Today, sixty-four years after his death in, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) remains one of the most polarizing and studied figures of the 20th century. As the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, he enforced the legendary Red Army as it fought off a German onslaught and helped the Allies put an end to Germany’s Third Reich. Following the war, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated giving birth to the Cold War. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and today Russia is under the control of Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly one of the world’s most controversial figures. Stalin’s reign may seem to be in Russia’s distant past but it was less than one hundred years ago that Stalin ruled with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of not only his enemies but those closest to him. Rumors have surfaced over the years regarding everything including his love life, health, mental state and bungled policies. But who was the real Joseph Stalin? Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878 to Besarion “Beso” Jughashvili (1850-1909) and Ketevan “Keke” Geladze (1858-1937), few could have imagined that the young child would grow up to rule an entire nation. His life in later years became mysterious to those inside and outside of Russia. Misconceptions and falsehoods have spread, causing even more confusion about the truth. Stephen Kotkin has takes on the late leader’s life in a multi-part definitive biography that is simply outstanding.
Kotkin’s compendium is extensive, totaling over seven hundred pages of text. And from what I have seen, the second volume, due to be released in November, 2017 will be slightly larger. But contained within the pages of this book, is the incredible story of the life of Joseph Stalin from his birth until the year 1928. The book was exhaustively researched and at times, is heavy on historical figures, places and dates. At first it may seem challenging to keep track but as the book goes on the, the figures reappear to remind us of their importance. The beauty in the book is that Kotkin deeply examines all situations that require explanation. And in his writing, he is neither for or against Stalin. He simply shows us his life and who he was, based on his own statements, transcripts of Party Congresses and documents that have survived from the era. For history lovers, this is nearly heaven on earth. History textbooks tell some of the story of the Russian Revolution, but here we have an inside look into the movement that catapulted Stalin, Vladimir Lenin (1877-1924) and Leon “Lev” Trotsky (1879-1940) to eternal fame and later condemnation. The subsequent Russian Polish War and escalation of tensions between Russian and it’s allies Germany and Britain following Lenin’s death, highlight the fractured foreign policy enacted employed by the Bolshevik party.
As Kotkin showcases, Stalin’s rise to power was based on fear, intimidation and deception. Even those closest to him, never truly knew what he was thinking or how to approach him at times. His first wife Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze (1885-1907) died only a year into their marriage but his second wife Nadya Alliluyeva (1901-1932) witnessed first hand his unpredictable nature and abrasive moods. And for those that were enemies, they often face exile in Siberia, where Stalin himself was once confined to during the First World War. Trotsky, Grigory Zionviev (1883-1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936) would find this out firsthand. His NEP or “New Economic Policy” was supposed to be the plan that saved Russian but instead propelled it towards disorganized collectivization intended to balance the economy as Stalin moved further to the left. But as we see in the book, the Bolsheviks had steep learning curves in many areas. The results of their shortcomings are tragic having resulted in the deaths of over seven million people. Famine spread like a virus forcing many to eat things unmentionable and unimaginable. And throughout the crisis that arise, Stalin comes off as a cold machine unaffected by anything and driven by ideology. As we re-live the past through Kotkin’s words, we see the deep level of seriousness and vindictiveness that composed the former Soviet dictator.
Stalin took with him to the grave, answers to many questions that have puzzled researchers for years. And although we have documents that have been graciously preserved, some parts of his life are lost for good. Perhaps some day in the future, more information about him may be discovered but with Kotkin’s work, we have the first part of what could be the best biography of Stalin to date. It is one of history greatest stories and filled with historical figures such as Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), Fanya Kaplan (1890-1918), Gavilro Princip (1894-1918) and Nicholas II (1868-1918) among others. Students of Russian history have been presented with a gift in this book and I am sure it will find its way to the bookshelves of many.
Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas” – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin
Although this blog is for book reviews, I felt it necessary to write this post about a series on Netflix that captured my attention and emotions. On a recommendation from a friend, I decided to watch 13 Reasons Why, the phenomenal show that explores the life of a teenager girl who commits suicide and the lives of those around her. The powerful messages in the show resonate long after its conclusion, an influx of emotions and revelations that brought me to tears. The creators of the show have stated that they believe this show has the power to change the world. Having finished it, I concur wholeheartedly. There are those who will watch the show and feel that the characters, in particular Hannah, might be “too sensitive” or “fragile”. The reality is the events that happen in the show have occurred for generations but were rarely ever discussed. It has been common practice to sweep things under the rug and pretend as if they do not exist. We as a society know far better.
The story begins with Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a sophomore who receives a box of cassettes from his deceased friend, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who has recently committed suicide. She recorded the tapes before her death and each tape is dedicated to an individual she encountered that is in some way responsible for her death. As Clay listens to the tapes, we are introduced to the main characters and the roles they played in the web of deceit and suspicion that has engulfed their school. The adults are largely clueless to what happens at the school and even the administrators are a loss as to why Hannah has taken her own life. But as the story progresses, we see the signs were all there and no one picked up on her plight. Her parents have sued the school and refused a paltry settlement. Each of the students known to associate with her are subpoenaed for depositions and give their side of the story. The severity of the lawsuit and the internal demons that plague the characters, cause them to unravel as each seeks to protect their own imagine while reconciling their feelings of guilt in another student’s demise. In death, Hannah is vindicated and the full story finally comes to light. due to the efforts of Clay, the lawyers and Tony, who serves as Clay’s guardian angel per Hannah’s instructions. In life, there are Hannah’s all over this world who suffer in silence and make the ultimate decision to end their lives. Our hope is that we can reach them before it is too late.
When he realizes how he failed to help Hannah, Clay makes a statement that is deep and is literally the problem throughout the show. He says “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her”. As scary as it may sound, we all know or have known someone who could have been Hannah. The face may be different but the struggles can be similar. If there is anything we can learn from the story, it is that we should show and tell the people close to us that we love them when we can and be there for them in their time of need. Tomorrow is never guaranteed and as we see in the show, we never know what a person is going through.
All of us have faced bullies before in the schoolyard, in the neighborhood or even at work. But what took place in the show went far beyond bullying and is a reflection on the problems that continue to plague society. Behavior that is atrocious and inappropriate cannot be excused for kids being kids, boys being boys or just “locker room talk.” The women who are victims of sexual assault and harassment could be our sisters, mothers, aunts, nieces, cousins, spouses and friends. And for those of us who are parents, this could be your daughter. I do not have any children of my own, but if I did have a daughter, I would make it my duty to make sure that she knows the ugliness that people are crafty at hiding. But more importantly, listen to her and watch for signs that she is in trouble and reaching out. Often, we do not realize what once was until it is too late and hindsight is always 20/20. But perhaps we can adjust our vision to see what is right in front of us.
Hannah’s tragedy is fictional, but she represents what some of us will go through in life. Her life ended in a most tragic manner before she had a chance to fully live. And although she is a fictional character, that does not take away from the messages that the filmmakers and stars of the show are conveying to us. Robert F. Kennedy once said that tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not by which to live. If you have yet to watch this show, do so and I guarantee it will reach you in ways you never imagined.
Suicide is never an issue to be taken lightly. If you or anyone you know has had thoughts about suicide or made an attempt to end their life, please be aware that there is help available. You do not have to keep everything inside, reach out and speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They are available seven days a week, twenty four hours a day for anyone that needs help.
America is often referred to as the land of opportunity for anyone wishing to start a new life far away from home. Since the days of Amerigo Vespucci, the territory we now call the United States has been a primary destination for world travelers. In recent years, legislation regarding immigration has been an important topic which provokes fierce debate. Every country has its issues with immigration and none has a perfect regarding the same. However America has been the place where millions of immigrants have made a new home. The late John F. Kennedy, formerly the Thirty-Fifth President of the United States, left us with many writings, interviews and speeches before his untimely death in Dallas, Texas. His sharp wit, uncanny foresight and fierce independence catapulted him to the top of the list of Americans whose names live on forever. As the descendants of Irish settlers from Ireland escaping the potato famine, his family came to America in search of a new life. Their journey was long and their assimilation into a new society rough, with prejudice and xenophobia forming substantial obstacles to peace and happiness. Their plight was never forgotten and is told again in this short but engaging book that clarifies his position that America truly is a nation of immigrants.
Today it is hard for many of us to comprehend that the America as we know it is less than three hundred years old. In fact, my hometown of New York City did not come into existence until 1898. The stories of Ellis Island are legend in American history with tales of immigrants from places such as Ireland, Italy, Germany at The Netherlands. But as Kennedy beautifully explains, America owes its diversity to immigrants from all over. He starts off by giving a brief history of the creation of America before going into the influx of newcomers and their cultures and traditions that they introduced to the American experience. As I read the book, I thought to myself that although it was written in 1958 and published posthumously in 1964 after his death, his words are still relevant today. Currently, America finds itself in the midst of a bitter political climate. Immigration remains a hotly contested topic with the lives of millions of people living in the United States at stake. But as we move forward and consider how to approach immigration, it is wise for us to reminder JFK’s words that immigrants are responsible for the building of our country.
One of the tragedies of America’s development, pointed out by Kennedy in the book, is the backlash and discrimination faced by newly arrived immigrants. Every group of people has had to face discrimination fueled by bigotry and xenophobia. Regrettably, those who engage in such acts easily forget that all of our ancestors come from foreign land. Furthermore, the disenfranchisement of the Native Americans, Aborigines and struggle of the African and Hispanic-American and dark periods and a stain on the American conscience. The more I read his words and listen to his speeches, the more I am concerned that they are more important today. And his death on November 22, 1963, is still one of America’s darkest moments. My father who will turn sixty-five this year, still recalls with vivid detail, the day that Kennedy died. And as I listen to him talk, I can feel and see the sense of loss that engulfs him.
St. Augustine remarked that “the world is a book, those who do not travel read only a page”. Truer words have rarely been spoken. For some of us, it is not merely travel, but a completely new change in life requiring moving from the place known as home to a new land thousands of miles away. Those of us who have always lived in once place may find it difficult to appreciate the struggle many face as they try to make a new life in the United States. But as we go about our daily routines and encounter those who are different, it is imperative that we remember this deeply moving compendium and its words by the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Today, the People’s Republic of China continues to feel the effects of the policies of it most popular leader, the late Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Known as Chairman Mao, his successful campaign against the Nationalist led by Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975) set the stage for the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Mao ruled the nation until his death on September 9, 1976 at the age of eighty-two. During his tenure he came a controversial figure and is credited with causing millions of deaths through the failed policies of collectivization and the infamous “Great Leap Forward.” The aura of promise and hope that surrounded the commencement of his administration subsided as millions of Chinese endured long periods of poverty and famine while Mao enjoyed unlimited perks through his role as Chairman. Propaganda is a power tool used by the darkest of dictators to enforce their will on the masses of people they wish to control. An official story of triumph supported by an unwavering commitment to the revolution by ordinary men and women, helped cast an illusion of a progressive new China, modeled on its Soviet counterpart. In reality, the story is far different and in some cases, horrific as can been seen in this study of the early years of the Chinese Revolution by Dutch historian Frank Dikötter. (1961-)
Chairman Mao is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders in world history. His image can still be found on walls throughout mainland China and his name is still mentioned in articles about the country he ruled even today. Following the communist victory over Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces and the establishment of the new republic, the left-wing government under Mao instituted radical changes to transform the nation’s economy and enforce its rigid ideology. Behind the parades and strong rhetoric of a society that helps everyone, were bare truths far uglier and more sinister than anyone could have imagined. And as we learn in this book, the revolution was nearly a complete failure in all regards.
Carefully reconstructing the past, Dikötter takes us back in time to experience life as an ordinary citizen in the new Mao controlled China. And what we see is a regime that encourages suspicion, deceit, paranoia, fear and destitution. For decades following his death, there were many aspects of Mao’s regime that had remained puzzling. His former doctor, Liu Zhisui (1920-1995) published his memoirs entitled The Private Life of Chairman Mao which gave readers an invaluable look into Mao’s personal life, the ugly truths that formed basis of Mao’s plans for the country and the treacherous atmosphere that had engulfed his cabinet. Dikötter makes reference to the late doctor recalling his words on several occasions throughout the book. Both works help to paint the most accurate picture of what Mad had in mind as he made many decisions, some of which nearly brought about the destruction of China.
As a communist nation, China had been closely aligned with the Soviet Union, then under the leadership of the infamous Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Mao and Stalin formed a partnership based on Marxist-Leninist beliefs and shared opponents; Chiang Kai-Shek and the United States. The animosity between the parties peaked in 1949 resulting in the defeat of the Nationalists but the war was far from over. Here, we revisit the events leading up to the Korean War, the conflict that permanently changed the relationship between China, Korea, Russia and the United States. Mao’s actions and beliefs prior to and during the war are examined providing answers to questions surrounding China’s entry into the conflict.
The true tragedy in the book however, is the fate suffered by millions of Chinese under Mao’s rule. The book ends before the implementation of the Great Leap Forward but the events that transpire serve as premonitions of the disaster that had yet to come. The policy of collectivization combined with the infusion of suspicion of “right-leaning” civilians, created a system of dysfunction that eroded the trust of the people in the government and among each other. Their life savings and property gone, once well-off Chinese were reduced to peasantry, forced to work for next to nothing on a diet rationed by government bean counters. Today it is mind-boggling to think that such a system even existed. But it did and the effects of it were nothing short of devastating and left a dark stain on Mao’s legacy. The atrocious conditions in which people were forced to live is beyond comprehension and highlights the inefficiency and lack of knowledge and planning that plagued the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Today China is a world superpower but Mao’s legacy and ghost still haunt the nation as a reminder of a not too distant past in which China came to the brink of total collapse under a ruler focused more on his political enemies than the well-being of his own people.
For those who seek to learn more about Chairman Mao and the Chinese Revolution, Dikötter’s compendium is an excellent place to start.
On August 1, 1966, the citizens of Austin, Texas woke up to yet another brutally hot summer day. The heat was typical for the summer season but that day would be remembered for more than just the temperature. At 11:35 a.m., Charles Whitman (1941-1966), a former United States Marine and student at the University of Texas, ascended to the observation deck of the UT Tower and unleashed a deadly shooting assault on suspecting civilians below. In ninety-six minutes, Whitman murdered fourteen people and wounded at least thirty-one before he was shot and killed by responding law enforcement officers Houston McCloy and Ramiro Martinez who were joined by civilian Allen Crum. The shooting left the city shocked and ushered in a new concept in American history; the mass shooting spree.
Post-mortem, it was discovered that Whitman has a pecan sized tumor in his brain but whether it played in role in his actions of that day has not been conclusively determined. However there is strong evidence to believe that it did not as summarized concisely by Gary M. Lavergne (1955-) in this chilling account of Whitman’s life and his grisly crimes. The long standing question is why did Whitman do it? The truth shall never be known and went with Whitman to his grave. What we do know is that he carefully planned every step, in particular the murders of his mother Margaret and wife Katherine. Their deaths, combined with the rampage on the afternoon on August 1, left many who knew him in a state of bewilderment. The key to understanding a criminal is to study their past. Lavergne recounts Whitman’s life as we search to familiarize ourselves with Charles J. Whitman.
The book is thoroughly researched and reaches deep inside the dark side of Whitman’s mind. His childhood is explored and the system of chaos that ensued at home takes center stage as Whitman and his father become arch enemies. The elder Whitman could easily be the antagonist in the book but at no point does Lavergne attempt to cast blame on him for any of the actions of that day. He is spectator and so are we, to a father and son relationship driven by dysfunction and destined for destruction. And in a cruel twist of fate, the elder Whitman would outlive his wife and all three of his sons. Lavergne personally interviewed C.A. Whitman and even years after the tragedy he still came off as a most peculiar figure.
As we make our way to August 1 in the book, the suspense builds up and is enhanced by Whitman’s actions which are nothing sort of bizarre. Lavergne pulls no punches and all of the grisly details are relayed to the reader. And quite frankly, the remainder of the book is not for the faint at heart. The story approaches the verge of descending deeper into what could only be called hell on earth. With vivid detail and a play-by-play style of writing, Lavergne replays the events of that day in its entirety bringing the past alive. In fact, during the book, I found myself overcome with chills. Whitman’s ability to kill in cold blood and his deviously calculating mind have placed him high in the annals of American crime. However, his story would not be complete without the inclusion of the courageous officers who risked their own lives to put an end to the carnage. Lavergne has done a great service to former Austin Police Officers Houston McCoy (1940-2012) , Ramiro Martinez (1937-) and Billy Speed (1943-1966). None of them could have imagined that day would turn out as it did. And for Speed, he could not have imagined that it would be his last day on earth. In this book and the story of Whitman, their names live on.
In 1975, MGM Television aired The Deadly Tower starring Kurt Russell as Charles Whitman. Russell does a good job of portraying Whitman but regrettably, the producers of the film took several liberties that are in no way accurate to the real life story. Regardless, the film stands as the big screen adaptation of Whitman’s murder spree. Since that dreadful day in Austin more than fifty years ago, there have been other mass shootings in the United States that have cause nationwide grief and renewed the debate about the gun laws in America. The names of Columbine, Orlando and Sandy Hook have become embedded in the minds of Americans as reminders of the deadly consequences of mentally unstable and hateful individuals in the possession of weapons designed to kill. In the future, it is hoped that our response to such acts are swift and effective. The Austin police department found itself unable to accurate respond to a previously unknown threat on American soil. As we moved forward, it is imperative that history does not repeat itself. This is the story of Charles J. Whitman and one of America’s darkest days.
More than twenty years have passed since the deaths of rap stars Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace). The two rappers were both under thirty years of age and left behind grieving friends and family members who struggled to come to terms with such a sudden and tragic loss. Officially, both murders are still open investigations. Fans of the fallen artists have expressed shock that the murders have remained unsolved for so many years. Theories have been presented surrounding their deaths but no final conclusion had been reached. Following Shakur’s death, his mother Afeni successfully sued Death Row records for control of her son’s master recordings, unpaid earnings and royalties. The parties reached a settlement in August, 2013 in the amount of 2.2 million dollars. Wallace’s mother Voletta, commenced a wrongful death suit against the City of Los Angeles for her son’s death in 2002. On April 5, 2010, the Hon. Jacqueline H. Nguyen dismissed the suit without prejudice. On May 2, 2016, Afeni Shakur died from heart failure at the age of 69 without knowing the truth about her son’s murder.
Russell Poole (1956-2015) was an Los Angeles Police Officer for eighteen years before retiring in 1999 to form his own private investigation firm. He had been assigned to Wallace’s murder but found himself confronted with departmental resistance towards solving the murder. After retiring from the force, Poole became one of the most outspoken voices on behalf of solving the murder of Christopher Wallace and Tupac Shakur. On August 20, 2015, Poole died while meeting with detectives to discuss the unsolved murder of Wallace. His death is also shrouded in mystery with the official cause of a “heart attack” falling under suspicion. Before his death, Poole had decided to collaborate with author Michael Douglas Carlin and filmmaker R.J. Bond to find the truth about Shakur and Wallace’s murders. Their efforts led to the book Tupac 187 and serve as the basis of the recently released Tupac Assassination III: The Battle For Compton. The documentary can been seen on iTunes and Amazon video and is being considered for Netflix at some point. I have seen the documentary and it does shed light on information that was previously widely unknown by many. And while definitely proof of guilt by any party is provided, the evidence trail leads in directions that the general public had never considered before. This composition, Chaos Merchants, is a collection of their notes as they formed what would serve as the basis for their book and the subsequent film. At 133 pages, it is a quick but engaging read. And even for those who believe they know all there is to know about the case, you might find something in here that you did not know before.
The biggest strength in this book is that it legitimately challenges the long-held narrative that after a fight at the MGM Hotel & Casino, Shakur was gunned down by Crips gang member Orlando “Baby Lane” Anderson, who repeatedly denied shooting Shakur even making an appearance on CNN to clear his name. On May 26, 1998, nearly two years after Shakur’s death, Anderson was shot and killed during a violent confrontation at a car wash in the Compton section of Lost Angeles. Despite his repeated denials that he was the trigger man involved in Shakur’s shooting, many believed that he was in fact guilty due in part to the story put forth by former officer Greg Kading and Anderson’s uncle, Dwayne “Keefe D” Davis. But as we learn through Poole, there was more to the story than meets the eye.
The legacy of Russell Poole will live on throughout time as a result of his exhaustive efforts to find the truth and bring closures to these cases. With this book, he and Carlin have finally removed the lid on many secrets once held firmly in the grip of Death Row records and will have readers shaking their heads in disgust and disbelief. Alas, we are steps closer to the truth about the nights of September 7, 1996 and March 9, 1997.
In December, 1991, Warner Brothers pictures released Oliver Stone’s JFK, the film adaptation of the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (1921-1922) into the death of President John F. Kennedy. The film is filled with an all-star cast and remains one of Stone’s greatest accomplishments. Reviews of the movie are generally favorable but there are many critics who have voiced their dissatisfaction with the film believing that Stone omitted crucial information and glorified Garrison on screen. The famed director did an incredible job of bringing the past of life and his effort paid off immensely as more records related to President Kennedy’s assassination were released to the public. The actors that took part in the landmark film all did an incredible job in making the story one that will continue to spark curiosity. From history, we know that Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) was the alleged assassin but was murdered himself before he could stand trial. Several years later, Garrison began his own investigation, focusing on what he believed to be a plot in his own City of New Orleans to murder Kennedy. His investigation resulted in the arrest and prosecution of local businessman Clay L. Shaw (1913-1973). The trial became infamous for its absurdity and Shaw was exonerated in March, 1969. Garrison later tried Shaw on the charge of perjury and Shaw subsequently filed a civil suit against Garrison and others for the violations of his civil rights. These matters and others were unresolved at the time of Shaw’s death from lung cancer on August 15, 1974.
But just who was Clay Shaw and what really was his significance in the murder of John F. Kennedy? In the film we do not know much about Shaw’s past and the focus remains on his alleged connections to Oswald and David Ferrie (1918-1967). The impression that can be made from the movie is that a plot to kill Kennedy evolved among homosexual right wing extremists determined to see the President removed from office. Curiously, nearly none of the popular books on the assassination regard Shaw as a conspirator in the President’s murder. The reality of the case, as shown by Donald Carpenter in this phenomenal biography of Shaw, is that his life was far different from what we have been led to believe and the real Clay Shaw really was a man of a million fragments.
Carpenter researched Shaw’s life over a period of eighteen years before completing the book. Interviews with those who knew Shaw were conducted and Carpenter also reviewed Shaw’s surviving documents, newspaper clippings, statements given by Shaw on screen and other important notes and memorabilia. The final story is simply one of amazement and sheds light on a man who lived a incredible life. For those of us who have visited the French Quarter in New Orleans, we can attest to the level of enjoyment that awaits all of those who pay visit to the legendary Bourbon Street. Today Shaw’s name is an afterthought but at one time, he was a well-known, respected and beloved resident of the French Quarter whose efforts to transfer the neighborhood paid off well and earned him a permanent place in the City’s history.
For all of the shortcomings that plagued JFK, the film was correct regarding the issue of Shaw’s sexual orientation. And in the book it is a reoccurring subject which follows Shaw throughout his life and takes center stage during his trial. The true motives for Garrison trying Shaw remain somewhat elusive and the “evidence” of Shaw’s guilt was fragile at best. Further, rumors about Garrison’s own sexual conduct become fodder for conversation peaking with an incident involving a minor at an athletic club in 1969. I had previously read about Garrison’s indiscretions which are directly addressed by the late Kent “Frenchy” Brouilette (1936-2015) in his autobiography Mr. New Orleans: The Life of a Big Easy Underworld Legend. If Brouilette is truthful, which appears to be the case, then the anecdotes contained within this book carry more clout and shed light on Shaw’s statement to more than one friend that he would tell them the real motive behind his persecution after the trial was completed. As far as we know and the author has concluded, there is nothing in Shaw’s handwriting or oral statements by him addressing the issue.
Carpenter did an immaculate job of chronicling Shaw’s life providing a staggering amount of information on the late star of the International Trade Mart. In particular, he dives into the topic of Shaw’s affiliation with the Central Intelligence Agency bringing more clarity to the issue while also refuting unfounded conspiracy rumors. Shaw’s life is covered from beginning to end and it was an incredible journey that included service in World War II, a stint in New York City, a career with foreign trade, restoration of the French Quarter and a showdown with a controversial district attorney whose case threatened the foundation of the U.S. legal system. There are many things that we do know about Shaw’s life, but there are many more that went with him to his grave. This is by far the most accurate detailed analysis of Shaw’s life that I have read to date. And if you have watched Stone’s groundbreaking film, are planning to or are curious about Clay Shaw, this is the place to start.
On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich invaded Poland and started the Second World War. In violation of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had rearmed itself and under the determination of Hitler, set its eyes upon conquering all of Europe. The looming threat of German domination had been lingering for quite some time before the outbreak of the war. But sadly, many of the nations that would later be opposed to Germany did not think that Hitler would be brazen enough or have the resources to initiate a world conflict. In hindsight, we know that way of thinking was short-sighted and later highly regrettable. The actions of the British government in response to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, resulted in the condemnation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and established Germany as a legitimate threat to world peace. The episode has been recalled in history books and documentaries and continues to provoke discussion about how Hitler could have been stopped before his army invaded neighboring Poland.
In 1940, a student at Harvard University presented to his professor with his senior thesis entitled Why England Slept. Twenty years later he became the Thirty-Fifth President of the United States of America, known affectionately as Jack. To the world, he remains John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). The thesis was eventually published into this short but well-researched and well-written book that probes the question of why England failed to respond to the growing Germany menace. Henry R. Luce (1898-1967), the creator of Time-Life magazine provides a foreword to this edition, published in 1962. Incredibly, the book sold for $.95 as printed on the cover. I believe it was severely undersold. The beauty in the book is that Kennedy does not simply lay blame for Hitler at England’s feet. Instead he examines the conditions and beliefs that lead to the slow realization that armament was necessary and that Hitler was a very real threat. It should be remembered that Kennedy spent a great deal of time in London as the son of then Ambassador to Great Britain and his father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Fully aware of the nature of British culture and politics, Kennedy wisely incorporates this into the text which helps to explain many of the actions and inactions taken.
In fairness to Britain, it was not easy to foresee the coming of the German nightmare. Hitler invoked secretive maneuvers, arouse national sentiment and provided a source of hope to a nation in despair. And as Kennedy thoroughly points out, he had the advantage of running a dictatorship against a democracy, the latter of which is always slower to respond to the threats of war. Furthermore, distance and size gave Germany advantages against the prying eyes of foreign nations. Today social media has made it far more difficult to conceal the mass production of good and machinery. But in the 1930s, secrecy was easier to effect and many countries used it to their benefit. But even so, Britain did know that Hitler was up to something and was aware that Germany had slowly been rearming itself. But the slowness to act depending on several factors that Kennedy lays out for all to see and understand. Sympathy of Germany, pacifism in Britain, a restricted budget, naiveté and political ambition combined to severely delay the rearmament of Britain prior to beginning of the deadliest war in world history. And as Kennedy explores each issue, we may find ourselves filled with shock and disbelief towards England’s actions. However it is imperative to remember that we have the benefit of history our on side and look back and see the errors of their ways. England did not have this advantage and even struggled internally with how to deal with growing danger.
More than seventy years have passed since the end of World War II. Hitler was eventually defeated and Britain was spared from annexation by the Third Reich. But this account of England’s actions prior to the war will remain a guide for us to use as we face new threats to world peace. And it is hoped that world leaders will remind us of why England slept.
Throughout our lives we sometimes find ourselves in search of the meaning of life and where we go after our time on earth reaches its conclusion. Religion has played a central role in the question, giving millions a sense of calm and relief that upon death, there is an afterlife awaiting us where we continue to live for an eternity. There are those among us who do not believe in any God or Deity, but feel that it is up to humans to create heaven on earth. Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are the world’s dominant religion with each having millions of followers. There are thousands of other deities worshipped throughout the world and dozens of separate faiths. Hinduism reigns as one of the world’s oldest religions predating Christianity by thousands of years. Its ancient scriptures are prized and studied for guidance through life by Hindus and others seeking spiritual enlightenment. Among these cherished scriptures is The Bhavagad Gita, the classic of Indian spirituality that earned the love of readers world-wide. It is rare for me to pick up any book on religion but I decided to give this a read following the completion of a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. (1904-1967) Having finished the text I can see why it is loved by many.
Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999), the founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation and Nilgiri in Northern California, translated the ancient text in an attempt to manifest its contents to a large world audience. He died on October 26, 1999 but his work and life of commitment to the teachings of the Indian spiritual classics established his legacy. Here he has translated one of the most popular classics, the book which was a personal favorite of Oppenheimer’s. In fact, upon completion of the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer quoted the Gita when he famously said “I am become death”. The words by Oppenheimer, haunting in many aspects, sparked my interest in the text that touches deep on all of our spiritual beliefs.
Purists may not be fond of this version which contains extensive explanations by Easwaran. But the explanations are necessary for those unfamiliar with Indian spiritualism and others reading the Gita for the first time. In fact, on more than one occasion, Easwaran explains that it is almost important to completely translate some things. Regardless he does an outstanding job of making the book clear enough so that anyone can pick up the book and begin to learn instantly. But what exactly is The Gita? The story begins as we join Sanjaya who tells the story of a discussion between Arjuna, who’s preparing for battle and Krishna, the God who rides with him but does not take part in the fight. Arjuna has reservations about the war for he must confront and engage his relatives. He is conflicted and questions his own existence. Krishna, seeks to provide him with the answers he has and explain to him the truth path to wisdom. Step by step Arjuna is given a course on the most important concepts that will shape his mind and guide his spirit. As outsiders looking in, we follow along and explore the concepts of Atman, Brahman, Yoga, sannyasa, sattva, rajas and tamas among dozens of others critical to understanding the deeply spiritual purpose behind the Gita.
The beauty in the book is that it is not simply a book of rule and regulations. In fact, there are no standard rituals at all. Krishna presents each concept and thorough explains the what it shapes our lives. This in itself is what makes the book such a pleasure to read. Krishna is clearly the all-knowing and all-powerful God but he never goes as far as to demand subjugation from Arjuna. He explains things with profound wisdom and love and never loses patience with Arjuna or avoids discussion even the most complicated topics. For the readers, Krishna is also talking to us so that we too may find help in our own lives as we travel the path to spiritual salvation. And whether you believe in Allah, Christ or Vishnu, the words in this book are insightful and deeply moving. The Gita is not just a manual or a discussion, but an important scripture about the love of life and one’s purpose in it.
Fourteen years have passed since the United States military invaded the nation of Iraq and deposed its former ruler Saddam Hussein. President George W. Bush had declared Iraq America’s number one enemy and vowed to remove Hussein from power. Hussein fled but was captured in December, 1993 and eventually executed for his crimes against his own people. For many Iraqis and Americans, his death was long overdue and they bid farewell to one of history’s worst dictators. Critics of the war remain and remind us that our military is still in Iraq and no clear permanent solution to establish true democracy is in place. The war is as controversial as those that precede it. But for the men and women that served in the war, their stories are often unnoticed. However in this phenomenal story, Evan Wright brings their story to light for the world to see what warfare was like for thousands of troops. In March, 2003, he accompanied the First Reconnaissance Battalion as the invasion begins. The group becomes known as First Recon and is tasked with clearing town after town until the Iraqi army capitulates. Baghdad eventually falls, Hussein escapes and the marines have done their job for the time being. America celebrates and Bush stands stoically as the armed forces once again succeed. The infantry soldiers return to civilian life or choose to remain enlisted. Their stories fade in time and their names are often never heard of by the mainstream public. But just who are these brave souls and why do they voluntarily put their lives on the line? Wright explores this and more in the book that became a New York Times Bestseller and inspired the HBO hit series of the same name.
I forewarn those readers looking for a feel good story to stop before they purchase the book. There is no glorification of war in this story, this is the life of a grunt and all of the ugliness that comes with it. The Marines are quite young, most of them under twenty-five years of age. But they are hardened and they are seasoned with one command, to kill whatever is hostile. Readers that dislike profanity or crude talk might do well to prepare ahead of time for the dialogue contained within the pages of the book. They’re Marines in a foreign land embroiled in a deadly conflict. Pleasantries sometimes go out of the window. To Iraqi troops and foreigners who have come to Iraq to fight the Americans, the Marines are a mass of invaders and nothing more. But as we travel with the group next to Wright, we learn their stories and talk to each man to get his view on the war and his own life. Their stories are fascinating and as we get to know them, we come to like them more and more and nervously wait until each battle is over, hoping that there have been no casualties. Sadly, there are casualties in the book but that is a part of war.
The saying that war is hell is entirely appropriate throughout the book. As I read through it I found myself having enormous empathy for the Iraqi civilians that the group encounters. Some of them are severely or fatally wounded and others are mentally unbalanced because of the sudden invasion. Their loved ones, land and animals are destroyed by American weapons but yet they truly believe in the removal of Saddam. Their ability to continue even in the face of crippling adversity is beyond admirable. The deaths of the civilians and their deplorable conditions affect the Marines and we see how each one wages his own personal battle knowing that his actions and those of his fellow soldiers have permanent effects on their lives. Sgt. Brad Colbert is the most recognizable and plays a prominent role in the book. In him particularly, Jung’s concept of the duality of man is put on display. He is joined by other Marines whom we meet one by one as the story progresses.
If he were alive today, I think Gustav Hasford (1947-1993) would be proud to read Generation Kill. In fact, there are times in the book where I am reminded of his classic The Short Timers, the book that served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s (1928-1999) Full Metal Jacket (Warner Brothers, 1987). Cowboy, Joker and Animal Mother would be in awe of Espera, Gunny and Manimal. The war is different but the Marines are the tough lot of characters they are expected to be. The battle scenes in Nasiriyah, Al Gharraf and Al Muwaffaqiyah are vivid and pull the reader in refusing to let go. I have never been in active combat but as I read the book, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up each time the platoon reaches a new destination, unknown to them and potentially a kill zone. Incredibly, the men perform as if on cue even as they are under heavy fire. I cannot say enough about the courage they display in this book. And regardless of personal opinions readers may have about the war, the efforts of the soldiers and conditions under which they exist, deserved our full support and understanding. Wright has done a great service to these Marines and the many others that have proudly put their lives on the line in defense of the United States.