I am Malala: The Girl who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai (with Christina Lamb)

Eight stars

My journey of biographies has taken me inside the lives of political figures, television personalities, and even those involved in cults and religious sects. This next book shifts focus while retaining the perspective of a girl (and young woman) at the narrative helm. In this piece, young Malala Yousafzai chimes in and offers some of her own opinions growing up and becoming an international advocate for universal primary education for all children. Malala lays a foundation for the reader with a brief background on her native Pakistan and how it came to fruition some seventy years ago. Predominantly Muslim, Pakistan found itself trying to protect its population from religious and cultural incursions from its neighbouring states while developing a powerful military in the region. The reader is also offered a decent backstory about the Yousafzai family in the Swat Valley, where a dedicated father sought to develop a school for area children. His impetus was to hone these skills at an early age before releasing them with a thirst for knowledge and the wherewithal to become Pakistan’s future. The narrative explores this dream and fosters the growth from a dilapidated building into a successful initiative with over one thousand pupils attending annually. With the rise of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan and the eventual American invasion of that country, the region’s stability weakened and Pakistan found itself pulled in two directions. Malala recounts that while the Pakistani Government tried to pave the way for America and its forces, there was a strong and historical allegiance to Taliban forces, something the reader will have to discover within the pages of this book. When the Taliban pushed into Pakistan, they brought their literal interpretations of Koranic verses and tried to invalidate those who blasphemed, from women who were not veiled through to education for any girl. Malala discusses her horror at seeing this and how her father was bullied as principal of his own school. After a period of flight for their own safety, the Yousafzai family returned, only to discover that the Swat Valley had become a battleground between Taliban forces and the Pakistani military. Encouraged by her father to advocate for girls like herself, Malala continued to speak in favour of education for all and would not stand down. Momentum grew and she soon found herself speaking to large groups with Taliban leaders hiding in the shadows, but surely no one would try to harm a child. What began as blanket rule enforcement within the Swat Valley soon turned to the ‘Talibanisation’ of those who spoke out most vociferously against this minute interpretation of Islamic principles. In October 2012, Malala faced the ultimate retribution for speaking out against the Taliban when she was shot. The medical fallout found her sent to the United Kingdom, where Malala uses the latter few chapters to discuss her injuries and the slow recovery she made. Even in the face of this violence, Malala and her spirit never faded as she kept advocating for universal education, no matter one’s socio-economic, religious, geographic, or physical background. She seeks to promote the idea that one girl’s voice can make a difference, as long as there are many who are willing to listen. An interesting biographical piece that pushes the reader into many interesting directions and is sure to stir up much controversy amongst other reviewers.

I found myself reading this book because of another great recommendation by a dear friend, not to jump on the burgeoning bandwagon or to sensationalise the life of this young woman. I wanted a great book that would educate me on issues with which I have little knowledge and found myself intrigued more than anything at what I discovered. This book explores the plight of a young girl trying to demonstrate the political and ideological struggles faced by a population powerless to push back against violent enforcement of contradictory rules. The oppression of a people who seek the freedom to obtain basic education is non-sensical. Doing so in the name of a loving God only strengthens the need for this freedom. The rationale to suppress is lost on me, though I am open to having someone explain it to me. 

There have been some who have commented that Malala does not speak for Pakistan or segments of the population. The fame she may garner from her efforts or this book do not interest me, nor should they lessen the message that she wishes to promote. This is Malala’s story told through her own memories. I am baffled by those who feel they can call her own view wrong or that her personal beliefs are a hoax better kept in a journal than placed out for public discussion. Furthermore, to posit that Malala is a complete laughingstock in her own Pakistan seems highly generalised, but that is through my filter of free speech and expression, values that are fundamental in Canada, as I write these words. To vilify Malala for her own personal views undoubtably commences a slippery slope towards the antics undertaken by the Taliban. Far be it from me to deny these individuals their own right to disagree, though without a foundation for their arguments, I cannot admit to being swayed in the least.

I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to look at the book itself and how it was presented to the reader. The biography flows well and offers a a strong message on numerous occasions. The reader receives a healthy dose of history (both of Pakistan and Malala) to help formulate an educated opinion without the sense of overload. Chapters move fluidly and Malala seeks to keep things light where she can. Vignettes and lessons about her life offer the narrative additional colour and shape, which provides some entertainment to offset some of the darker moments during the fight for freedom in the face of religious oppression. It is, however, hard to miss that Malala thrives on self-aggrandisement throughout the book, where she brags of scholastic achievements or must tell the reader who she spoke before so many and liaised with Ambassador X and World Leader Y. The reader must realise that this is a child and so the starry-eyed nature of that ego boost is to be expected, even if she plays the peacock well as she struts throughout her story. Overall, it was an educational read and I can see why it received such hype. Let us see if it will spark ongoing momentum to ensure all children have access and utilise educational facilities the world over. They are our future, right Neo?

Kudos, Madam Yousafzai for helping me see the importance of your message. May you always have the courage to face your detractors and never let them derail your goals.

Stolen Innocence: My Life Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs, by Elissa Wall (with Lisa Pulitzer)

Eight stars

Biographies that detail the lives of those who have been involved in religious organisations can be particularly difficult to present, though my literary journey has brought me three in a row. While the thoughts of this review are my own, I realise that religion and politics are so deeply seeded in the psyche of us all that we can take opinions that differ from our own to heart. I fall victim to personal sentiments at times and am using this book as a foundation to discuss fundamentalism within the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). My long and convoluted biography journey brought me to this piece by Elissa Wall, whose entire childhood was shaped by the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Born into the Church, Wall grew up with the rigid beliefs of the FLDS, many of which are peppered throughout the narrative. Wall offers the reader a backstory of both the Church and how it broke from the modernising ways of Mormons in the late 19th century. The schism went through a few permutations, finally becoming a strong and compact community, primarily focussed in Utah and on the border with Arizona, though also closely affiliated with a community in rural British Columbia. Wall also crafts her own familial story to allow the reader to see a personalised cog in the wheel that is the FLDS. Throughout the narrative, Wall returns to discussions of The Prophet, a man drawn from the Church Elders who is seen to have a direct connection with God and whose will is not to be challenged. This is how the reader learns of Warren Jeffs, who would play a key role throughout Wall’s story. She explores the hold the FLDS has over its members, particularly the children in their scholastic endeavours, with this trust and complete subjugation continuing into adulthood. Wall offers countless examples of strict adherence to a set of beliefs, due both to tradition and the decisions of the Prophet. To question these pose the possibility to banishment, which comes with complete isolation from one’s family. Apostates are vilified by FLDS members and it is encouraged that a complete mental and emotional scourge occur to retain purity. Leaving to practice even with the mainstream Mormon Church is seen as complete apostasy and Wall shows how the community pressured her own family to banish her after she challenged a number of the preconceived notions the Church laid out for her and the feelings of abuse that she was not able to vocalise. This treatment that Wall faced at the hands of the FLDS is almost beyond comprehension, detailed throughout the narrative and then further challenged when Wall was used as a victim to bring Warren Jeffs to trial. It is at this point that the biography takes on its most interesting aspect, as lawyers seek to parse through insinuation and actual messaging by Jeffs, going so far as to turn the entire subservient nature of members on its head. Wall has a powerful story to share and she does so well. Readers who have the stomach for some of the most heart-wrenching tales of abuse and subservient behaviour in the name of God may find this glimpse into the FLDS fascinating, as well as the legal battle that opened it up to the jury of public opinion.  

I found myself drawn to this piece more than simply because it was a recommended buddy read. I am always drawn to churches and religious sects that fail outside the norm, especially those who are vilified in mainstream media. Trying not to paint the mainstream Church with the same brush as the FLDS can require mental acuity, though I admit I know there IS a difference and that not all are drinking from the Kool-Aid of the teachings Warren Jeffs professed in this book. Wall offers a wonderful insight into growing up inside the FLDS and how she pushed boundaries on a regular basis. Her narrative does pose a number of legal and sociological questions that remain with me even afterwards. ‘Can a woman be raped by her husband?’, ‘How can the State of Utah be so clear that sex with a 13 year-old is rape, but one with a fourteen year-old has a slew of caveats?’, ‘Is religious teaching a defence against some of the criminal charges brought up in this book?’, and even ‘Does society have the right to “help” those who are living blindly under these strict rules to be “free”?’ I will not respond to these now, but have a number of opinions after completing this book. My academic side must also rear its head, leaving me to wonder at times if Wall remembers things as clearly as they happened or if she sought to spin a youth that would fit all the checkboxes in order to highlight the evils that lurked in every corner of the FLDS. I was left to query how much was fact and where the fanciful storytelling might have gone, not because this is not a life that one woman could live, but that it was so all-encompassing. One might turn to the co- (ghost?) author, Lisa Pulitzer, to wonder if they tried to cram everything into one biography. This is my second book where Pulitzer has helped a child within a religious sect tell their story, both of which use a strong format of vilification and the struggle to leave the fray. That should not detract from the fact that the book was well-paced and clearly sought to exemplify much to the reader. The true message of any higher power is rife with interpretation, as can be any book one reads. That is why the world created Goodreads, for readers to offer insight and present their passionate opinions, right?!

Kudos, Madam Wall for your succinct look into a life riddled with hurdles and struggle. Thankfully, you have made it out and I can only hope, looking forward, you have a healthy future as you surround yourself with those who love you.  

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, by Jeff Guinn

Nine powerful stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jeff Guinn, and Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

My ongoing trek though the world of biographies would not have been complete without a comprehensive piece about an individual who is often misunderstood in history. Jeff Guinn has provided this with his stellar piece on Jim Jones and the winding road to Jonestown, site of the infamous cult mass suicide in 1978. Guinn focusses the rise and power of Jim Jones, exemplifying his ability to hoard power and hone his leadership skills while captivating a following of the common person. Armed with the power of the delivered word and absolute authority, Jones sought not only to create the Peoples Temple to serve the disadvantaged, but also to instil complete loyalty in a socialist hierarchy, as contradictory as that might sound. The attentive and patient reader will discover countless examples of Jones’ abilities as he becomes the textbook cult leader. (As it will surely rouse extensive debate, for the purposes of this review and my personal beliefs, I would define a ‘cult’ as an organisation premised on a certain type of beliefs, usually religious, whereby extrication is neither simple nor voluntary. I welcome those who wish to challenge me on this, though I do not bandy the word around for the fun of it!)

Raised in a highly dysfunctional home in Lynn, Indiana, Jones stuck out at school and could regularly be found making long-winded sermons alone in the woods or organising healing services for roadkill. This religious upbringing was fostered by his curiosity in the numerous evangelical Christian options around town, even though his parents were the only family not found at any Sunday services. By adulthood, with a young wife by his side, Jones continued to foster his preaching and healing skills, soon part of the revival tour around the state. His ultimate goal, to form his own church that would target lower-income individuals and trying to link up with established black churches in and around Indianapolis. With the Red Scare in full force, Jones sought to utilise some of the socialist ‘equality for all’ in his sermons, bringing hope to any who would grace the sanctuary. His message was less one of godliness, but of the need to integrate the races and help one another, all this in the late 1950s and into the 60s. Developing a strong base, Jones formed the Peoples Temple and rallied as many as would attend on a regular basis. Even at this early stage, Jones tried to create a sense of power and a hierarchy, where followers would rely on him to help them solve problems as long as they turn over all earthly possessions to the Temple. Guinn hints at a duplicity here, where Jones could completely overtake his followers, while remaining above the fray and living as he saw fit.

Always wanting more and seeing the lights of California, Jones turned his attention to Redwood Valley and the surrounding town of Ukiah, California. Situated between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Jones felt he could work effectively by integrating into a smaller community, yet still be able to pull followers from both major metropolitan areas. He was so effective in having his followers join him because of the impending nuclear holocaust that was sure to come from the Soviets, having recently been deterred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Yes, more duplicity, as he rallied to the Soviet-style collectivist notion of equality for all, yet chose to sit at the end of all!) Jones knew how to use the news to his advantage, demanding blind faith and complete trust that he had revelations about what the Peoples Temple ought to do. While Jones had to reestablish himself out West, many scouts and a strong advertising campaign in the less affluent neighbourhoods brought new recruits along with those who had heard of this captivating preacher. From there, Guinn explores many of the sexual encounters that Jones had (and sanctioned) within the Temple, citing the need to de-stress or share communally, though only within the confines of fellow Temple folk. Jones cemented a stronger sense of communal ownership by Temple faithful, going so far as to require all children born into the group be raised communally, where they would see parents only when Jones saw fit. Sex led to drugs and soon Jones relied on that to keep him going, all while his wife stood by and loyally tried to digest what was going on. Guinn explores sentiments of jealousy and angst, though Jones never sought to enter into polygamous marriages, choosing instead to share his body and time with at least two women regularly and others on an as needed basis. How could Jones profess these beliefs and hold firm to the reins of power? As Guinn explains, there was significant verbal and physical abuse administered, which would push straying members into line. Be it calling people out in sermons, browbeating in meetings, or blackmailing in private, Jones made sure that he held the upper hand to ensure obedience. If a member sought to leave the fold, Jones had pre-signed documentation or blank sheets that he could use and submit to the authorities, thereby pigeon-holing any who might make idle threats. Guinn offers numerous examples of the lengths to which Jones would go to command attention and total control over the lives of Temple members, from the new recruits to his own wife, seen as the second-in-command of the entire organisation. Using his prowess to rally the troops, Jones became a favourite of the political candidates in the Bay Area, helping to secure votes and rallying the electorate, though the expectation was a system of quid pro quo, usually forgotten after the ballots were counted.

Negative press haunted Jones and he began developing an escape plan from California, looking to the small and recently independent country of Guyana. The country appealed to Jones, as it held strong socialist views as well as significant area for agricultural cultivation; a heavenly commune for collectivist living. Jones soon laid the foundation for the Temple’s new home, aptly named Jonestown, which was isolated enough that government officials would not come knocking. Holding his followers in awe and paying for their travel, Jones brought hundreds down to the country in a series of trips, where they settled and the commune took shape, strengthening the idea of a cult, through geographic isolation, both from families and American authorities (Guyana had no extradition treaty with the United States). Legal actions were beginning in San Francisco courts by family members of those in the Peoples Temple, citing kidnapping or illicit seizure of property from members. This soon led to continued bad press, though only in those locations where the Temple had a footprint. This soon caused US Congressman Leo Ryan to organise a trip to investigate some of the concerns. Armed with scores of letters and members of the media, Ryan tried to explore the truthfulness of the Temple’s assertions that all were happily residing in Guyana. He found few issues and only a handful of members who wished to leave. Guinn uses the last few chapters to explore the US expedition to Guyana and the fallout as Jones saw his complete control slipping away. Stunning writing on Guinn’s part shows the lengths to which Jim Jones would go to hold complete control. The eventual mass suicide and assassination of the outsiders at the direction of the leader led to a body count of over 900, including Ryan himself. Jones and the entire Jonestown community soon became international headline news, having escaped much mention during their entire time in South America. The common (and erroneous) phrase that came out of those final hours in Jonestown remains “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid [actually Flavor Aid]”, which the reader will discover has lasted for decades since the event. All the same, the power Jones held over his followers is phenomenal and the reader will surely finish the book wondering as much as understanding his sway.

Was Jim Jones an evil man or simply one who allowed power to go to his head? Even Guinn does not have a definitive answer, but this biography is so detailed and well-paced that the reader will surely come away with their own opinions. Many books have been written about Jonestown and Jim Jones, though all seem to offer sensationalised accounts of events or are completely weighted to one side, forcing the curious reader to sit through diatribes or blatant vilification. Guinn has used much time and effort to offer a complete look at the man, interviewing those who are still alive (due to age and the obvious sacrifice in Guyana) as well as all the documents he could recover to tell the story. A feat that not many would have taken, Guinn uses his wonderful narrative to tell the dénouement as honestly as he can. Like the other biography of his that I have read, Guinn forges headlong into the tough topics and questions, emerging with answers that defy simple religious or cultish vilification, which offers the reader a much more comprehensive approach. I can now speak about Jonestown with greater authority and understand much of the life of Jim Jones and what led him to that fateful day on November 18, 1978. I would strongly encourage anyone with the patience to read such a detailed tome to digest all that Guinn has to offer, for he refuses to sermonise, preventing the the reader from, pardon the remark, “drinking the Kool-Aid”.

Kudos, Mr. Guinn for your stunning effort with this piece. This is a sensational delivery of what has to be a very difficult topic. You have entertained, educated, and armed me for discussions about this and other cult groups, which seem to surround me as I forge ahead with more biographies.

My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, by Jenna Miscavige Hill (with Lisa Pulitzer)

Eight stars

In my time reading biographies (both this current run and in general), I have come across a number of subjects and themes. Many have been political in nature, while others tell of the life and times of a person whose name recognition makes them a household name. It seems my latest topic of interest is the personal struggle, which will surely open up avenues of angst and some painful revelations. This brought me to the piece by Jenna Miscavige Hill, whose entire childhood was shaped by the Church of Scientology. Born into the Church and the third generation of familial followers, Jenna explains the background of the organisation and how her family played a key role at the grassroots level. The Church of Scientology is less that of a Christian sect than a spiritual hierarchy, believing that its members sign a billion year contract of devotion and whose Thetan (spirit) is able to move from body to body to complete this agreement. After its creation by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the group grew in popularity in the late 1950s, with a strong naval foundation based on the fact that Hubbard developed it aboard a ship in international waters, to protect him from US officials. Jenna goes into great detail about the numerous paths and hierarchies within the Church, which includes a very strict program, less of spiritual enlightenment than education on linguistic minutiae supported by rote memorisation. Jenna talks at length about the struggle to meet the requirements to complete courses and not be shamed. The fact that her uncle, David Miscavige, was extremely high in the Scientology Executive and eventually guided the organisation after Hubbard’s body drop (death) only added pressure to Jenna as she tried to follow the stringent courses. With parents who were high-up as well and living away from her, Jenna struggled without parental roles at these most formative years. Struggling to impress and remain on track, Jenna’s studies forced her to think maturely at the age of ten, cramming information and sentiments that many university students would find daunting. Moving into adolescence and early adulthood, Jenna found herself questioning some of the basic tenets and decisions the Church held as central, the height of blasphemy that was regularly communicated to her. Exemplifying some of the extreme rigidity, Jenna Miscavige shows how she could not live the life she wanted, even while a number of high-profile individuals happily balanced Hollywood living with a personal journey within the Church of Scientology. An eye-opening book of struggle and tell-all that the curious reader should explore, which might better explain the Church’s appeal to some of the great stars of the silver screen.

I was thoroughly intrigued by this biography/memoir for a number of reasons. Admittedly, I am always drawn to organisations that fail outside the norm, especially those who tend to be religious and vilified in the mainstream media (having gone so far as to take an undergraduate course in cults and religious extremism, many moons ago). Miscavige being a child while inside the Church of Scientology provides additional interest for me, giving what one might call a young person’s flavour to the sentiments. She is blunt and open in her story, layered with the positions of hierarchy her family members play in the Church, as well as the elitist caste in which she found herself. Surely, no child can stand up and choose to leave of their own volition, which does explain some of her choices to study harder and participate without objection. What left me on the fence about the struggles and angst within this book was that there was no outward abuse and no blatant personal violations handed down. Additionally, purporting that it was a “harrowing struggle” and associating this struggle with the cute blonde girl on the cover is completely misleading, even listening to the narrative that she offered after leaving the Church. Miscavige’s story is still one of powerlessness and childhood vulnerability, if only because she was required to remain so ensconced in the Church’s rules, with no parents or family members willing to get her out. It was only after she became an adult that her challenges flourished into personal questions and eventually required her to wheedle out of the billion year commitment signed when she was a young child. A textbook case of hierarchy and layered commitment, the Church of Scientology has mastered the art of secrecy and holding its members to the highest and most rigid standards. I’ll pass and leave the couch jumping to Tom!   

Kudos, Madam Miscavige Hill for offering up much of your life and placing it under the microscope for all to see. Harrowing, perhaps not, but surely a strong determination to reclaim your life from a Church that would benefit with “no means no”.  

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park (with Maryanne Vollers)

Eight stars

Shifting focus on this biography journey away from men with significant power, I wanted to find a piece that would not only educate, but also exemplify some of the struggles of the common person. That this is also a buddy read with a good friend of mine only adds to the interest when it was suggested I read this memoir by Yeonmi Park. Growing up in North Korea, Park offers the reader some history of the country and the autocratic Kim Family dynasty, some of which directly related to her own ancestors’ story. Thereafter, Park personalises the story to discuss her backstory, a life on the cusp of abject poverty and general servitude to the Great Country, which included a vignette about gathering an annual faeces quota to help with collective farming, alarming and yet somewhat humerous at times as well. After secretly paving the way to make an escape, Park and her mother cross a small tributary into China, where things are anything but manna from heaven. Supporting a policy of returning North Korean defectors, the Chinese are on the lookout for those who might have snuck across the border. Park explores the treachery that awaited her in China and a life that paralleled the agony of North Korea when she found herself being trafficked. It was only a firm motivation to make her way to South Korea that kept Yeonmi strong and prepared for freedom, a dream that Christian missionaries sought to fulfil. While many take freedom for granted, Park offers an interesting perspective of South Korean freedom, which might provide much sobriety for the reader. Full of tears and angst, Park does not coat her story with flowery tales and sing-song moments, while transitioning from the darkest corners of one country about which the world knows so little. A powerful piece that pulls on the heartstrings of all but the most detached readers, Park provides a degree of determination that no obstacle is insurmountable.

I went into this book sure that I would come out with a ton of information grounded in reality, not solely western propaganda seeking to kick the Kim family around and exploit their suppressive ways. To hear directly from one who has lived in these conditions and seen the horrors of starvation speaks volumes to me. I found myself needing to keep my academic hat firmly in place and remind myself that someone has synthesised this book before it went to print, even though Park professes to have a strong grip on the English language by the time she completed her draft. Adding layers of oppression and making the light of freedom look all the better will sell books, especially to complement the media reports of increased aggression and assassination of familial members, though part of me could not help but accept the stories that fill these pages as being more realistic than reserve-propaganda. Full of the dark sides that these types of stories have to offer, the reader must stomach death, neglect, rape, and even criticism of that which many of us take for granted. Park’s surprising openness about the problems with freedom should not be taken lightly by the reader, as she makes a strong case about the perils of removing those who had no choices and supersaturating them with options and pathways. The story was her own, but adding a familial element helped strengthen its delivery and permitted the reader to see how desperate some were to leave North Korea, that they would abandon family to pave the way towards a better life. An underlying theme of political ideology surely finds its way into the discussion, from the Korean War, Soviet-style communism, to the eventual isolated sentimentality that even Mao would not have recognised. One is left to wonder what would be best for North Koreans, especially since most appear less than truly happy, if one is to believe the accounts that Park offers herein. Should people be oppressed or live in a society that does not offer democracy for all citizens? That is up to the reader to decide, though Park provides wonderful insight to open a substantial debate.

Kudos, Madam Park for this honest portrayal of the pains of your motherland and trying to recalibrate in a society only too happy to pile on the criticism. You are monumentally strong for all you have seen and weathered. I hope you will provide a follow-up in the years to come.  

Recipe for Life: The Autobiography, by Mary Berry

Nine stars


No journey, especially one of biographies, is complete without some light fare along the way, which is amply provided with this memoir by Mary Berry. For those who are not familiar with this most splendid woman, she has come to be known as the Queen of Cookery in Britain, though her journey to that pedestal was highly entertaining and captivating in a life filled with twists. Born into a modest family, Berry was the middle of three children and the only girl. With a father who served as the Mayor of Bath, Berry was often left to the fought and tumble ways of her brothers, admitting that she was a tomboy for the early years of her life. A close knit family home provided Berry with the love she needed to succeed, though she was a horrible student and failed most every class she took in school, save Domestic Science. With an aptitude for all things cooking, she was able to study a little at a local college, soon leading to a number of interesting jobs and the chance to study for a month at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, a story that will both shock and entertain the reader. Berry soon married Paul Hunnings, a rugby star who made an honest woman out of her at the ripe age of thirty-one. Still working and setting up house after her marriage, Berry entertains the readers with many vignettes, including making her own wedding cake and a cold honeymoon spent fishing before announcing the expansion of her family, both with children and interesting pets. Thomas, William, and Annabelle would soon be mini-Marys in the kitchen to help their mum before growing up and branching off into their own careers. From there it was moving to television cookery and a slew of cookbooks to accompany her weekly shows, having learned it is best to be an independent freelancer than being stuck to any one job. Berry excelled and laid the groundwork for her future as a television star on all things cookery. Her personal advice is to keep things simple enough that the viewer can relate to what is being prepared. The reader is taken on a wonderful journey as Berry explores her numerous shows, workshops, and the eventual arrival of her celebrity chef status when she agreed to judge on The Great British Bake Off, surprised by its complete success. Anyone who has not seen the original Bake Off will have to tune in, as it is a marvel how a quaint woman can stand amongst Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay while holding her own. Brilliant in its delivery and warm nature, Mary Berry captures the reader with her honesty and motherliness.

It was a great friend of mine who introduced me to Mary Berry, at least through the television. The Great British Bake Off has been a deeply-rooted staple of BBC programming for a handful of years. She is affable and, like the grandmother we all wished we had, proves approachable as long as she is impressed. Peeling back some of the upper crust nature for which she is so well known, Berry offers up a wonderful insight into her life. Told in a frank and humorous manner, without the need to ‘tell all’ or smear anyone (she goes so far as to refuse to discuss past relationship, as some of these men are still alive!), Berry shows how she carved her niche as a working woman in the early 1960s and used a passion she developed when academics did nothing to support her. Berry is insightful throughout, commenting on the lack of foundation in the education system (where some subjects remain mandatory and yet are never used while the basics of cooking and sewing are glossed over). With straightforward chapters that include a number of personal asides by people about whom she refers. Perhaps the most ‘Mary Berry’ aspect of the memoir is the collection of simple recipes for the reader to attempt at the end of each chapter, in which Berry seeks to instil her love of cookery and its simplicity in the busy grinds of the everyday. Even if that includes using something as peculiar as the AGA oven (I know… I am still baffled!), Berry wants the reader and anyone who comes across something with which she is associated to feel comfortable in the kitchen and their own apron. I know I will be the next time I try a cake, pudding, or pie!

Kudos, Lady Berry! You have such a way with words and sentiments, perfectly baked and crisp, which just the right amount of ebullient topping to keep me hooked. How I will miss you on Bake Off! 

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda

Nine stars

Bring on the opposing view to the US Civil War during this forty days of biography reading, which takes me into the life of Robert E. Lee. Contrasting nicely with a previous biography of Ulysses Grant, I was permitted to see some of their similarities, while also noticing that the path leading them to Appomattox could not have been more different. Allowing Michael Korda to take the reader through the man and his personal divergent. The story ebbs and flows effectively, while permitting Lee to emerge as a person who is more than his Civil War infamy. Korda professes that Lee can be seen as a great man, a hesitant Confederate, and a tactical general, all while peppering the narrative with historical accounts of the war, which appeases the curious reader. A must-read, if only to offset the glory that many offer the Union leaders who paved the way to victory. Korda effective persuades the reader to take a second look at this man and his personal passions.

That Robert E. Lee was a man due respect might be a foreign concept to the reader, but Korda lays the groundwork to support this throughout his detailed narrative. Born to a father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee II, who had ties to General George Washington and offered his eulogy in 1799, Lee grew up acknowledging the importance of rules and structure. This helped shape Lee’s young life and turned him towards the military, while fostering a love for his home state of Virginia. Lee found himself turning to the structure of daily life, which pulled him towards West Point, where he was able to put his passions into action. Studying the military tactical tomes of Revolutionary leaders and learning of the still-fresh military action of Napoleon Bonaparte, Lee took these all into consideration, while honing his strong skills in surveying and engineering. Hard working and dedicated, Lee graduated and continued working for the military, though was without a war to keep the skills shape. Instead, he turned to working for the War Department, taking trips around the country and into Canada, as long as there were funds and an interest in scouting out these lands. Around this time, Lee also caught the eye of Mary Custis, the step-great-granddaughter of George Washington, which Korda uses to further support the fact that Lee had military glory all around him his entire life. Lee married Mary and they had seven children, all of whom Robert loved deeply. He sought to provide for them as long as he could and helped out whenever possible, eventually moving to live with Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis. The Lees lived in Arlington House, which would eventually become the most famous cemetery in the United States. While Lee was away, serving in various military efforts, he never forgot his family and penned letters as often as he could. Lee also returned to West Point as its Superintendent, helping to hone the skills of the next generation of cadets. Korda explores Lee’s passions throughout the tome, some of which were in line with his ancestors and superiors, while others could not have strayed more defiantly. At a time when statism was stronger than love of country, Lee held Virginia as his passion above a unified United States, which might have helped him turn to the South and the Confederacy. Even after the dust settled on the Civil War, Lee was held in such regard that he was offered the presidency of a university. His honour not left in tatters, Lee was a man of some regard and held his personal ideology through thick and thin, though did that include a blind love of all things confederate?

While Robert E. Lee has long been called an essential part of the Confederate Army, Korda delves deeper throughout the tome to explore just how ‘confederate’ he might have been. Surely a Virginian through and through, Lee wanted nothing more than to support his home state through any skirmish. Before any outbreak of war, Lee sensed the strong sentiment of slavery that was pulling at the fabric of the country. As Korda opens this book, he offers a detailed account of the 1859 insurrection at Harpers Ferry. Armed abolitionist John Brown sought to promote a slave rebellion at a farm compound in this small Virginia community. Lee was summoned there by President Buchanan and Secretary of War John B. Floyd. Pitting the US military against Brown, this lay the groundwork for what some have come to believe was Lee’s passion to suppress abolitionist ways. Lee is cited as saying, in the years when slavery and slave states became a political debate, that these activities were more a moral sentiment rather than one of politics. Lee referred to his religious and social upbringing to defend these opinions, though did not feel that legislatures or their leaders should be ensconcing the idea of ownership in laws. In essence, one might be led to believe that Lee felt the Union versus Confederate conflict was based less on the sentiment of permitting slavery than defending the land. When Virginia was balancing on the edge, Lee chose to defend his homeland to the death, though seems to have been sober in his thinking rather than stuck on rhetoric. As shall be discussed below, Lee’s choices might have shocked some, but it was surely a personal passion rather than a general acceptance of an ideology that saw Lee turn to the Confederates, thereby branding him in the same camp as Jefferson Davis and some of the Southern Democrats. Just as George Washington fought to protect the land on which he stood, Lee pushed his troops from Northern Virginia to clash with Grant, Sherman, and anyone else who might have crossed his path. Whatever his personal beliefs, Lee’s military leadership showed promise and attention to detail, making him a general equalled by few other men. 

That Lee was a sensational military man cannot be overshadowed by his lack of victory in the Civil War. As history has shown and Korda makes clear throughout, the momentum of the Confederate Army could not outlast the power of the Union’s attacks. However, Lee’s military prowess came from much work done as a soldier during the Mexican War in the 1840s, an international skirmish where many of the military greats of the Civil War cut their teeth. Lee saw the intricacies of war and the specifics of the Napoleonic virtue of troop dispersion to ensure victory in the face of a dedicated opponent tested regularly. Lee returned to Virginia victorious and sought to remain dedicated to the US Army. However, Korda makes clear that Lee was committed to an Army that had little hope of ever promoting him to general, with closer to two dozen men ahead of him in queue for promotion. Lee was also older than many, leaving him to wonder if he had any chance of ever winning his stars before having to retire. When called into service to quell the uprising at Harpers Ferry, Colonel Robert E. Lee led troops and made sure that John Brown was captured, if only to send him to the gallows, which lit an early fuse and helped Lincoln gain the White House in November 1860. With war about to erupt within the United States, Lincoln turned to Lee and offered him the role of Brigadier General and overseer of the entire Union Army. However, with Virginia not yet decided and potentially turning to the Confederacy, Lee declined, shocking Lincoln and many others in positions of authority. Lee watched Virginia side with the South and accepted a call by Confederate President Davis to lead the Army of Northern Virginia and pushed into the massacre that was the US Civil War. Korda paces a large portion of the book’s narrative through the various battles and campaigns of the war, ones that saw early victory for Lee and the Confederates, before Union soldiers pushed on and fought hard to overturn their humiliations. Core commanders bumbled some of Lee’s plans, leaving them to fall in the hands of Union leaders and perhaps turning the tide. As Union generals, including Grant and Sherman, pushed troops forward and smashed the Confederate army on two fronts, they eventually crushed the Confederate Government into submission. Korda pulls on the sentiments of many historians who list Lee as one of, if not the greatest generals of all time. Napoleon and Nelson are bandied about in the same sentence, where Grant is left to peer in from outside the tent. Be it his dedication in the face of defeat or the willingness to put his troops before himself, Lee rose above the foundation of the campaign in which he fought to surrender only with honour. While few military men who ended in defeat ever receive hero status, Lee is well deserving as a man of military dignity and dedication. He would live out his final years after Appomattox with one final position and died a hero, at least to some. 

Turning to Michael Korda and his presentation of Robert E. Lee, the reader can pull much from this detailed piece. Korda pulls few punches, neither painting Lee as a military saint nor a dastardly villain, as might have been the expectation of those captured and forced to surrender. He depicts Lee as a man who held his views and would not backdown until there was absolutely no chance for success. Looking at topics including love of family, slavery, Confederate politics, and military tactics, Korda weaves a powerful account of a man whose is synonymous with the Confederate Army. Was Robert E. Lee wrong in choosing to fight for the Confederacy, whose victory was anything but certain? Might Lee have been better to flee rather than be demoralised and embarrassed by the end of the War? Should Lee have stayed out of the War, lacking the passion held by Jefferson Davis? These are questions left for the reader to synthesise, though Korda offers much to open the discussion. With long and thought-provoking chapters, Korda segments Lee’s life into massive pieces and leaves the reader to push forward (as Confederate soldiers might have done?), at times getting lost in the minutiae. Citing historians, academics, and first hand sources to bring the narrative to life, Korda offers a wonderful view into some of America’s most interesting military manoeuvres. The reader might complement this tome with something that tells the other side (Sherman or Grant biography, perhaps?) to even out the story and depict the war as a two-sided affair. Korda’s attention to detail is second to none and provides the reader with a strong collection of ideas on which they might base a final verdict on Robert E. Lee. Might he rest alongside his step-great-grandfather by marriage as a great General in US history, or perhaps a man whose name should be tarnished alongside all the blood shed at his order over four years of horrible war that tore a country apart and is still only being held together with straining fault-lines? The jury is out, but the reader ought to cast their vote with confidence.

Kudos, Mr. Korda for this sensational piece. A wonderful addition to my biography marathon that allowed me to learn more about this American firmly rooted in history, you have made a fan out of me.

Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, by Sally Bedell Smith

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Sally Bedell Smith, and Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

My ongoing trek though the world of biographies would not have been complete without a piece by the famed Sally Bedell Smith. With honour and elegance, Smith is able to offer up an insightful look into the lives of those many hold in high esteem. Her latest subject is Prince Charles, heir to the Throne of the United Kingdom (and its realms). While many readers will be familiar with Charles as scandalous and perhaps frigid towards his former wife, Smith takes the reader through the man’s life to date and presents strong arguments for seeing him in three contrasting lights: the man, the misfit, and the monarch-to-be. Through these three lenses, Smith argues effectively that Charles, Prince of Wales, has much more to offer than his one-off comments or trite sentiments that the tabloids have used to boost their image while remaining useful only for campers and fish mongers. A powerful piece that humanises a man whose entire life has literally been a waiting game.

That Charles is a man with interests as common as any other might be hard to fathom, though Smith does a wonderful job of accentuating this. Raised with the eyes of the world on him from the start, Charles had little hope of being ‘normal’ in the true sense of the word. Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were thrust into the limelight when Charles was only a young boy, turning the former into a queen and ruler of the Realm, thereby leaving the young prince in the hands of nannies and tutors. Smith explains repeatedly that neither of his parents provided Charles with affection of a sense of closeness, with Phillip going so far as to seek a rough and tumble upbringing to harden his son’s outer shell. While Charles did not excel at individual sport, his passion for polo and other group ventures helped shape him into the man he would become. Enjoying time alone as well as surrounded by others, Charles soon turned to the tranquility of painting with watercolours, which regulated what was surely a chaotic life around him. After mandatory military service, Charles remained a bachelor, though did dabble around with the likes of Camilla Shand (eventually Parker Bowles), and it was said that the Palace would never have approved their marriage. Smith cites Camilla’s less than sexual innocence as the main reason, as her reputation was known, even among those of the upper crust. Still, Charles did date, sparingly, as he pursued some of his other interests, which included the environment, architecture, and spiritual oneness. Making speeches on these topics and exploring their depths with some of those who were held in high regard, Charles carved a niche for himself and soon became passionate, which added an unwanted wrinkle that I will explore below. It was only after a personal tragedy befell the prince that he realised the need to marry, especially as heir to the Throne. His choice of Lady Diana Spencer was fraught with issues from the start, as Smith explores through some of the more tumultuous chapters of the biography. Not only was there a major gap in age, but their interests did not mesh and the looming cloud of Camilla could not be ignored. Add to this, Smith makes much of the mental anguish Diana faced behind closed doors and Charles found himself struggling from the onset of the marriage. While the Waleses had two boys, their union was eroding and soon ended in parsimoniously, as neither wanted to make things work, choosing instead to fall into the arms of other lovers. It was only after Diana’s death in the summer of 1997 that Charles showed a more human side and was able to connect more readily with the public. He kept up with his aforementioned niches and succumbed to true happiness when allowed to wed the woman he loved, speaking around the world and drawing strong ties to the common person’s interests. This connection with the public did help with shedding his role as villain, though for many the decision had already been made. While he was certainly a man who differed from his parents and grandparents, Charles did prove to have issues that could not be overlooked by either the tabloids or the general public.

To call Prince Charles a misfit might not be too far from the truth, though Smith tackles it in the highest regard possible. Charles was never one to create scandals as a youth, staying away from drink and drugs in an era where love was free and booze plentiful (unlike his own son, Harry, decades later). However, Smith does not fail to list a number of the indiscretions that Charles seems to have had during his marriage to Diana, usually related to Camilla Parker Bowles. Smith does an amazing job at laying the groundwork for Charles’s sainthood in his marriage, as though these acts of stepping out might have been justified knee-jerk reactions. She is quick to portray Diana as the unstable one, issuing countless examples of bulimic attacks, limb cutting, and berating the Princes of Wales, all in private. There was also a great deal of Charles trying to balance this apparent Diana outbursts and putting on a brave face in public. Of course, the general public seemed more than happy to side with the People’s Princess, ignoring her numerous mentions in the tabloids while Charles did not seem to be able to have any assignations that were not splashed on the front pages of any daily rag and the illegal content of phone conversations turning him into the butt-end of jokes. Smith goes so far as to list the number of tabloid antics throughout her narrative, including the “Tampax” comment that fuelled many a joke in the early 90s. Charles could not shake this persona, as long as Diana was alive. It was as though he was forced to live in the shadow of his wife, as he had his parents, and would eventually do the same for his sons. Perhaps blown out of proportion by the salacious need for the British tabloids to sell papers, Charles may have been a misfit of sorts, but it was likely because all eyes were on him whenever he hiccoughed too loudly. Still, that moniker would tarnish his abilities to be regal when it counted most of all.

As heir to the Throne, Charles would have to offer a side of himself that denotes his ability to be monarchical. While Charles grew up in a household where his mother served as reigning monarch, he did not always possess the key traits of heir. Smith extols Queen Elizabeth’s ability to be neutral and seek information from all players before offering the hint of an opinion on any matter, while Charles would race around the world (or even in Britain) and stand atop his own soapbox to present his ideas whenever a microphone appeared in front of his face. Honourary and customary events saw Charles act as keynote speaker, only to steal the limelight and push for his own beliefs, at times angering those to whom he preached. Smith offers a number of examples throughout the years, most notably the British Medical Association, a slew of British and world-renowned architects, and even members of the Government. Charles never worried about who he might upset, knowing that they would demur (in public at least) to his station, though this was surely neither regal nor the personality fit for a monarch. While Charles was seen to be going to all corners of the Commonwealth, it is not only attending events but currying favour of one’s subjects that brings about that image of a monarch-in-waiting. As mentioned above, Charles was forced to stand in the shadows of Diana’s love affair with the people, but there comes a time when the love must flow towards the heir apparent. It seems to be strong with Prince William, as Smith relates the Hollywood-esque personality he has around the world, but it is also the ability to relate to people, which William has in spades, that attracts the attention, at least of the positive variety. Can Charles be a monarch in which “the Firm” will be proud? The jury remains in deliberations, though Smith makes a strong case that he might not have the traits Queen Elizabeth and her predecessors felt were quintessential. 

Taking a moment to sift through Smith’s piece in general, it is surely armed with the tools of a biography worth citing in conversations and future pieces on the royals. I read with much interest her piece on Queen Elizabeth II and loved it. Crisp, to the point, and yet not fuzzy or tepid in the least, Sally Bedell Smith knows how to create a life and weaves it together with scores of sources and much research. This piece is poignant, as it addresses many of the issues related to the Prince of Wales, from his birth through to the present struggles he faces as heir to the throne. Smith does not try to smear or pile on the gossip, but she does not ostrich herself (or the reader) by refusing to acknowledge the scandals that have shown themselves over the decades. Smith keeps much of the narrative flowing chronologically, rathe than simply by topic, the reader can follow the arguments with ease. With both detailed and short chapters, Smith allows the reader to ensconced themselves in a number of topics, though also chooses to skim across the surface on others that might not be as encompassing. Pulling on a number of sources and events, Smith portrays Charles in many lights, some of which were discussed above, but does not seek to attack or belittle with any intention. The curious and dedicated reader will surely find much of great interest in this biography, that serves the role of educating and entertaining at the same time.

Charles is in line to be king, but should he hold the position? Smith does not outwardly address this throughout the book, but she lays some strong arguments in the narrative. Charles is outspoken and stands by his beliefs, but is also one to have not fretted with the silver spoon lodged firmly in his mouth. It is a debate over whether time fostered this reliance on others or if it was a personal choice, thereby alienating himself from his expected subjects. Then again, Queen Elizabeth II is the textbook royal and detached from much in the public light, though her approval ratings remain high and strong. Could it be a trail of scandals that have plagued Charles over the decades that has kept him from being the man many yearn for when looking to the future of the British monarchy? One can hope that his being who he feels is right will not jade either him or those who await the next monarch. Whether Charles will ever ascend to the throne (should he be given the chance, based on the Queen’s longevity) remains up in the air, for he has literally waited his entire life for this honour. Neither William nor George are surely chomping at the bit to push him out of the way, but one can hope that the Commonwealth and even the world is ready for whatever happens. There is much to be decided, and yet much that remains as clear as a foggy Scottish morning.  

Kudos, Madam Smith for this sensational piece that enlightens the reader while pulling no punches in its delivery. You have been able to attract much interest with your past pieces and this is sure not to disappoint. 

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White Jr.

Another thought-provoking book during this forty days of biography reading takes me into the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant. Deemed one of the three greatest presidents at the turn of the 20th century, Ronald C. White takes the reader behind the scenes and offers a detailed account of the man and his journey through to the White House. Much might be known of his battles during the Civil War, though the reader is sure to find many other nuggets that help shape the man who defeated Robert E. Lee or led the country through tumultuous times during Reconstruction. By no means brief, White makes detailed arguments and offers a strong narrative, both of which take time and scores of examples. The attention and patient reader will come away with a stronger understanding of this general-cum-politician, who might have paved the way for other greats like Eisenhower.Born in rural Ohio, Ulysses S. Grant earned his name from a fateful coin toss, which left him yoked with a moniker that stood out amongst many. Of particular interest, his name at birth was Hiram Ulysses Grant, the ‘S’ an eventual creation without a full name to substantiate it. Grant’s quiet nature and love of all things mathematical led him to excel academically and prove to be a sharp witted son of parents who despised the idea of slavery. While curious about teaching, Grant was encouraged to allow his name to stand for nomination to West Point, the military college that had shaped many men before him. Attending, Grant’s passion remained with numbers and maps, though he did have an aptitude for some degree of the more aggressive aspects of the program. By the time he left, a soldier without a battle, Grant sought to explore his personal interests, one of which happened to be Julia Dent, daughter of a slaveholder and man who surely thought young Ulysses was not good enough to marry, let alone court, his daughter. With the outbreak of war with Mexico, Grant was promised a chance to marry the Dent girl upon his return. While away fighting, Grant fought alongside some of the great names of an upcoming military skirmish within the US borders. For now, the battle was to defend portions of the southern and western territories previously under the control of Mexico. As White explorers these battles, it becomes apparent that Grant pined daily for Julia and could not be bothered too much with the plight of his country. Grant fought hard and did all he could to defend America, eventually expanding it into what is now Texas and California, though the narrative is peppered with letters and commentary by the soldier home to his sweetheart. As promised, upon his return, Julia accepted his proposal and they were soon married, only to commence a series of military secondments. The Grants began their family, though Julia was left to tend to the children while Ulysses headed off, wishing he could take them along. These early struggles, which White argues might have torn some couples apart (and was the hope of Mr. Dent), only strengthened the resolve of Ulysses and Julia. Their connection foreshadowed future separations that caused heartache between them, though never brought them to the point of amorous deterioration. White exemplifies a strong-willed Ulysses, whose love for wife and family trumped all else. That Grant left the military in a cloud of scandal, his discharge an interesting tale all its own, makes the future military glory all the more sensational.

With the whispers of unrest within the United States, the election of Abraham Lincoln brought about much disquiet. White’s past work on Lincoln helps pave the way with a strong narrative about the build-up of aggression within the South towards the sentiment of abolishing slavery. As mentioned before, Grant stood at a crossroads when it came to the issue, with parents strongly against the idea and in-laws who held slaves themselves. As the country was torn apart and war commenced, Grant remained a civilian, with no formal need to engage in war, at least at its beginning in 1861. As the battle-lines were drawn and the country turned to an ‘us versus them’ mentality, Grant held firm and watched as Lincoln led the North against Jefferson Davis and those secessionist states. White effectively narrates some of the major offensives of the early part of the Civil War, culminating in the Emancipation Proclamation, where Lincoln lays the groundwork for the entire rationale behind the North’s fighting. After eventually rejoining the military hierarchy, Grant found himself befriending one William Tecumseh Sherman, a military man who would prove to be a life-long friend and shape much of the post-War military outlook. Grant eventually found himself summoned to the White House to meet with Lincoln, given the title of Lieutenant-General, a high honour in the US Military, only previously bestowed on General George Washington. Grant was sent to command a large portion of the fighting forces, plotting out victory at Shiloh and pushing the men forward into the South. White mentions the strain that the war took on Grant and his time away from Julia, so much so that General Grant saw fit to bring his family closer, lifting his morale and asserting to his men that he had confidence in their victory. Numerous chapters outline Grant’s investment in the war and his continued support of Lincoln’s cause, becoming the Commanding General of the United States Army by the time the bloodshed reached its zenith. With Lincoln’s reelection secured and the South hoisting their white flags, Grant met General Robert E. Lee (former comrade in the Mexican War) at Appomattox to formally sign a peace and end to the Civil War. Grant, the budding politician, sought to ensure Lee received some say in how Southern troops might be handled and what surrender might mean for those men who turned in their uniforms to return to the land. Ever the negotiator, Grant did all he could and would transmit these requests, sensible in his opinion, to Lincoln during the period of reunification. Foreboding and foreshadowing alike, this could be argued as another turning point in the life of Ulysses S. Grant.

With the guns and cannons silent, Grant remained overseer of the US Military and close advisor to Lincoln on how to rebuild. White recounts the night that the Lincolns and Grants were to attend Ford’s Theatre, though Julia had the latter couple bow out at the last minute. Lincoln assassinated and his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, assuming the office, it became a time of much struggle for Grant. Holding firm to his promise to Lee at Appomattox, Grant argued for pardons across the board, though Johnson wanted to punish his southern brethren for their secession. Congress, on the other hand, took it upon themselves to rebuild the UNITED States (emphasis added) through two constitutional amendments (end of slavery and black suffrage) and moved onto Reconstruction. Interestingly enough, as White recounts the history of this time, President Johnson did all in his power not to allow Reconstruction, vetoing both major bills, only to have Congress override them. Grant was called upon to help set up military control of the Southern states for a time, with Johnson remarkably not intervening in selection of military leadership. All the while, Grant’s ambitions were less based on his hunger for power, but a sense of fairness and desire to balance power with a proverbial carrot rather than the stick. Johnson’s actions became troublesome enough to Congress that Articles of Impeachment were brought forth, though they failed to be upheld in the Senate by a single vote. Grant remained on the sidelines during the process, but would not stand in support for his Commander-in-Chief, which spoke volumes. Republicans scrambled for a candidate to run in the upcoming presidential election, turning to Grant, who stood unopposed at the convention. He remained willing to run in the 1868 election, though refused to campaign whatsoever (quite a difference from nowadays). Winning the election, Grant used his time in office to rectify some of the issues he found in the United States. White elucidates some of the key issues related to the price of gold, treatment of the Indian (aboriginal) population, and reestablishing the relationship with Britain. This last issue related to Britain’s outward neutrality during the Civil War, though they were seen to offer much support to the Confederates in the form of ammunition. Grant left it to his Cabinet secretaries to handle these issues, which steering America along the track of continued Reconstruction. However, Grant took particular interest in wrestling with legislation surrounding a group that emerged from the embittered Confederate sentiment; the Ku Klux Klan. Strongly supportive of a federal response to the Klan, Grant encouraged lawmakers to pass legislation to ban Klan activities and strengthen the rights of black Americans. A battle that would last for decades (and some feel is still yet to be resolved), Grant wanted nothing more than to balance the playing field yet again.

While some called upon Grant to allow his name to stand for a third consecutive term, scandal amongst Cabinet secretaries left the president less than eager to forge onwards, even though many felt he would have easily raced to victory. Grant and Julia chose, instead, to see the world as private citizens. Boarding a ship, they began travelling around the world, endearing themselves to many crowds. Some went so far as to chant “King of America”, though Grant seems never to have let this go to his head. Tired and ready to see the world through another lens, Grant did all he could to enjoy his post-presidential years. However, with the Republican Party in disarray, Grant did allow his name to be put forward for the 1880 GOP Convention, leading well into the voting, but eventually unsuccessful. As White concludes, this was less a disappointment for Grant than his simply wanting to ensure the Party had a strong candidate going into the election. Formally entering his waning years, Grant bandied around the idea of memoirs with friend Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), though he felt too much had been written about him already. Grant eventually acquiesced, writing about his time in the Civil War and its numerous battles from his own perspective,. Little did he know that the world sought much more, hoping to discover the intricacies of this tanner’s son who rose through the military ranks and sought to direct America through some of its most difficult years as it reestablished itself, internally and on the world scene. Stricken with cancer, Grant’s final months were painful and his eventual demise saw thousands fill the streets to pay homage one final time. As stated earlier, Grant was one of the three great presidents of the time. One might argue that White helps support that this moniker should remain in place today.

While White admits early on that Grant has been a well-documented president, referring to some of the past biographies that have surfaced, there is something about this piece that captivates the reader from the beginning. The flowing narrative that is full of information and poignant vignettes keeps the story moving along and shows White’s attention to detail. While there could have been much more written, or expanded, White’s choice of topics to pursue keeps the reader’s focus on Grant from waning, while also not offering too many gaps. White effectively argues that Grant was an important man whose passion for people shone through at every turn. Forced to see the worst of men as well as the best, Grant wanting nothing more than to continue the Lincoln legacy of equality, while also forging his own way, once he reached the White House. I have read numerous presidential biographies over the years, many by illustrious writers of our time. White’s piece ranks up there with its comprehension, detail, and ease of reading. The curious reader need not feel shy about delving into this, as there is much to sate one’s appetite, without feeling the need to be an academic to understand much of the discussion.

Kudos, Mr. White for such a comprehensive and entertaining piece on Ulysses S. Grant. Truly a man for the ages, Grant comes to life under your guidance and I am sure many will enjoy this piece for years to come. 

The Restless Dead (Dr. David Hunter #5), by Simon Beckett

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Simon Beckett, Random House UK, Transworld Publishers, and Bantam Press for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

After a lengthy hiatus, Simon Beckett returns with his fifth Dr. David Hunter novel, reliving some of the great forensic anthropology of past books in the collection. Still coming to terms with a recent attack by a psychopath, Dr. Hunter receives a call to consult on a case outside of London. Happy to take the work where he can get it, Hunter soon discovers that this case goes beyond his usual parameters; the body is set to be recovered from an estuary, after having spent a significant amount of time in the water. During the body’s removal, Hunter realises that his expertise will be needed as there is little left of the face and extremities, though everyone is certain it belongs to Leo Villiers, whose father looms close at hand and wants a swift post-mortem to confirm his suspicions. During his trip to the formal post-mortem, Hunter tries a shortcut and is left stranded with the tide coming up. Without a vehicle, he must rely on the assistance of a local family, though the frigid reception he receives leaves him wondering how long the welcome might extend. Hunter soon learns that Leo Villiers is accused of murdering Emma Derby, an attractive young woman, though the body has yet to be discovered. Hunter begins poking around the case on his own and soon encounters Emma’s sister, Rachel, who adds to the narrative. Hunter makes a further forensic discovering, trying to curry favour with the local authorities, who are set to send him packing, and all but definitively determines the body is not that of Villiers. Left to wonder who might have turned up in the estuary, more bodies appear and all eyes turn to a local man whose sanity is a question of local lore. Can Hunter help get to the bottom of things before he, again, becomes the focus of a killer? A great return to the David Hunter series that will have series fans well-pleased and help to garner more fans for Beckett’s writing.

As Beckett admits in the acknowledgements, this book was a long-time coming and its delay has left series fans eager to dive in. I will admit, it took a few chapters for the momentum to return, but once I was back in sync, Beckett took over and I remember why I enjoy this series so much. Dr. David Hunter remains somewhat of an isolated soul, with his backstory developed throughout the series and newer fears sandwiched on either end of this thriller. Beckett is able to support his protagonist with a wonderful collection of characters, pulling on both police and locals, that keep the story moving forward. Flirting with something more than platonic, Hunter seeks to use his awkwardness to his advantage, though the reader might be left tapping a toe as they wait for Hunter to pick up on the obvious signs. While not as strong on the forensics as I have seen in past novels (or other series within the genre), Beckett was able to keep the narrative moving effectively, turning Hunter into a sleuth more than forensic anthropologist alone. There are a few subplots that can be extrapolated from outside the boundaries of this novel, all of which work nicely and culminate in the final few chapters, leaving the reader highly entertained and perhaps surprised. A strong story and a cliffhanger that keeps readers wondering what is to come, Beckett has come back from his Hunter hiatus with a well-written piece that should sate fans for a short time (and only that)!

Kudos, Mr. Beckett for a great return. I hope you have more ideas brewing and that we can look forward to them sooner than later.

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, Steve Lee Myers

Nine stars

My latest selection in the forty days of biography reading takes me into the life of a current world leader, President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation. Seen as as staunch anti-American and anti-West, Putin’s rise and hold of power in Russia came about through interesting means, as recounted by Steven Lee Myers. Having lived and worked through the political metamorphosis of the USSR, Putin’s story is one that the reader will likely find captivating as well as frustrating, as Lee pulls no punches while offering a well-rounded piece, full of first-hand accounts and behind the scenes vignettes. How long Putin will hold the reins of power is anyone’s guess, though the recent inauguration of Donald Trump may have finally created a leader with whom Putin can co-exist happily. I mean, he did pave the way to rig the US election, didn’t he?

Born to meagre parents during the waning days of Stalin’s reign of terror, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin arrived after his siblings all perished. Raised to respect his father and love his mother, Putin soon found himself drawn to all things athletic, with a special fondness for judo. Putin’s love of this form of martial arts would prove symbolic in the decades to come, as its focus is to use the momentum from one’s opponent to win, rather than direct attack. Putin’s attention in school found him able to enter post-secondary with little hesitation, where his studies and physical acumen soon drew the attention of the KGB. Well-suited for the group, Putin was secretive and able to hold himself in check, entering training school on the outskirts of Moscow, where he would not reveal his identity while learning the art of deception and espionage. He was soon sent to East Germany with his wife and young family, where he took up a post in Dresden, learning the language and the culture in the mid-80s. Putin witnessed the declawing of the Soviet Bear and the disintegration of Communism in Germany first hand while in Dresden, as the dominoes began to fall and the region began falling into turmoil. Called back to Moscow, Putin brought his family back and waited to see what would come of his homeland and communism, the only ideology known to generations of Russians. When all hope seemed lost, Putin joined the FSB, the organization that rose from the KGB ashes, and sought to accept things as best he could. Catching the eye of Boris Yeltsin, the new Russian president and man who sought to steer the country out of the doldrums. Putin’s success grew exponentially when he abandoned the Russia of his childhood. 

Lee attributes Putin’s first taste at political power to his choice to serve as deputy mayor of Petersburg, one of the largest cities in the country. Putin was able to shape policies and helped to create stability under a quasi-democratic system, something that many citizens could not yet properly understand. However, as with any new system, corruption was the only language spoken and Putin found himself in the middle of scandals as his boss sought to hold onto power however possible. Seeking to make more of a name for himself and still being touted as a man with potential, Putin headed to Moscow and worked alongside Yeltsin, eventually taking a role as head of the FSB, which led to a position on the National Security Council. Yeltsin was loved in the West, but had an iron fist as he ran the newly minted democratic Russia, tossing aside opposition and weak prime ministers who would not do his bidding. When Putin was given the chance at being PM in 1999, many saw his selection as the kiss of death. Putin accepted and tried to work alongside Yeltsin, as changes in the country continued to take effect. When Yeltsin’s health took a turn for the worse, fate would offer Putin the chance to rise up and assume the role of President of Russia, which began a taste of real power and something that he would never willingly cede, even when constitutionally guided. 

Putin’s ascension to the Russian presidency brought him more power than he had ever had and, for a time, offered Russia a vibrant leader with fresh ideas. Seen as new blood for Russia, Putin was hailed by the world as a leader with whom others could work and under which democracy had a real chance. However, as Lee insinuates throughout the book, it was this elevation that turned Putin from the quiet man into the autocratic leader known today. Power surely corrupts and Putin did not take long to grip the reins of power tightly. Opposition, while praised in democracy, was all but silence or bullied into submission, be it within the Russian borders or on the world stage. Putin turned the country away from its democratic toddling and towards a return to the centralized power structure that kept Stalin as leader for so long. Critics were shunned, jailed or worse, and Putin sought to quell the criticism of world leaders by tossing out his own epithets. Infamous stories of poisonings and repressive acts to pull neighbouring countries in line were coloured only by Putin’s war with Chechen rebels, whose fight paralleled the radical muslim fighting that Bush 43 faced in his two illegal wars in Asia. Putin was prepared to paint himself as the protector of Russia, though drew up his own rules and form of democracy to fit his own needs. Perhaps a saving grace, Putin sought not to rewrite the constitution to fit his megalomania, but agreed to abide by the two-term limits as president, with his own little twist. In a game of bait and switch, Lee elucidates how Putin was able to bring Dmitri Medvedev up the ranks to run as president, then have himself chosen as Russian Prime Minister. While PM, Putin ran the show and left Medvedev to act as a figurehead. Lee offers numerous examples of Putin’s wrangling and eventual puppeteering as Medvedev willingly allowed his apparently underling run the show, only to orchestrate this own return to the presidency thereafter. Brilliantly executed, though baffling as he snubbed all this democratic, Putin mastered the art of appearing to follow the rules only to twist them to his favour. A return to power then allowed Putin to shove constitutional changes to the length of the presidential term through the Duma, allowing him six year terms and a tighter grip on all this Russian. This is where he stands now, with new elections expected in 2018, so far a foregone conclusion. New examples of suppression of critics emerge during this presidential resurrection, including Pussy Riot, a rock band whose scandalous songs saw them put on trial as the world watched. Putin proved drunk on power and would not accept guidance from anyone, only further isolating himself from his fellow leaders and increasingly from the public. However, as the apt reader and political scientist will realise, even with increasing dislike for the president, without a viable alternative, Putin’s reign as the new dictatorial tsar will not end, even if he must play another round of bait and switch to lead well into his eighth decade.

I am no expert in international politics, but it seems apparent, through all I know and from what Lee has presented so well in this book, that Putin sought to fill the vacuum left by communism with his own form of autocratic rule. Swinging the pendulum away from the ideological left to a deeply entrenched right-of-centre approach, Putin has been able to fill the minds of his citizens with the fear that was common during the Stalin era, where opposition disappeared as soon as it arose. Ice picks to the head have been replaced with polonium pellets in food and vicious attacks by Russian forces. Lee shows the disintegration of support by those world leaders who would have, at one time, been staunch allies (Bush 43, Chirac) and eventually became guarded or spoke out openly against the way Putin acted on the world scene. While Lee’s book appeared on newsstands before the 2016 US General Election, it is interesting that Russia (read: Putin) might have played a role in bringing The Great Xenophobe to power, which is currently stirring up Capitol Hill with allegations. Whatever comes of it, Putin has shown that he will not allow anyone to stand in his way when he wants something. He is apt to take it and worry about the consequences later. Troubling? Maybe a little for a country that is still reeling from decades of have its citizens unable to shape the political landscape. 

Lee’s writing is so fluid and easy to comprehend that I am left to praise him for this piece. The biography is so full of information, though told in such a way that the reader is not overwhelmed. These attributes keep the reader wanting to learn more and delve deeper into the life of this world leader. The attention to detail that Lee provides is indicative of extensive research and thoughtful preparation, which keeps the reader informed and entertained at the same time. Vignettes flow together with ease and Putin’s persona grows with each building chapter. While it is hard not to inject bias into the writing, Lee does try to round out the narrative as best he can, though it is hard not to see the power intoxication that Putin develops. Any reader curious about this more elusive world leader need look no further than this piece, which offers much insight into where Russia is headed, with no real opposition that can quell the Putin superstructure. While criticism continues to mount within the country, until a formidable political opposition can present itself, Putin and his cronies will rule with an iron fist, needing no curtain to isolate themselves from the world.

Kudos, Mr. Myers for this brilliant piece. I can only hope that many will take the time to read this and see the monster behind the idyllic mask who has turned Russia on its head yet again.

Long Walk to Freedom: An Autobiography, by Nelson Mandela

Nine powerful stars

As I continue the forty days of biography reading, I thought I ought to tackle some of the ‘big players’ in the world of politics. At a time when the world is still ill-balanced, I wanted to delve into the world of Nelson Mandela, one who sought to recalibrate a significant unbalance on the African continent over a number of decades. Having a great interest in South Africa, the backwardness of apartheid’s acceptance by any governing body, and how the world handled the bloodshed under the racist regime there, I felt this would be a wonderful starting point. I have read much historical fiction about the country and the struggles, but it is high time we look to facts and figures. There will be those who oppose me reading this autobiography for propaganda reasons (and they have already reared their heads) and I welcome their sentiments, though the sub-set who are supremacists and bully views for the sake of racism belong in the weed-choked fields of knowledge from whence they came. And yes, they have come out to write to me as well!

Born in 1918 with the birth name ‘Rolihlahla’, Xhosa for “pulling the branch of a tree’, Mandela lived his early years in a small village far from the bustling cities of Cape Town or Johannesburg. Living in the traditional way of Africans, the village shared resources and means of survival, which might have fostered his views that found him in hot water decades later. Seeing much potential in their son, Mandela’s parents allowed the Church to play a strong role in his upbringing and education, which led him to find a passion for the law. Mandela explains early on in this autobiography that his desire to advocate for others became a foundation of the way he lived his life. Eventually pulled into the larger city, Mandela worked in a law firm in Johannesburg, though failed to pass some of the essential academic examinations to earn an LLB. However, Mandela found a strong desire to help his fellow African with issues that arose and worked within the limits before him to ensure that all South Africans shared the same opportunities. South Africa was in the midst of a transformation, still part of the British Commonwealth but run primarily by the Afrikaner white minority, who ruled in an off-balance manner that sought to use the minority sentiments to shape the laws for all. With the exclusion of the black African (please allow me at this time to offer apologies for anyone who takes offence to the word ‘black’, for I am simply using the term Mandela presented throughout, which differentiates between the white minority and the unrepresented majority) population, Mandela began to meet with other like-minded men and sought to join the political movement of the African National Congress (ANC), whose long-standing support of black equality fit nicely with the views he espoused. Mandela used this passion to fuel his mantra as he sought to push back against the views of the South African Government. Mandela did find time to marry, choosing Evelyn Nkoto Mase, who bore him his first set of children. Mandela explores the life of an anti-colonist and the role the ANC played in his early life. By this time, the South African government brought in apartheid, an approach to racial divide the country and benefit the whites. Mandela would not stand for this and spoke out whenever he could to counter the racist governmental policies. The strains between Mandela and Evelyn led to a disintegration of that marriage and Mandela was forced to come to terms with it while he wrestled for black equality. Not long single, Mandela met and married Winnie Madikizela, sure they would be together after their first date. Things ramped up and Mandela was soon persona non grata in the country, hiding from the authorities in order to protect himself. Mandela tells of his secret trips to other parts of Africa to meet with other black leaders who were also trying to toss the shackles of oppression from their peoples. And yet, the world stood by and watched as the politics of South Africa became more troublesome. The ANC ramped up its views and Mandela became a strong figurehead, eventually brought to trial for High Treason after espousing views of wanting to overthrow the government. Mandela makes clear that there was no way to follow a peaceful solution against the Government, though he may have wanted to parallel Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. However, targeted violence would not include the regular citizen and assassination was never promoted or condoned. Sentenced to life in prison after the judge chose not to impose the death penalty, Mandela began his twenty-seven years behind bars on Robben Island, an isolated prison facility. 

A resident of the Robben Island prison Mandela speaks frankly about his incarceration and the treatment he received. While the meals were poor and the sanitary conditions less than ideal, I expected severe beatings and horrendous treatment at the hands of guards and wardens to pepper the narrative. However, Mandela was seen as an advocate for his fellow prisoners and earned the respect of the white prison hierarchy, to the point that he was given special treatment when presenting concerns to the prison authorities. His imprisonment became a political soapbox and many people from all corners of the world came to see him and listen to his views, though nothing changed. While the outside world continued to speak out against apartheid and issued sanctions, politics within the country sought to strengthen the racially divisive movement under a number of leaders, culminating in P.W. Botha, perhaps its most ruthless Afrikaner leader. However, as Mandela presents in the latter portion of the narrative, Botha readily met with Mandela and heard his complaints. Mandela continued to espouse equality and fought against apartheid, though Botha gave only lip service to these concerns. As the world began to shift toward the end of the 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid views seemed to dissipate when Botha stepped down and F.W. de Klerk became prime minister. Under de Klerk, Mandela’s sentence came to an end and he was able to leave Robben Island, completing the long and sordid walk to freedom. 

Mandela is able to use the last dozen or so chapters to speak of this freedom and the changes that came to pass, though there was surely many hurdles to overcome and much reconciliation that needed to take place. Mandela advocated for free and open elections, even while de Klerk sought an outright veto over any legislation for the Afrikaners. Push came to shove and the racial divide led to more murders, increased resentment, and added pressure on Mandela and the ANC to prove that they could act within political means and not turn to guns. Mandela speaks frankly, though never stops pushing for talk over bullet to solve the issue. By the time the first open national election came to pass in 1994, Mandela was able to rise to the role of President of the South African Republic, the ultimate gift after decades of oppression. 

Some who saw that I was reading this jumped immediately onto Mandela’s being a communist (as though that were a poisoned moniker) and a terrorist. Both of these sentiments are true in their textbook form, though the flavour in which they were presented makes them seem horrid and worthy of vilification. To those people, who prefer to talk of peaceful whites and raping blacks (I kid you not), I can only offer pity as they allow ignorance to ferment inside their minds. It also shows that they have no interest in engaging in an intellectual conversation on Mandela or the apartheid era in South Africa. Mandela’s upbringing was very much one of social equality for all and his interest in Marxist views fuelled a passion to see equality for every man, woman, and child within South Africa, irregardless of the colour of their skin or background. His terrorist leanings were borne out of a need to bring about needed change. I neither condemn or condone these actions, but I do see some rationale, as Mandela spoke of wanting to emulate Gandhi’s protest in India. However, while the British were a sensible people with a democratic political system that permitted all to vote, South Africa would never allow blacks to have a political voice, thereby keeping them from ever bringing about change in a parliamentary means. Mandela spoke of two Americans coming to see him in prison, pushing the idea of Martin Luther King’s triumphs in America without ever needing to promote violence. Again, Mandela spoke of how the US Constitution entrenched equal rights within the document and King was only trying to promote these sentiments in the racist south. So, while he was a terrorist in the textbook sense, one might wonder if it was for a good cause. Of course, that will not quell the views of those who are cemented into a hatred that could include burning crosses or half-truths, but then again, some people’s ignorance comes from indoctrination and a refusal to expand their knowledge. 

Mandela’s crisp delivery is refreshing, especially as he speaks to frankly about these issues. I was drawn into the chapters and found myself begging for more information, even though I was already drowning in all the narrative had to offer. Mandela does not try to make himself look like a martyr or saint, but does not shy away from the evils he felt were developing around him. His love of self, family, and the larger South African state appears throughout. While this was an autobiography, it is balanced and can be called a realistic account, though I would be remiss if I took it as gospel. Mandela pulls no punches, while remaining above the fray and not getting himself stuck in the racial mud slinging that one might expect from someone who was oppressed for so long. He could have penned a powerful piece, highly critical of the government and scathing in its presentation, but by keeping things balanced and free from poisonous rhetoric, the reader is more likely to find pieces they support. The attentive reader will learn how Mandela devised early drafts of this piece and find themselves impressed with his ability to recollect so much. Far from succinct, but laid out perfectly to see the slow development of Mandela’s struggles, the reader will surely appreciate the attention to detail and powerful arguments that pepper this piece from beginning to end. 

Kudos seem to be too small an honour to bestow upon you, Mr. Mandela. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and while others may criticise me for even considering it, I am happy I took the time to learn about these struggles within South Africa.

I would encourage anyone who knows of a good book that tells the opposite side of the argument to send me a recommendation. All I ask is that it is well-sourced and a grounded piece that does not spiral into hate speech. I am eager to see apartheid and the white struggle within South Africa, should it exist.

Ford Nation: Two Brothers, One Vision- The Story of the People’s Mayor, by Doug Ford

Two generous stars

As I continue the forty days of biography reading, I was pleased to get my hands on this piece by Doug Ford, exploring the life and times of infamous Toronto mayor, Rob Ford. I hoped that this book would allow the elder brother to take the reader through the peaks and valleys he saw in his brother, offering a sobering exploration of all things Rob Ford. Deemed a memoir by the publisher, I was hoping that it would live up to the hype and fit nicely amongst other political figures about whom I will learn between now and early April. How effective was this book in laying a stable foundation? Let’s examine that now, though I will warn the reader that I pull no punches. 

Born into a humble household, Rob Ford was surrounded by a work ethic that both parents instilled in him from an early age. Doug Ford, Sr. ran a decal business and sought to teach his children the importance of customer service, which echoes throughout this piece as the younger Doug tries to place it into the narrative whenever an opening exists. While both Rob and Doug, Jr. watched their father succeed, they felt that he had too many passionate ideas to keep him out of the political arena. After signing him up to run in the 1995 Ontario provincial election, Doug, Sr. won and became part of the Progressive Conservative Class of ’95, which saw the beginning of Premier Mike Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution”. That appeared to plant the seed in young Rob’s mind and he looked to tackle the job of running as a municipal councillor. Rob failed in his first election, as many politicians are wont to, but with renewed vigour three years down the road, a new and better prepared Rob Ford was able to win a seat, representing the people of Etobicoke by 2000. With a seat on Toronto City Council, Rob Ford sought to uncover some of the fiscal mismanagement and excessive spending that was not readily apparent to the Toronto electorate, choosing to speak out against colleagues rather than close ranks. This theme echoes throughout the narrative, as Rob Ford remained the people’s representative and did not shy away from bucking the trend, perhaps his greatest asset. Rob Ford also used his father’s customer service mantra of always calling the customer (or constituent) back and placing greater importance in face to face interaction than dismissing issues to an assistant or voicemail, which helped him build strong ties with people across the political and socio-economic spectrum. The author glosses over these years as councillor, choosing only to offer very brief snippets in paragraphs relating to years of Council service, making it hard for the reader to really grasp the depth to which Rob Ford advocated on any specific issue, which is troublesome and shall be addressed below. After running for mayor in 2010, Rob Ford sought to end the proverbial gravy train and succeeded in earning the title of Your Worship in the October election. Power firmly in his hands, it is here that Ford’s issues began. While he did advocate hard for tighter spending limits and budget cuts, as well as much needed transportation infrastructure, these pluses are obviously overshadowed by some of the curious and troublesome revelations that came to pass by 2013. Rob Ford, the People’s Mayor, seems to have taken this title a little too literally as he was caught in photos, and eventually videos, in an intoxicated state and apparently smoking crack. Whirlwinds of media interest and commentary on the matter only fuelled the Fords to deflect this and offer ideological monikers and sentiments similar to Bush 43’s “with us or against us” mantra. The author scrambles through the latter part of the book to offer up excuses and vilification of media outlets to counter the actions of his errant brother. Again glossing over any responsibility a politician has to the people he represents, the term ‘addict’ and ‘treatment’ come out, as if that can negate the proof that is being aired around the world. By the end of the book, Rob Ford has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and the entire Ford clan rally behind him. The author seeks to pull at the reader’s heartstrings and hopes that this medical death sentence can be used to erase his idiotic actions. The attentive reader who is wary of having wool covering their eyes will see through this and is left with sappy drivel as the final pages close this off-balance piece. Peppered with interesting journal-like sentiments made by various members of the Ford family, the author obviously sought to release this book soon after his brother’s death to try and sweeten the image of a man so out of touch with the responsibilities of a political figure who was felled by the one thing he could not defeat. Less a memoir than a chance to offer a soapbox speech to offset what media outlets discovered and presented to the level-headed public. Actions speak louder than words, something that all the Fords have yet to learn.

I will be the first to admit, Rob Ford did things for Toronto and his constituents. His advocacy to limit spending and curtail inflated budgets cannot be ignored and this is readily apparent throughout the book’s numerous chapters. It is very unfortunate that the author chose not to pull the reader into these battles when his brother was a councillor and fighting for the little guy in debates and actions. It would have made for a stronger build-up as Rob Ford gained momentum in his search for the mayoralty. Glossing over years in a few paragraphs does nothing to support the hard work with proof, but the reader cannot expect much from an author whose interest lies solely in praise for his younger brother, than to offer an academic or at least level approach. Interestingly enough, as soon as Rob rose to the mayoralty, the author could not have more to say, going on and on, with details on many of the initiatives. This transparent attempt to rejuvenate his brother by extolling all the things that Toronto (and Etobicoke) owes him for advocating is not lost on the attentive reader and only goes to show the gaping holes in the foundation of this piece. When things soured and Rob could be seen intoxicated and apparently smoking crack, Doug sought not to hold his brother accountable, either in person or through this book’s narrative, but instead to coddle him with being ‘overworked’ and ‘a closet addict’ poses a great problem for me. It only goes to support the jaded nature of this book and does not permit the reader to get the full story, but one has to wonder, why would any member of the Ford family want to truth to come out as their black sheep left the pen. Additionally, Ford openly uses monikers to denote the ideological nature of anyone who disagrees with his family, as if this were some form of defence. “Oh, they are ‘lefties’, Doug? That explains it and I can see, as the reader, that you are only trying to swim against those who espouse a belief other than yours. Of course they are wrong and your family is complete in the right!” The author presents his brother as the mouthpiece for the common person, though forgets that with political notoriety comes a higher expectation of maturity and an increased spotlight placed firmly around him. This is not a new concept, though the author makes it seem as if ‘leftist media’ only came out of hiding when Rob Ford emerged on the scene. Is anyone drinking this Kool-Aid? Loosely paralleling Ford to Donald Trump throughout, it is clear that Doug Ford misses the mark yet again; for while both men say they speak for the people, only Ford is dumb enough to think that he can act like one and media will turn the other way. Again, in this day of 24 hour media, could anyone expect dalliances with drug dealers and public intoxication would not be streamed? Is the author as ignorant as he seems here? If the reader wants a warm and fuzzy piece that makes Rob Ford look like a saint who had small blemishes on his robe, this is your book. Those wanting a memoir or biography that seeks to balance ideas both good and bad about a man who made a mockery of Toronto on the world stage, look elsewhere. Fair warning to the reader, read the book on loan from the library and do not line the pockets of the Ford family by purchasing it. For a book that started out with such potential, it all went up in (crack) smoke towards the end!

Shameful, Mr. Ford, that you would think you can ram this piece down the throats of the intelligent reader and make us forget the stupidity that your brother brought forward and you sanction so willingly. 

Promises to Keep, by George Bernau

Nine stars

George Bernau delivers a powerful novel that addresses one of the great political conspiracies in U.S. History and explores it through the lens of alternate history, forcing the readers to ponder ‘what if?’ throughout. On November 22, 1963, US President John Trewlaney Cassidy is in Dallas as part of a pre-campaign swing and to address business leaders. After shots ring out, chaos ensues as it becomes clear that president has been shot in the head. Rushed to Parkland Hospital, President Cassidy is barely clinging to life, with half his head blown away and those around him covered in blood and brain matter. Doctors rush and the world waits for news, which is slow to come, exacerbated by the medical severity of the wounds and the notoriety of the patient. It is beyond grim and yet Mrs. Cassidy will not leave his side, while others hold vigil in the nearby chapel. Doctors work frantically to save the Leader of the Free World… and succeed in keeping him alive through the night. Thus begins a turn of the history wheel as Bernau weaves together a wonderful narrative where every turn begets a new unknown. While President Cassidy is clinging to life, Vice-President Ransom Gardner steps up and takes the reins of power, albeit temporarily, through a never before used presidential order to cover incapacitation. While Cassidy is unable to hold down the Office of President, Gardner takes the active role and works as best he can, alongside Attorney General and brother to POTUS, Tim Cassidy. The daily running of America waits for no man and so Gardner ‘reluctantly’ agrees to steer the ship. There is an election on the horizon, under a year away, and all eyes are on whether the elder Cassidy will be fit to run, or if Gardner ought to take the Demorats into this most auspicious battle against a group of eager Republicans, feeling they can strike at the opposition’s instability. While Washington heats up, FBI Special Agent Jim Sullivan cannot accept the single shooter premise that was presented to the world. He saw something close to a grassy knoll and is not prepared to let everything be swept under the rug. However, he is being stonewalled by his superiors and must chase down leads all on his own. This leads him to Mexico, New Orleans, and even some whispers of a Cuban connection. What Sullivan discovers is not only monumental, but could show that the failure in Dallas could spell a continued threat for all Cassidys. The deeper Sullivan digs, the more people die, leaving him to wonder if there is a major cover-up underway within the American Government. Over the next few years, Vietnam rears its ugly head and talk of Castro’s Cuba inundate political conversations in Washington, forcing the man in the Oval Office to make a major decision. Election Year 1968 is on the horizon and many are out for blood. A brilliant piece so full of twists and newly-forged history, Bernau leaves the reader wondering how much of those five years of the 1960s will be replicated in the book, and how much has been changed forever by the results of the assassination failure. Perfect for JFK buffs and history lovers alike, Bernau delivers a gem.

I have long been enthralled with the JFK assassination for as long as I can remember. Who did it? Why? What does the public not know? All this is slowly and methodically revealed in this powerful novel that allows Bernau to use the loose framework of what we all know and superimpose his own reality. The cast of characters is formidable, some of which are easily recognisable to the reader, though their altered names may force a brief scramble to recollect. The alternate history premise allows Bernau to weave an entirely new reality, which he does, while keeping a strong political flavour to the story. Of greatest interest to me was the development of the theory put forth by Jim Sullivan as to who planned and sought to execute the assassination, as well as how deep it went. Any reader who loves the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories will be salivating as the story progresses and takes many turns, some of which make total sense, even based on the actual information on hand and available to the public. Even through the novel was published close to three decades ago, it still holds a massive gut punch that any curious and dedicated reader will love. I strongly recommend this book, which reads well, though can get bogged down in detail and numerous storylines.

Kudos, Mr. Bernau for such a sensational piece. I cannot believe I knew NOTHING about this book until I saw it online for a very reasonable price. I will surely be checking out some of your other alternate history books in the coming months.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Eight stars

Beginning a month (or forty days) of biographies, I thought I would work through this buddy read. In her biography of Cleopatra, Schiff takes the reader along a winding adventure into the world before the Common Era, where actions to unite came at the cost of land and life, both bloody endeavours. Born into the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt, Cleopatra was of Macedonia Greek origin at a time of much political and geographic change. Her family ruled over the region with an iron fist and would not diminish themselves to speak Egyptian, choosing Greek for their daily interactions. However, Cleopatra did eventually learn the language and customs of the locals, if only to further strengthen her time as ruler of the region. After the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra was required to serve as co-ruler of Egypt with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, both of whom she had to marry, as per Egyptian custom. However, neither liaison brought about children and Cleopatra was soon able to cast them off and reigned alone, ingratiating herself with the locals by citing that she was the reincarnated Egyptian goddess, Isis. With Egypt being eyed by Rome as a potential item of acquisition, Cleopatra headed to Europe to liaise with Julius Caesar, an event that led to a secret tryst, leaving Cleopatra the Emperor’s mistress. Nine months later, Cleopatra bore a son from this union, whom she named Caesarian, or little Caesar. Upon Caesar’s assassination in the Roman Senate, Cleopatra found herself in an interesting position, both as the mother of the Emperor’s child and as ruler of Egypt; she had to choose a side to fill the Roman void. Turning to back Marc Antony, Cleopatra and all of Egypt held their collective breath as the Roman Civil War grew in fervour, pitting Antony against Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus). While events in Rome were becoming bloodier, Egypt stood in the middle as the prized possession of both factions, with Cleopatra still holding the reins of power. Her backing Antony turned romantic and Cleopatra bore him twins, Cleopatra II and Alexander Helios, as well as another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Their passion was strong and Schiff left the impression that it might have helped Cleopatra see Egypt as both fertile in its political and cultural heterogeneity. Schiff discusses a fairly significant hierarchy between the common Egyptian and the upper-class Greeks and Mesopotamian. During the Roman Civil War, Schiff also discusses Cleopatra fervour to exact revenge on enemies within the state, quelling any who spoke out against her, including a sister that threatened her hold on power, and sentiments that might have been interpreted as against Antony’s forces. After the loss at a key battle, Antony attempted suicide in shame, though the historical narrative differs at this point, depending on which account the reader might follow. Schiff presents both the idea that Cleopatra learned of her lover’s death and killed herself, or had Marc Antony brought to her on the verge of death and witnessed his final breath, before allowing herself to be bitten by an asp. The reader can parse through this and some of the other accounts to come up with their own personal finale, but all the same, Cleopatra’s life centred around reigning the land eventually subsumed into the new Roman Empire and her passionate connection with two famous Romans, both firmly established in the record books. A biography thick with information, nuances, and powerful symbolism, Schiff is sure to impress any reader to dares take the time to investigate the life and times of this most famous Egyptian ruler.

This is my second Schiff biography, which seeks to shed light on powerful and controversial women in history. The attentive reader will no doubt realise the onerous task of trying to amass a biography of a woman as popular as Cleopatra. Misnomers pepper the historical record, making the discovery of a true story all the more difficult, though Schiff does a formidable job in collecting a thread by which the reader can follow events somewhat fluidly. Additionally, all formal documents were created either in that time before the Common Era or within a hundred years thereafter, let alone that many were penned in languages that have either since died or been significantly altered. Schiff shows readers why she is worthy of another Pulitzer for her detailed work in weaving a digestible biography, adding fact to a narrative chock full of dates and political happenings. I found things difficult to follow at times, which could be a mix of my own mental acuity and the amount of information each chapter presented, though Schiff is not to blame for my lack of cognizance. I only wish I could have latched on better to what was being presented, as I am sure I could have ascertained even more out of this wonderful piece. Told frankly and succinctly, Schiff does a masterful job that anyone with a passion and curiosity for biographies will find endearing and truly captivating.

Kudos, Madam Schiff for another wonderful biography. I am eager to find more that you have written down the road as I continue to expand my knowledge of areas in which I am interested but know very little.