The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South – Bruce Levine

dixieOn May 10, 1865, Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was captured near Irwinville, Georgia by Union forces. Davis’s apprehension and the surrender of General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) signaled the Confederacy was defeated. The American Civil War had come to a bloody conclusion and marked a turning point in United States history. In the North, the Union victory was a welcome relief but for the South, the defeat was also a social revolution. The way of life Southerners had come to depend on for their livelihoods was no more. That is not to say radical change happened overnight, but the House of Dixie had fallen as author Bruce Levine shows in this phenomenal account of how the Civil War broke the back of the slavery dependent American South.

When I think back to the lessons I received in school regarding the Civil War, I am shocked at what was not taught. The key to understanding the war is undoubtedly the political climate and threat Abraham Lincoln (1808-1865) posed to Southern slaveowners as the new President of the United States. In Lincoln, the Republican party had successful installed its first candidate in the White House and during the time he was in office, the party would evolve into a hotbed of abolitionist figures. But first, Lincoln was forced to confront resentment in the South, and the author captures the buildup as the nation grapples with the issue of human chattel.  I am sure we have heard the phrase “Lincoln freed the slaves”. The truth is more complicated and Lincoln himself had his own prejudiced views and sought any way to keep the Union intact. And to provide readers with an idea of his character, Levin explains that,

“None of these promises and cautions signified any decrease in Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery. He was no abolitionist, he believed in the inherent inequality of blacks and whites, and he doubted that free blacks and free whites could live together in peace and harmony.”

This should not detract from the fact that Lincoln despised slavery and was happy to see its demise. But the question remains, if Lincoln could have prevented war, then why did it happen? The answer lies in what the author refers to as the House of Dixie. Slavery was the economic backbone of the South, and the wealthy were willing to go to any lengths to protect it. This is evident by the secession of several states following Lincoln’s election victory. Slavery had already been abolished in several states in the Union, but the South remained an issue. And as can be seen in the book, the South was not going to comply voluntarily. Eventually the moment we know is coming arrives when Confederate troops open fire at Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Initially, Confederate forces were confident of victory, but Jefferson Davis makes a surprising comment to his wife that caught me off guard as I read the section in which America passed the point of no return. And it could be said that his prophetic words are an understatement.

After war breaks out, the book changes gear as the battles between Union and Confederate forces heat up. Levine thoroughly analyzes the Confederate war effort focusing on the growing domestic and logistical issues plaguing the region. But the most surprising aspect of the story is the reluctance of both sides to enlist black troops. In the South, recruiting black troops to fight for a system that kept them in subjugation was not ideal, and few blacks wanted to entertain the thought. But even in the North, the movement to use blacks to fight in the Union Army was slow to catch on. The social complexities at play in America during the time are vividly clear and the common belief of black inferiority is on full display. However, those with wisdom on the Union side continued to push for black troops and when they did enter the war, a whole new source of concern for the Confederacy presented itself. The impact of black troops should not be lost, and the comments provided by white soldiers in the book highlight the incredibly hard ground which had to be broken for blacks to serve in the military campaign. But once they did, attitudes towards them were forced to change. Sadly, the belief of black inferiority in the military continued to persist and it was not until 1948 when President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) officially desegregated the Armed Forces.

It is not long after war breaks out that the Confederacy’s issues at home creep up. And this is key to understanding why it collapsed. It is a common story of wealth versus poverty and gives credence to the words of the legendary Marine Smedley Butler (1881-1940) who once remarked “war is a racket”. Putting human labor aside, there were economic forces at play that made Southern secession unacceptable. And despite the image of the anti-slavery North, Southern sympathy could be found in many quarters of the Union as we see in the story. Further, attitudes towards black equality are telling. Slavery was viewed negatively in the North, but that did not mean blacks were to be equal to whites. And here is one of the more bizarre paradoxes of the conflict. However, the Union was a concerted effort, and the mission was to break the back of the South at all costs. The South did its part to help the North as desertion, famine and lack of supplies became crucial weaknesses that no government could overcome. And behind the scenes, slaves following the Union’s successes began to sense a new day in America. The cracks in the base of the South grow larger as slaves become bolder and more determined to be free. And though Jim Crow did rise in later years, the author is correct in that blacks may have taken steps back to slavery like conditions economically after the war, but they would never again be in slavery. Also, Jefferson Davis once again shocks the senses with a suggestion he makes regarding the future of slaves in the South.

I should point out that the Union had its own issues and suffered its share of defeats as explained in the book. And I was stunned at the actions of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) in the wake of Confederate defeats. His actions are so surreal that Union General and future President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) personally intervened. The South was defeated but America still had a long way to go. Republicans were aware of this and acted in the wake of the nightmarish war to pass what became known was the Reconstruction Acts. Their goals were ambitious, yet one hundred more years passed before President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) signed the Civil Rights Act into law. But following the Civil War, the Grand Old Party (“GOP”) was determined to make sure that Lincoln did not die in vain. The assassination is discussed but only briefly, and Levine keeps the focus on the South. Though the fallen president did not live to see Jefferson Davis’s capture, he did live long enough to rest assured that the Union had secured a victory. And everyone knew that America had changed permanently. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it is a true gem.

“The world has not seen a nobler and grander war,” Frederick Douglass reflected at the time, than the one fought “to put an end to the hell-black cause out of which the Rebellion has risen.”

ASIN:  B00957T4ZQ

The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel – Roberto Escobar with David Fisher


On September 14, 1986, United States President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) gave a speech to the nation on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse. And though he did not mention names of drug lords, those with knowledge of the flood of narcotics entering the United States aware that Reagan was also speaking to Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (1949-1993), the head of the Medellín cartel who had earned a place on Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest figures. Seven more years passed before Escobar met his fate on December 2, 1993, but prior to the final act of his life, Escobar continued to earn billions of dollars as cocaine became the drug of choice. There are countless documentaries, films, and articles about Pablo, but his brother Roberto has remained in the shadows. His role as the organization’s accountant and proximity to his brother, allowed him to witness the rise and fall of the Medellín cartel. And this is his story of that world and what really happened in their lives as Pablo became the most wanted drug lord in the world.

Before reading this book, I knew of Roberto Escobar, but I did not know his personal story. I did expect it to mirror Pablo’s but the perspective from Roberto’s view is unique on its own and raises questions about morality that I did not expect. Further, what he reveals adds more complication to the legend and infamy of Pablo. After a brief explanation of the family’s history which traces its maternal routes to Spain, Roberto focuses on the young Pablo who has no interest in narcotics. In fact, Robert explains that “in 1974 Pablo was studying political science at the Universidad de Antiochia. There are many who believe Pablo was an uneducated man who succeeded only through drugs. That simply is not true.” But the most significant aspect of the early Pablo’s life is his vision of becoming president of Colombia. It may sound comical looking back in hindsight, but the book leaves no room to believe that Escobar was insincere about this. And though he was trafficking narcotics, he did want to be president of the country.  This is supported by Pablo’s successful political campaign in which he ran for Congress and was elected. Of course, the drugs were never far away but as we learn from Roberto, Pablo did not start out as a narcotics trafficker nor did the violence in Colombia start with the Medellín cartel. Those who are from Colombia or have visited Latin America may find this sobering statement from Roberto that “Colombia has always been a country of violence. It was part of our heritage” to be hauntingly accurate.

After engaging in the transport of contraband and a narrow escape from police, Pablo realizes that he needs another stream of revenue and learns about a paste made from coca leaf extracts. It is chance event that changes history and the lives of all Colombians. But Pablo was unknown outside of Colombia early in his career and the leap from domestic trafficker to public enemy number one of Washington is a fascinating story, and Roberto delivers the goods. We learn that America was always a good drug market and traffic from Colombia and other parts of South America flew under the radar. But that all changed in 1979 when The United States and Colombia signed an extradition agreement to extradite drug traffickers to America to stand trial. It was a move in the making and changed the lives of Pablo and Roberto permanently. However, before that took place, Roberto knew that America was an entirely different arena and recalls that “for the entire family, our lives changed forever the day my brother decided to send his drugs to America“. War was declared and it has not let up to this day. And to drive home the significance of the agreement, Roberto goes on to explain that “Although none of us knew it at the time, the wars had actually begun in 1979, when the United States and Colombia signed a treaty that declared drug trafficking a crime against the United States and permitted Colombian traffickers to be extradited to the U.S. It was that law that changed everything.”

Within Colombia, Pablo and his family enjoy life as they could have never imagined with unlimited access to cash, enforcers, and political influence. However, I could not overlook the deeds by Pablo for the poor people of Colombia. And this part of the book presents a duality the remains constant throughout the story. We know Pablo is dealing drugs, but he also becomes a Robin Hood type figure who commits unbelievably generous acts of kindness, one of which is Barrio Escobar which stands to this day. The complicated nature of Pablo is observed by Roberto who cautions his sibling when needed and provides explanations for the decisions they make. And to be fair, Roberto does not shy away from criticizing his brother in the book when necessary. The best example is Pablo’s entry in politics which the author strongly disagreed with. But that was only the beginning in a bitter feud with the Colombia Government that included the Cali cartel, police hit squads and the notorious group of killers called Los Pepes. Colombia was turned into a bloodbath and the Escobars were the top prizes to be captured. The stories from Roberto are unbelievable and show that the idea of safety was a foreign concept for victims of the drug wars. The violence escalates in the book as expected and readers may want to use discretion.

Any story about Escobar must address the elephant in the room and that is the sad fate of Avianca Airlines Flight 203. Roberto explains that he did not know of any plot, but had he known he would have stopped Pablo. There is no smoking gun and any discussions about it were hidden from Roberto, most likely to protect him from prosecution. This act combined with the attacks on government buildings, political assassinations and deadly battles with Colombian police units, catapulted Pablo to a level of infamy from which he has never descended and never will. Yet while these things were taking place, he was still committing acts of kindness to those in need. But he was firm in his determination to never be incarcerated in an American jail and was clear to Roberto that he would rather die on Colombia soil than sit in a United States prison. In the end he got his wish.

Following the Avianca tragedy, the writing is on the wall, and we know that Pablo will not escape alive. But there is still more carnage to come, and Colombia saw more bloodshed before the drug lord was ambushed and eliminated. Roberto recounts those finals weeks with Pablo and the feeling they both had as the walls closed in. Both were deeply affected by the isolation from their children and Roberto goes through three marriages while telling the story. The Escobar name became a liability and the bounty placed on their heads resulted in death coming from all angles. But following Pablo’s demise, their mother takes action to end the battles with the Cali cartels and rebel groups with astonishing courage. Roberto suffered a different fate and his ordeal in prison at the time of Pablo’s death and its aftermath are beyond shocking. It is a miracle that he is alive today. The glory days of the Medellín cartel are gone but drug trafficking continues to exist. But there was a time when a simple man from Colombia with an unobstructed vision of destiny became the poster boy for the cocaine trafficking industry. And along for the ride was his brother Roberto who served as the accountant, confidant and voice of reason when needed. If you want to know the real story of Pablo Escobar, this book is a must read and a welcome addition to the books we have now about the man who entrenched himself permanently in the history of Colombia.

“It is impossible to even imagine how much money remains put away somewhere, probably never to be discovered. People who managed millions of dollars got killed without telling anyone where the money was hidden. Or they took the money and disappeared when Pablo was killed. I feel sure there are undiscovered coletas in houses all throughout Colombia—but also in New York and Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles, and the other cities in which Medellín did business. I am also certain there are bank accounts in countries whose numbers have been lost and forgotten and never will be opened again.” 

-Roberto Escobar


The Rise and Fall of a ‘Casino’ Mobster: The Tony Spilotro Story Through a Hitman’s Eyes – Frank Cullotta & Dennis N. Griffin

CulottaIf you have viewed the 1995 film ‘Casino‘ by Martin Scorsese, then I am sure you recoiled in shock at the fate of Joe Pesci’s character Nicki and his brother. Pesci’s character is unbelievable at times during the film but is based on real-life mobster Anthony John “Tony” Spilotro (1938-1986). And from what is known, Spilotro could be as volatile as his on-screen composite. The film is entertaining, and all the actors and actresses deliver stand-up performances but as to be expected, some liberties were taken during the screenwriting and editing processes. Frank Cullotta (1938-2020) was mobster in the Chicago Outfit and close friend and associate of Spilotro. In fact, Spilotro was the reason Cullotta made the move to Las Vegas which brought money, excitement, and his downfall. This is his account of the time he spent with Tony Spilotro and the events that transpired on the dark side of Sin City.

The story begins in Chicago with Cullotta reminiscing about his childhood and the beginning of his friendship with Spilotro. And it is not long before both leave school foregoing a formal education and start learning the streets. Spilotro is quickly seduced by the lure of the Mafia and convinces Cullotta to help him while earning good money. And as the say goes, the rest was history. And once both are in Las Vegas working for the Outfit, the story picks up in pace and never slows down. The book is short but make no mistake, Cullotta was a wealth of information, and that knowledge was used when he testified against Spilotro and other members of the Outfit. But before we reach that point, there is a lot of ground to cover and some of what he reveals fills in the gaps in the film.

When the story shifts to Las Vegas, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal (1929-2008) makes his appearance in the story. In the film, Robert DeNiro plays his composite character, and like the movie, bad blood existed between Rosenthal and Spilotro. Cullotta speaks frankly when it comes to their relationship, which was bitter to say the least. However, Spilotro is the focus of the story, and Cullotta shows a side of the mobster that is both interesting and dark. Murders, schemes, and betrayal all play into the story told by Cullotta, but a main issue was the gangster’s inability to remain committed to his wife. On screen, Lefty’s wife Geri, played by Sharon Stone, is out of control and causes serious issues within the Outfit. In the story at hand, the real-life Geri is just as wild, but we also learn about the role and actions of Spilotro’s wife Nancy, whose life was altered significantly through her husband’s actions and demise, and their son Vincent.

True crime lovers will be satisfied as well with the information Cullotta provides about the crimes committed and the murders that took place. Some of the stories are surreal but documented, including the infamous “M & M” murders which Cullotta explains thoroughly. But surprisingly, the downfall of both men did not come from a murder but from trusting a criminal named Sal Romano. His association with the crew set into a motion a series of events that resulted in the arrest of Cullotta, his associates, and the deterioration of the relationship between him and Spilotro. The final act that fractures the relationship permanently is a story we have seen before, but it shows that there is no honor among thieves.

Before Spilotro could stand trial for the second time, he and his brother Michael disappeared and were found deceased outside of Chicago. Cullotta explains their last moments and offers reason as to why it happened. The whole truth about the incident may never be known but Cullotta was right in his belief that Spilotro had become a problem that needed to be resolved. But the fallout from his death and the criminal prosecutions should not be overlooked. And as a bonus, Cullotta provides a sort of epilogue wherein he tells what he knew about the lives of former associates in the Outfit. Every story ends negatively proving that in the end, crime does not pay. Cullotta served his time and died a free man and as the book concludes he provides a quote that sums up the days the Chicago Outfit ruled Las Vegas:

“When people ask me if Vegas was better when the Mob ran it, my answer is that for civilians, it was a hell of a lot safer.” 

If you like stories about the Italian American Mafia and the heyday of organized crime, this is must read.


The Deal of the Century: The Breakup of AT&T – Steve Coll

at&tAnyone who uses a mobile cellular device has undoubtedly experienced the issue of a dropped call. Upon resumption of the call, one party will typically ask the other who their service provider is. The choices of mobile service providers today are plenty but prior to 1982, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company controlled phone service across America (“AT&T”). But all that changed when a small communications company challenged AT&T’s rule and set int motion a chain of events that resulted in the breakup of the communications giant, paving the way for the diversity in service providers we have today. Author Steve Coll tells the unbelievable story here in a book that beautifully captures a crucial event in American history.

This book was in my list of recommendations, and when I noticed it the title instantly grabbed my attention due to me being a mobile subscriber of AT&T, Inc. And when I think back to my childhood, my family were also subscribers of AT&T. None of us questioned why but would agree today that we never had issues with phone service. But if AT&T was so good, why was it broken up? Well, a small company called MCI Communications (“MCI”) decided that it wanted to get into the communications field and had no choice but to impose on AT&T’s territory. The tech giant balked at first, but officials at the Federal Communications Commission had other ideas and approved MCI’s request to go into business. But there was a catch, and as Coll explains:

“When the FCC authorized MCI to go into business, over the strenuous objections of AT&T’s Washington lobbyists, the commission told AT&T that it had to allow MCI to interconnect with the basic phone network. But the commission didn’t tell AT&T how much it should charge MCI for connections, or how fast AT&T should install MCI’s lines, or how AT&T should calculate its own costs when determining an interconnection price for MCI.” 

The leasing agreement worked on the surface, but MCI’s William G. McGowan (1927-1992) was far from finished and on March 6, 1974, MCI filed an anti-trust suit against AT&T. Several years later in 1978, the two parties entered the ENFIA Agreement about the leased lines, but the lawsuit had also provided the framework needed by the U.S. Department of Justice in its own lawsuit to end AT&T’s dominance. But the tech giant did not go away quietly and had the best lawyers it could afford. And they were ready for battle when the Government filed suit in what became United States v. American Tel. and Tel. Co., 552 F. Supp. 131 (D.D.C. 1983). The first judge assigned to the case passes away and it is re-assigned to the late Judge Harold H. Greene (1923-2000) whose summary judgment opinion changed telecommunications in the United States. But before we reach that point, the author provides a crash course of litigation and discovery that those in the legal field will appreciate. The snippets of courtroom discussions and conversations revisited between the parties reveal the complexities litigators face in intricate litigation. And behind the scenes on each side, things were unpredictable as well. One area that stands out is the confusion at the U.S. Department of Justice. Before the case is over, several attorneys take the lead, each with a distinctive style. And at times, it seems as if no one on the Government’s side is on the same page, particularly when the parties begin settlement negotiations. However, while the two sides were revisiting strategy, politics in America were changing the course of nation and a former Hollywood star was soon on his way to the White House.

About halfway through the story, the narrative changes with the incoming administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004). At first, I thought it was strange that his administration would play a role in the story but as the book progresses, the reasons behind the importance of the AT&T case become clear. One issue regarding national security gives credence to the Government’s intrusion. But strangely, Reagan never takes the lead in the matter, nor does he get involved but instead leaves the matter to others. Coll points out this characteristic of Reagan’s time in office with this keen observation:

“The advantage of Reagan’s style was that on many issues, that consensus led to unity and strong, positive leadership within the administration. The disadvantage was that the President had a slim grasp of the questions being deliberated by his counselors and was thus unable to intervene when, as was the case early that summer, debate on a particular issue became skewed by personality clashes, turf wars, and internal White House politics.” 

Frankly, Reagan is a non-factor throughout the story, but cabinet officials take far stronger positions. At the Justice Department, a settlement remains a priority, but the attorneys remain committed to trial and seeing the case through. The agreement reached with AT&T in 1956 was seen as a slap on wrist and attorneys were determined not to let it happen again. AT&T’s attorneys resort to filing a summary judgment motion but even as the two sides engaged motion practice, they all remained oblivious to decisions in Washington, one of which pulls the rug out from under your feet:

“Neither Greene nor the majority of attorneys trying the case was aware on that September morning that a nearly irrevocable decision not to drop U.S. v. AT&T had already been made by the White House.” 

The White House had left AT&T to defend itself and was not going to step in. But settlement negotiations proved to be successful, and the case was eventually dismissed. And that settlement awakened the sleeping giant known as Congress. Coll explains what happened when the settlement went through and how its terms shaped modern telecommunications. And surprisingly MCI suffered an adverse effect from legislation that should have been to its benefit. Today, the matter of U.S. v. AT&T is history rarely discussed. But the decision of Judge Greene, the settlement reached and the actions by Congress, changed the telecommunications industry for good. The United States Government has commenced anti-trust litigation countless times and will surely use it in the future. But the breakup of AT&T will remain one of its most important cases. Highly recommended.

ASIN:‎ B071D53HV8

The Last Days of Stalin – Joshua Rubenstein

rubensteinOn March 5, 1953, Soviet Union leader Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (1878-1953) died at the age of seventy-four after suffering a massive stroke several days earlier. On March 1, he was found incapacitated on the floor of his dacha, unable to speak or move. The man who had sent thousands of people to their deaths, came face to face with father time but could not escape his fate. Upon hearing that Stalin had died, Soviet citizens felt relieved even if they could not publicly express their feelings. For thirty years Stalin served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and during that time, held the Soviet Union firmly in his grip. But as he advanced in age, his own mortality became a reality as a series of health events took place before the final emergency that left him at death’s door. But what really happened during the days Stalin clung to life? And what was the fallout from his death behind the scenes? Joshua Rubenstein re-examines the final days of the Soviet leader to assess what really did happen behind the Iron Curtain. And the result is a thorough and pleasing discussion of Stalin’s terror, his demise and the dysfunction left in his wake.

Physically, Stalin was not an imposing figure, standing between 5’5″ and 5’6″ in height. And cosmetically, he was not easy on the eyes. Yet he controlled the Soviet Union and struck fear in the hearts of those around him and those who stood in front of him.  Rubenstein goes deeper into Stalin’s menacing presence by revisiting the words of former First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) who worked directly under Stalin:

“As Khrushchev once admitted, after a meeting with Stalin no one ever knew if he would return home alive. To the public, they were his “comrades-in-arms.” In reality, they were potential victims as long as he remained in charge.” 

Make no mistake, Stalin struck fear in the hearts of everyone, regardless of position or even family relation. But to understand how his death changed history, the author revisits the dark side of the late leader, paying close attention to the rise in anti-Semitism within the Soviet Union that gave way to persecution and ugly acts of violence against Russian Jews. As I read the book, I had to conclude that Stalin and his henchmen were just as bad if not worse that the perpetrators of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany. The author does clear up an important question regarding any plans by Stalin to deport Soviet Jews.  If he did have any plans in mind, they went with him to the grave. There was no joy to be found within the Soviet Union, only suspicion and fear. Ironically that system of fear prevented him from being helped at the time he needed it the most with everyone afraid to enter his private room. But by the time someone did, it was too late.

After Stalin is pronounced dead, the Soviet Union found itself in a weird place. His death inevitably created a power vacuum, but the first step was to put forth a united front to the prying eyes of western nations. But the reality was that the removal of Stalin presented opportunities for subordinates to rise in the ranks. And that struggle is included in the story as well. As the story progresses, another villain emerges in the form of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953) the director of the Soviet secret police and the man who carried out Stalin’s darkest orders. Following Stalin’s death, officials saw an opportunity for the party to reform its image by reinstating personal freedoms and commuting prison sentences. The latter of the two had adverse effects that officials somehow failed to anticipate and correct. But they were willing to accept the minor losses to accomplish the main goal. Beria had the unfortunate luck of being unpopular and a relic of what had become the “Stalin era”. He meets his fate in the book and some would say rightfully so. But Rubenstein has another take on it which sums up the Soviet Union in the wake of the leader’s death:

“The party had carried out a political exorcism, offering up Beria as a sacrificial lamb to atone for the sins it refused to acknowledge.”

In Washington, there is confusion about how Stalin’s death will affect American and Soviet relations. But no one knew how to manage the situation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) enters the story and his administration aided by former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1888-1959) is forced to confront the Soviet issue and the increasingly powerful People’s Republic of China and the Korean War. The White House eventually settled on a course of action, but the main action was taking place within the Soviet Union as Stalin’s former underlings were confronted with the reality that the party had to continue with new leadership. There were winners and losers and the Soviet Union kept moving forward until its dissolution in December 1991. When the hammer and sickle came down for the last time, it signaled the end of an era. But the ghost of Joseph Stalin will remain with us as a reminder of the dangers of tyranny and paranoia. The final curtain call in the life of Joseph Stalin was a sad affair but the comeuppance from years of deadly policy and brutality that knew no bounds. This is a fascinating and valuable look at his final days and the impact his death had across the world.


Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley – Peter Guralnick

elvis1In the afternoon of August 16, 1977, legendary recording artist Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-1977) was found unconscious at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee and later pronounced dead at a local hospital. Forty-five years have passed since his death, but his fans remain lol keeping the singer’s memory alive, and rightfully so. Presley changed history and gave credence to the genre known as Rock n’ Roll. His death at the age of forty-two is tragic and was featured in an episode of the Reelz television show ‘Autopsy‘ (S3.E2). Coverage of his death is extensive but the story of his origins in Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee are stories to be known if we are to understand how Presley rose from obscurity to become the music legend. Author Peter Guralnick is an admitted Elvis fan and in this phenomenal look at Elvis’ rise to fame, he captures the essence of the Presley family story equally as significant as the triumphs that came later through the only son of Vernon (1916-1979) and Gladys Presley (1912-1958).

This book is the first part of a two-volume biography of the late singer and ends well before his final days in 1977. Here, the author focuses on Elvis’ early life and what he writes speaks volumes about the American dream, the South and how much society has changed since Elvis caught his big break. The story begins in Tupelo, Mississippi, a place I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this book. Presley and his parents reside there briefly in the book before making the move to Memphis for better pastures. In Tupelo, there are trials and tribulations including the story of Elvis’ twin brother Jesse who died in infancy. Further, the family’s financial situation touches on the difficulties faced by Americans in the wake of the Great Depression. Families were left with tough decisions heavily based on the best opportunity for financial success and security. Recalling the words of Vernon, the author explains that:

“There were times we had nothing to eat but corn bread and water,” recalled Vernon not long before he died, “but we always had compassion for people. Poor we were, I’ll never deny that. But trash we weren’t…. We never had any prejudice. We never put anybody down. Neither did Elvis.”

For the Presleys, Memphis was the next destination and this city proved to be more than they could have ever bargained for. And as we see in the book, by the time he reaches nineteen, Elvis has already caught the eye of people in the music business with an eye for talent. But what I also noticed in the book is that as he gains notoriety, he is still a “kid” in many ways. And this human side of the singer is what makes this such a good biography. We can witness a young Elvis as an aspiring singer but more importantly, as a young man coming of age at time when music was slowly changing.  But even he had to navigate complex social structures, in particular Jim Crow which separated Blacks and Whites. Presley remarks more than once in the book that the Black singers are where he drew his inspiration. But the laws were firmly in place, and it should come as no surprise that Memphis later became a hotbed of activity. However, Elvis is frank about his love of music and its origins. This remark by him in the book is telling for its honesty:

“The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”

As the story progresses, Elvis grows before our eyes. But his mother Gladys is his guardian angel, and their bond is heartwarming. It is a well-known fact that Presley loved his parents deeply and always yearned to return home to see the family. Their son was becoming popular, and that meant talent agents, musicians and women coming around the family. Multiple figures enter the story as Elvis becomes an item and have their effect on his life to varying degrees. The entrance of Thomas Andrew “Colonel” Parker (1909-1997) changes the story significantly and it is not long before Elvis is on his way to stardom. The money started rolling in but not without its problems, which are covered in the book. It’s a familiar story of underpaid workers, jealousy and the seductions that come with a traveling show. There are romances and friendships, and it is telling that everyone had nothing but kind words for the Elvis they knew who remains true to his character throughout the book and displays a humbleness that stems from his family’s experiences. The scenes described regarding his performances are surreal but fact. And it is imperative to remember that Presley was also pushing the limits of censorship due to his dance movements on stage which caught the eye of local police departments on more than one occasion. He learns to move fast but despite his fame, there was one person he could not avoid, Uncle Sam.

Towards the end of the book, Elvis gives in and reports to the U.S. Army for duty. He fits in well and this part of the book is filled with interesting tidbits of information about his time in the military. But the book’s darkest moment comes when Gladys passes away while he is enlisted. The hurt and shock of his mother’s death is felt through the author’s words, and I began to feel as if Elvis was never the same after this event. He returns to the military, but he heads back heartbroken and in fragments. And with that the story concludes. I am eagerly anticipating the next part of the biography which unfortunately will include Elvis’ own demise. But before the story is over, I will continue to enjoy learning about the king of Rock n’ Roll and his shorty but extraordinary life. Highly recommended.

ASIN:‎ B006L8928G

Into the Dark: 30 Years in the RUC – Johnston Brown

thedarkThe conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles” claimed over thirty-five hundred lives and brought the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) into sharp focus as bombings, assassinations, and paramilitary operations spread fear across the United Kingdom. However, within Ulster Province in Northern Ireland, loyalists confronted their own demons in the form of paramilitary groups determined to eradicate the IRA and Catholics committed to a fully independent Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (“RUC”) was formed in 1922 after the partition of Ireland and found itself tasked with addressing a conflict that escalated by the minute. Over the course of thirty years, Johnston Brown served as an officer in the RUC and witnessed some of the darkest moments in the history of the Troubles. This is his account of his career in the RUC and the people he encountered. And like the title says, there were times where it was necessary to go into the dark.

Though it is not a necessity, readers will benefit by having a general understanding of the conflict and events that followed the partition of Ireland in 1921. Further, this book is written by an officer on the side of Ulster law enforcement but not from the view of a Protestant or a loyalist. In fact, nowhere in the book does Johnston show any hint of bias regarding faith or politics. Known affectionately by his peers as “Jonty”, his job and goal was to protect and serve, and that meant breaking down paramilitary groups whether they were for partition to remain or a united Ireland. But before he joined the RUC, he had to navigate a turbulent life which included living under the roof of a tyrant posing as a father. The author speaks frankly about his childhood and the difficulties that came with the dysfunction created by his domineering father. But in an ironic twist, had it not been for the police officers he encountered, this book may not have been written. His account of his childhood is tough to read at times but there are bright moments in the story. And as shocking as those events are, there is far more in the book to learn as the story takes a dark and disturbing turn.

Johnston’s career as a police officer is routine until he makes the arrest of several men involved in a covert paramilitary operation. They are loyalists and as Johnston learns, they have friends in high places, which includes his unit and the Special Branch, an intelligence division whose role in the story will leave readers staring in disbelief. To put the events to come into perspective, Johnston remarks early in the book that,

“The very last thing I ever expected was to be obstructed by members of the institution to which I devoted almost 30 years of my life. I did not anticipate that some of the worst difficulties and dangers I would face were to come from within the very organisation of which I was part.”

Readers might wonder how threats from within could be more dangerous than those from either the IRA or loyalist factions such as the Ulster Defence Association (“UDA”) and Ulster Volunteer Force (“UVF”). Well, the revelations by Johnston will remove any doubt of the dangers he faced as he and other officers in his unit struggled to contain the tensions in Northern Ireland that repeatedly erupted in deadly violence. In relation to the arrests and release of the men suspected of executing a covert mission, Johnston has a physical encounter with a fellow officer in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) that leaves him puzzled and dazed. However, the fog slowly begins to clear as he realizes that the Special Branch has a bag of tricks and when they go into the dark, it is better to stay way. And this cold truth shows itself midway through the book when Johnston is contacted by a loyalist rebel named Ken Barrett, one of the book’s most unsavory figures. But the part about Barrett’s story that caused me to recoil was the murder of solicitor (lawyer) Pat Finucane (1949-1989). I knew Finucane’s story from other books I had read and reviewed about the Troubles, but I did not know of Barrett’s role and his status as a confidential informant. And an admission by a Special Branch officer in Johnston’s company left me speechless. It is at this moment in the book where we have gone fully into the dark.

After Barrett’s entry into the story, nothing is the same again. In fact, we follow the author as he works on other cases involving Ulster loyalists who commit horrific acts. Yet, the Special Branch remains a source of danger and irritation. To say that their actions are astonishing would be an understatement. But as the author clarifies, the dark figures moving around in the Special Branch should allow readers to paint them all with the same brush. However, the dangerous elements within the Special Branch make their presence felt in the book and had Johnston in their crosshairs. What evolves is a dangerous game in which Johnston and the Special Branch tip toe around each other while working informants and making arrests of men who would not hesitate to kill anyone deemed fit to be eliminated. And towards the end of the book, the name of Johnny Adair will be etched into the reader’s memory when he emerges as the biggest threat to Johnston and his family. And before the story is over, Adair and his loyalist conspirators get up close and personal with Johnston who eventually retires from the RUC but remains on high alert.

This is the first book I have read by a police officer on the Ulster side of the conflict. Discussions of the Troubles often center around the IRA but as we see here, the loyalist side was equally as deadly, and the Ulster police were at risk for murder by both Protestants and Catholics. Officers such as Johnston were navigating deadly waters as they tried to maintain order in Ulster Province where all hell repeatedly broke loose. The story is tough to accept but this was his reality every day as a member of the RUC who came face to face with the people who went into the dark and tried to take everyone else with them. Johnston is alive to tell his story, but thousands of others did not live to see the Good Friday Agreement and current day Ireland. On a side note, there were ramifications of the agreement that gave me chills as I read Johnston’s words. This book is an asset in preserving the history of the Troubles, a conflict that haunts the United Kingdom to this day. And if Johnston publishes another volume as indicated, I will be waiting for its release.


War Diaries: 1939-1945 – Astrid Lindgren

astridWhen I learned that Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), the author of the fictional character Pippi Longstocking, had kept a diary during World War II, I was instantly intrigued. Like millions of others, I remember Pippi Longstocking and the impact it had on pop culture here in America and abroad. But who would have known that the character she created almost remained hidden from the public? The story behind the character is contained within as well as a different view of the war, from neutral Sweden. When I started the book, I had realized that I had forgotten Sweden’s neutrality. But that is not to say the Swedes did not have an opinion of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and the Third Reich. In fact, Lindgren is very vocal about the expanding war and the terrors of the Nazi regime. However, there is also another side to the diaries, and that is her family life, which includes her roles as a mother and wife. Her diaries encompass a range of topics but come together to reveal a woman deeply concerned about society and the effects of warfare.

This is the first book that I have read from the Swedish point of view. In contrast to neighboring countries, Lindgren humbly explains that shortage of food and supplies was not a significant issue in Sweden. There are occasions where the author feels guilt for the excesses they have at home, but the nation’s neutrality undoubtedly affected its ability to remain stable. However, the Swedes were aware of the war’s developments, the plague of the Jewish people attempting to flee Germany, starvation across Europe and the monstrous acts committed on people deemed “undesirable” within Reich territories. Lindgren was deeply affected by what she read and carries a heavy heart from start to finish. At one point she sadly explains that: 

“Poor human race: when I read their letters I’m staggered by the amount of sickness and distress, grief, unemployment, poverty and despair that can be fitted into this wretched earth”

The wave of terror Germany unleashed across Europe led to Lindgren lamenting the human capacity for war. In one entry she questions why England and France were slow to respond to the growing threat from Berlin. Readers interested in the slow response to the Germany arms build-up will find ‘Why England Slept‘ by John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to be a thorough analysis of the inaction from London. To be fair, outside of Germany, knowledge of internal movement would have had its limits. But Hitler’s actions building up to the invasion of Poland were no secret. And by the time nations realized how far he was willing to go, the world was at war. For Lindgren, every day became another chapter in a brutal war that claimed millions of lives. The author does her best to remain positive and fills the diary with details about Swedish delicacies, holiday traditions and family matters to which we can relate. But above everything, she desired an end to the war that should never have taken place. 

As we move to 1943 in the book, the tide begins to turn in war and a German victory becomes further from reality. The fighting between the Russians and Germans is the focus in this section. And though America had entered the war by this point, the battles across the Soviet Union were of major importance. She clearly wanted the war over, and Germany defeated but she did not ignore the danger posed by the Red Army and wanted no part of Russia’s army in Sweden. And this is a part of World War II often neglected. The Red Army could be as savage as the Germany Army and in some cases, it was far worse when atrocities were committed. Entries in the diaries will clue readers in. The savagery of the war was not lost on anyone in neutral territories, but that neutrality was of the utmost importance as she acknowledges towards the end of the book. 

The section focused on 1944 sees an elated author as the Americans invaded and former Nazi territories were liberated. The Soviets are still battling Hitler’s troops on the eastern front and Germany is in trouble. Step by step the allies push back Germany divisions and as 1945 approaches, hope builds for the war’s end. The suspense can be felt in her words as news of Allied victories filter in. And by the time 1945 arrives, the world is waiting for Germany’s collapse which comes at the end of April. She follows the news from Berlin of Hitler’s defeat and demise but finds herself shocked at the introduction of the atomic bomb. She contemplated what she learned and somberly reflects that: 

“Nineteen forty-five brought two remarkable things. Peace after the Second World War and the atom bomb. I wonder what the future will have to say about the atom bomb, and whether it will mark a whole new era in human existence, or not. The peace is not much to put one’s faith in, with the atom bomb casting such a shadow over it.”

The war ended but the reality of atomic weapons became very real. There are other entries in the diaries about nuclear weapons and her concern about their place in society. But the sense of relief that the war had ended cannot be overstated. Today it may be hard for us to understand how dark the future looked during her time. But her diaries provide a valuable resource to understand a time when the world was at war. Her family survived the war, and she created a character that still entertains children today. But she also carried with her dark memories of the years in which Adolf Hitler embarked on a quest for world domination. Highly recommended. 


Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History – Elizabeth Salas

SoldaderasThere is a saying that behind every great man is a great woman. Truth can be found in that statement, and I would also add that sometimes great women can stand alone. One definition of mythology is that it is a widespread belief or assumption that has grown up around someone or something. Regarding the Mexican female soldier known historically as the “Soldadera”, this is undeniably true. Their role in history of often obfuscated or unknown outside of Mexico. However, in Mexican history, they earned a well-deserved place that cannot be overlooked. But when exploring history, it is imperative to separate fact from fiction, and that is exactly what author Elizabeth Salas has done here in this book that examines the Soldadera and her role in Mexican society.

The cover of the book is suggestive and captures one’s attention, but for good reason. This strong image is not a myth, but an accurate portrayal of the role accepted by women who decided to pick up arms in defense of their families and country. And to understand the emergence of the Soldadera, Salas revisits Mexican history and the dominance of the Spanish empire. Uprisings against the Spaniards had a significant impact on the morale among subjugated classes of people. Women played crucial roles in the revolts and paid heavy prices. As Salas discusses, one such revolt occurred in 1611-1612 when pure and mixed Africans marched against injustice. These early struggles helped set the stage for the Soldaderas who later proved themselves at home and on the battlefield. Because the number of Soldaderas was extensive, Salas focuses on a select few to serve as examples. Among this group of women is Manuela Oxaca Quinn (1897-1980), mother of the late film star Anthony Quinn (1915-2001). Their stories are not intended to be all inclusive of all aspects of the Soldadera’s life, and for other women, the experience could have been vastly different depending on the circumstances surrounding their existence. But what we do learn from these women is that the Soldadera was unique and destined to become a fixture in Mexican history.

Salas moves through the book in a chronological order, and as the Mexican Revolution approaches, the role of the Soldadera becomes more pronounced and the pace of the book increases, as well as the suspense. Further, the Soldaderas also participated in other military campaigns that required their effort. As the author explains:

“Soldaderas served as part of Gen. Antonio López Santa Anna’s 1835–1838 campaign into Texas, the Mexican War of 1846–1848, the Three Years’ War of 1857–1860, and the French Intervention of 1862–1867” 

The Soldaderas gained status and reputations for courage but there was also a dark side to their life in Mexico. Salas also discusses the dangers that existed towards women who were caught on the battlefield or forcibly taken during raids by enemy factions. The Soldadera was sometimes born out of necessity and conditioned to protect herself and other women as much as possible. Frankly, what is revealed in the book would be described today as genocide and sex trafficking. Bandits were plenty and pillaging had become an art form. The women knew that marauders at the door did come with good intentions, and if the men could not protect them, they needed to take up arms. And that is one reason Soldaderas were born. Others sought protection of male soldiers with high rank. The author provides sufficient evidence to prove that the term Soldadera is not a monolithic term. Each woman had their own story, but they were unified in the willingness to fight and defend.

In addition to taking up arms, the women were still required to take care of the home. And the Soldadera also excelled in this regard. What we see are women who had multiple tasks that required extensive physical and mental stamina, but also had to face the threat of abduction, assault, and death in combat. Life could be short and brutally hard. Today, Mexico continues to grapple with the issue of femicide, and as the book shows, that threat also existed centuries ago during the era of the Soldaderas. However, there are bright moments in the book and the feats accomplished by the Soldaderas will leave readers speechless. Daring, cunning and devoted to their causes, the Soldaderas rose to the occasion when needed. But if that is the case, why are they never mentioned in history books? Well, in Mexico they are known but even there, the role of the Soldadera is not always a black and white issue, but one that has many shades of grey. Chicanas today are aware of the Soldaderas’ significance but live in an era far removed from the 1800s, and desire to reinvent the image of the Mexican woman. In fact, Salas points out that:

“There has been a concern among many Chicanas about the appropriateness of the soldadera image as a symbol of the Mexican woman. This issue is important to Chicanas because they want to anchor themselves in Mexican culture while expanding their personal horizons beyond that of wife, mother, and defender of La Raza.” 

The Soldaderas are an integral part of Mexican history, but Chicanas today are right to be concerned about their image. The life that existed for Soldaderas is different from modern times and the image of roving bandits and outlaws has become archived material. And though there is no need for the Soldadera today, we can still learn from their lives and experiences. But to do that, separating myth from reality is the first step. Highly recommended.


The Mountain Shadow – Gregory David Roberts

Mountain Shadow

Earlier this year I posted a review of Gregory David Roberts’ masterpiece ‘Shantaram’, a fictional novel based loosely on his life story and events that transpired in Bombay, India, known today as Mumbai. The story is unbelievable yet intriguing from the start with a cast of characters that are sure to be remembered. I recently finished this sequel to Shantaram in which Roberts continues his story two years after the finale in part one. And like the first book, the story at hand here is unforgettable and filled with plot twists that will satisfy fans. At over eight hundred pages, the book is not a quick read and due to Roberts’ writing style, the pace of the story moves quickly. In contrast to the first part, it was easier keeping track of the characters in this story. There are familiar names from part one such as Lisa, Didier, Kavita, and Karla, who emerged in part one as the object of Lin’s affection. Their exploits are far from over and by the time this book is over, they have run amok all over Bombay on missions not for the faint at heart.

The book opens with Lin engaged in his routine criminal activity. He is still living with Lisa who Karla rescued from the infamous Madame Zhou in part one. Lisa has turned her life around and has set her sights on bigger things. Lin, however, is still running around with underworld figures. He visits a local drug spot to rescue a friend named Vikram who has a serious addiction. There he meets the Irishman Concannon and Dennis who both play crucial roles later in the story. But before we reach that point, the Company and Lin have their own issues as they face a threat from rival gang the Scorpions and Lin realizes that he wants out of the criminal life. Company boss Sanjay, who is not popular, is willing to let him leave but not before one last mission in Sri Lanka which Lin accomplishes. But while he is gone, a series of events in Bombay involving Lisa transpire that turn his world upside down and signal that the story is about to take a sharp turn. Upon returning to Bombay aided by suspicions implanted by the Blue Hijab’s words, Lin becomes a man destined to find the truth. And to help him find that truth, Karla fills the void and their complicated past from part one comes back to life as they each wrestle with the lives they have created. Madame Zhou also returns filled with rage and thirsting for revenge. Lin is also seeking revenge but is burdened with the reality of being a Company outsider and a target of the Scorpions. His protector and brother in arms Abdullah stands by his side in this part as well as the fearless warrior who stares death in the face and is the main threat to Sanjay’s reign in a metaphorical clash of the titans.

Lin finds himself in a strange place realizing that he has done too much to turn back and done too much to move forward without pushback. Added to his issues are the plights of Divya, Rannvieg and Ranjit, Karla’s husband. Lin is the person they all seek out for help and like a juggler, he confronts and diffuses situations but not always without violence. And lurking in the background is Concannon who is by far the book’s biggest antagonist. But Lin is far from alone, and standing behind him is the Frenchman Didier, who is not only the comic relief in the book, but the type of muscle needed when the streets are hot. His sexual orientation is the source of controversy more than once in the book, but he never fails to show his strength when needed. He is, without question, my favorite character in the book.

As the story picks up in pace upon Lin’s return to Bombay, the chips begin to fall, and the fallout is nothing short of astounding. Frankly, there are a lot of departures and few arrivals. While reading the latter part of the story, I could tell that things were coming to a head and the final part of the story would leave no stone unturned. There is heartache at the end but also justice even if it is unconventional. Lin is alive to tell the story but not without his demons and the realization that the dark side of Bombay is darker than one may think. But there are ways out and throughout the story, that is a common theme. The problem, however, is that everyone is in too deep. From Vikram to the corrupt police official Lightning Dilip and even Diyva’s father, all are up to their necks in some scheme or racket in Bombay. That is not to say there are no morals in the story. In fact, the characters are fully aware of their shortcomings and the choices they have made in life. And that is a part of the story that can be lost. In both books, each person is confronted repeatedly with moral challenges that test human nature and our willingness to corrupt ourselves to survive or to indulge. Idriss is the guru on the mountain they seek enlightenment from and the discussion they have provides something to consider. But even Idriss cannot stop the deadly actions in Bombay from reaching the mountain. Abdullah never fails his mission and the last time they visit the mountain in the story, all debts are paid.

Readers in search of a short story will not find it here but those who enjoy long books and intricate storytelling will love this. And if you have read Shantaram, you must read this. I have yet to watch the television show based on it, but my hope is that it does the book the justice it deserves.

ISBN-10: ‎ 0802125557
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0802125552