Free Thinking Bibliophile Posts

IraqMany years have passed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq but the effects continue to linger.  The conflict continues to rear its ugly head and provokes fierce debate.   When Saddam Hussein was finally captured and subsequently convicted, many Muslims in Iraq and other nations breathed a sigh of relief.  The region continues to deal with social and political issues, but the days of Hussein and his power-hungry sons are long gone.  Stories of their inhumane treatment and the barbaric conditions of the country’s prisons are never-ending.   Exiles from the country have opened up and revealed what they remember from their time under the brutal Hussein regime.  This is the story of  Mayada Al-Askari, a divorced mother of two who ran a local printing shop and was wrongfully accused of spreading anti-government. She was arrested, incarcerated and tortured on a regular basis by prison officials determined to find the source of the anti-regime literature.  She was eventually released when it was determined that a subordinate of hers was the real culprit behind the printings.

After becoming friends with Jean Sasson, the noted author of multiple books about the Middle East including Growing Up Bin Laden, she tells the story of how and why she was arrested and the many horrors she heard and saw during her incarceration at the infamous Baladiyat prison.   Finding herself crammed into a cell with a large number of other women, most of whom are also imprisoned on false charges, she forms friendships with several women who server as a keeper for one another fearful of the barbaric nature of the guards assigned to their floor.   In the effort to create a sadistic and deadly environment, a daily regimen of physical and psychological abuse is enforced to break the spirit and mind of every inmate.  From executions to severe beatings, the savagery and merciless abuse reveals a cultural mindset bent on submission at any price. The stories in the book are tragic and horrific and they served as a reminder of the dark side of the Hussein regime.  The number of atrocities committed by Hussein are well-known and repulsive.  Mayada’s story helps to give a voice to thousands of other woman and men who were falsely imprisoned in Iraq and forced endured treatment of the worst kind.

ISBN-10: 0451212924
ISBN-13: 978-0451212924

Biographies

Shilts.jpgThe announcement by former NBA star Magic Johnson that he was HIV+ shocked and devastated my friends and I.  Although we knew much about the dreaded disease that had taken the lives of thousands of people, there was still much that did not know.  Johnson would be considered one of the lucky few who survived an era in which we saw the deaths of tennis great Arthur Ashe and Real World star Pedro Zamora, among others including the author of this book, Randy Shilts.   When he died, I was a freshman in high school still trying to understand how and why society was now faced with an incurable disease.  Two years after his death, one of my uncles contracted the disease and died less than a year later.

What was becoming overwhelmingly clear was that AIDS was unlike anything we had ever seen before. And furthermore, it did not discriminate. Wreaking havoc on the immune system,  the disease crippled the infected person until their body just completely shut down.  Misunderstanding and misinformation lead to fear, discrimination and vicious rumors about anyone that was diagnosed as either HIV+ or having full-blown AIDS.   When HBO premiered ‘And The Band Played On’, my parents had my brother and I sit down and pay close attention.  HBO’s screen adaptation of Shilts’ bestselling novel is a critical film in American cinematic history. But our focus here in this masterpiece by Shilts of the origin of the AIDS crisis and the missteps along the way that helped it become an epidemic.

Today we can look back in hindsight with the knowledge that no one knows for certain exactly where HIV+ began.   The central figure here is Gaetan Dugas, the former Air Canada flight attendant who doctors believed to be the carrier of the disease. Dugas had confessed to having slept with hundreds of men without protection.   He eventually contracted the disease and died in 1984.  But for many years he was Patient Zero and the man doctors feared would continue to spread the disease in every place he traveled to.  While Dugas was a central figure,  he was not the only person to show the symptoms of the disease with doctors in New York City reporting similar cases year prior.  But Dugas was critical in understanding the spread of the disease as the crusade to identify and fight it began in San Francisco, the city that had attracted thousands of gay men during the 1970s.

The CDC becomes a part of the story as doctors continue to diagnose alarming numbers of patients with Kaposi sarcoma, an indicator of an underlying HIV infection.  As the body count increased, the CDC sprang into action as Don Francis, director of the AIDS Laboratory Activities began his journey to identify the cause of infection.  His mission to find a cure for AIDS and the battle between antagonist Robert Gallo and French doctors Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier are central to the book and highlight the behind the scenes wars raging as a deadly epidemic continued to claim lives while politicians ignored the warning bells.  Homophobia and hysteria took center stage as many sought to write of HIV and AIDS as a  “gay disease”.   As Shilts points out, Bath houses were closed and gay men demonized as having “deserved” the plague.  Washington dragged its feet with more than one president simply avoiding the crisis until it was far too late.  In fact, it was not until the disease began to affect heterosexuals that America began to take notice.

Today it is rare to hear of anyone dying from AIDS. In fact, people are now able to live for decades.   But there was a time where HIV and AIDS were a death sentence.  For gay men, it was essentially the end of their lives.  Before the century was over, it would claim the lives of Freddie Mercury, Rock Hudson, Sylvester, Anthony Perkins, Perry Ellis, Halston and Eazy-E, among millions of people worldwide.  The story to fight that disease that changed mankind is tragic, complicated and at times infuriating. The true ugliness that developed as egos clashed, politicians failed to act and the religious right found a scapegoat did more to prevent progress than it did to help.   And that is the true tragedy that can be seen here in Shilts’ words.

We have the benefit of history on our side and can look back at AIDS as a time in which hope was quickly fading.   Shilts and many others did not leave to see the tremendous progress doctors have made in treating AIDS.   Their deaths were not in vain and today HIV and AIDS are no longer the death sentence they once were.  But no matter how much progress is made, we should never forget the long struggle doctors faced in unraveling the mystery to one of mankind’s deadliest diseases.  And at the time Shilts wrote this best-selling book, the future was nowhere near as bright as it is now.  And this book is a testament to it and the best account of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

ISBN-10: 0312374631
ISBN-13: 978-0312374631

 

Medicine

51ft1ecdfql-_sy344_bo1204203200_

On June 4, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich died from injuries he sustained several days earlier in an assassination attempt carried out by Czech exiles trained by the British Operations Executive.  He is only thirty-eight years of age.  The former SS-Gruppenführer left behind a widow and four young children. His death sends shock waves through the Nazi regime and causes Hitler to erupt in a monumental rage.  Shortly thereafter, the small village of Lidice is seized by the Germany army and razed to the ground as retribution of Heydrich’s murder.  And as Hitler proclaimed, it was erased from the earth permanently.  Lidice is mentioned in documentaries and books about the Third Reich and serves as an example of the unrestrained barbarity used by the regime to crush any opposition to the expansion of German rule.  In death, Heydrich is turned into a martyr and is held in high regard as the poster boy for the Reich’s belief in racial superiority. Several years would pass before the Third Reich collapsed and Germany was forced to surrender to the Allied forces. The loss of the war and the exposure of the criminality of the leaders of the Reich, cast devastating blows to the supremacists rhetoric employed by the fanatical Hitler and his subordinates.  Heydrich had remained a martyr in the eyes of many Germans throughout the war but the reality is that his story is much darker and far more sinister than meets the eyes.

Robert Gerwath has composed this outstanding biography of the officer Hitler called the man with the iron heart.  Following the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the Reich began to annex smaller neighboring countries typically by coercion but in some cases, through armed invasion. In the process, military commanders were appointed as as rulers in the newly acquired territory.  Heydrich, whose final post was as the Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, served as the agent of death and is said to have been even more ruthless than his mentor, the infamous SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler.  He ruled with an iron fist and set an unwavering goal to expand Germany domination across Europe beginning with Czechoslovakia which he intended to make completely Judenrein (Jew free). His vindictiveness and insatiable thirst for blood lead propelled his ascension to the top of the Reich and earned him a position as an architect of the dreaded Final Solution.

I forewarn the readers that his story is not pleasant at times and there are many disturbing aspects of his life which are shown in the book.  The horrors of the Holocaust and the extreme ideology embraced by Heydrich are just one example of the campaign of death the Nazis unleashed across Europe.  But for those who are able to tolerate the facts as they are revealed, you will find that the book is a great examination of his life and career. He died several years before the war’s end and was not able to join his co-conspirators in the defendant’s section. Had he survived the war, I believe he would have been led to the gallows like other high-ranking officials.   More than 70 years have now passed since the world’s deadliest conflict raged but we can still look back at those who played critical roles in its development and execution.  And as we look back, we have stories such as this that show us what evil truly looks like.

ISBN-10: 0300187726
ISBN-13: 978-0300187724

Biographies

DawkinsEvolution is one of the most fascinating concepts in all of science.  Beginning with Charles Darwin, scientists have continued to learn more about the creation of the universe and are constantly seeking to understand our origin as a species and the origin of this planet we all inhabit. To some, it may seem incredible that the human species has survived for so long.  Was it by pure chance that we survived or because of instinctive traits which enable us to protect ourselves and keep going?  Richard Dawkins, author of the  ‘The God Delusion‘ seeks to answer that question in this thought-provoking book about our genetic makeup.

Over the years Dawkins has become the icon for atheism and is regarded as one of the most brilliant minds the world has ever seen.  In this book, he takes on a journey as we explore human nature and examine the concepts of the selfish gene and altruism.  The human race has survived for thousands of years while other species have fallen victim to extinction.  Undoubtedly at the top of the food chain, it is our very selfishness that enables us to continue this pattern.  However, all species looking to continue their existence must be selfish in some way, but selfishness unchecked is a very dangerous concept.  Altruism serves a unique purpose as it helps to circumvent the selfish gene ingrained genetic in each and every one of us.  What we learn in this book puts evolution in a completely different light.   This book is a must read for students and/or believers of evolution.

ISBN-10: 0195200004
ISBN-13: 978-0195200003

Evolution

left-to-tell-discovering-god-amidst-the-rwandan-holocaust-400x400-imady44xjhxbazefTwenty-two years have passed since the African nation of Rwanda found itself caught in a civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes.   Tensions between the two had been simmering beneath the surface for many years and when things finally came to a head in April, 1994, the conflict escalated into a full-scale genocide.  Rwandan society had been shaped on ethnic grounds under the colonial governments imposed by German and Belgian settlers resulting in jealousy, mistrust and unfortunately, ethnic cleansing.   The tragedy ranks high among the worst cases of large-scale genocide in history.   One of the survivors, Immaculee Ilibagiza, decided to record her memories following the war and they have been turned into this chilling account of the horrors of the holocaust and the incredible effort by her and others to stay alive in the midst of what could only be described as hell.  The book became a New York Times bestseller upon its release and remains a testament to the tragedy of Rwanda more than two decades later.

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and the President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down killing everyone on board. The Tutsis were blamed and the tensions helped sparked the Rwandan Genocide. Ilibagiza and her family are of the Tutsi tribe, which had been a minority in Rwandan society but also held a large amount of political power.  Ethnic tensions simmered beneath the surface as Hutus began to eye their opposing tribe with suspicion and disgust.  For 100 days in 1994, nearly one million people were murdered in one of the worst acts of genocides known to man.  For Immaculee, the civil war changed her life and the lives of her family members permanently.  She lost several siblings and many others she knew intimately.   Death would have certainly come for her as well if not for a chance encounter which would encourage her to discover God and have a new-found faith in religion.

The fact that she is alive today is nothing short of a miracle.  Help sometimes comes from the most unlikeliest of places but goes a long way in changing the lives of others.  Now married and a mother herself, she has come a long way since the tragedy in Rwanda, but her words convey to the reader the reality of the atrocities that took place.  Some parts of the book may be upsetting to some and I forewarn the reader that they are not for the faint of heart as graphic details of the deaths of her family members are recorded, in particular those of her two brothers Damascene and Vianney.   The atrocities were beyond repulsive and disheartening but these are her words of the nightmare she escaped from and to which no one would ever want to go back.

Today Rwanda is far different but the people have not forgotten the genocide which has been detailed through the organization known as Never Again Rwanda.  Their goal is  to preserve the memory of the genocide while at the same time, making sure that it is never repeated again, against any group of people of any ethnic background.

ASIN: B00HTJT7AE

Biographies

51rpavuylal-_sy344_bo1204203200_Have you ever wondered what it would be like to grow up as the child of one of the most wanted terrorist in the world?  Or how do you reconcile the actions of your parents as infamous as they may be?  Jean Sasson, the celebrated author who brought to us the story of ‘Mayada: Daughter of Iraq‘, presents another engaging story of the life of the family of Osama Bin Laden.  The name alone is enough to provoke a range of emotions from curiosity to hostility.  It is easily forgotten that Bin Laden had dozens of children, some of whom have remained hidden from the public light. Sasson tells the story here of his first wife Najwa and his fourth son Omar.  Through Sasson, they take us deep inside their world to show us what it was like to live with a man who was once declared the most wanted terrorist by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Before reading the book, I was not sure what to expect.  Having witnessed as a child and as an adult the two attacks of the World Trade Center in hometown of New York City, I saw the darkest side of the mind of an Islamic radical.  However now that I have read this book, I can say that it was unlike anything I could have imagined.

I was born in the west and as a result, my knowledge of the Middle East had always come from the media but hardly ever from people who had actually lived there and were of of the Islamic faith.  It easy to fall into the trap of believing that everyone from the Middle East supports terror and wants to see the downfall of the United States.  Those who have traveled and are students of the many cultures in this world, will know that such a notion if unfounded. This autobiography by Najwa and Omar is an invaluable asset in understanding the Islamic culture, the personal side of Osama Bin Laden and the effects that his lifestyle had on those closest to him.  To truly enjoy the book it is necessary to put aside any pre-conceived beliefs about Islam.  And while we may not agree with that way things are done in the Middle East, their traditions have existed for centuries and will not change overnight.   Our judgments about those who practice the Islamic faith and those closely related to Bin Laden will be challenged on every front.   Their story is eye-opening and informative and largely unknown in the western hemisphere.

What I enjoyed the most about the book is that there is no glamour and they do not glorify their lives.  Contrary to the beliefs of many, not all of his family members supported his radical beliefs and actions.   In fact, through the book, Omar could easily be the son of any other person, he’s a typical kid yearning for a strong bond with his dad, who was often away or involved in many nefarious deeds.  Does he love his father? Absolutely.  But he makes it clear that he knows what his father was involved in but never took up the same cause.   As for Najwa, she has her own struggles, first with the Islamic system of polygamy and later Bin Laden’s extremism.  But throughout each ordeal, mother and son remained strong and have to this day.  Their memories have allowed us to examine the complex character that was Osama Bin Laden. i  As a husband to several wives with a growing brood of children and relatives to support, his life comes across chaotic and stressful but not filled with the gratuitous violence or tragedy that you might expect. His commitment to his ideology and unwavering support of the blind Sheik caused suffering not only on the victims of his acts of terrorist but on members of his own family.   Largely absent from the lives of at least 20 children,  he created strained relationships between that were never up to the time of his death.  And with his death several years ago, all hope of repairing those relationships has been lost forever.  For Najwa and Omar, they still love the husband and father they knew but have came to terms with his life many years ago.   And in the middle of everything that transpired, they too became victims in the process.  Among the endless number of books regarding terrorism, this one stands out as required reading for anyone interested in Osama Bin Laden.   Not only will you learn about his life but you might learn something about yourself as well.

ISBN-10: 0312560168
ISBN-13: 978-0312560164

Biographies

what-we-knewIn April, 1945, allied troops moved through Germany as the walls surrounding Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) began to collapse. His suicide on April 30, allowed him to escape justice but helped to cement his place in history as one of mankind’s most tyrannical leaders.  Concentration camps across Germany and Poland were liberated, releasing thousands of Jews who had been imprisoned as the Third Reich began its Final Solution, the plan produced by the minds of homicidal maniacs such as Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) and Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942).  The emaciated figures that were once lively young men and women provided allied troops with a shocking sight that no one could ever forget. Even today, images and videos of bodies stacked upon bodies produces a feelings of disgust and anger toward those responsible for the crimes and others who feigned ignorance.

I have visited Germany twice and enjoyed my experiences there. Today it is hard to imagine that less than eighty years ago, one man plunged the world into war and oversaw the deaths of millions of Jews.  When Adolf Hitler seized control of Germany giving the N.S.D.A.P. the majority presence,  German society was transformed and turned upside down.   Many Jews fled Germany before the Third Reich began its campaign of genocide and some of them never returned. The actions of an unhinged Hitler, nearly brought Germany to the brink of collapse.  Widespread famine and lack of basic necessities made life in post-war Germany close to unbearable.  Some undoubtedly believed that Germans only had their selves to blame for the war and should suffer for what they did to other nations. The United States and Soviet Union stepped in to divide Berlin and the wall constructed remained in placed until 1989.  It was the end of two different German nations contained within one mass of land. The division is similar to the subject of this book entitled ‘What We Knew”.

Historians have always debated what ordinary Germans knew and did not know.  Surely, there were many Germans who sought to save their own lives and desperately avoided being linked in any way to Hitler’s failed regime.  Many claimed that they had no idea Jews were being systematically murdered in concentration camps.  For the Jews, it was hard to believe they could proclaim such ignorance when Antisemitism was a pillar of the Nazi ideology.  Americans and other foreign nations always pondered the same question. This book by Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband has attempted to take on those questions in the search for the truth about how much the German people knew about the fate that awaited millions of Jews across Europe. Divided into two parts, the first half of the book contains interviews of German Jews who either fled Germany or survived concentration camps.   The second half contains interviews of non-Jewish Germans who witnesses the events that transpired.  What’s revealed in these pages is both eye-opening and enlightening.

As to be expected each side has their own convictions about what each side knew.  Whether they were telling the complete truth is something we will never be able to answer.  But what is clear from the book is that the place in Germany in which one lived, played a role in what they knew or did not know.  The authors do not attempt to make any decisions about who is to be believed or not believed.  They simply present the statements for the reader to decide.  From a personal standpoint, I did find that denial is apparent in many of the interviews of non-Jewish Germans while the Jewish Germans unanimously agree that their neighbors definitely knew of the systematic extermination of the Jews and used it as an excuse to plunder and seize what was left over in houses and apartments.  Several of the Jewish survivors vowed never to return to Germany and believe that they never did.  But they were among the fortunate who were able to survive the Third Reich and tell their stories here.

The debate about the knowledge of the Reich’s atrocities by German citizens will continue for an eternity.  But what is clear is that there was much many had knowledge of but preferred not to know.  The stories of what really happened cannot be lost to history and to prevent another Holocaust requires that demons from the past are confronted.  These are the stories of Germany’s survivors who are here to tell you what they knew.

“To sin in silence while others doth protest makes cowards out of men.” – Ella Wheeler Wilcox

ISBN-13: 978-0465085712
ISBN-10: 0465085717

World War II

huey“The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man” -Huey P. Newton.

Those prophetic words spoken the late Huey P. Newton serve as a reminder of the fate is to be accepted when one decides to become a revolutionary intent on change through armed struggle.  Successful revolutions throughout history were often violent with climactic endings that forever changed the history of the nation in which they were executed.  Here in the United States, some would argue that the revolution for civil rights has never ended.  The faces may have changed but the age-old problems remain.  While the days of Fidel Castro and Chairman Mao have long passed, their efforts, successes and failures are case studies for the positive and negative effects of armed struggle.  The 1960s proved to be a turning point in both American and world history as young men and women found an ideology they could relate to in the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Engels.  The Black Panther Party emerged during this decade giving African-Americans and other minorities a source of pride and confidence against systemic discrimination.   Created by Huey and Bobby Seale, the party later became a target of the FBI’s illegal COINTEL program which helped contribute to its self-destruction.

Revolutionary Suicide is Huey’s autobiographical masterpiece takes us deep inside his mind and conscience which was always on and moving in several different directions at once.  Functionally illiterate by the time he graduated high school, he would eventually learn to read and write and became a voracious reader resulting in one of the sharpest analytical and political minds the civil rights movement ever  produced. Earning a Ph.D from the University of California in Santa Cruz, he evolved into a gifted writer full of energy and raw emotion and his words and thoughts are conveyed in an engaging matter bound to keep the reader engaged.  His life was anything but ordinary and he was charged and tried for murder more than once. Known to have a hair-trigger, he admits his past mistakes and his disdain for authoritative figures.   It was a trend that would continue his entire life. Defiant and stoic, this is Huey in his own words.   And if you like this you might also like David Hilliard’s Huey: Spirit of the Panther.

ISBN-10: 0143105329
ISBN-13: 978-0143105329

Biographies

1000 daysPresident Kennedy served less than three years in the White House.  But in that time, his administration was involved in some of the most important events of the 20th century. Inheriting the Cold War, Indochina and Cuban policies from the Eisenhower administration, the new young President found himself  embroiled in situations that would change the course of world history.  Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the noted historian and author served as Kennedy’s special assistant and advisor at times on the most important decisions made by the Kennedy administration.

Revisiting his time with the late Kennedy, Schlesinger’s memoir serves as an invaluable part of American history and is one of the best sources of information regarding the day-to-day functions behind the scenes in the White House.  The major events that threatened world peace and tested the new leader are re-examined and Schlesinger meticulously analyzes the events to show the reader how and why Kennedy reached his decisions and then implemented them as official policy.  Critics have lambasted Schlesinger for not discussing the negative aspects of the Kennedys’ lives and in particular the scandals that nearly ruined Kennedy’s political career and reputation.  Infidelity, murder, association with organized crime and blackmail hung as dark clouds over the Kennedy administration and threatened to derail hopes for re-election in 1964.   When Schlesinger wrote the book, his primary focus was on domestic and foreign policy decisions and not the gossip that spread throughout Washington.  And for those who do want to read about the dark side of the dark side of the Kennedy administration, Seymour Hersh already has that covered in his bestselling ‘The Dark Side of Camelot’ .

On November 22, 1963, Kennedy’s life came to a deadly conclusion.  And with his death came the loss of feelings of hope, promise and optimism. He signaled a change in American politics, no longer dictated by weapons but by diplomacy, intelligence and empathy.  His independence, intelligence and oratory skills have seldom been matched and Schlesinger’s account is a fitting tribute to the slain leader.

ASIN: B001P1RK8S

JFK

superfortressThe second world war marked a turning point in world conflict with the introduction of the B-29 bomber.  No longer solely relying on ground infantry divisions, the rules of engagement had been changed forever. General Curtis Lemay, the legendary Air Force General and leader of the Strategic Air Command presents this excellent writing of the story behind he development of the B-29 bomber, appropriately named the Superfortress.

Lemay provides a detailed history of air warfare in the United States armed forces paying homage to Billy Mitchell (1879-1956), considered by many to the be the father of the United States Air Force.  Dismissed for insubordination, Mitchell would be blackballed for several years until 1941 when the B-25 was named in his honor.  Sensing that a major offensive change was needed in the war, development began on new aircraft to turn the tide of the war against the axis powers.  Boeing’s production of the B-29 signaled the dawn of a new era and completely changed the face of the allied effort in World War II. This is the great story behind the masterpiece machine and one of the greatest times in aviation history.

 

ISBN-10: 1594160392
ISBN-13: 978-1594160394

World War II