The cover of this book is bound to cause many to do a double take. The crossing out of the word black is far from subtle, but anyone who is familiar with the late Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory (1932-2017), will know that subtlety was not in his character. He was known as a star comedian for many years but he was also a civil rights activist, nutrition guru, social critic, writer and occasional actor. His death marked the passing of a icon whose sharp wit and frankness earned him the respect of his peers and people across the nation. Published after his death, this book takes a look at the official history of African Americans that Americans have been told for more than a century. Gregory makes it clear early in the book that American History and Black History are one in the same. It is a valid point and for African Americans, the United States is the only home that many have ever known. The history that has been taught in classrooms across America continues to be re-examined in the pursuit of the truth by historians and independent researchers. The gift of the internet has allowed truth-seekers to reach audiences of monumental sizes as we step back in time to learn what really did happen with regards to pivotal events that shaped the modern day United States.
Gregory starts early in the book, beginning after America becomes a newly formed nation and step by step, he provides us with an outline of the events that took place to clarify what has been written in error. Admittedly, Gregory has been viewed as a conspiracy theorist and in some parts of the book, a few statements give credence to that. Sadly, we do not have the ability to ask him to elaborate on those statements. I did find a few comments to be in need of further verification. But the overall message of the book remains strong and Gregory presents an abundance of valid points. For those who have accepted the history presented in school textbooks, Gregory might come off as out of his mind. But if we pay careful attention to his words, he does speak a lot of truth but in a way where we can analyze things on our own and do further research. In his defense, he never claims to be the end all source for historical information. However, he was a prominent fixture in the civil rights movement and friends with an endless number of historical figures who were directly involved in the movement. He provides plenty of anecdotes about many stars such as Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), Michael Jackson (1958-2000) and Malcolm X (1925-1965).
The pace of the book is fast but steady and Gregory makes sure not to spend too much time on one subject. He discusses each topic just long enough to provided the reader with a clear picture of past events. And while I do feel that it would have been great if he had gone into more detail, that would have required a much larger book. His focus here, is plant enough seeds of doubt so that we continue to do research on our own and learn the truth about history. Gregory was brilliant both as a comedian and social critic. Part of what made him such a memorable figure was his ability to shock his audience. He pulls no punches here and makes it clear that he intends to clarify the many lies that have been told for too long.
Some of us will read this book and come away with the belief that Gregory is more of a conspiracy theorist than many thought. He does make some statements that could be conspiracy theory oriented but he never strays too far off course or makes statements that are beyond outlandish. But I stress again that this book is not the final word on historical events. The book is a good start for those who have long questioned what they have been taught. Black Americans will question their own history in a country that has a dark past with racial discrimination. Black actors, athletes, musicians, activists and authors struggled with the system of Jim Crow and acceptance in mainstream American society. But as Gregory shows us, they all had tremendous courage and he uses their stories to prove his point that Black Americans are not helpless, but strong people whose history has been ignored for far too long. As a Black American, Gregory caused me to re-examined things that I learned years ago in my own search for truth. I did learn a few things I did not know before and for other things, I have more topics to research in-depth. I never had the opportunity to meet Dick Gregory but I had seen him in interviews on several occasions. He is no longer with us but his voice remains as prominent and relevant as ever. And this posthumous release is a further testament to his colorful and influence intellect that provokes thought and reflection. Good read.
Baseball has long held the title of America’s pastime. The NBA and NFL have respectable followings of their own. However there is also the world of sports entertainment that has been made famous by the phenomenon of professional wrestling. My father has always called it “rassling” and when I walked around the house doing my best impersonations of the stars of what was then called the World Wrestling Federation (“WWF”), he always shook his head in laughter. In spite of the wisdom he possessed about the spectacle I was obsessed with, not once did he ever try to dissuade me from watching the heroes that I came to believe in. And when he and my uncle took my brother and I to Madison Square Garden to see Hulk Hogan live in person, it was if we had been transported to wrestling heaven. As I aged, my view of wrestling changed and so did the characters I found to be standouts. Among them, was Bret Hart, known as the Hitman and leader of the Hart Foundation, the heel group that had an enormous following of fans. When he retired not long after suffering a devastating concussion in the ring, I and many fans looked back on the many matches he took part in with sadness knowing he would never set foot in the ring again. I always wondered what really went on behind the scenes and when I saw that he had written this autobiography, I knew that I had to read it. And I am happy to report that the book did not let me down and it is one of the best books about the wrestling industry that I have ever read.
Those of us who are wrestling fans accept some of the truths about it, mainly that it is entertainment. But every wrestler will tell you in person that there are some parts of the industry that are very real and lives are affected. The life of a pro-wrestler is a crazy one, based on traveling over three hundred days per year, nagging injuries, backstage politics, fame, success and attempts at maintaining a “home life” while mostly away from home. The fans rarely see the sacrifices the stars make to bring joy and excitement to the millions of wrestling fans around the world. And when the show is over, some stars ride off into the sunset while others struggle to survive after stepping out of the squared circle. For Bret Hart, it is a mix of both but in ways that no one could have expected when he first started out in what he calls the cartoon world of wrestling.
As to be expected, the story begins in Canada at the Hart family home where patriarch Stu Hart (1915-2003) and Helen Hart (1924-2001) raised Bret and his eleven siblings. He takes us back in time behind closed doors to witness that daily events in the Hart household. From the beginning, he makes it clear that the Hart siblings have some serious dysfunctional relationships. Their father is a wrestling promoter and the family struggled with the highs and lows of the business. Hart is open about the times of poverty the family endured and the other times when money flowed in. Some of the Hart children sought to make their own careers but the family was a wrestling dynasty and before long, Bret himself laced up the boots and began a career that was nothing short of extraordinary.
The book is captivating from the start and Hart has no shortage of anecdotes about growing up in a large family under a man feared by anyone who dared to get close enough to Stu’s dungeon. The story flows very well and we begin to see Hart’s life taking shape. The story takes the biggest turn when Vince McMahon, Jr. enters the story. It is at this point that life is never the same from Bret or professional wrestling. McMahon realized early on that in order to pull ahead, regional wrestling promotions would have to fold and to achieve this, he purchased a number of them, guaranteeing an iron grip on the East Coast. Bret soon faced the decision that many wrestlers of his time had to make and decided to take a chance and go to work for the WWF. The book picks up speed here and the things we learn about backstage production will more than satisfy wrestling buffs. All of the big names are in the book but sadly many of them are no longer with us. But through Bret’s stories, we can revisit the era ruled by stars such as Andre The Giant (1946-1993), Bobby Heenan (1944-2017), Adrian Adonis (1953-1988) and Chief Wahoo McDaniel (1938-2002). Throughout the book, Hart never loses focus even in the midst of so many larger than life characters. In the land of the giants, he rises to the top and eventually becomes the WWF champion. His ascension was by no means easy and his relationship with Vince is examined in detail. Hart pulls no punches and thoroughly explains his view of the Montreal Screwjob, his brother Owen’s death and how McMahon handled each situation. Those two moments in the book might change the way many view the minds behind the business. Wrestling fans will be familiar with both events but it is worth reading what Hart has to say.
The successes in the ring are offset by the events in his personal life which he discusses frankly. Professional wrestling is filled with many demons and Hart was not immune, Performance enhancing drugs, pain killers, infidelity, alcohol and acts of aggression are the devil’s brew that can dismantle the life of even the strongest of the strong. Hart discusses each one and in the process reveals the many struggles that can serve as the downfall of a wrestling star. The stories are sad and in some cases tragic. One that stands out in the book is that of Tom Billington (1958-2018) known by fans as the Dynamite Kid. His story is one of the most tragic that I have come across from the crazy world of wrestling. There is more to his life that Hart could not cover but Billington’s story can easily be found on the internet. Hart was one of the lucky ones and as friends died, he lived and counted his blessings. But two events happened that forced him out of the ring and changed his life in ways he could have never imagined.
During a routine match with superstar Bill Goldberg, Hart suffered a career ending concussion. I remember the match and it was clear that Hart had been seriously injured. However, no one watching that night knew just how serious the injury was but that would soon change. Hart recalls the profound changes in his life and the excruciating effects it inflicted up his body. His life became a daily struggle to do the most mundane tasks and when things seemed to be stable, he suffered another medical emergency that completely changed his future. For fans of the Hitman, this part of the book will be tough to get through. But I can say that throughout it all, he never stops being the Hitman and the story does have its shining moments. This autobiography is a treasure trove of information about the business and it is nothing short of seductive. I literally could not get enough of the stories about the older wrestling stars. They lived wild lives but also made their names as legends in the squared circle. Bret Hart is among those that have managed to survive but he carries with him many scars, both physically and mentally from his time in the business. This is his story, one of success, fame, love, heartbreak, tragedy and redemption. And I am sure that it will leave you at times speechless and at others, cheering Hart along in support. Wrestling fans will love this book.
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll
On the morning of February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and a team of terrorist drove a bomb laden van into the basement of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. As I watched the news from across the river in Brooklyn that morning, I felt a sense of shock and vulnerability. America had been attacked. When Ramzi Yousef was captured and extradited to New York to stand trial, many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief. The Hon. Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to life with no parole plus an additional 240 years which he is currently serving at the ADX Florence Supermax facility in Fremont County, Colorado. Eight years later on September 11, 2001, America was attacked again when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the final aircraft outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The response from Washington was swift and a show of force nearly unparalleled in modern times. The mission to capture those responsible and root out terrorists, led to Afghanistan, a land-locked country in South-Central Asia. Images of U.S. troops and the enemy Taliban flashed across news screens as reports of successes in the mission to root out terror were triumphantly proclaimed. To many Americans, Afghanistan was another far away place across the world where people lived in ways that seemed to be from ancient times, going against “American ideals”. Today, Afghanistan is nearly completely forgotten by the American public. There has been no news about what America’s current role is and plans to withdraw American forces have been cast aside as yet another victim of the focus on what has become reality television politics. The story of Afghanistan and its importance to world history is often misunderstood and in some cases not even recognized. But there is far more that meets the eye and author Steve Coll explores this topic in this New York Times bestseller that tells the full story what did happen in Afghanistan between the Soviet Invasion and the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001.
If you asked a person on the street today why we are in Afghanistan, I firmly believe that many could not give a plausible answer. Washington has no official position on it. But what is striking is that for decades, U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan was either anti-soviet, anti-Taliban and in other cases, non-existent. Coll revisits each and examines the subject in detail so that we can understand how and why the U.S. attitude towards Afghanistan continued to shift. The book is primarily focused on the Soviet-Afghan war between 1979 and 1989. The conflict drew the attention and participation of multiple countries including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Central Intelligence Agency served as the main force to funnel information back to Washington and the United States found itself supporting the Mujadhideen rebels against the Soviet backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The rebels’ cause earned them support from other young radicals including a very young Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) who reappears later in the book as an arch-nemesis of the United States. The Soviet-Afghan war served as the last major conflict of the Cold War before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, history took a very different course for many reason as the author shows. And slowly Afghanistan became a pawn in a much larger chess match between more powerful and sophisticated nations.
The figures that appear in the book are numerous and keeping track of all of them is a bit tedious. But each is critical to the story at hand including the late Senator from Texas, Charles Wilson (D) (1933-2010), Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960-2013) and former Pakistan Premier Benazir Bhutto (1957-2007). All of the figures are central to the complicated web woven in the Middle East as Sharia Law clashed with modernity and oil pipelines became the target of several governments. Coll connects all of the dots in a writing style that makes the story very easy to follow. The revelations in the book dis-spell many rumors and confirm others. The volatile nature of politics in the region is on full display as each leader walks a tightrope while in office. The rise of Sharia Law and anti-modernity beliefs began to turn the tide in the Middle East from welcomed support from the west to disdain for the western way of life. Radicalism is born and as Coll moves through the second half the book, we see how Islamic extremism gained its footing while Washington was asleep at the wheel.
Osama Bin Laden held a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list for several years until his death. Even today, he is still considered one of the world’s deadliest terrorist although he did not carry out the acts himself. But as we see in the book, he was charismatic, dedicated and blessed with enormous wealth as a result of his father’s high successful and respected construction firm. He became a central figure in the new war against the west which would be waged by a new wave of committed soldiers with nothing to fear. Incredibly, while this was taking place, the response by Washington was bewildering. However, not everyone was oblivious to the sudden rise of Bin Laden and there were many officials who sounded the alarm as to what they saw as the next major threat to America. That threat manifested itself horrifically in September, 2001.
Undoubtedly, each reader will take something different away from the book. But I do believe that every reader will be confused to say the least as to what was really happening in Washington and lack of information provided to American citizens. As I read the book, I shook my head at times in disbelief. Today we can look back and ask what if Washington had stopped Bin Laden when it had the chance? Why did Washington fail to acknowledge the warning signs from the intelligence community? Some answers we may never fully know but through Steve Coll, we have plenty of explanations that will suffice for many. For those interested in learning the true story of the Soviet-Afghan war and America’s foreign policy in relation to the region, this book is a must read.
The dissolution of the United Soviet Social Republics (USSR) remains one of the most important and world changing moments in history. The lowering of the hammer and sickle on December 26, 1991, was the end of seventy-four years of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe. But the remnants of the Soviet Union can still be found today and the ghost of its founder, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), continues to haunt Russia. In Red Square, Moscow, Lenin’s corpse remains on permanent display and is maintained by a full-time staff of technicians. To believers in the old-guard and Marxism, Lenin is the eternal leader of the Bolshevik revolution. To his detractors, he was madman who unleashed a wave of terror and was outdone only by his successor Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Undoubtedly, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron grip built upon fear, intimidation and murder. But those tactics were not new methods of operation, having been in use long before he took power. During the reign of the Soviet Union, information regarding Lenin’s private life was kept secret and only the most privileged of researchers were able to see any official records. The passage of time and change in attitudes had resulted in the disclosure of Soviet records that many thought would never be revealed. The thaw which began with Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) has allowed the world to learn the truth behind the Iron Curtain. Author Victor Sebestyen has taken another look at Lenin’s life in this well-researched and revealing biography of the iconic and infamous Soviet leader.
It is not a requirement but I do believe that basic knowledge of the former Soviet Union will make the book even more enjoyable to the reader. There are many figures in the story, some of whom became pivotal figures in Soviet and world history. From the start, the book is intriguing and the author’s writing style sets the perfect tone for the book. Furthermore, at the end of each chapter are the footnotes which help aid the reader in following the narrative and developing a mental picture of the tense political climate that existed in Russia at the beginning of the 1900s.
Prior to reading the book, I had learned a significant amount of information regarding Lenin’s life but the story told here is simply astounding. Sebestyen leaves no stone unearthed, fully disclosing the sensitive parts of Lenin’s life including his marriage to Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1969-1939) and relationship with Inessa Armand (1874-1920). And as the author points out, Nadezhda or “Nadya”, was a supportive and valued voice in Lenin’s circle. Her comments throughout the book shed light on Lenin’s very private side and her commitment to the revolution and Lenin’s ideology made her a celebrated figure in her own right. She remained committed to Lenin after his death and up until her own in 1939.
Lenin’s early life is examined in through detail and reveals an interesting figure but highly unorthodox and complex. Ideology becomes a major focus of his life and his series of odd jobs come to an end when he finds his true calling as the man destined to lead the Bolshevik Revolution. But his path to get there had many obstacles along the way and it is his time away from Russia that is just as interesting as his time in Russia. As would be expected, his service as chairman is the crux of the book and Sebestyen delivers the goods. Sensitive readers should be aware that there are very disturbing events that take place and in their graphic detail here, they may prove to be too upsetting for some. But the author reveals them so that we may learn the truth about Lenin. In the title of the book, the author refers to him as a “Master of Terror”. I believe the title was earned and this book is proof of it. His deeds have been overshadowed by those of his successor but Lenin was a master in his own right and I have no doubts that Stalin took many notes. Death, deception, lies and even pilferage are part of the Soviet story, serving as pillars in the foundation upon which Lenin and his party established their system of brutality. Their acts were so surprising in some instances, that even after having finished the book, I am still shaking my head in disbelief. And to say that anarchy ruled, might be an understatement.
Sebestyen carefully follows Lenin’s rise and the formation of the Soviet Government. From the start, all was not well and cracks in the facade immediately began to form. The fragility of the coalition is on full display, allowing readers to grasp the unstable nature of Soviet politics and how quickly friends could turn into enemies. Jealousy, egos and diverging interpretations of true Marxism severed friendships, raised suspicion and helped create an atmosphere of distrust that remained with the Soviet Union for the next seventy years. And even today, Russia and the independent republics, sometimes struggle to to stand completely removed from the dark legacy of the USSR.
One subject which has always been up for debate is Lenin’s untimely demise at the age of fifty-four. His condition at the time was somewhat puzzling to doctors but all agreed that it deteriorated quickly. Sebestyen clears up a few rumors surrounding Lenin’s death but there is a slight chance that some details regarding Lenin’s death still remain hidden. However, I do believe the author presents a solid analysis of what contributed to his death based on facts and not mere speculation. Readers who are expecting to find any evidence of a conspiracy will disappointed. No such theories are presented or even acknowledged, keeping the book on track all the way until the end.
The existence of Lenin’s tomb is both a testament to his influence over Russia and his inability to envision a future without himself. He could have never imagined the heights that the Soviet Union would reach over time nor could he have pictured its downfall. I think he may have mixed feelings to know that today in 2019, people are still interested in his life, one that he was willing to devote to the success of the Soviet empire. In death, he became eternally etched into the Soviet experience and he remains one of history’s most polarizing figures. This biography is nothing short of excellent.
In American folklore, there are two families whose names are recognized as being part of what is arguably the longest running feud to have ever taken place in the United States. The Hatfields and the McCoys have become ingrained in the American experience and the alleged feud between the two families has been re-told through films, documentaries, websites and books. In 2012, the History Channel released a multi-part miniseries about the feud starring Kevin Costner as William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (1839-1921) and the late Bill Paxton (1955-2017) as Randolph “Ran’l” McCoy (1825-1914). The series is highly rated but just how accurate was it? And were the Tug Valley in West Virginia and Pike County in Kentucky, really that deadly in the late 1800s? Thomas E. Dotson is a descendant of both families and here he rescues history and sets the record straight about what really did happen between the years of 1882 and 1888. And what he reveals will undoubtedly change the way you view the “feud” between the two famous families.
Dotson takes a different approach here and instead of re-telling the story, he examines other sources of information that have been published or released that have contributed to the often repeated “official” story about the conflict. There is no official narrative here, the purpose of the book is correct information that is simply inaccurate. Urban legends and published works have led many of us to believe that the conflict began over the issue of a stolen hog from Randolph McCoy and that as a result, blood was shed in large numbers, turning the Tug Valley into a shooting gallery. Admittedly, the story is sensational and its seductiveness has allowed many to fall victim to misinformatio. However, through hindsight, Dotson’s work allows us to go back in time and take another look at the “deadly” conflict.
The amount of research that went into this book is nothing short of staggering. Dotson means business here and has had enough of the lies and omissions that have persisted for more than one hundred years. I have seen the reviews of some readers on Amazon, who complained that the author did not tell the story as it happened. However, Dotson does tell the story, just not in the conventional format. By going back and breaking down the myths, the story is re-told, one section at a time. And by halfway through the book, a clear picture of the origin of the tensions between the two families is clearly evident. The death of Ellison Hatfield on August 1, 1882 in Pike County, Kentucky, is widely accepted as the beginning of the conflict. But as Dotson shows us, the seeds of discord were sown many years before, going all the way back to the Civil War. Further, the tensions between the two were only a part of a much larger battle being waged between many high-powered figures over land, money and the settling of old grudges.
Surely, some secrets of the conflict have been lost over time as those who were alive at the time have long been deceased. But their heirs and official records that have survived, give us a clearer picture of the mindset of both families during the time and refute myths about the events that were supposed to have taken place. Dotson rectifies those long held beliefs, dissecting them like an expert surgeon. For more than a century, the alleged theft of a hog has been the referred to as the start of the troubles. But what Dotson shows is that there was far more to the story than any of us could have imagined. To the Hatfields and the McCoys that are now deceased, any notion of a feud probably would have been seen as ridiculous. To be sure, the families did have their tensions but a feud in the sense that we think of might have seemed bizarre to them.
As I read the book, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the surreal amount of misinformation that has been propagated many forms of media. Hollywood has always been known to take certain liberties with stories and Costner, while a great actor, was not responsible for every part of the production. However, I do believe that with the story of the Hatfield and the McCoys, the truth has been sacrificed for too many years while those responsible have profited greatly. And the full story of what did happen has remained hidden until now. Dotson is proud of his heritage and does an incredible job of presenting the truth while completely demolishing any perceptions that people from the Tug Valley are hillbillies obsessed with violence and illiterate. In fact, as can be seen in the book, it was the exact opposite in many places and the full story reveals a long running chest match that eventually did see a checkmate take place.
Perhaps one day, a film will be made that tells the story of the Hatfields and McCoys as it did happen, removing the fanfare and eliminating the tendencies of storytellers to embellish their accounts to be more appealing. But until then, we can rely on this phenomenal compendium that tells the truth about what may be the greatest “non-feud” in history.
In 1993, Loud Records released an album that re-defined the rap music genre. A group of nine lyricists from the borough of Staten Island in New York City joined together and created Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The album was a smash hit and before long, millions of hip-hop fans knew the names of each member by hard. As a New York City native, I remember when the single Protect Ya Neck was released and the buzz surrounding this new group that was in your face, raw and uncut. To some, the group was just another rap entourage from the streets, that was profane and too rough around the edges for mainstream society. But to fans, they represented a new concept and sound that no one had ever seen before from rap artists. The latter won out and through many albums, tours and even television appearances, the group cemented their legacy as one of rap’s greatest acts. But for all of the glitz and glamour, there also existed a behind-the-scenes story that was playing out in ways that no fan could have ever guessed.
Lamont Hawkins, known as “U-God”, is one of the founding nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan. In this gripping autobiography that is the first book by any member of the group, he opens up about his life as a young kid in New York City who grows into a young man and becomes part of music history. Readers sensitive to profanity should be aware that there is plenty to be found here. Hawkins speaks in a very frank manner but at the same time, gets his points across very clearly and drives them home with the right amount of force. Putting aside the strong language, the story is seductive right from the beginning. The book is so interesting that I finished it in forty-eight hours. The story picks up pace from the beginning and never slows down. It is an unbelievable roller coaster ride and fans of the Wu-Tang Clan will absolutely love this book.
I do believe that even those readers unfamiliar with rap, Hawkins or Wu-Tang will still be able to enjoy the book. His story is much more than just recording songs. This is also the story of personal triumph from a life that could have easily taken a much different path. Younger readers may find some of the anecdotes regarding New York City hard to believe. But anyone who lived in New York during the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s will easily recall the era when New York City was nearly bankrupt and crime was all over the Five Boroughs. Subway graffiti, burned out and semi-destroyed buildings littered parts of the city. Poverty, drugs and an astronomical murder rate made New York City one of the most dangerous places on earth. I vividly recall those days as a young kid growing up in East New York, Brooklyn during the 1980s. But my life was far different from Hawkins and his story will blow your mind.
Struggle is the best word I can think of to describe his early life. But his trials and tribulations also extended to the other members of the group and Hawkins introduces them into the story as the Wu-Tang Clan is slowly formed. The Park Hill housing complex figures prominently throughout the early part of the story, serving as home for several group members. Murders, shootings and drugs were a part of their daily lives and it was from this system of mayhem, that they sought to escape. Success finally does arrive but even then, personal demons followed the group like a dark cloud. But in time, they each are able to focus on the bigger picture and find their way out of the ghetto. Hawkins is our narrator and his observations about life on the streets as a drug pusher, his fellow band members and being aspiring rapper are food for thought.
It is clear that at his age now, Hawkins is seasoned and sees things through a much clearer lens. But he has never forgotten where he has come from and his rough and rumble background are what have shaped his unfiltered approach that surely is “raw”. As a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, this book showed another side to the group that I did not of before. Twenty-six years have passed since they released their debut album but it still sounds as good as it did then. Each band member has their own style and appeal but without each, Wu-Tang could have never existed. And what many of us who are fans may not have known, is that one of the anchors of the group is the man we have come to know as U-God. Hip-hop fans will find this book to be a true gem.
On September 11, 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown through a CIA backed coup, that resulted in the seizure of power by General Augusto Pinochet. The removal of Allende satisfied the Nixon Administration which had seen the democratic election of Allende as a threat to the Western Hemisphere. To Washington, it was inconceivable to think that the events in Cuba were spreading across Latin America. The consensus was clear, Allende had to be removed. McCarthyism and the red scare led to anyone having left-leaning political views to be branded as a communist determined to see the fall of Capitalism. Among Allende’s supporters was Chile’s national poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-193). Twelve days after Allende’s removal and death, Neruda died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was sixty-nine years old. Forty-five years later, his poetry is still beloved in Chile and other parts of the world. And he is recognized as being one of the world’s greatest poets. I had heard of Neruda before and have been fortunate enough to visit Chile. It is a unique country and there is something special about it which is not easy to put into words. Chile truly is a place you have to see in person, to experience Chilean culture and travel through Patagonia. I admit that I did not know much about Neruda’s life, so when I saw this biography in my recommendation list, I did not hesitate to buy it and start reading nearly instantly. And what I have learned is more than I could have ever imagined.
Mark Eisner has researched Neruda’s life and has compiled a biography that is nothing short of outstanding. Surely, Neruda took some things with him to the grave as all great figures do. But his large volume of work, speeches and other writings have survived, and they would all help Eisner in what was a monumental task. Neruda’s story begins in 1904, an era remotely differently from the era in which we currently live. Eisner has recreated early 1900s Chile and first tells us the story of Neruda’s parents. His father, José del Carmen Reyes Morales, is a central character in the story and the beginning of the book focuses on his life before Neruda enters the picture. On July 12, 1904, the story changed for good, when his wife Rosa gave birth to a happy baby boy, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, the future Pablo Neruda. The young child enters a world that is marred by affairs, illegitimate children, strict social class and backbreaking work on the railroad which in some cases proved to be deadly. Neruda would inherit some of his father’s nefarious traits and the would cause him consternation and scandal in his own life. And through his poetry, he allowed the world to read his emotions. But what many did not know then and may not know now, is that there was also a very dark side to the famed poet.
Eisner does not shy away from Neruda’s failings and when necessary, uses Neruda’s own words to drive home the point. As I read the book, there were some points at which I shook my head in both shock and disgust. In fact, there are several parts of the book that may prove to be upsetting to female readers. Incredibly, Neruda was able to compartmentalize his life and the ease in which he discarded those around him was quite frankly, disturbing. To the public, he was the rising poet and Eisner follows his developing career which threatened to place him in poverty. But through a series of events, blessed with luck, Neruda persevered and went on to create poetry that has changed the lives of millions of people. But what Eisner also shows, is the two sides of Neruda which were unable to be reconciled and a poet struggling with his own happiness while at the same time, oblivious to the errors of his ways.
Neruda was an outspoken leftist and his affinity for the Soviet Union and the communist system of government, earned him many enemies as well. The author explores this part of Neruda’s life and the fear of communism that spread across several continents. His devotion to communism following his admission into the Chilean Communist Party, would prove to be a thorn in his side until his final day. But for Neruda, staying in one place for long was never an option and this story is filled with travel around the world as Neruda works and creates in several countries. Through Eisner’s words, we follow Pablo and his many love interests across the globe as he travels to and from Chile both as foreign agent and fugitive. At times, it seemed as if his life was straight out of a Hollywood film. There is no let up and Pablo has forced Eisner to move full speed ahead. Once I started the book, it became increasingly difficult to set it aside for a later time in the day. I was glued to the pages, curious to see where Neruda ends up next and who makes an appearance in his life and who makes their exit. To say his life was unorthodox would be an understatement.
At over six-hundred pages, the book is not exactly a short read but the pace of the story will result in readers forgetting about the length completely. The story is engaging and Neruda was quite the character. But he possessed a natural gift and Eisner’s inclusion of his poems, gives the book an added air of authenticity to it. In those sections, he turns the floor over to Pablo who never failed to deliver.
Having completed the book, I have mixed feelings about Neruda. But that is a credit to the author’s talent. Eisner does not show the Neruda people want to see, he shows us the Neruda that we need to see in order to come to our own conclusions. A brilliant and talented poet was also at times a cold-blooded monster. He battled loneliness but had fans worldwide. Some would call him a walking contradiction and others might simply accept the label of eccentric. Regardless off the adjective, Neruda did not fit perfectly into any mold and Eisner has captured his complex character which at times did not function based on reason or logic. It is a great story of a unique person, who never faced his own demons but was able to capture the hearts and emotions of millions of people facing their demons. In death, he became a legend of nearly God-like status and remains a cultural icon in Chile. He is to Chile what Jorge Luis Borges is to Argentina. Those looking for a good biography of Pablo Neruda, will be more than satisfied with this gem by Mark Eisner.
Recently, I have become fascinated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, a culmination of long-simmering tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster Province. The conflict is among the longest running in the world and has claimed the lives of thousands. In each of the books that I have read, I kept coming across the name Bobby Sands (1954-1981). I knew he was one of several prisoners at the Long Kesh correctional facility who died following a hunger strike in protest of the conditions at the jail and the policies of London. However, I did not know much about his life. I became focused on him and eagerly searched online for whatever I could find. Amazon delivered yet again with this definitive biography of Sands’ life by author Dennis O’Hearn that is nothing short of riveting.
Here in the United States, Sands’ name is largely unknown but across Ireland and other parts of the world, he is remembered as a champion of resistance and an inspiration to others who have waged their own battles for freedom including the late Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). Mandel used Sands’ hunger strike as an example for strike of his own which proved to be highly successful. However, Sands also had his detractors and many of them still view him with disgust, particularly in the six Protestant dominated counties in Ulster Province. And similar to other famous figures, there are endless stories about his life, some true and others most likely fiction. Hearns sets the record straight here giving the best account of the life of one of the IRA’s most legendary leaders.
From the start, the book earned my undivided attention and at times I could not put it down. Curiously, the Sands’ story begins like many other kids in Northern Ireland. He was born several miles from Belfast and his childhood was a happy one by all accounts. He lived in a modest house with his parents and three siblings. His friends were a mix of Catholic and Protestant. But that would soon change as the battle between Republicans and Loyalists escalated and the induction of the British military further fueled tensions. As Hearns shows, these events began to shape the mindset of the growing Sands and the events of Bloody Sunday, were the spark that fully ignited the raging conflict.
The author’s writing style flows very easily and the pace of the book moves just right. Hearns follows Sands’ early life, showing his slow progression from the average young kid, to a young man learning about religion and complexities of life for Irish Catholics and finally to the wise and seasoned IRA member that launched the most famous and moving hunger strike in Irish history. I think Hearns showcases clearly, how and why many young men and women joined the IRA, knowing full well that jail and death were the most likely outcomes. To Americans, Sands might seem out of his mind. But that is far from the case and Hearns gives him a platform to spread his ideas. Sands’ writing samples are included in the book, giving him a voice in this incredible biography. Even if you do not agree with what Sands did, it will hard not to admire his dedication to his beliefs, his charisma, intelligence and willingness to sacrifice himself.
His incarceration at Long Kesh is without a doubt the crux of the book. As Hearns tells this part of Sands’ life, we step inside the walls of the prison and the different sections in which Sands and other IRA members were confined. The ugly and vindictive atmosphere that developed at Long Kesh is on full display and some readers will be repulsed at the actions of some guards and conditions in which Sands and the others lived. But the struggle inside the prison by no means was one sided. Sands and the others do their share of antagonizing the guards whom they affectionately refer to as “screws”. A daily war of attrition developed as each side sought to find out just how far they could push the other. And to say that some aspects were barbaric would be an understatement.
Prison time was an accepted part of life for the men and women of the IRA. Death came as well to those who were either unlucky or extraordinarily brave. The men at Long Kesh believed their fight was political and they decided they would not be confined within its walls without being appropriately labeled as political prisoners. London vehemently refused to agree to any such notion and thus, the stage was set for the battle between the IRA and the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). As this point in the book, the suspense heightens as the IRA becomes more defiant and the guards become more determined to break them into submission. It was an environment that would have driven most to insanity. But for Bobby Sands, this was the proving ground in which he could show his commitment to his cause. His studies of the works of Che Guevara, Franz Fanon and others became the backbone of his resistance and carried him through to the final moments of the second of two hunger strikes carried out by IRA prisoners. Hearns covers both in solid detail to give the reader an inside look into the battle behind-the-scenes battles within the IRA with regards to the impending doom by the hunger strikers.
As a sub-story to the events at Long Kesh, the author focuses on the turmoil in Sand’s personal life outside of the IRA. Marriage and fatherhood enter the story and the effect the movement had on his personal life will cause many to wonder if it was truly worth it. Sands would surely say yes but I am sure that if he could have gone back and done things differently, there is a good chance that he might have changed course. But by the time he had reached this point in his life, his fate was sealed and destiny was waiting. At the time of his death, he was only 27 years of age and joined a long list of other famous figures who died at age 27. In death, he became a martyr and his image can still be found on murals in Northern Ireland. To Republicans, he is a hero who fought against British Rule and to Loyalists, a criminal who caused his own demise. But to some of his enemies, as Hearns shows, he was still worthy of respect and the interactions with guards in various parts of the book are confirmation of this. I think that all can agree that he was one of a kind and remains a legend of the IRA. His hunger strike changed public opinion of the IRA and their cause for a united Irish Republic. Future generations of IRA members and Republicans will surely look to him as one of their greatest figures whose memory shall continue to live on. This is the life and death of Robert Gerard Sands.
Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition – Shirley Chisholm with Scott Simpson, Donna Brazile and Shola Lynch
Many years before Hilary Clinton decided to run for the office of President of the United States, there was another politician who had eyes on the White House. And although she did not win the Democratic nomination, she earned a significant amount of votes and in the process, showed that a women candidates were more acceptable to society than many have long believed. Her name was Shirley Anita Chisholm (1924-2005) and through sheer determination, she launched a political campaign that challenged many accepted norms in American society and helped to break down barriers, even today. In January, 2019, thirty-six women joined the House of Representatives following the success by Democrats in the 2018 mid-term elections. The number is now the record for the most women in the House of Representatives and if current trends are an indication, that number will continue to grown through future elections.
If Chisholm were alive today, she would have been thrilled and satisfied with the election of Barack Obama and the current roster of Congresswomen. Their elections to office would serve as confirmation that her life and struggle helped pave the way for women and minority candidates. This is her story in which she invites the reader into her personal life so that we can learn more about the first Black-American woman to run for president.
The first thing that I noticed about the book is the formatting. I chose the Kindle version and the text alignment is in dire need of correction. Other buyers have commented on the same issue. Putting that aside, the story is intriguing from start to finish and will satisfy any reader interested in Chisholm’s life. She was a product of Brooklyn, New York, born to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Barbados. From an early age, her life was anything but ordinary and throughout the book, we see that she possessed an uncanny drive and found herself typically in the right place at the right time. As she admits herself, politics was not her first choice as a career. But her fate was destined and through a series of events beyond her control, she makes her way into the political field of New York City, a Democrat stronghold.
To say that the book is inspiring is an understatement. Incredibly and sadly, it is only around two hundred pages but within those pages, is a wealth of wisdom that Chisholm passes on to those who are willing to listed. Her rise in politics to the position of congresswoman was a feat that many thought she could never pull off. But as the book progresses, it is clear that Chisholm was never a typical candidate. Her outspokenness, intelligence and fierce independence made her both an outcast and threat. Today, she would be labeled anti-establishment. But is a price that she was more than willing to pay in defense of her core beliefs. Her refusal to conform and tow the line is part of what keeps her legacy alive to this day.
However, not all of her story is smiles and cheers. She also reveals some of the darker moments in her life and how they changed her view on the world in which she was attempting to make her name known. Her relationship with her mother, is a case study for the many challenges American-born children face with regards to foreign-born parents. And yes, there is also the issue of race, which she addresses as well. However, I noticed that it does not take over the book but is mentioned only when necessary. Chisholm is speaking to everyone, about America as a nation and the many problems that existed then and still exist now, regardless of race.
To some, it may be regrettable that many of the things she discusses are still an issue. It may seem as if America has not learned much over the past fifty years. However, I do believe significant progress has been made and I feel that Chisholm would agree. I am confident that one day in the near future, America will have a female president. Whomever she is, she will have to confront many of the issues that faced Chisholm more than forty years ago. But if we remember her advice and keep our sights on the long-term goals, then the first woman president can be successful and become a beloved figure with a legacy to match.
This book should belong to the library of any woman running for public office or considering a political campaign. These words are the truth about the challenges women have faced and continue to face, as they amass a higher standing in American politics. Chisholm’s life, here on display, was a mix of love, God, education, success and motivation. If you have the time, sit back and listen to Shir speak in this truly good read.