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.