Free Thinking Bibliophile Posts

7sistersI saw this book in my list of recommendations on Amazon and decided to take a closer look.  The cover caught my attention and after reading the full title, my interest peaked.  On January 9, 1969 a group of students belonging to the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society (SASS), took over the admissions office at Swarthmore College.  In the months prior, a working paper regarding the recruitment and admission of black students had been released, resulting in immediately backlash from the university’s black students who felt their privacy had been violated and their experiences ignored.  The animosity between the students and Dean Hargadon continued to increase and the students felt they had no option  but to act.  Joyce Frisby Baynes, Harold S. Buchanan, Jannette O. Domingo, Marilyn J. Holifield, Aundrea White Kelly, Marilyn Allman Maye, Myra E. Rose and Bridget Van Gronigen Warren moved into the admissions office and over the next few days, their resistance changed the course of history for Swarthmore College.

The book’s focus is on the takeover as to be expected.  But in between chapters focused on the occupation of the admissions office, are the individual stories of those involved.  Each story is different but a common bond is that they were only part of a small number of black students who overcame the odds to earn their place at Swarthmore College. Yet, even for all of the intelligence and accomplishments, they still were required to stand up to college officials and voice their concerns over lack of cultural awareness and a dean who became the bane of their existence.  Each person takes a turn speaking the book, recounting their story of where they grew up, their lives at home and what made them choose a college in Pennsylvania where hardly any black people had been admitted before.  As I read their personal accounts, I could not help but to admire their will and determination to see that the college changed its ways.  From the beginning of the takeover, it was clear that they did not see failure as an option.

Nearly all of the stories contain incidents of racial discrimination, some subtle and other incidents quite overt.  Readers sensitive to racial incidents might be slightly uneasy and the memories that come to life.  The events remembered are disturbing and upsetting but in a testament to the spirits of those who speak, not one resorts to believing they are inferior. In fact, the incidents only strengthen their resolve to keep moving forward.  One story in particular struck me and it is this description which gives the reader an idea of what some of them had to endure just to get an education:

Farther south in Tallahassee, Florida, Marilyn Holifield faced a more aggressively hate-filled environment in her newly integrated high school. White students vilified her daily and called her “n***er.” But the child who loved growing roses with her father was well aware of her family’s legacy of resistance.”

Jim Crow died a slow death in the United States and its remnants remained scattered across parts of the deep south.   While federal law prohibits discrimination, it is imperative to remember that less than sixty years ago, people such as the students in this book could not eat the same lunch counters as their white counterparts.  Signs for “colored” permeated the south and in the stories at hand, show the reader the capacity for vindictiveness in the human mind.  But giving up isn’t an option and their successes in spite of the racism they endured are some of the brightest moments in the book.

All of the group members have gone on to have productive and admirable careers.  The takeover is long gone but today, other students, in particular black students can look back on their actions in 1969 as the turning point in the college’s recruiting policies.  The battles on college grounds during the Civil Rights Movement is often left out of discussions but the struggle for equality on campus was equally as critical as the battles off campus.  This book is a perfect example of the on-campus struggle and how a small group of young men and women challenged the system and succeeded. Good read.


Civil Rights Movement

Boyd1When I think back to my youth, I recall various automobiles that were own by my father, uncles and friends.  Their cars were American made and typically products of General Motors. Buick, Pontiac and Cadillac were the cars of choice and hardly anyone then owned a foreign car. If you owned a Cadillac, it meant status and success in the America.  Detroit  became Motor City and its dominance over the U.S. auto industry remained in place for several decades until automakers from Japan and Germany stormed into the American market.  The city has an extensive past, beginning with French explorer Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac (1658-1730) for whom the luxury automobile is named after.  In 1701, he established what is now Detroit before eventually returning to France where he lived out the rest of his days.  The evolution of Detroit is one of America’s greatest success stories and also one of its greatest tragedies.  Throughout all, its black citizens have always remained firm in their dedication to seeing Detroit become a city to be envied. Herb Boyd takes another look at his city and the role of black men and women in the development of a famed city.

Boyd starts at the beginning, when Detroit is under French rule and North America is an open plain upon which Native Americans, white settlers, slaves and the wild call home. A new nation known as the United States was established in 1776 and over the next few years, slavery was been abolished in the majority of norther states.  In 1701, Detroit entered the Union as part of Michican and although slavery was abolished, it was still practice in many parts of the country.  Detroit became a gateway to freedom as many slaves escaped into Canada before returning free men and women due to loopholes in U.S. laws at the time regarding slavery in particular fugitive slaves. The case of Peter Denison is revisited and I feel many readers will find this section regarding the methods of freedom for slaves to be quite interesting.   However, not every story has a happy ending and the racial tension discussed by the author highlights how far as a nation we have come.   In what could be called race wars, we witness episodes of violence that will send a chill down the spine of many readers.

The Civil War marked a turning point in United States History.  Thousands of African-American troops took part in the conflict but the battle for freedom was far from over.  Racism was still prevalent and slavery died a slow and agonizing death.   However, years prior to the emancipation proclamation, the abolitionist made it their goal to erase slavery from the entire United States. Boyd discusses the lives and actions of the legendary John Brown (1800-1859) and others who sought freedom through armed resistance.  Those of the more peaceful approach were responsible for the founding of the Second Baptist Church and Dunbar Hospital.  Yet they could not escape racism and Detroit would have its many ugly incidents between white and black citizens that nearly caused its destruction and will make readers wonder why humans treat each other in the ways that they do.

Similar to many American cities post-Civil War, Detroit continued to undergo significant change.  In 1914, the world went to war as Europe became ground zero.  Thirty years later a second world war began and Detroit sent some of its best which included many of its black citizens who returned home from war energized to defeat Jim Crow.  It is at this point in the book that the story picks up considerable pace and descent of Detroit into the ghost town it became takes center stage.  As Berry Gordy’s Motown Records were turning out hits, white flight was in full swing, changing the demographics of many neighborhoods which saw an increase in the number of black residents. The landscape of Detroit was being remade and the effects would reverberate for decades.

Throughout the book it seems as if Detroit is where who’s who of important figures can be found.  However, their presence is offset by the rise in violence that spared no one, including the late Rosa Parks (1913-2005) and Rev. C.L. Franklin (1915-1984).  Detroit had earned a reputation as a dangerous city that threatened all who entered.  But within its borders there were those working to change it for the better and that has never changed.  The story of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young (1918-1997) is highlighted as well as the rise and fall of future Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.  Despite their best efforts, the image of a violent city stuck to Detroit and the gun violence increased.  And shootings by law enforcement officers of civilians had placed Detroit at the top of the list of police related shootings in America.  The police unit STRESS, an acronym for Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets, had become infamous and in May, 2010, the murder of  seven-year-old Aiyana Jones provided the ultimate proof of a police department in need of upheaval.

Currently, Mike Duggan serves as the Mayor of Detroit.  Time will tell if he will have ultimate success in rehabilitating a city that was once one of America’s brightest.  The bailout of the auto industry by the administration of President Barack Obama marked a low point in the history of Motor City.  It was sobering experience that taught American automakers many painful truths and showcased Detroit’s fall from the position of ruler of the U.S. auto industry.  There are many bright spots and if there is anything we can take from Boyd’s book, it is that the people of Detroit never give up and have always found ways to survive.  The future is bright for Detroit but only if all hands are on deck.  I have no doubt that they will be.   But what is imperative to remember through Boyd’s work, are the stories of the people of color who helped build the City of Detroit.  Good read.

Detroit turned out to be heaven, but it also turned out to be hell.” – Marvin Gaye (1938-1984)

ASIN: B01I9B5466

General Reading

ElijahIn 2019, streaming giant Netflix premiered “Devil at the Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story“, in which focused is placed on the life of guitarist Robert Johnson (1911-1938).  In the years following his death, Johnson was elevate to near mythical status as a pioneer of blues music.  The documentary is captivating and received a positive rating by yours truly.  Filmmakers took a long look at Johnson’s life to clear up the mysteries that surround it to this day.  And while there is a significant amount of information regarding his life that is known, there remains an equal amount that is a question mark.  By all accounts, Johnson kept very few friends and was a loner in the classic sense.  However, he did record formally and his recordings stand as the only part of his life that has survived to this day.

Legendary guitarist Eric Clapton idolized Johnson and stated emphatically:  “ It came as something of a shock to me that there could be anything that powerful…. At first it was almost too painful, but then after about six months I started listening, and then I didn’t listen to anything else. Up until the time I was 25, if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was I wouldn’t talk to you…. It was as if I had been prepared to receive Robert Johnson, almost like a religious experience that started out with hearing Chuck Berry, then at each stage went further and deeper until I was ready for him…. I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice”.  If only going by Clapton’s words, it would appear that Johnson was the end all and be all for blues music.  But one question that remains is what exactly was Johnson’s role in the development of blues?  Author Elijah Wood tackles this question a book that will surely change the way you view the concept of blues music.

I should point out that this is not a biography of Johnson in the traditional sense.  Wald does discuss Johnson’s life, but the main focus of the book is to examine the music of the  Mississippi Delta, which was home to some of the best musicians that performed the music that society has labeled blues.  And while Johnson does fit into the story,  he is part of a much larger picture composed of many artists, some of whom remain obscure to music fans today.   In some ways, the book is encyclopedic and provides thorough discussions of the lives of music greats of the era such as W.C. Handy (1873-1958), Son House (1902-1988) and Charley Patton (1891-1934).  Their trials, tribulations and contributions take center stage as Wald takes us back in time.

But what exactly is blues?  Did the musicians who played in the Delta consider their art to be blues?  The questions are pertinent and what Wald reveals to us here just might surprise some readers.  His work challenges long held beliefs about the definition of blues music.  And while he is not attempting to re-write music history, he does intend to get the reader to see the concept of blues in a light that is often unseen.

There can be no discussion about blues music and America without  addressing the issue of race.   In the 1920s and 1930s, Jim Crow was alive and strong.  Artist such as Johnson had to navigate their way through a country that afforded very little protection to people of color.  Lynchings and segregation were constant reminders of the ugly side of America and helped fuel the music that would later captivate the minds of fans both black and white.  However, to black and white Americans, what came to be known as blues looked very different depending on the person’s race and it is through both lenses that Johnson takes his place in the history of blues music.  Wald’s discussion of Johnson’s place in the lives of both black and white Americans is interesting and clarifying.  And I do believe that he provides a solid argument for Johnson’s place in the official narrative.

To be clear, Wald is a fan of Johnson and pays homage to his musical genius.  He is not attempting to discredit Johnson in any way but simply provide a historical narrative that is closest to the truth.  Johnson’s talents can never be denied and he is rightfully recognized as a pioneering singer in his field.  But as Wald explores, even during his time, Johnson was not nor would he ever be, the founding father of blues music. Instead, he was one of many who helped create the sound that stands in a league of its own.

Blues music has no equivalent and once you have heard it, its sound remains with you.   It is soul touching and extracts the rawest of human emotions.  Listeners may be tempted to conjure up images of smoke filled shacks, filled with hard liquor, unbearable heat and enough soul to fill an entire state. It is an image that we love to imagine but in truth, the real story is far more complex. Wald’s analysis here is just what the doctor ordered and I feel that the author accomplished his goals.  And understanding why musicians were escaping the Delta, is key to understanding the passion and emotion that gave way to the blues.  Highly recommended.



CondorHistory has many dark secrets that some have wished remained hidden from the official record so that the history that has been portrayed remains sanitized and above reproach.  But it is also said that what you do in the dark always comes to light.  In the wake of the coup that saw the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973) on September 11, 1973, the country was placed in a vice grip by his successor, Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006), who commenced a program of retribution against enemies, activist and those “suspected” of being part of the opposition to the new government.  His regime was marred by human rights violations for which he was arrested by British Police in England on October 17, 1998.  Pinochet was extradited back to his native Chile but never stood trial for his actions.  He died on December 10, 2006 of congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema. His death marked the end of legal action to bring him to justice but it did not stop the prosecution of others who were complicit in the horrific actions that took place in the aftermath of the coup.  Researchers continued to investigate Pinochet’s actions and those of fellow dictators in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.  During one such expedition in Paraguay, a trove of documents were uncovered that shed light on a joint program created by several neighboring countries to track down those deemed enemies of the state with the purpose of execution.  The program is known as Operation Condor and here Charles River Editors provides a concise summary of how and why the program came into existence.

For those who are unfamiliar with Operation Condor, the book’s contents may come as a significant shock.  I think readers may benefit from also taking a look at Peter Kornbluh’s ‘The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability‘, which provides a detailed explanation of Pinochet’s rise to power and the crimes against humanity that occurred under his reign.   It is not necessary to read that book in order to enjoy this one but Kornbluh’s book is complemented by what is found here.  And while Kornbluh’s book focuses mainly on Pinochet, this book is centered on Operation Condor itself.   To set the stage for the gritty details of the operation, the author explains the dictatorships that were found in the nations that formed Operation Condor.  A brief explanation of the regimes of Argentina’s  Juan Perón (1895-1974) and Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner (1912-2006) and provided as examples.  The two rulers are just a sample of the many dictatorships that became common to Latin American during the 1960s and 1970s as the term “the disappeared” became part of the Latin American lexicon.

This book is dark and the descriptions of actions carried out by operatives of the program may be tough for some readers to accept.  The actions of American operative Michael Townley and the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) are also discussed and sheds light on a very dark time in United States foreign policy as Washington courted and accepted right-wing tyrants determined to keep their nations classified as banana republics. Power, greed and violence were the trifecta that spread fear and mayhem across several continents as political opponents and voices against the government were murdered in cold blood sometimes on foreign soil.  Pinochet remained firmly at the center and his intelligence apparatus Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (“DINA”) served as nucleus for the death sowed as operatives spared no expense or destination to carry out acts of violence.   The attacks were brazen and shocking, and caused Washington to finally take notice.  Undoubtedly, there are many more secrets buried in files locked tightly away in the archives of several countries.  But the truth about Operation Condor remains public for the world to see.

We have heard the saying that the past is prologue.  Latin America has been plagued by dictatorships, fraudulent elections, corruption and murder.  It remains to be seen if the region that is full of beautiful scenery, people and cultures will move forward and correct the wrongs that have been done in the past. As it does, it remains critical to remember the dark legacy of Augusto Pinochet and Operation Condor.


Latin America

20200224_014143On June 6, 1944, American, British and Canadian troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, France and commenced an ground war against Nazi Germany.  The European Theatre was marked by brutal fighting that saw high numbers of casualties on all sides of the conflict.  In the end, Nazi Germany fell to allied forces and accepted an unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, commonly known as VE Day.  The Japanese military continued to fight and remained defiant until two atomic bombs forced it too into surrending to Allied forces.  VJ Day marked the end to World War II and the world breathed a sign of relief.  For the United States Army, the European Theatre was a hard fought campaign that no one ever wanted to see again.  Author Stephen Ambrose has composed a breathtaking account of the Army’s mission from the beaches at Normandy until the Allies seized Berlin in May, 1945.

It should be noted that this book is focused on the army in particular and not the other branches of the armed forces such as the Marines and Air Force.  While the author does discuss air warfare during the conflict, the focus never wavers from the army.  This is the grunt’s view of the war, in all of its horror and glory.   Some readers may find the subject matter tough to read.  The author pulls no punches and the descriptions of events that take place sometimes contain graphic details that bring home the horrors of war. But to accurately capture the gritty reality of the army’s mission, it is necessary.

As to be expected, the book follows the war’s timeline so that we can see the progression of the army’s efforts, their failurs and ultimate success.  The Allied command are driven by the former General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and General George Patton (1888-1945).  Even General William Westmoreland (1914-2005) commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam during the Vietnam War makes an appearance. But make no mistake this is Eisenhower and Patton’s show, with each serving as the focus of a significant portion of the book, in particular when the European Theatre reaches middle to late 1944.  The story is exciting and the pace is quick, with a significant number of names and places that will require extensive note taking.

Ambrose does an incredible job of covering not just the battles but all aspects of life as an infrantry soldier commonly known as a grunt.  Life in infantry is tough, thankless and also deadly.  Enemy soldiers, shells, mines and even freak accidents are the constant array of threats faced by the grunts.  Europe is revealed as vast landscape of different terrains, some favorable for combat and others such as the Hurtgen Forest, seeming to come out of a horror film.  And as Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) let his paranoia consume him, both sides settled in for a long and brutal fight.  But the Allies remained determined and during the Europeant Theatre, it soon becomes clear that Germany would lose the war.  The author discusses the German war effort, providing critical facts as to how and why it was no match for Allied forces in a protacted struggle.

On the American side, there are areas of confusion and even critical failure.  Further, the plague known as trench foot proved to be as damaging as casualties that occurred in battle.  Ambrose explores the trench foot issue, explaining just how much of an impact it hand on the infantry and troop supply.  It is critical to understanding just how dangerous life on the front lines was during the war.

The United States Army had committed itself to eliminating Adolf Hitler and restoring peace to the world. However, at home, the United State still had yet to face its own problem of Jim Crow and open discrimination against its minority citizens.  Ambrose does not shy away from the topic and sheds light on the racism that was nearly system wide in the military during the war. However, he also shows how black G.I.s served and proved themselves to be as good as others soldiers on the battlefield.  The time he devotes to the topic does justice to the black soldiers who served in World War II including my great-grandfather Floyd Davision (1913-1988).  I can only imagine what he saw, heard and experienced as a black soldier in a time when segregation was still the law of the land.

The number of facts provided in the book are staggering, yet it does not feel overwhelming any point in the book.  The narrative flows freely and the author writes in a style that is gripping and brings the past to life as we move across Europe with sights set on Berlin.  In what can only be described as bizarre, Hitler had decided to conduct military planning himself, rendering his generals almost useless.  It was pure insanity and Ambrose examines the mistakes made by Hitler that sealed Germany’s fate several times before the war was officially over.  Readers will find themselves scratching their heads at Hitler’s actions.  However, Eisenhower and other commanders were waiting for him to slip up and when he did, the gloves came off and the Army went to work.  It had a job to do and would not stop until Berlin fell into Allied hands.  With the Red Army closing in from the east and America from the west, Hitler knew his fate was sealed and took his own life thus evading justice at Nuremberg.  The nation he left behind was in ruins and Ambrose provides photos of the devastation.  It is said that picture sometimes speaks a thousand words.  They certainly do here in this book.

The battle to defeat Nazism was long and bloody but also a display of American and Soviet military might.  In the story at hand, the U.S. Army rose to the occasion and took many bumps along the way.  From start to finish the story is written beautifully there should be no doubt that the American campaign in World War II changed the war and the course of history.  As each year passes, more veterans join the ranks of the deceased, taking with them countless memories of the war.  Their names will be forever linked to it but for some veterans, Ambrose has given them a moment of fame in a book that provides a thorough examination of experienced military planning and execution.  When its country needed them, the citizen soldiers of the U.S. Army rose to the occasion and showed the German menace the power of democracy and freedom.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 068848015
ISBN-13: 978-0684848013

World War II

cooganThose of you who follow my blog probably know by now that I have covered quite a number of books regarding Northern Ireland the conflict known as “The Troubles”.   My curiousity with the conflict in Northern Ireland stems partly from my love of history and partly from my visit to Ireland in 2016.  I sought to fully understand the battle being waged by Republicans to unify the country and the opposition mounted by Loyalist who remain in support of British rule.  Author Tim Pat Coogan has written of the 1916 Easter uprising, the lives of Michael Collins (1890-1922) and his Twelve Apostles, and others who remained focuses on Irish independence from the Crown. This book is his own memoir of his life in Ireland, time as a member of the Irish press and author of several significant books one of the world’s longest running feuds.

Coogan opens the book by recounting his family’s involvement in the development of tensions between Republicans and Loyalist.   His grandfather once belonged to the Royal Irish Consabulary (RIC) and his father Edward worked on behalf of Republican forces even being tasked with organizing an unarmed police force during the Irish Civil war which erupted in the wake of the establishment of the Irish Free State.  As a child, he grew up in Monkstown, County Dublin, far removed from the dangers of the north.  However, fate would take him back to the Northern Ireland and land him right in the mix of the Troubles which would consume his writing material much later in his life.

Readers should be prepared to learn a lot about Irish history.  Coogan has written extensively on the conflict and in particular the life of Eamon de Valera (1882-1975).  As a journalist, he would form a working relationship with de Valera’s son Vivion (1910-1982), whose actions as owner of the Evening Press, played a critical role in the path Coogan’s life took over the years.   The Irish press, of which Coogan was a part, figures prominently throughout the story as the Troubles rage and Ireland finds itself in the middle of fierce debate over aborition, divorce and even contraception.  Coogan and other journalist walked fine lines as they tried to remain ahead of the competition and get the jump on new stories.  His experience and zest for journalism took him to foreign nations, including the United States and Vietnam, where he was able to witness the war in person to report back about what he saw in comparison to what politicans in Washington were being told from commanders in the field.

The story is a roller coaster ride that shows the organized chaos of journalism and printing.  Coogan is fully embroiled in this world while being married and the father of six children.  As the Troubles heat up, the press is forced to take notice and Coogan remarks in the book that:

another form of cancer that was to affect me profoundly during my career as editor, as it did the political life of the country as a whole, was the Northern Ireland situation“.

At the time the Troubles erupted, Coogan could have never imagined that one day he would be one of the most respected authors on the subject.  The book is a not mean to be a complete history of the Troubles but rather an explanation of key events that pushed the two sides in Ulster province to engage in violence.

Some have accused Coogan of being Republican friendly in his writings.  While his books do cover the Troubles mostly from the Republican view, I have found that in the books I have read to date by him, that he has so far provided balanced and detailed accounts of what actually happened.  What is clear in this book is that his relationship with Vivion de Valera was strained by the time it ended and he came to realize many truths about de Valera which he reveals here.  As part of his job, he was required to meet with the IRA which included figures such as Mairead Farrell (1957-1988), Joe Cahill (1920-2004) and Brendan Hughes (1948-2008).  His visits to Belfast and the prison maze at Long Kesh helped form the discussion of the Troubles that he wrote after his final parting of ways with de Valera.

The demise of the Evening Press and affiliated publications are also examined in detail, showing the mis-steps and complex nature of de Valera, who was unable to see the larger picture.  As one would expect, the long hours and story chasing proved to be a heavy burden on Coogan’s personal life.  This part of the book is tough to read but not completely unexpected. In fact, the stage is set early in the book as Coogan describes the different lifestyles he and his wife lead.  The entry of other figures into his life, helped seal the door on other parts and the complicated situation is explained by Coogan.

In spite of everything that happens, he did lead an incredible life which is sure to leave you with as much Irish history as any textbook on the market.  Coogan is a wealth of knowledge on the Troubles and the history of the Irish Republic.  He remains one of the best in the business and his books on on the conflict will surely stand the test of time. This is his story and that of Ireland, composed of the good, the bad and the tragic.  Highly recommended.


Biographies Northern Ireland

Illusions1It is simply amazing that eighty-one years after his death, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) continues to be part of American pop culture.  The term “Freudian slip” is still used by professionals of all walks.  It has been many years since I have read his work, in fact my memories of studying Freud come mainly from my time in college. A neighbor in my building needed to off-load some books and among the prized possessions was a group of Freud’s works.  I picked them out rathern than see them head off to recycling, believing that even in the digital age, good books in print still have a place in every library.

Freud was an avowed atheist and made his disbelief in God clear.  In this short but insightful book, he discusses the relationship between religion and science, religion and nature, and why religion can be seen as an illusion.  Those of us with strong religious convictions may believe Freud is completely wrong in his assessment of faith.  And while I personally believe that religion should be a deeply personal matter, he does offer solid arguments to support his position.  But would we truly expect anything less from Freud?

As a bonus, a short biography is provided by Peter Gay to give readers some insight into the life of Freud. The write-up is good and just long enough to get a feel for the material that lies ahead. I personally enjoyed the short bio but in no way is a complete examination of Freud’s life.  After the introductory biography, the book moves forward and Freud takes over the show.

As he formulates his argument, he provides a brief discussion of the concept of civilization.  To some it might seem like an open and shut case. But Frued is not attempting to change the definiton of civilzation but rather show how its construction and religion are connected.  By examining the first, we can proceed to discuss the second with analytical thought.  Freud is no under illusions that his arguments will change he minds of everyone that hears his argument. In fact he states clearly:

“No believer will let himself be led astray from his faith by these or any similar arguments. I believe it is bound to the teachings of religion by certain types of affection. But there are undoubtedly countless other people who are not in the same sense believers. They are precipitates of civilization because they let themselves be intimidated by the threats of religion and they are afraid of religion so long as they have to consider it as a part of the reality which hems them in. They are the people who break away as soon as they are allowed to give up their belief in the reality value of religion”

Today this still holds true and each reader may possibly take something different from the book.  Some will find more solace in their faith and others might decide that it no longer holds the same place in their lives.  It is an entirely personal decision that should never be made rashly but with deep introspection. Freud has only opened the door, it is up to you whether you choose to go through it or close it shut.

ISBN-10: 0393008312
ISBN-13: 978-0393008319


20200215_203354A colleague gave me this book as a gift during the holiday season, mainly due to his knowledge of my fondness for history.  I quickly made a mental note to give it a read in the near future.  When I saw the title, I was slightly puzzled at the term “The Forgotten 500”.  I have read books on World War II but none mentioned any 500 forgotten soldiers.  Upon closer inspection, I soon began to realize why I had not heard the story.  At the time the mission  occurred, it was carefully hidden by the State Department and Office of Strategic Services who did not wish to jeopardize the lives of any remaining U.S. soldiers still trapped behind enemy lines. Further, in the years that followed, the the story faded into the annals of military history regarding the second world war. Even my father, who is an ardent World War II buff, has never mentioned this story.  Our next discussion will certainly be interesting.

So who exactly were the forgotten 500?  Well, the story takes place in Yugoslavia, where American, British and French airmen have been provided refuge by the local men and women who are fiercely anti-Nazi after Adolf Hitler ordered the Germany Wehrmacht to occupy their country.  The airmen had been sent out on bombing missions to eliminate the German fuel supply lines in Ploesti, Romania.  Berlin knew the value of the supply lines and carefully mounted anti-aircraft batteries around the supply stations in anticipation of Allied attacks.  American crews were typically successful in attacking the lines but suffered heavy damage to aircraft and high number of casualties.  Those who abandoned ship upon orders of the pilot, typically landed in the Yugoslavian countryside and were quickly taken in by peasants and farmers.  This is the story of their survival behind enemy lines 0and the incredible mission to rescue them from German occupied territory.

Today, many of the soldiers who served in World War II are deceased and they took with them to their graves, many untold stories of heroism and heartbreak during the war.  Their names are only remembered by those who knew them closely and for the forgotten 500, the same story would apply if not for this book.  The role of Yugoslavia in World War II is underrepresented in the larger narrative of the conflict.  By 1992, it had broken apart in the wake of a bitter civil war that saw the loss of over two-hundred thousand lives.  Tensions between Serbians, Croatians and other ethnic groups had reached a tipping point in 1989 and could no longer be contained.  in 1995, peace was formally restored but to this day, tensions continue to simmer underneath the surface.  Several decades prior, Yugoslavia was seen a prized possession by both Germany and the Soviet Union and the invasion by German forces served as an impediment to its full independence.   As a result, the people came to the aid of downed airmen and protected them fiercely in spite of the looming German military.

The author introduces us in the beginning of the book to the airmen who have been assigned the task of attacking Ploesti.  Each mission is doomed from the start, forcing all on board to grab their parachutes and jump to whatever fate lies ahead.  Miraculously, they are each found by the locals, embraced and given shelter.   However, as more Allied planes fall victim to German weaponry, it soon becomes evident that the large number of airmen will have to find a way out of the country and back to Italy, where American bases have been established.  The only problem is that the area is surrounded by German troops who will surely notice a major extraction mission.  Washington knows it must do something but is pressed for ideas. The Office of Strategic Services enters the picture and the story changes gears completely.

The author does a fantastic job of providing enough back story to set the stage for the eventual rescue mission.  To understand the situation in Yugoslavia, he provides a thorough discussion of the struggle for power between Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and Washington over the the small Baltic nation.  Inside the country, German forces are opposed by the Communist Josip Tito (1892-1980) and pro-western Draza Mihailovich (1893-1946).  Tito and Mihailovich are engaged in their own power struggle but determined to defeat the Nazi menace.  However, there were other events and agendas taking place outside of Yugoslavia that dictated the course of the war and came to haunt Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who later called Yugoslavia his biggest mistake of the war.  The three-way dance that ensued and the deception that occurred are covered here and will undoubtedly surprise many.  I found myself shaking my head at the series of mis-steps by Allied forces that seemed to be unaware of Stalin’s true and barely hidden agenda.

Those familiar with World War II history will know about the role of the Office of Strategic Services, under the direction of its first director, the legendary William Donovan (1883-1959).  The agency boasted such recruits as future Central Intelligence Director Allen Dulles (1893-1969) and celebrity chef Julia Child (1912-2004).  Today it might seem surprising that even civilians were recruited by intelligence agencies but during World War II, all bets were off.  The OSS dad a job to do and as we see in the book, they were determined not to fail.  Donovan’s ability to get President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) to agree to the mission is one of the best anecdotes in the book and shows how urgent it became to rescue the stranded airmen.

The approval of Donovan’s request set into a motion a series of events that brought together several different departments and two governments in an effort to pull of a rescue mission that no one had ever attempted before.  The logistics are all covered in the book showing the high amount of risk that came with it.  The margin for error was virtually non-existent but the people involved rose to the call of duty and this part of the book is uplifting and also high on suspense. One mistake could result in falling into German hands and an international diplomatic nightmare.  But surprisingly not everyone was on the same page and the smaller battle between Washington and London is beyond surreal.  It is a story you do have to read to believe.

Following the mission, the airmen return to civilian life but are dismayed to see how the international game of chess continues to be played.  Tito’s rise and Mihailovich’s demise are some of the darker moments in the book. The airmen voice their disapproval with the official narrative and Freeman retraces their steps showing their never-ending commitment to honoring the legacy of their Yugoslavian hosts.  At the end of the book, he provides an update on the airmen, some of whom were alive at the time the book was published in 2008.  Now that twelve years have passed, I do not believe that they are still living but their memory is preserved eternally in this story that is simply unbelievable.  For all of you World War II buffs, this book is a must have. Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0451224957
ISBN-13: 978-0451224958

World War II

Frida1I was in search of a quick read and saw this book which I had added previously to my list of books to buy. In my neighborhood, there is a building with a mural dedicated to Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and as I walk past each time, I think of the fact that so many years after her death, she is still revered by millions of people both in the United States and in her native Mexico. In September, 1925, Frida was a passenger on a bus with her boyfriend Alejandro Gómez Arias. Their bus collided with a street car and left Kahlo with devastating injuries.  She suffered broken bones in several parts of her body and the accident displaced three vertebrae in her back.  She never fully recovered from the accident and was plagued with constant pain until her death on July 13, 1954.  On August 21, 1929, she married Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and accompanied him to the United States, first landing in San Francisco, while he worked as painter.  Over course of her time living in the United States and later visiting, she received medical treatment for the lingering effects of the 1925 bus accident.  She never failed to write home to her mother whom she loved deeply.  Those letters have been translated into English and are composed here to show readers the very intimate relationship between mother and daughter.

It should be noted that it is strictly Frida speaking here.  There are no letters from her mother. And it appears that Frida did most of the writing to her parents Wilhem and Matilde.  The letters are short and to the point but filled with love and sharp insight by Friday regarding her surroundings.  However, throughout the letters, her health and the couple’s earnings are always a main topic.  After leaving San Francisco, Frida and Diego later visited New York City.  Her observations are interesting and as a native New Yorker, I can say that they are not far off the mark.  She adores New York but is not blind to the many faults that one can see in America.  These words are more than eighty years old but much of what she says remains true.  Perhaps Frida knew something then that we fail to understand now.

Although the book is quite short, there is a wealth of interesting comments and thoughts presented by Frida.  She was a keen observer of people and found ways to adapt to the environment she found herself in.  Diego comes and goes during the story and the letters reveal no trace of the tension that existed during their marriage on more than one occasion.  Whether she was shielding her mother or herself we cannot say for sure.  Her mother Matilde, died on September 15, 1932, before Kahlo’s marriage to River went literally to hell and back.

I plan next to read an extensive biography of Frida  to truly understand the woman behind the fame.  Her letters have provided insight into who she was and what she believed but surely, only the tip of the iceberg.  If you like Frida Kahlo and want to know more of her personal side, these letters to her mother are exactly what you need.


General Reading

audieWhen this book came up as a recommendation, I thought back to the movie ‘Platoon‘ (Orion Pictures, 1986) by Oliver Stone.  There is a scene before the final battle in which Bunny (Kevin Dillon) and Junior (Reggie Johnson) have been instructed by Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) to get back in their fox holes.  Junior is at his breaking point but Bunny is getting warmed up and says to him “don’t you worry my man, you’re hanging with Audie Murphy now“.  I had heard of Audie Murphy before mainly through my father, who was quite familiar with his story and the 1955 film of the same name. This is the story behind the film of the most decorated soldier to return from World War II.

The book opens with a foreword famed NBC journalist Tom Brokaw before moving to Murphy’s story which begins in Kingston, Texas where we quickly learn that his father has walked out on the family.  He is one of twelve children born to Emmett Berry Murphy and Josie Bell Killian. At the age sixteen, his mother dies and the young teenager is forced to grow up literally overnight.  At the age of eighteen, he reports to the Marine Corps recruiting station but is initially refused enlistment because of his weight and age. Murphy is determined to sign up and eventually succeeds in his quest.  His thirst for action is soon quenched as he finds himself on the front lines in the Mediterranean Theater off the shores of Morocco.  As the story progresses, we are quickly thrown into the mix of the action as Murphy and his platoon are actively engaged in fierce combat.  Soliders enter and exit the story quickly, some having been felled by a sharpshooter’s bullet and others having fell victim to  shells and rockets.  The scenes are graphic and death lingers over them like a storm cloud that breaks without any hint of warning.

The Marines needed killers and Murphy eagerly signed for the task.  Yet the savagery of war is not lost on him and this quote sheds light on the humanity that resides in all soldiers: “But it is not easy to shed the idea that human life is sacred . The lieutenant has not yet accepted the fact that we have been put into the field to deal out death“.  To say that  war is hell is an understatment. Murphy understood the darkness of it all but make no mistake he believed in the job he was assigned to do and he takes pride in being a leatherneck.  He is a killer but one who sees the dysfunction of war and realizes that death is everywhere at all times. Bravery is his speciality but not idiocy.  Further, he was not invincible to the dangers of infantry including malaria which catches him in its grip on more than one occasion.  His time in the infirmary where he meets the nurse known only as “Helen” is a needed relief from the constant descriptions of the last moments of fellow Marines.

The European Theater is undoubtedly where the story picks up pace and as they march across Italy, Murphy fills the book with recreation of battle scenes and hilarious anecdotes through the likes of fellow soldiers such as Novak, Swope and Kerrigan, whom Murphy calls the “Irishman”.  He and Kerrigan develop a lasting friendship built upon the time they spend facing death and dishing it out to German forces.  At the book’s closing, Murphy remarks “but I also believe in men like Brandon and Novak and Swope and Kerrigan ; and all the men who stood up against the enemy , taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting . The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent “.  Between the soldiers is a sense of humor that some readers may find to be somewhat macabre.  But in war, the rules of reality and morality are changed in ways some of us cannot comprehend. 

The book is less than three hundred pages but it is by far one of the best memoirs of war I have read.  It is dark, humorous and enlightening at the same time.  War creates a separate world in which soldiers navigate while trying to hold onto their morals and sanity.  Both are sometimes sacrificed and no one who leaves alive,  leaves the same.  There are many books on World War II but to see the war from the grunt’s point of view is a separate experience and Murphy delivered the goods.   Highly recommended.