In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett – Tony Fletcher

PickettThere is something about soul music that is incredibly hard to put into words.  Its ability to reach the listener and touch them in ways they never knew give credence to the title of its genre.  The men and women who perfected their craft singing soul music became legends in the process.  Many of them are no longer with us having died either violently or tragically.   Planes crashes, murder, drugs and diseases formed the nexus of poison from which they chose.  Nevertheless, their voices still reign supreme and remind us of an era which we will never see again.   James Brown is known as the “Godfather of Soul” but in reality there were other challengers to the throne, most notably the late Wilson Pickett (1941-2006).  He is best known for his classic hit “In the Midnight Hour”  which helped propelled him to legendary status.  But behind the music was a man whose life was anything but ordinary.  Instead it was filled with genius, vices, love and heartbreak.  Pickett’s death on January 19, 2006 at the age of just sixty-four years of age, was the final chapter in the singer’s life which had steadily declined in his final years.  However, to this day he still remembered as one of the best to ever do it and his legacy is cemented in the many memorable songs he mastered during his time on this earth.

But just who was the real Wilson Pickett?   And how much of his on stage persona crossed over into his personal life?  Tony Fletcher was born in Yorkshire, England and some might find it surprisingly that a White Englishman chose to chronicle Pickett’s life. But by Fletcher’s own admission, he grew up listening to soul and the book became a passion.  Regardless of his country of origin, he has thrown his weight behind this excellent biography of the late singer.  The story begins in Prattville, Alabama when Pickett enters the world on March 18, 1941.  His early life was quite chaotic with the young Pickett moving from state to state as he discovers himself and his talent for singing.  It isn’t long before he begins to ply his trade and once his career took off, it took him on a ride that some can only dream about. The heights he reached in his career were astounding and his induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame was the figurative icing on the cake.  His true goal stayed out of reach and until the day he died, he never did get the Grammy Award he coveted.  But he did top charts and sell out arenas and his music has stood the test of time.

Like all great musicians, there was a very dark side to Pickett stemming from his unorthodox childhood and indulgence in drugs and alcohol.  Combined with Pickett’s hair-trigger temper, the concoction resulted in acts of violence on many occasions, some of which would land Pickett behind bars later in life.  Domestic violence also reared its ugly head and not even band members could escape his wrath.  In later years he would attempt to make amends for those acts but his reputation as unstable would never leave him.  The descriptions of Pickett’s acts of violence and comments from those who were their as a witness or as the recipient, are mind-boggling but also an inside look into the paranoia that nearly consumed Pickett.  As his drug use increased, so did his paranoia as he begun to spin out of control.   His downfall placed him on  the list of celebrities whose lives were nearly or completely ruined by drugs, alcohol, money issues and in some cases, crime.   Their daily lives became a walk on a fine line between genius and completely insanity. For Pickett, his genius behind making hit music and captivating audiences was betrayed by his backstage antics and precarious mental state.  Some speakers in the book speculate that he may have had a mental condition that was never diagnosed.  Whether that was the case, his actions can only be described as surreal.  Fletcher brings the past to life leaving the reader mystified at Pickett’s actions.

Remarkably, nearly all that knew him, loved him even with his sometimes dangerous flaws.  In death he was elevated to a higher status on order of soul singers whose natural talents were believed to have been given by divine intervention.  Some of the make an appearance in the book such as Robert Dwayne “Bobby” Womack (1944-2014), Riley B. “B.B.” King (1925-2015) and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Louise Franklin (1942-2018).  Womack is a critical part of the story and those sections will undoubtedly pull the reader in.   Pickett’s lovers including ex-wife Bonnie Covington and his children would all be witnesses and the targets of his rage and his relationship with his son Michael is perhaps the most surreal example of parental fail I have ever seen.  But that was Pickett, the good, the bad and the brutal.  After his death they would all come together giving him the proper send off to the next life. The world lost a musical legend who suffered from inner turmoil, paranoia and ultimately vices which he could not shake.   This is the story of the life of Wilson Pickett, a soul music legend.

ISBN-10: 0190252944
ISBN-13: 978-0190252946

Coming of Age in El Salvador – Jim Winship

winshipThe civil war the engulfed the small Central American nation of El Salvador from 1980-1992 caused the deaths of over 75, 000 people.  The violence, heartache and oppression felt by millions of El Salvadorans has reverberated over the years as a reminder of dark times for the country known as the “Pulgarcito” (Tom Thumb of the Americas). The conflict forced millions of people to flee, many of them settling in the United States.  For those that remained,  they faced years of more turmoil but also slow and steady healing.  The nation still has a long way to go and for the youth, there is much to tell about growing up in one of the most violent countries in the world.

Jim Winship is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewate and was once a Fulbright Scholar in El Salvador and Colombia.  By his own admission, he has traveled to El Salvador well over a dozen times.  It has become a second home for him and his fondness for the country is evident in his words.   This book by Winship takes a different approach to El Salvador and in comparison to Joseph Frazier’s El Salvador Could Be Like That, the story here is about the youth of the country and what it means to come of age in a place without many sources of hope. The book is set in two parts, the first tells the history of El Salvador, introducing or re-introducing facts to the reader.  I believe many Americans will be surprised at some of the things that can  be found in the book.  And I will go a step further and say that there may be some people who could place the small country on a map.  To some, it is an afterthought or just another Latin American nation plagued by corruption and violence.  But to take a such narrow-minded view disregards the complicate and tragic history between El Salvador and the United States.  In fact, El Salvador’s existence for the last forty years is directly related to U.S. foreign policy.  The truths are uncomfortable but necessary in understanding the decline of a beautiful country with some of the nicest people who I have met.

The second half of the book moves on to the stories of young people who have grown up in El Salvador, some of them through the civil war.  This is the crux of the book and drives home the author’s points about coming of age in El Salvador.  The words are sharp and the stories moving, leaving readers to question what they thought they knew.   Person after person, we learn of the despair and income inequality faced by young men and women making life in El Salvador perilous.  Unsurprisingly, nearly a third of El Salvadorans live in the United States. Some are legal, others illegal, but they all have their stories of how and why they left the only home they knew.  Some will go back either on their own accord or by deportation.   What they will bring back to their home nation could be a blessing or a curse.  As Winship relays in the book, the deportations carried about the U.S. Government helped set the stage for one of the largest crime waves in El Salvador’s history.  And that same crime wave is now spreading across American cities.  I believe many readers will shake their head in bewilderment at the revelations in that section. The old adage holds true that we do reap what we sow.

No book about El Salvador would be complete without a discussion about violence there.  Winship discusses this to give readers an honest analysis of violent crime.  Latin America is a hotbed of revolution and has been for over a century.   The late Simón Bolívar once said “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion is right”.  Across the continents of Central and South America, violent protests and removals of presidents sometimes by military force, have etched into the fabric of the many nations found on both continents, a lingering distrust of government and vicious cycles of corruption that may never be broken. Whether El Salvador can leave both of these in the past completely, remains to be seen.  The future for some is bleak but others never give up.  And one day they may reach their goals of prosperity, health and happiness.  But their stories will always remind of days past when there was no shining light.

ASIN: B00L4CKRG0

James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography – David Dalton

1September 30, 1955-Two motor vehicles collided at the intersection of Routes 41 and 46 near Cholame, California.  The first vehicle, a Ford sedan suffered light damage.  Vehicle number two, a Porsche 550 Spyder, was found twisted like a piece of aluminum foil.  Inside the car is film star James Byron Dean (1931-1955).  His passenger, Rudolf Karl Wütherich (1927-1981) was thrown from the vehicle but survived.  Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. He was twenty-four years old.   Nearly sixty-three years have passed since his death but incredibly, he is still the poster boy for youths determined to be the “rebel without a cause”.   He is credited with three films during his career and multiple television appearances.  By Hollywood standards, his resume is short but at only twenty-four, he had the prospect of a long and successful career first in front of him and then taken away the instant his car collided with by Donald Turnupseed’s Ford.  His fans were devastated and Hollywood was forced to grieve for a young star taken before his time.   In death, he joins the long list of celebrities who died before their thirtieth birthday.  But what is it about James Dean that captivates millions of people, young and old six decades after his death?

David Dalton looked into his life and came away with this biography of the man he calls the “Mutant King”.  It is fair to say that before and after him, there was and has never been another James Dean.  He was one of those rare stars who stood out not simply on acting ability but on persona that was about the cut, unique and irresistibly attractive.  But like all great stars, Dean’s life was as interesting on-screen as it was off-screen and what we have seen in his films and television appearances was not that far from the truth.   Born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana to Winton and Mildred Dean, he entered the world as the country was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression.   His mother Mildred would only be in her child’s life for nine years, dying of cancer in 1940 at the age of twenty-nine. From this point on, Dean’s life would never be the same and throughout his short but incredible life, he would remember his mother’s untimely death and how it caused his longing for that relationship in all aspects of his life.

Dean’s story is told best not by just factual research but by those who know and worked with him.  Dalton has wisely taken this course and the statements of scores of film stars and Hollywood personalities who knew Dean are contained within the pages of this fitting biography.   Their stories give the reader of the complete picture of James Dean’s life.   Far from the “rebel without a cause”, the real James Dean was a multi-dimensional character for whom one label would not nearly be enough.   What I found interesting in the interviews is that the speakers were very candid in their recollections even when the narrative was not favorable towards Dean.  Perhaps the most scorching of all of them are the words of the late Marlon Brando (1924-2004).  As harsh as some words are, there are words favorable to Dean and what we can gather is that none of them had ever met anyone like him nor did they ever forget him.  Jimmy as he was known to those who knew him,  always seemed to keep them guessing, rarely revealing his true self as he fought with his inner-struggle and grief over his mother’s early demise and a relationship with his father, temperamental at best.  However, if readers are looking for a dysfunctional childhood, it will not be found here. In fact, Dean was supported by many who loved him and no traces of insanity can be found in the story at hand.  He was just another child out of Marion and Fairmount, Indiana.  But being ordinary did not last for long  and in just a few short years, Dean was on his way to becoming a box office legend before his passion for cars and racing led him down the path that ended with his life being cut short on a lonely California highway.

The world will never forget Dean and his image of the rebellious youth is cemented in place for generations to come.   We can only guess as to what he would have thought of all of this.   From all accounts, he was somewhat shy and secluded in private, a far cry from the larger than life star he appeared to be in front of the camera.   For some, he always be the rebel without a cause and for others, another senseless victim of unforgiving roads and fate.   His defiant personality and unwillingness to conform to society’s standards helped set him apart from his peers.  Hollywood has yet to see the next James Dean and I dot believe that we will.  He was a once in a lifetime star who remains in our consciousness as the image of what Hollywood stars used to be.  But there is always another side that we rarely see that reveals the humanity or dark side behind the celebrity.  Here we get a mix of both in the story of James Byron Dean.

ASIN: B0050DRVZ4

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

20180824_065115(0)The images that were published in Jet magazine of Emmett Till’s (1941-1955) mutilated corpse still cause readers and viewers on the internet to recoil in shock.  With their graphic detail and macabre detail, the pictures of Till’s face become burned into the memory of anyone who has seen them.   The story of Till’s murder at fourteen years of age because of allegedly “whistling or cat-calling a white woman” is a dark reminder of the ugly history of racism that prevailed in American culture.  Today such a crime is unimaginable, but in 1955 it was not only very real but also encouraged by rabid racists with a vendetta against people of color.  In January, 2017, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman at the center of the Till story, allegedly admitted that her claims were false.  Regardless, the mere thought of such an act was more than enough to get a Black American lynched at that time and Till became one more victim on a long list of senseless murders carried out by maniacs emboldened by racist ideology.  Till’s murder was creepy, appalling and downright shocking but another part of the story which is just as dark is the execution of his father Louis Till (1922-1944) by the Unites States Army in Civitavecchia, Italy, after being convicted of being part of the rape of two Italian women, one of whom was murdered during the crime.  Till never gave any statements about his innocence nor did he confirm his guilt but the army had what it needed and he fell victim to the hangman’s noose taking any facts with him to his grave.  After his death, details of the execution were withheld from his widow Mamie but were revealed ten years later.   His final resting place is at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, France.

The thought that both father and son were executed because of perceived slights against white women is chilling and it is impossible to escape the aspect of race.  Two young Black men accused of having committed crimes against white females could not and would not be permitted to survive.  Their deaths are reminder of the misguided belief of the pursuit and dominance over white females by black males.  Sadly, it is a misconception that still exist to this day.  But what exactly did happen in Civitavecchia?  Undoubtedly a crime did take place and most likely by the hands of U.S. servicemen.  But there is always the requirement of conclusive evidence and in this case, there is much we do not know.  But author John Edgar Wideman decided to take another look at Till’s case, even requesting and receiving a copy of the military’s case file by way of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  In the book he does not include the entire file and moves between excerpts of it and his own story which is recounts as he writes about Till.  The style of writing might confuse some readers but I believe Wideman presented it that way because of the parallels between his life and Emmett’s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Wideman is presenting to the reader an idea of the struggle of many Black American families during a time of fierce racial prejudice.  But the focus of the book is on Louis Till and it is here that I think  it falls just short of hitting its mark.

Wideman’s personal story is highly interesting and he does a great job of showing the plight of Black families in America during his and Emmett Till’s childhood.  But I think that more of the Louis Till file should have been presented.   He concludes that he could not save Till from either prison or the hangman but from the portions of the file that he does include in the book, it is clear that reasonable doubt exist as to whether Till actually did the crime. And this is where the book should have reached its pinnacle. But this does not happen and the book’s slightly abrupt ending makes the reader yearn for more or some sort of closure.  Sadly it never comes. And we are left to wonder about what actions, if any, Till did take on that night.  In Wideman’s defense, the Army’s file had no index and was disorganized.  I would not be surprised if some portions of it were removed or lost over the passage of time, making a definite conclusion beyond the reach of anyone today. None of figures involved with the case are alive preventing us from having the benefit of spoken words from those that were there.    We are left to rely on the case file and our own beliefs.  But I think one area where Wideman may have succeeded is igniting interest in Louis Till’s case in those that have read this book.  I believe that there is more the Till’s case than we currently know and some day, another independent investigator may uncover the truth about his conviction and execution.

The book is a good read and just enough to get an idea of what did happen to Louis Till.  But I believe it could have been much more effective with the inclusion of more of the file and some sort of definite conclusion even if it were the author’s belief.  I do not know if Wideman will publish another book on the file but time will tell.  For those looking to know more about Till’s sad and tragic life, this is a good resource to have.

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

Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley-Timothy White

20180822_215317 When we think of Reggae music, Rastafarianism and the island of Jamaica, the vision that usually comes to mind is of the mythical figure that was known as Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley (1945-1981).  He has been gone for more than thirty-seven years but his music still inspires millions of people around the world and his image graces t-shirts, posters, book covers and other items deemed to be collectibles by their sellers.   To some, there is no Reggae without Marley and he is considered to be one of Jamaica’s greatest icons, the superstar from Nine Miles who made his way up through the ghettos of Trench Town until making it big in the music business, where he found international fame.   His untimely death on May 11, 1981, sent shock waves through the music industry and the sense of loss continues to confuse as many will ask the question, why did he leave this world at such a young age?   To answer that question, it is first necessary to understand Marley’s life.  Timothy White (1952-2002), a former journalist with the Associated Press, interviewed Marley scores of times and conducted extensive research to compose this phenomenal biography of the late musician.   But just who was Bob Marley?  And what was it about him that captivated millions?

The story begins in the small village of Nine Mile, St. Ann Parish, where Bob enters the world in the early part of 1945. The son of a white father and Black Jamaican mother, his early life was that of a child caught between two different worlds as his parents each sought to keep him close to heart.  In the end, his mother would win out and throughout his life, she would always remain in his corner.  Cedella “Ciddy” Marley is a strong presence in the book from start to finish as she raises Bob before making the painstaking decision to relocated to the United States settling in Wilmington, Delaware.  Her young son tried his hand at American life but fate intervened and he returned to his destiny in Jamaica where he would rise to stardom and become the king of Reggae music.   But his story is far more than just singing tunes.

The reader should know that White chose to include Jamaican Patois as he recounts the statements of Marley and others whose words were critical in the formation of the book.  Those unfamiliar with the dialect might have a little trouble at first following along.  For others, especially those familiar with Jamaica or those who come from the island, will follow along rather easily.   I think the decision to include and not translate the interviews in standard English is what gives the book its authenticity.  White transplants the reader from the comfort of the their own dwelling to the village of Nine Mile where language is sharp, words fiercely spoken and modern amenities unheard of.  But without learning the story of Marley’s early life, his future would not make any sense.  Furthermore, White captures the social climate of Jamaica and for some readers, it may seem like another world.  Culture, politics and violence are found in the book bringing the reality of life in Jamaica vividly real.  And in the middle of this was Bob, the voice of peace and icon of the infusion of Reggae and Rastafarianism, in which he and others pay their homage to the late Emperor Haile I Selassie (1892-1975).  It is critical for the reader to understand the impact of Selassie on Jamaican culture, Bob’s life and the pillars of the Rastafarian movement for these points will explain the path he took later in his life.

No book about Marley or Jamaica at that time would be complete without the political battles which nearly ravaged the island.  Marley found himself in a tug of war at times, between the right and left-wing parties of Edward Seaga (Jamaican Labor Party) and Michael Manley (People’s National Party) (1924-1997).  Their battles and the violence that broke out across Jamaica, set the stage for the poverty, drugs and turmoil that continue to grip the island.  Thousands of Jamaicans would suffer and Marley himself nearly lost his life during an ambush in which he and his wife Rita were shot and wounded.  Other musicians would always meet violence and Marley’s former band mate Peter Tosh (1944-1987) would pay the ultimate price in a climate in which violence spiraled out of control.  But throughout all, Reggae remained strong and is pioneered today by Marley’s children and a younger generation of singers.  The Rastafarian movement continues as well, with more converts growing their locks, embracing Ganja and giving praise to Jah.

Reggae is a genre of music that has brought millions of people together in harmony as the soft tunes and uplifting lyrics reached deep into the soul causing the listener to be engulfed in emotion.   Many have come and gone but there will always be the late king,  Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley.

“None but ourselves can free our minds.” -Bob Marley

ISBN-10: 0805080864
ISBN-13: 978-0805080865

A Brief History of Time-Stephen Hawking

hawkingThe word time has many definitions, one of which is “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.”  We use time every day in a multitude of ways and without it, society would cease to function.   But is time really what we think it is?  And how does it apply to our past, present and future?   Mankind has been searching for an answer to question “why are we here?” Creationists will say that all things we have come to know are the result of divine power. Evolutionists take the side of science as facts are learned revealing yet another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is the origin of the universe.  Whichever side you find yourself on, I think we can all agree that there are many questions about our universe that have yet to be answered in the form of God or science.  Perhaps both are responsible or maybe science will one day provide all of the answers we seek.  The late Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) addressed the issue of time in this New York Times and international bestseller that helps us to understand the development of time and how it relates to our very existence.

If you love the work of Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and other brilliant minds, this book will undoubtedly deliver. Hawking was as brilliant as they come even. And even as a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease inflicted devastating changes on his body over the course of several decades, the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge continued to stay active in spite of the crippling condition.  He will be remembered as one of history’s greatest minds.  And evidence of that can be found within the pages of this book.  He takes us back to science and physics classes, reminding us of many things we probably have forgotten.   His focus however, is with the concept of time and how it relates to the origin of the galaxy in which earth exists and our existence as a species.  But before he gets to the crux of the book, he gives us a recap of the lives of those before him who left their legacy on society.   Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727) are just some of the names cemented in our minds as pioneers in the field of science.   To understand Hawking, it is first necessary to revisit the path society took to obtain the level of knowledge that we currently possess about our planet and those in the solar system.   As he moves closer to his era, the story heats up and when we arrive the concept of the black hole, the book pulls the reader in does not let go.

Hawking’s words are deep and the sections about the black hole, time arrow and time travel are sure to make readers question things that they thought they knew well.   The topics are complex in their entirety but Hawking does a great job and presenting them   so that a layman can follow along.  There are some parts which might require a re-read before the reader can move on, confident of having retained the material.  Spins, half-spins, positive charges, negative charges,entropy and anti-particles are just a sample of the concepts that readers of this book will need to understand.   At first it can seem like another language, especially to those with little or no scientific background.   Those who have always loved science and excelled in it will find these topics familiar.  The mystery of the black hole is  also demystified with a clear-cut analysis of why black holes exist and how they affect our galaxy, one of millions in the solar system.   The wormhole and supernova are also explored as well as the concept of interstellar travel.  I found the material fairly easy to follow but I am sure that the full explanation is far more intricate and probably more than my mind would want to handle. But for the purposes of the book, the author succeeded in driving home his points.

As he moves on to the time arrow, it is here that he ties everything together so that we may see how the three concepts of times we have are related and necessary for the survival and/or existence of the galaxy and our planet.  The facts about the expansion of the universe is one of the best parts of the book and cause me to re-think the origin of the earth and the future of the solar system.  Beautifully, Hawking’s work will live on forever and future astrophysicists and scientist will make more discoveries that will either confirm his theories or provide sounds reasons against them.  Whichever way things go, the end goal is finally answer questions whose answers have continued to elude us.  And I believe that would make Hawking proud as he first and foremost was devoted to science. This is a great read and when you have finished the book, you will have a better understanding of the history of time.

My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” – Stephen Hawking

ISBN-10: 0553109537
ISBN-13: 978-0553109535
ASIN: B004WY3D0O

Rowdy: The Roddy Piper Story, a Biography of Their Father-Ariel Teal Toombs and Colt Baird Toombs

rowdyHe was arguably the greatest villain in the history of professional wrestling.  His trademark shirt with the word “Hot Rod” and the red kilt he wore, made him stand out in an industry overrun with colorful character.  To his family he was known as Roderick Toombs and Dad, but to the world, he was known as Rowdy Roddy Piper.  You would be hard pressed to find any wrestling fan who does not know his name or story.  He truly was one of the greats of the industry who’s ribbing of other wrestlers and shenanigans during his famous show Pipers Pit, cemented his legacy as a legend. When he died on July 31, 2015, the world was in a state of shock. I simply could not believe the news reports.  At sixty-one, he was far too young to depart this earth and after a hard life in the wrestling business, it seemed as if his glory days were ahead of him.  His shocking death still causes fans to shake their heads in disbelief that a man so loved was taken so soon.   In all of the interviews I have watched or read with stars who knew him, not one had bad word to say about him.   He is remembered as a kind soul backstage and a man possessed with genuine and undeniable talent that helped make Vince McMahon, Jr., the legend that he is in the wrestling business. But just who was the real Roddy Piper?  And how did the world of Roderick Toombs, father and husband coincide with the public image he worked forty years to build? His daughter Ariel and son Colt took what remained of the second book Piper was writing about himself and decided to complete a biography of their father.  The result? One of the best biographies I have read about a wrestling superstar.

Piper’s story begins on April 17, 1954 in Saskatoon, Canada when Roderick George Toombs was welcomed into the world by Stanley and Eileen Toombs.  An unruly child, no one could have predicted that he would one day become a celebrity with millions of adoring fans. Because the book is written by his children and also based off his own words, there is an intimacy to the book that would be hard to duplicate by an independent biography. What we have here is the family story and it certainly is one for the ages.   To understand Piper, it is necessary to understand his background and it is laid out here by those who knew him best.  By his mid-teens, the young Piper knew the corporate world was not his calling and his decision to make his own life and not relocate one last time with his parents, set him on the long and brutal path that would take him to stardom.  And it is at this point in the book that his life picks up as he descends deeper into the crazy world of professional wrestling.

The anecdotes from his early days in the business are nothing short of hilarious. I do not think a scriptwriter could have penned better narratives.   Professional wrestling, sometimes called sports entertainment, is an often unorthodox business.  Yes, ground rules and unwritten rules do exist, but spontaneity and creative geniuses are what keep the business alive.  At times when I was reading the book, I was shocked and also on the verge of laughing out loud, even while on the subway.  His fight with Victor Bear is literally a story for the ages.  And just when you think the book cannot get any more outrageous, there is yet another story of Piper’s adventures.  From start to finish, I could not put the book down, eagerly waiting to see what where the story would go next.   It took many turns and revealed many facts that some fans may have never been aware of.  And as Piper moves through the industry, gaining fame and fortune, he also accumulates demons along the way which he was never able to completely shake.

There is one part in the book that stood out not for the length of text but because it is key in understanding Piper’s grief as friends in the business died young reminding others of their own mortality.  On July 4 , 1988, Keith A. Franke, Jr., was traveling with several other wrestlers when their van swerved to avoid a moose in its path.  The vehicle descended down an embankment before coming to a complete stop.  Franke died several hours later and his death sent shock waves through the industry.  No one could believe that the man called Adrian Adonis was gone.   Piper said that was the last funeral he went to.  He never got over Adonis’ death.  Their friendship and the haunting that Piper endured were the focus an episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories that aired in 2012 during Season 8.   In the episode, Piper reveals that his house has been haunted by Adonis’ ghost since his untimely death and that he was the person who told Piper to buy that particular house.  The show itself is chilling and we see a man carrying a life long supply of grief and torment that he is alive and so many of his friends have died in the business.  He carried that grief and torment with him until his own death three years later.

No book about Piper would be complete without the Wrestlemania stories with Mr. T, his feuds with Hulk Hogan and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka or his time in Hollywood where he became a cult icon as the character Nada in John Carpenters They Live.  The dark side of the wrestling business is also discussed and Piper never holds anything back.   His injuries, car accidents, substance abuse and mental state are all on display showing the reader the agony in his life off-camera.  In the last few years of his life as his body breaks down from forty years of abuse, the realities of his life style come crashing home.  Nonetheless he did not stop doing what he loved, living up to the name “Hot Rod”.  If you are or were a fan of professional wrestling and have fond memories of the era when wrestling giants ruled the industry and the names Hogan and Piper were household items, then this is the book for you.

ISBN-10: 0345816226
ISBN-13: 978-0345816221

Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger-John Beineke

Dillinger1At the height of 1930s era crime and depression, criminals that under normal circumstances would be looked upon with scorn, became larger than life iconic figures whose daring bank robberies and shootouts with policy became stuff of legend.  The brazen thefts in the middle of broad daylight accomplished with the use of the Thompson Sub-machine Gun (Tommy Gun) and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) catapulted America into a new and deadlier form of crime. In response, the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) stepped into the foray and within a one-year stretch, arrested or executed America’s most wanted.  At the top of this list was the late John Herbert Dillinger (1903-1934).

John Beineke has captured the outlaw’s life in this straight to the point biography of his life of crime and sudden death.   It is neither praise or vindication of Dillinger but a look at the life of the legendary figure.  The story begins in Indiana, Dillinger’s home state.  After the death of his mother, the young boy slowly makes his way into a life in crime resulting in  stint at Indiana State Prison after a conviction for robbery and assault.  Paroled nine years later,  it would be the last time that Dillinger served time in prison.   In fact, he vowed never to return to a prison cell, a vow he kept until his final moments.  But what is it about Dillinger that captivates people even today?  In 2009, director Michael Mann brought Dillinger’s life to the big screen again, enlisting Johnny Depp in the starring role. The film was released under the title Public Enemies, and also portrayed the FBI’s pursuit of Lester Gillis, a.k.a George “Babyface” Nelson (1908-1934) and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904-1934).  Christian Bale stars as FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (1903-1960), tasked with capturing the outlaws at all costs.  The film was solid and with an all-star cast, Mann recreates the feel of depression era America.

Here, Dillinger is the star and he has his own supporting cast of criminals, each of whom would meet their own violent ends.  To say that Dillinger’s life was extraordinary would be an understatement.  As we learn in the book, not only did he excel in knocking over banks, but no jail could seemingly contain him and incredibly, he often hid from authorities in plain sight.  It is literally a story that no filmmaker could write.  The pace of the book picks up early and it never slows down.  And with each heist, Dillinger becomes more infamous to authorities and more a folk hero to thousands of Americans who believed the banks were the real enemies, profiting off the misery of the average citizen. In comparison to some biographies, mundane information is excluded leaving the reader with the facts peppered with occasional sub-stories between the major characters.  Politics inevitably enters the story as America grapples with a rising crime wave and Washington reconsiders the tenure of the FBI’s longest-serving director whose job might have ended if not for the apprehension of Dillinger and others.

Less than one hundred years ago, John Dillinger used Midwestern banks as his own personal ATM.  His escapades filled newspapers, filled with tales of crimes by fellow outlaws such as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Flood and part-time accomplice, Baby Face Nelson, who enters and leaves this story on multiple occasions before parting ways with Dillinger for good not long before both would be gunned down. Today such a crime spree is unthinkable but in Dillinger’s era, a time before two-way radios, cellphones and social media,  bank robberies and shootouts with cops were common occurrences. Beinecke has taken us back in time to relive the decade that Dillinger made a name for himself.  Curiously, although the end of his story is widely known, the story still pulls the reader in with its engaging descriptions of the Dillinger gang’s exploits and graphic descriptions of the deaths that occurred as a result. The outlaws will always be romanticized in American culture.  In fact, they are as American as apple pie.  Dillinger has been dead for more than eighty years but if you research depression era gangsters, his name will appear on every single list.  He lives on in infamy and is idolized by some as a rebel who fought against the corrupt banking establishment as a modern-day Robin Hood.   To the FBI, he was a public enemy whose capture was more important than anything else.  In the end, they would get their man but not before Dillinger left his mark and became part of history.

ASIN: B00NQGP47O
ISBN-10: 0871953536
ISBN-13: 978-0871953537

 

Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival-Norman Ollestad

20180728_230931On February 19, 1979, eleven year-old Norman Ollestad was a passenger in privately chartered Cessna aircraft.  He was joined by his father Norman and his father’s girlfriend Sandra.   The flight was supposed to be a routine trip but weather conditions and pilot error resulted in a series of events that climaxed with the crash of the plane in the San Gabriel mountains in Northern Los Angeles County, California.   Miraculously, he was able to descend the mountain and eventually encountered a family living in the area who alerted authorities that a survivor of the crash had been found.   Suddenly without his father, young Norman is forced to keep going in life without the words, wisdom and encouragement of the man he called Dad.  In 2006, he began to write this book, his life story and his memories of his father while growing up in Malibu, California.

The book is not so much an autobiography in the traditional sense.  In fact, Ollestad does not go into the story of his birth, all of his schooling, etc.   When the book opens, he is already age eleven and like many of his peers,  he possesses a passion for skateboarding.  His father however, has more plans in store for him and teaches him the skills necessary for becoming a seasoned skier and surfer.   And in between events, his father gives him small doses of wisdom that have remained with him throughout his life.  It is clearly obvious that he adored his father and was proud that he not only had joined the FBI but the resigned a wrote a book about it titled Inside the FBI, published in 1967Naturally, following the plane crash rumors surfaced about Hoover wanting revenge for the book but no evidence of foul play was foundThe accident occurred for other reasons which are revealed in the book.

Norman’s story is pretty straightforward and nothing in it stands out at first.  That all changes when Mexico becomes the next destination for father and son.  Norman’s grandparents need a new washing machine so his Dad informs him that they will take the machine to Puerto Vallarta on their own and deliver it.   The anecdotes from their journey are some of the deepest moments in the book, next to Ollestad’s descriptions of the crash-site and the fatalities that occurred.  In the epilogue, Norman tells his son Noah that he could never do the things with him that he did with his grandfather because it would illegal.   Most parents would never consider such a trip for their eleven year-old child but as we see in the book, the Ollestads did things differently, never intending to conform to anything or anyone and always with courage.  This helps explain Norman’s rebellious streak that intensified after his father’s death.

Prior to reading the book, I did not have any expectations for it and I was not aware of Ollestad’s story beforehand.   I do not know what some readers will expect in the book, but it is not simply a memoir about the crash.   In fact, the chapters are divided between the crash and his childhood. It reminds me of the flashback to young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II.   Some readers may find it confusing but personally, I thought it added a uniqueness to the book.  It is critical to pay close attention but the flashbacks set the stage for the crash and events that follow.   By some miracle, he survived the crash which surely could have killed everyone on board.  Regaining his composure, he finds the courage to make his way down the mountain with a will to live.   This drive and determination, was instilled in him by his father as we see in the flashbacks in which young Norman is perfecting his crafts and absorbing his father’s words.  And his messages to his son Noah show that Norman learned from his father many things that were great and also some things that need to be changed with the next generation of Ollestads.

I am fortunate to have my father in my life.  He is in his  mid-sixties and keeps moving forward.  He does not believe in sitting still and follows the mantra that you should never let any grass grow under your feet.   As I read Ollestad’s book, I repeatedly thought of the importance of a strong bond between father and son.  As Tupac Shakur once said, you need a man to teach you how to  be a man.  I could not have said it better myself.  And one day if I am fortunate to have a son of my own, I will teach him how to be a man so  that the lessons I have learned can be pass down through him and to future generations. Wisdom is the gift that keeps on giving.

The book is less than three-hundred pages in length so for some it would be considered a short read.   I read through it quickly for the story flows very well but I think that more information about his life after the crash through adulthood would have given the book more substance.  Nevertheless, it is a nice read full of emotion and the values we aim to  have in our lives.  And after you have finished the book, you too might be crazy for the storm.

ISBN-10: 0061766720
ISBN-13: 978-0061766725