Free Thinking Bibliophile Posts

20181210_200246On November 19, 2008, the Tri-Borough Bridge which links the boroughs of Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx in New York City, was renamed in the honor of the late Robert Francis Kennedy.   At the time of his assassination, the presidential candidate was an active senator from the State of New York.  June 6, 2016 will mark 48 years since his murder but his legacy and name continue to live on.   Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) had  served as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy from 1961 to 1963 and was a long-time Kennedy family friend.  In this extensive biography, he chronicles the life of the seventh child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy and former Attorney General.  Dozens of books have been written about the Kennedy dynasty and “Camelot”, but Schlesinger’s account of Robert Kennedy’s life still stands as one of the best.

At times he was simply called “Bobby” and at others, a range of names applied to him by friends and enemies alike.  Often described as cold, abrasive and having a hair-trigger temper, Kennedy’s sharp piercing eyes and steel cold manner earned him the reputation as one of Washington’s toughest characters.  However, Schlesinger also reveals a man with a heart of good intention deeply committed to his Catholic faith and the husband and father of 11 children.   His strong belief in family ties would help guide him as he served his older brother Jack during their time in the oval office.  His protective nature and ability to get things done by any means necessary has resulted in him being described as both the night watchman and the avenging angel of the Kennedy family.

The events in Dallas shocked the world and left an entire nation in mourning.  For Bobby, life would never be the same.  But in 1968, he made the fateful decision to win the office his brother once occupied.  His campaign and his transformation from persecutor of the mafia and Justice Department hawk into a champion of the people is one of the true shining moments of this book and his life.  As a New York senator, his ability to reach the people of the ghettos and lower-income neighborhoods remains unmatched by any political candidate to this day.  The once naive Attorney General had become a wiser and more engaged participant in the struggle for civil rights and the resolution of the raging Vietnam War.  His win the California primary was a crucial victory in a campaign that showed enormous promise of success.   Those who had felt betrayed after Dallas, found renewed hope that the direction of the country would once again change onto a path of positive reformation.   June 5th changed that and the history of this nation.   The 1960s saw the deaths of highly important figures and in the process spread fear throughout the nation.   Sometimes I ask myself what if Kennedy had lived? He accurately predicted in 1961 that one day we would have a president of African-American heritage and was a strong supporter of Cesar Chavez and other minority groups in their quests for equality.   I believe that if he had lived and were around to see the United States today he would be both satisfied and optimistic.  His short life was filled with unforgettable events and he remains one of the most important people of the 20th century.  For the full story of Kennedy’s life, Schlesinger’s book has no equal.

 

 

Biographies

113869301Beginning in 1993, female homicides in Juárez City, Mexico began to increase at an alarming rate.  The overwhelming majority of the murders remain unsolved. Families have in some cases pleaded with authorities to no avail.  Justice has been transformed into an elusive concept far removed from the reality faced by hundreds of parents that have suffered the loss of their child. Juarez was founded in 1659 and sits across the United States border from the town of El Paso, Texas.  In 2010, there were on average 8.5 killings per day in Juarez City.  Drug cartels and drifters from the U.S., turned the city into one of the most dangerous places on earth.   However, in recent years, the murder rate has declined and the city continues to make progress in reinventing itself and its image.  But the struggle with its dark past and the deadly trend of femicide continues to haunt not only Juarez but Mexico itself.  Teresa Rodriguez, a correspondent for Univision, conducted her own investigation into the murders resultng in this chilling and informative account that reveals the severity of an epidemic that continues to plague many parts of Latin America.

Their names are not known worldwide and their families are simple and hardworking.  But their murders and the inaction of the Mexican government combined with the complicity of local police, reveal a system in which officials are either unwilling or unable to stop the crisis that has gripped the country.  In their faces we see our sisters, nieces and friends.   Most of the victims are from poverty stricken areas who work long hours that scarely pay minimum wage. They are faced with long commutes on deserted stretches of roads that serve as a haven for criminal elements.  Some of the women are never seen again becoming yet another statistic in a growing list of horrific crimes.  Rodriguez’s book is a dark premonition of things that will come if the Mexican government fails to address the crisis.  For hundreds of women in Juárez there is no justice and their families are left to grieve without the benefit of closure.  Their cries have been ignored and the trend that was once confined to Juarez has now spread to other parts of Mexico including Toluca, a city I visited in December, 2013.

I warn readers that this book is not for those faint at heart.  The repetition of violent crime and report thereof will test the resolve of anyone who decideds to read this book. A happy ending is not to be found here. But what the author hopes, is that focus is placed where it needs to be and that Mexico can reverse a chilling and disturbing trend.  Some readers may be familiar with Juarez and may have even visited before.  Your observations may coincide with what Rodriguez says or may be slightly different. But what is evidently clear is that femicide will not go away on its own and the deaths of the young woman we learn of here should be cause for high concern.

Mexico is a beautiful country, full of history, good food and welcoming people.   Yet it is also plagued by a deadly system of violence.  Vice News, the international news organization based in Brooklyn, New York, recently did a story on the rise of the female homicides in Mexico and the struggles the families of the victims face in obtaining justice.  The Mexican people face a long road in reversing the disturbing trend of murders but as more attention is drawn to the crisis, it might result in long overdue action by the Mexican government.   And authors such as Teresa Rodriguez will continue to do their part in seeing that justice is finally done.

ISBN-10: 0743292049
ISBN-13: 978-0743292047

Latin America

13236911In 1967, Ernesto Che Guevara (1928-1967) left Cuba for the last time as he engaged in his plan to spread social revolution across Latin America. Fueled by his beliefs in Marxist-Leninist ideology, he was determined to see Latin America free from the grip of Yankee capitalism.  On October 8, 1967,  he was executed by the Bolivian military following his capture several days later.  His death pushed him into martyrdom and to this day, he is by far, the most iconic revolutionary, both loved and loathed. His actions on the battle field and later as part of the Cuban Government have produced enough material for several books.  But what was often overlooked was his role as a husband and father. When he departed Cuba and began his final expedition, he left behind a wife and five children from two women.  His youngest child was an infant when he left.  His widow Aleida and his children have carried his legacy, never letting us forget who he was and what he stood for.

Che Guevara continues to arouse interest and actor Benicio Del Toro took on the role of Che in the 2008 biopic of the same name.  And as Cuba slowly moves closer to social reform and the end of the Castro regime, his name will arise in discussions about Cuba’s difficult past.  Many of the figures that took part in the Cuban Revolution are no longer with us, having departed this world for the next life.  Raul Castro remains one of the few from the old guard and carries the spirit of the revolution as he oversees the country that his brother transformed.

As much as I could go on about Che, the story at hand belongs to his widow Aleida and these are her recollections of her life with him.   The two met during the guerrilla campaign and were married in 1959 following Che’s divorce from his first wife Hilda Gadea (1921-1974) with whom he had a daughter, Hilda Guevara (1956-1995). Aleida would go on to give him four children, all of whom resemble their iconic father.  To the public, he was the key piece to the battle at Santa Clara which changed the war and to others, the man responsible for the executions at the La Cabana prison.  At home, he was dad and as Aleida shows us, a typical father trying to be a good husband who adores his kids.   Following the expulsion of Fulgencio Batista, Che took on several jobs, typically working from Monday through Saturday.  It has been said that he sometimes slept in his office. And even on Sundays, he worked for several hours before going home to his family.   For most women, this would have been too much, but for Aleida, she remained dedicated to her husband, his beliefs and the revolution they both took part in.

Those who might be looking for a revelation will not find it here.  The book is mainly about their life together as they bring several children into the world.  Che was dedicated to his cause and revolution is a part of their daily lives. Aleida’s anecdotes highlight many instances where his rigid beliefs interfered with their daily lives.  And to her credit, she never stopped loving him nor did she remarry after his death.

Undoubtedly, the crux of the book is how Che came to leave Cuba for the last time and how Aleida handled his decision.   Her disclosures about her feelings regarding Che’s decision to leave might surprise some readers.   She is very frank and clear in her thoughts but I could not help to think that she was beyond dejected to see him leave.  And for Che, leaving his family must have been one of the hardest decisions he had ever been forced to make.  Aleida very vividly and thoughtfully, explains how Che came to make that fateful decision.  Today we have the luxury of asking what if?  What if he had never left Cuba and stayed there with his family?  Would he have become the revolutionary icon that he is today?  We will never know those answers but through Aleida’s fond memories, we can see the other side of Ernesto Che Guevara.

ISBN-10: 0987077937
ISBN-13: 978-0987077936

Biographies

20180603_0035370On May 24, 2011, police responded to calls reporting gunfire on a quiet street in Newark, New Jersey. Inside the basement apartment, they found a young man slumped over with several fatal gunshot wounds.   His name was Robert DeShaun Peace (1971-2011).  He was thirty years old.  Following his death,  friend and former college roommate Jeff Hobbs published this memoir  of the time he spent with Peace at Yale University.  On October 6, 2014, Antoine Fuqua, the director of the award-winning ‘Training Day’, announced plans to direct a biopic about Peace.

But just who was Robert DeShaun Peace? Well, he was born in East Orange, New Jersey and defied the odds, leaving the inner-city to graduate with a degree in molecular biochemistry from Yale University.   He was raised by a single mother and struggled with his feelings toward his father, who was incarcerated for the majority of his son’s life.  Fate and luck combined to give the young man from East Orange a golden opportunity.  And it was at Yale that he and Hobbs formed the friendship that produced this interesting yet tragic story of a brilliant mind taken far too soon.  Peace has been described as genius in the things that he did. Doors continued to open for him and life took him as far away as Croatia which produces some amusing anecdotes in the book.  As I read through it, I felt that the sky truly was the limit for him.  Post-graduation, he makes a fateful decision that sadly changes everything.  Robert decided to return to the very neighborhood he sought to escape.

The life of Robert Peace is a story that is tragically replicated in cities across America.  Millions of young black men fall victim to the very streets from which they come.  Some of them will progress and leave the inner city but others will not be so lucky.  The description of Robert’s early life reads like a typical report of the broken homes that plagued African-American households beginning in the 1970s.  His mother worked a variety of jobs and the absence of his father, cast over them a dark cloud from which Robert is unable to fully escape. By all accounts the odds are not in his favor but fate always has a way of intervening in our lives.  Perseverance, fortune and a brilliant mind transformed this young man’s life which held high promise.

Peace’s return to Newark and the actions that lead to his death force us to question why is it that an Ivy league graduate returned to the very streets which threatened his daily existence and engaged in activities that are prone to end in incarceration or even death?  Typically, graduates of Yale move on to cushy jobs in corporate America with well-paying salaries.  And molecular biochemistry is far from a layman’s trade.  There will remain many what if questions surrouding his life. He is no longer with us to explain his actions so we can only speculate as to where he saw his life heading.  Had he lived, perhaps he would have eventually earned the Noble Peace Prize or possibly much more.

This biography is without a doubt one of the most moving I have read.  I felt that I could relate to Peace, coming from a similar neighborhood.  However, I was forntunate to have both of my parents at home.  I do believe that if Peace’s father had been there, then perhaps some parts of his life may have turned out differently. Jeff Hobbs has produced a book that will remain with you long after you have finished it.  No matter how much time has passed, one of the first books I recommend to friends is always this story about the short and tragic life of Robert Peace.

ISBN-10: 1476731918
ISBN-13: 978-1476731919

Biographies

harveyOn November 27, 1978, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed by former Supervisor Dan White. The New York born Milk had relocated to San Francisco, taking up residence in the Castro section.  He and lover Scott Smith opened Castro Camera before Milk set his eyes on politics.  After several tries, he was finally elected as a City Supervisor and in the process became the first openly gay man to serve in public office in San Francisco.  His efforts at City Hall and community activism earned him the nickname “The Mayor of Castro Street“.  In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in Milk and in 2008, director Gus Van Sant took the reigns in the biopic about Milk starring Hollywood veteran Sean Penn in the leading role.  It was an incredible performance and one of Penn’s best.  However, there was much more to Harvey Milk than we saw on the silver screen.  Randy Shilts, author of And the Band Played On, looks back on Milk’s life in this definitive biography of the late activist.

It is critical to remember that Milk died at only forty-eight years of age.  In less than five decades, he went from a former sailor working for the Great American Insurance Company to the face of the gay rights movement in San Francisco.  The native of Woodmere, New York had done something that was unheard of at a time in which the LGBT community was in a fierce struggle to protect their very lives.  The Stonewall riots in 1969 and Proposition 6 by then Senator John Briggs, became defining moments in the movement for equality.   As homosexuality became more scrutinized and in some cases accepted, thousands of young men flocked to San Francisco where they were able to live openly without fear of persecution.   But even there, the fight continued against a brutal police department and the political establishment that had no use of time for what many called “the others”.  In Milk, the movement found its voice but as he said himself he was not the candidate, the movement was the candidate.  But he did have the vision, determination and skill to inspire the invaluable feeling of hope. Shilts did a masterful job of telling Milk’s story and it is evidently clear how and why he became the “Mayor of Castro Street”.   But the story is not all happiness and even the darkest moments in his life are re-told as they were showing the disarray and tragedy that composed Milk’s private life.  And from the moment he became a political figure, the threat of death was never far away.  But through it all, Harvey continued to push forward until he finally achieve the goal that had eluded him several times. And at the time of his death, he had come to assert substantial influence in San Francisco politics.

Dan White was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The light sentence triggered the ” White Night Riots”, after a jury apparently believed White’s “Twinkie” defense.  In 1984, after serving the five years, White committed suicide at the age of thirty-nine.  The trial, conviction and the riots are covered by Shilts and at times caused me to shake my head in disbelief.  I do believe that had Mayor Moscone been the only one killed, White would have received a much harsher sentence.  He lives on in infamy as the murderer of two politicians who had the promise and skill to change the course of history for the City of San Francisco.  Shilts provides an inside view of the political climate that existed at the time and the uphill battle Harvey faced as he broken into politics.

In the film Milk, we come to learn about two of Harvey’s lovers, Scott Smith and Jack Lira.  What the film did not show, were Harvey’s other love interests which were an integral part of his life story.  I do not hold anything against Gus Van Sant for 90 minutes is not nearly enough to cover any person’s life in full detail. And such is the beauty of a good book.  Shilts was always one to present a complete picture and he does not disappoint here. The book picks up speed from the beginning and never slows down.   I think it is to be expected that the worst moment is Moscone and Milk’s murders.  By the time I reached the trial of Dan White, I fully came to understand the legacy of Harvey Milk.   For those who want to know his complete life story, this is the book for you.  And I also recommend that you watch Rob Epstein’s incredible documentary  The Times of Harvey Milk’.

ISBN-10: 0312560850
ISBN-13: 978-0312560850

Biographies

sammyOn May 16, 1990, Sammy Davis Jr. succumbed to his battle with throat cancer at the age of 64.  His health had continued to decline following his release from the Cedar-Sinai Medical Center earlier that year on March 13.  His death is felt in Hollywood and in the African-American community where Davis is viewed as one of its greatest performers.  His friendship with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis stood out in Hollywood during a time when integration was not permitted in many parts of the United States. The four friends known as the Rat Pack became legends on the Las Vegas strip.   To the public, Davis is seen as pioneer for other young African-American performers seeking fame and fortune in the music industry.  Davis remains firmly implanted in our minds with his performances of ‘Bo Jangles’ and acting roles on the silver screen.  His final film performance in the late Gregory Hines’ ‘Tap’ is both nostalgic and sad for the deterioration in Davis’ physical condition can be seen in the film.  As incredible as his performances were, the story of his life as told by Davis in this phenomenal autobiography is even more fascinating and key to understanding the many directions in which his life took him.

Davis begins by recalling his childhood in which he started as an entertainer and the stormy relationship between his biological parents, both of whom were also entertainers and separated when he was young.  His grandmother is enlisted to oversee his well-being but time and time again he goes on tour with Will Mastin, who serves as his second father at times.  As World War II comes around, he enlists in the U.S. Army which at the time was infamous for racial prejudice and segregation.  His memories of the treatment and lessons he learned in the service are both heartbreaking and eye-opening.  Following the military he once again follows the show business path, the path on which he would travel for the rest of his life.  Behind the scenes, his life became a rollercoaster ride.  He lost an eye in a car accident, married May Britt in 1960 in the face of miscegenation laws, converted to Judaism and even carried a loaded gun on stage as he performed.  He was a vocal supporter of the movement for civil rights, many of which he was denied himself throughout his life.

His marriage to May Britt in 1960 caused both shock and outrage.  The reactions of the press and even ordinary citizens is repulsive at times during the book but also critical to understanding the times in which Davis lived and how bold their actions were.  Miscegenation was not struck down by the Supreme Court until 1967, and even then, interracial marriage was strongly discouraged and treated with hostility.   Davis’ ability to move forward in life and the struggles he faced within himself while married to Brit are key to seeing through to the real Sammy Davis, Jr.   The book closes with the birth of his daughter Tracy.  We now know that he was married several more times and had two additional children in his lifetime.   When he died, he did not leave behind a mass of wealth as would be expected.  But what he did leave behind is a legacy that continues to this day.   If you want to know more about the real Sammy Davis, Jr., this is the place to start.

ISBN-10: 1477611924
ISBN-13: 978-1477611920

 

 

Biographies

20180602_225945History always has many witnesses.   Audio, video, word of mouth and the written word serve as the recorders for the events that are occurring.  When Adolf Hitler began his rise to power, all of Europe and the rest of the world took notice.  Many of those nations never imagined that the menace from Austria would become Chancellor of Germany and unleash a wave of terror never before seen across the continent.  His climactic rise to power and fall is a case study that has been the subject of debates and discussions since the end of the Second World War in 1945.  Even today we continue to learn new facts about Hitler and secrets of the Third Reich.  William L. Shirer (1904-1993) lived in Germany as correspondent for CBS news and served as a first-hand witnesses of the rise of national socialism carried under the banner of Hitler’s N.S.D.A.P.    As the war in Europe unfolded, he returned to the United States and his memories of his time in Germany served as the basis for the Berlin Diary. During his residence in Germany, he had been censured by Nazi regime from speaking on air. Shirer took advantage of the time to start a book on the Reich, a book that became a masterpiece and the definitive account of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.

Hitler’s seizure of power by means of annexation of the smaller countries surrounding Germany showed to the world the true nature of his regime and the pending doom that awaited Europe.  By the time the war was over, nearly fifty million people had died.   Germany was split in half and became the center of aggression between the United States and Soviet Union.  The story of the Nazi empire has caused many to ask how did Hitler assume power and why did the German people give it to him?  And if the German military was as supreme as their leaders thought, why did Germany suffer defeat in a second world conflict?  The answers to these questions are contained within the pages of this book and Shirer provides a staggering amount of information about what really transpired behind the scenes hidden from the German public.  The book is divided into several smaller parts, each focusing on a different period in the war.   But the author covers the Reich from start to finish giving the reader a complete account of one of history’s darkest moments.

While the book is not a “official” textbook to be used by educators, I do think it should supplement any course material on the holocaust and the war. Shirer’s work is of critical importance and will remain with us for generations.  It is the go to source for the story of the Nazi reign.  All of the characters make an appearance in the story and some parts of the narrative are a bit comical as the Nazis simply make up the rules as they go along. But what is even more intriguing is the often opposing views taken by Hitler and his Generals. Many knew that a madman had seized power and was leading Germany down a path of destruction yet no one seemed to be able to stop the Austrian menace. Shirer once said that “the cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it”.  The Führer, seemingly one step ahead of those under him, often played subordinates against each other creating a climate of suspicion that undermined any efforts to remove him from power. And at his call, were a number of loyal Nazi party members all too happy to do the regime’s dirty work.

I cannot overstate the importance of this book.  To understand the machinations at play that pushed the German war machine forward, Shirer’s words are an invaluable source.  The book is by no means short, running well over one thousands pages.  But contained within those pages is the story that can never be erased.   The world has changed drastically since 1945.  Hitler’s ghost is still among as those loyal to the Nazi party, pledge their undying allegiance to an ideology that went down at the hands of Allie forces more than seventy years ago. His supporting cast of characters retain their places in infamy as part of a failed regime that based its foundation upon the idea of “Aryan supremacy”.   But unbeknownst to the Germany people, there was much that was hidden from them by Hitler, the man some came to love but many began to fear.  Had they known the truth about the Nazis, perhaps he would have been removed from power before the war reached its deadly heights.  We can only ask what if at this point about how things might have been.  But as we look back and study the war, Shirer is there with us reminding us along the way of everything that happened during the rise and fall of the Third SS Reich.

ISBN-10: 1451651686
ISBN-13: 978-1451651683

World War II

index1The stories of those who survived the Holocaust have been read by millions and their words a reminder of one of history’s darkest times. Their will to live and courage in reliving their experiences have given the world invaluable treasures in books that have stood and will continue to stand the test of time.  Among them is the story Annelies Marine “Anne” Frank (1929-1945), whose diary kept while hiding from the Third Reich, became one of the most popular books in the world.  In June, 2013 while visiting The Netherlands, I paid a visit to the Anne Frank Museum. As I entered the museum and made my way up to the attic, I was overcome by chills at just how small it really is.  Pictures and words do not suffice, it is something to be seen in person.  And it continues to boggle my mind that several people lived in such a compact space.  But their will to survive kept them focused on their surroundings and remaining in the attack for as long as possible.  Their hiding place was eventually discovered and for many years it was believed that the family was betrayed. However, historians have never found conclusive proof that the family’s location was given to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) in the form of an anonymous phone call as is widely believed.  The truth may remain lost to history.   Frank was sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp where she died of Typhus in February, 1945, several days after her sister Margot and would have been simply another victim of the Final Solution if not for her father Otto, who survived the war and returned to Amsterdam where he found her diary.  Believing his daughter’s words to be important to future generations, he found a publisher willing to put the words in print.  And the result is a literary masterpiece that is read each year by growing numbers of young students across the world.

The diary is fascinating and shows the musings of a typical teenage girl living in atypical times.  Her account of daily life in the annex and thoughts about her family, war and her feelings towards the other occupants in the annex are interesting and at times humorous.  Her sharp wit and analytical observations of those around her, show that she is wise beyond her years. And her ability to maintain a sense of humor even as they are hiding in the attic, is a testament to her character and that of those around her. We the readers know that eventually she falls victim to the Nazis and is sent to the camp where she will die.  But as the book moves forward, it is impossible not to become drawn to her through a vivacious personality and blossoming mind.  We are even introduced to her paramour, Peter whose family is in hiding with the Franks.  Her story really is the diary of a young girl.

When I finished the book, I found it incredibly difficult to come to terms that such a young woman was sent to her death simply because of her religious faith.   It forced me to ask myself why humans do the things they do to each other.  We have an uncanny ability to cause the destruction of ourselves and those around us.  Anne Frank, never finished high school, went to a university, met the love of her life and started a family.  During the Second World War, she and the occupants of the hidden attic fell victim to Nazi terror formulated by Nazi ideology.  But in death, Frank has become a martyr of the Holocaust and one its brightest voices from beyond this world.  Today, more than seventy-three years after her death, this book remains on the shelves of bibliophiles, libraries and teachers throughout the world as new generations of students learn about the Third Reich and the quest of Adolf Hitler to accomplish world domination.

Anne Frank’s story is one that will remain with you long after you have finished the book.  Although it is recommended reading to young adults, I find that even older adults can find meaning in this captivating journal recorded by a young woman whose life was changed permanently in the country she called home as the Austrian menace pushed Germany in a world conflict. And until the end of time, people will continue to read and cherish this diary of a young girl.

ISBN-10: 9780553296983
ISBN-13: 978-0553296983

Biographies

indexOn August 22, 1989, Huey P. Newton was shot killed on a street corner in Oakland, California.  He was 47 years old.  The charismatic Newton was the co-founder of the Black Panther Party with Bobby-Seale and became an icon for revolution.  The image of the Newton sitting with a rifle in one hand and a spear in other while wearing the Panthers’ trademark leather jacket is one of the most recognized of the era. It is the cover of this book but only tells part of the story of the late icon’s life. David Hilliard served as chief of staff for the party and became well acquainted with Newton.  This is a collection of his memories from his time with Huey, the Panthers and the movement watched by entire world.  Newton himself wrote several book, as the best-selling Revolutionary Suicide, could be considered a semi-autobiography.  However its main strength is also its main weakness for that Newton is the only one telling the story.  Hilliard’s account proves itself valuable as another look at Newton and his significance to the party and the movement.

Complex is an adjective often used to describe some of history’s greatest figures.  For Newton, this adjective is highly accurate.   Here we are presented with the good, the bad and at times, the ugly.  His studies of Marx, Engels, Mao and Fanon served as the basis for his belief for armed struggle and the willingness to use violence whenever necessary.  For most of his life, he was a functional illiterate as he pointed out himself on multiple occasions.  Fighting resulted in expulsion from several schools in the Oakland area. And as an adult, he went on trial several times for the charge of murder only to be acquitted in the end.  His extreme rhetoric and descent into drug use cast him down a hill from which he never recovered.  However, as Hilliard shows us, there was a good side to Newton and his commitment to the cause sprang from emotion and strong convictions.   Newton himself once said that the first thing a revolutionary must understand is that he is doomed from the start. It is a tragic fate that those committed to social upheaval must be willing to accept as they put their lives on the line in the service to humanity.

The book features two guest writers, Gwen Fontaine and Fredrika Newton. Fontaine was Newton’s first wife and was married to him from 1974-1983.   As a mother of two children, she invites Newton into her life and the lives of her children.   Her memories of life with Newton highlight his erratic behavior at the time and the demons he began to face as his drug use escalated.  And as he continued to spiral downward, a strain was placed upon the relationship fracturing it past the point of no return.  In 1984, Newton married his second wife Fredrika who remained with him up until the time of his death.  Her words serve as the last testament to Huey’s life and legacy.

Hilliard is currently a visiting professor for the University of New Mexico where he teaches courses on the history of the Black Panther Party.   He and Fredrika founded the Huey P. Newton Foundation in 1993 with its base of operations in Vallejo, California.  The Panthers are a shadow of what they once were during the turbulent 1960s.  The United States has made much social progress over the past 50 years but the stains from the policies of Jim Crow and legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination haunt the nation as it confronts its past.   But if we are to understand our past and how we can shape our future, we will do a service to ourselves to look to books such as this for a look into a time in American history where the nation almost became completely unhinged as a new brand of revolutionaries made their voices heard.

ISBN-10: 1560258977
ISBN-13: 978-1560258971

Civil Rights Movement

chariman-maoOn September 9, 1976, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) died in Beijing, China at the age of eighty-two. The late Chairman served as ruler of the People’s Republic of China following the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) party in 1949. The People’s Liberation Army, under the guidance of Mao, pushed the KMT to complete physical exhaustion before claiming victory. To some, Mao represented the face of a new frontier for the people of China. To others, his regime was viewed as an expansion of Soviet influence as Communism became embraced in Europe and Asia. His failed policy of the Great Leap Forward resulted in mass starvation and is viewed as an epic failure in planning at the highest levels. Over time, many became disillusioned with the “Cultural Revolution” as the reality of a Communist government drearily set in. Mao, seemingly impervious to the deadly effects of his actions, continued to live the opulent lifestyle he had created for himself as the new leader of China. And the “Closed Door” policy afforded him with a shield to protect his empire from the prying eyes of the western hemisphere. But Mao’s meeting with President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 offered a glimmer of hope that the two world powers could form a bond that would in turn bring the two countries together through mutual understanding. Today relations between China and the United States remain tense and show no signs of changing in the foreseeable future. China continues to go through social change but the nation remains haunted by the legacy of Mao Zedong.

Propaganda plays a pivotal role in any ruler’s playbook. Mao created a very carefully crafted image of the supreme leader, unfazed by foreign governments and determined to change China by any means necessary. The public facade largely worked and even today, decades after his death, his name alone is enough to cause a change of expression during conversation. But behind the public facade, there existed another Mao who lived a life that could only be described as unorthodox. He had hired a personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui to monitor his health and make any recommendations and/or changes when needed. Unbeknownst to the Dr. Zhisui, his left would never be the same again as he took a ringside seat to watch the show that was the private life of Chairman Mao. By his own admission, his wife urged him to write the book before her death. Knowing ahead of time that the publication of the book would require that he leave China, he embraced the project and pulls no punches, revealing the daily insanity that was Mao’s administration. From the beginning it becomes clear that Mao rules with an iron fist and those that serve him do so not out of low but mainly fear. To Mao, nearly all were talked tough were what he called “paper tigers” and he was not afraid to use force when necessary. His ruthless nature and shrewd mind tricks created a climate of suspicion and distrust that gripped everyone working in his inner circle. And as the doctor explains, the wrong words or even suspicions were enough for removal and in some cases far worse.

No story about Mao is complete without a word regarding his widow, Jiang Qing (1914-1991), who served as the Spouse of the Paramount Leader of China from 1949 until Mao’s death in 1976. A former actress, she married Mao on November 28, 1938 becoming his fourth wife. Their marriage and the tribulations contained therein, serve as the back story to the topic at hand. Mao’s infidelities and Qing’s insecurities are key issues in the book and a constant source of tension between her and his chosen physician. She serves as the books antagonist and a mental game of chess develops as she seeks out any chance to put the doctor in the cross hairs of suspicion. At times, the scenes are nothing short of comical and reveal the desperation in Qing’s actions. Her rage at Mao’s philandering were typically directed as other for she lacked the backing or resolve to directly challenge and change the nation’s leader. Following Mao’s death, she was convicted as part of the “Gang of Four” for treason and initially sentenced to death before her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She died in 1991 after taking her own life while suffering from the effects of throat cancer.

If there is one section of the book that hits home with the reality of Mao’s callousness, it is the doctor’s comments about Mao’s true purpose behind the Great Leap Forward. In fact, it might seem unreal to some readers at first but Dr. Zhisui was there next to Mao witnessing firsthand the Chairman’s erratic behavior. And there is a high probability that Mao never intended for the Great Leap Forward to succeed in any shape form or fashion. There are many cold hard truths in this book but to understand Mao Zedong, his public and personal life must be examined and it is here that Dr. Zhisui has written the best account of crazy, unorthodox and complicated life of Mao Zedong. Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0679764437
ISBN-13: 978-0679764434

Biographies