war with itself. To the west much of this was hidden until the very last-minute, but to those inside the USSR, signs that all was not well had been growing for decades. But officials in high positions continued to cling to the hope that the economy could miraculously be revived. Realists knew otherwise but life in the Soviet Union did not permit dissension. And those who went against the system sometimes paid the ultimate price. One of the true ironies in the book is the parallel between Gorbachev and the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924).
At times the story is beyond shocking but the author’s clarity in explaining the mistakes consistently being made behind the scenes, is a concise step-by-step guide to show the inevitable fate that awaited Moscow. Gorbachev probably did not realize just how fierce opposition would be but when the failed coup took place in August, 1991, the realization that the left and right had lost their minds must have been crystal clear. The nation could not survive another period reminiscent of the era of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the meltdown at Chernobyl was still fresh in the memories of many. To the Soviet Republics, these were more examples of Moscow’s growing incompetence and the urgency for independence. The Soviet Republics would play their own part in the fall of the USSR but for the most part, Moscow continued to make many mistakes on its own. Tragically, the Soviet Union could have and should have saved itself, but failed to take action that would have spared it from certain doom.
Today, the Soviet Union is an afterthought for many of us and for the younger generation, a relic of a time that existed before they were born. But we should never forget the role the USSR played in the events that changed world history over the past one hundred years. It no longer exist, but the ghosts of the former Soviet Union continue to haunt many. An empire that should have continued to dominate half a continent collapsed under its own weight and for reasons that will surprise and shock many readers. This is a relevant and informative account of the final years of the once mighty Soviet Union.
On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier. The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock. The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.
To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960. Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination. Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed. And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star. In less than one year, he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair. There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder. To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.
The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others. He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber. Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation. It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe. From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.
Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”. Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.
The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence. Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity. Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969). Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock. Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus. Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal. It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers. But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.
Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him. One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow. His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response. We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting. The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.
The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches. I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination. The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker. However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville. Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.
I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book. Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story. They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography. This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.