Free Thinking Bibliophile Posts

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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

917sqf1-ymlOn May 27, 2011, Gil Scott-Heron died of congestive heart failure at the age of 62. The late activist, poet, writer and musician who was considered an early pioneer of what would later become rap music, had been plagued by years of addiction to crack cocaine.  Heron had been a long time user and the brutal drug had taken its toll on his mind and body, reducing the always slim Heron to even slimmer proportions.  When he died, fans went into mourning, tributes were organized and in death he became immortalized.  His life however, was not as smooth as the lyrics in his songs and poems.  Marcus Baram has put together the definitive account of Heron’s life appropriately titled ‘Pieces of a Man’ for the real Heron was a man undefined by anything in particular and composite of many faces.

The native of Chicago, IL became a leading voice in music inspired by the times and events of the generation in which he lived.  His words and actions were striking and his influence on those around him and generations that followed is nothing short of profound.  But behind the creative genius was a man often in turmoil with an equally tumultuous life.  Infidelity coupled with illegitimate children and paternity issues were haunt the star and towards the end of his life as the effects of years of drug use took their toll, destitution would become a constant threat to his well-being.  And upon his return from his last European tour, his body finally gave out marking an end to the life of one of the most brilliant minds the music industry has ever seen.  He has been gone for several years but not a day goes by where somewhere or someplace, there is someone playing his songs, watching his films or reading his poetry.   And no matter which gift of Heron’s we choose to accept, we will come away understanding why he said the revolution would not be televised.

ASIN: B00JTIRUSE

Biographies

290115On July 17, 1959, a shock wave was felt through the jazz industry and a somber mood filled the corridors of the New York Metropolitan Hospital. Eleanora Fagan, known by her stage name Billie Holiday, died tat the age forty-four from the effects of cirrhosis of the liver and the failure of several additional vital organs.  In death the final chapter of her short and tragic life reached its foreseeable conclusion.  Holiday had struggled with drug addiction and had found herself embroiled in dysfunctional and abusive personal relationships.  On stage, she captivated audiences and left her mark as she became Lady Day.  Her life story has been revived on Broadway as Lady Day at Emerson’s Grill starring Audrey McDonald.  The play became a New York Times’ critic’s choice and earned McDonald high praise. To this day, Holiday is help up as a vocal icon for young singers seeking to imitate the class and talent of the fallen star.  Behind the music, makeup and soulful voice existed another Billie Holiday, suffering in pain from physical and emotional turmoil.  Donald Clarke takes us deep inside of this world with this definitive biography.

Clarke is a known writer on American music and has published several books on the subject. He still follows his passion today and continues to publish posts on his blog.  His account of Holiday’s life was originally published in 1994 and then reprinted in 2000 under the title Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon.   Regardless of which printing in which the reader decides to indulge, the story has a life of its own and the revelations about her personal life are startling and ultimately give way to empathy.   At the height of her career, segregation was the law of the land and Jim Crow still held the Southern United States in a vice grip.  Holiday was forced to confront this demon as was dozens of other African-American performers enlisted to perform in front of white audiences but denied entry through the front door.  This regrettable social situation in America at the time plays a significant part in the path her life takes and the people that she finds herself involved.

Her story however, would not be complete without the inclusion of narcotics and their presence takes center stage as her life spirals out of control. The pressures of show business, racism and a family history of dysfunction combined to destabilize any semblance of normality that she sought to obtain.  Her rise to fame and eventual downfall is beyond heartbreaking and her actions at times will make the reader recoil in disbelief. Clarke does an exceptional job of showing this side of Holiday and the truth while unpleasant is critical to understanding the inner turmoil that plagued Lady Day.

 

As the book progresses the reality that her life is on a collision course becomes readily apparent. The reader will be able to see the deadly conclusion as Holiday’s story unfolds. But like a runaway freight train, she is unable to stop her life from its predestined ending. The irony however is although she realized this, she makes decisions that will leave the reader speechless.  The physical transformation that occurs as she ages and her demons take the best of her is one of the darkest parts of the book.  Her emotional instability and ability to involve herself with men determined to break her will and take advantage over her, cast an even more detrimental cloud over her that followed her until her last days. And as she lived out her final moments in a hospital ward, the spiral continued making her death a departure and release.

Since her death, no one has been able to replicate the aura of the famed Lady Day.  By no means was she the only talented performer of her time, but in death she has earned a legacy that remains intact.  It is with a heavy heart that we acknowledge the loss of a great star gone before her time.

ISBN-10: 0670837717
ISBN-13: 978-0670837717

Biographies