Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

This is Times Square in New York City on the night of December 31st, 1954. I was home sleeping, unaware of the festivities just 8 miles from my door. The simple white ball dropping was indicative of the times. Black and white- simple. Not too complicated.

Funny how in all my years growing up and living in New York my friends and I never went to Times Square on New Years Eve.

My first New Years memory is of 1960. This was the first time I had heard the term "decade." During the next few years and until about 1967 my brother and I would celebrate by decorating the apartment with streamers and ballons. We bought candy and cakes to snack on. Our parents went out for the evening. At midnight my brother and I would watch the ball come down in Times Square and then we would toss streamers and confetti all over the house and pop all the balloons.

There was always an old movie playing on WOR- TV Channel 9 and I would stay up and watch it until my parents came home with the hats and horns from the party they had been to. It was these New Years Eves that introduced me to the old Busby Berkeley movies, which I still enjoy today.

I remember New Years Eve 1969 when I was 15 and John DiStefano and I rode the Avenue R bus to the end of the line at Flatbush Avenue. We were drinking Bali Hi wine all the way. The driver didn't seem to mind and we waited on the bus, drinking, for the return trip to Avenue R and East 16th Street. At about 1:30 in the morning we smashed our bottles (for good luck) against the walls under the Avenue R "trestle" of the BMT Lines. It was snowing lightly and all was peaceful when we wished one another a Happy New Years and went home.

There have been other, more dramatic New Years Eves over the decades. One of the more memorable ones was in Valencia, Spain 1978 going on 1979. We were in Valencia for the Christmas and New Years holidays. We had made friends with alot of the local University students and become regulars at the coffee houses and bars. We had even become friendly enough with some of them that we were invited into their homes.

Around 11 PM or so we were walking through the older part of the city when we came to the Plaza of Virgins. The whole plaza was filled with families! Some held candles, some sang, some were drinking a bit of the local wine. It was all so low key and very different from the hell raising we were used to. It was almost like an affirmation that though one year had come to an end, another was about to begin.

And so it goes, one thing ends and another begins. The past year, with all of its trials and tribulations has come to an end. And a new one awaits. A New Year is alot like a blank piece of paper. Anything is possible. It's up to you what gets written.

So to all my old friends, and the new ones as well, Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"My Prison, My Home" by Haleh Esfandiari

Iran is a fascinating country with a rich history and culture dating back to Persian times. It was the center of literature and commerce for many centuries. Jews and Arabs lived side by side in relative peace. What happened?

In this book Ms. Esfandiari explores the cultural past and political turmoil that led to the Iranian Revolution in 1978 and to the rise of the Islamic state that Iran has become. Interwoven with this history is the authors own story of imprisonment at Evin Prison in Tehran for 4 months in 2007.

After visiting her 93 year old mother for the New Year, Ms. Esfandiari is headed back to the airport at dawn on December 31, 2006 for a flight home to Washington, D.C. when her taxi is pulled over by Iranian Police. They take her passports, identity cards and personal papers, leaving her shaken by the side of the road.

What ensues after is a labyrinth of lies and deception as she is first questioned and then detained at Evin for 4 months. The Iranian government has taken note of the fact that the author works at a Washington "think tank", the Woodrow Wilson Center. They are convinced that she is a main link in a plot to overthrow the Iranian government.

Being married to a Jewish man only complicates matters for her as she endures relentless questioning at the hands of skilled "interrogators" who will stop at nothing to extract a "confession" from her. The main problem is that she has nothing to confess.

The book is well written and quickly paced. The author alternates between historical background on the past and current regimes in Iran and her own personal story. As the founding Director of the Woodrow Wilson Centers Middle East Program she paints a clear and accurate picture of Iran today and how it came to be the way it is.

Drawing upon her wealth of knowledge she lays bare the mistakes made by both the hard line clerics inside Iran as well as the misconceptions of the United States in dealing with the current political turmoil that has beset Iran for over 35 years.

This is an engaging book that will inform the reader and make it easier to understand the issues that define Iran in the 21st Century.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Drinking With George" by George Wendt

We all know hin as "Norm" on the TV sitcom "Cheers" where he plays a beer loving patron on a stool. Turns out not to be too far from reality.

In this quickly read and amusing book, Mr. Wendt describes his love of beer while mixing in some autobiographical sketches. His love for beer began in his native city of Chicago as a young boy. Armed with a note from his Grandfather or Mother, he would go to the saloon and bring home the beer. At 8 years old he takes his first taste and falls instantly in love with the brew.

Exploring the history of beer, he takes us back several thousand years to explain how beer first was discovered and then refined through the ages. He even explores the micro breweries that are so popular today.

Some of the book concerns ways to make your beer more potent- there are many ways. "Freezing" beer seems to be the easiest. Since water freezes and alcohol does not, you can put beer in the freezer and then scrape off the frozen part, which is water. The remaining portion is a more potent beer. Simple, but effective. The list goes on- freezing beer with CO2 fire extinguishers is another example.

Mr. Wendt describes and explores the differences in American and European drinking customs. His wit and story telling abilities are both on full display here.

The book is not one dimensional at all. The comedy scene of Chicago in the 1970's is fully explored. Luminaries such as John Belushi abound in stories of the legendary Second City, the comedy club that spawned a score of todays most famous comedians.

This was a surprise read for me- I was never much of a "Cheers" fan. Having been at sea for most of a decade I missed alot of TV. But I am glad that I did not miss this witty testimonial to one of Mans' Best Friends- Beer.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Friend Edgar- A Daughters' View

My wife, Sue, alerted me to the following post on my daughters Facebook site. It's about Edgar Allan Poes' grave in Baltimore, which we used to stop by frequently as it was downtown and on the way to Ft McHenry, where we spent alot of time. This is her view of those visits and I love her for posting it...

Sarah Ruth Hoffman - Me at the burial site of Edgar Allan Poe, Westminster Hall, in Baltimore, MD. My dad used to take me there on weekend afternoons. This was my favorite of all the old graveyards we visited. I would run around and look at the cool and interesting graves with him. I especially enjoyed looking for cracks and holes that... would allow me to peak into the old mausoleums. Before leaving, we would always stop at Poe's grave and say farewell. I didn't understand the significance of that place until I was much older and had read many of Poe's works. I had always thought that he was just some dude my dad used to be friends with!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Miracle On Kings Highway- Angelo's Story- Felice Navidad

This is a story of the Christmas Spirit. Every word is true – I know - I was there. These events happened 35 years ago this evening, way back in 1975, and still warm my soul each time I relive them. It is what Christams is all about.

The neighborhood of Kings Highway in Brooklyn was a world of its own. We had the same assortment of shops, delicatessens and candy stores as all the other main shopping avenues, only bigger. H and A Foods, as it was known, catered to the upper crust of the neighborhood. We delivered, which none of the big chains did, and that’s where our story begins…

Angelo was the youngest brother of Milton, who, along with his brother Leo worked for Harry and Al. Milton delivered the groceries in a station wagon bought for him by Harry and Al every 2 years. It was in his name and Harry and Al paid all expenses on it. Milton delivered the groceries and as the store grew he brought his 2 brothers over to help. Leo was the floor manager and Angelo was a “stocker”. Of the 3 brothers only Angelo still had family behind in Mexico - a Wife and 5 children. His dream was to save enough money to bring them here.

Angelo could ape a few words of English and taught me several foul words and phrases in Spanish. He was a hard worker- about 40 years old. He sent his pay home and lived in a furnished room around the corner from the store. He never got to go home and visit his family while saving to bring them here. He was an illegal and this was 1974. They still upheld the immigration laws back then so it was a risky business sneaking in and out.

First a few words are in order concerning Harry and Al. They were partners; 2 Jews perfectly mismatched. While Harry was short, Al was tall. Harry was an optimist, Al was a pessimist. Harry was a doer, Al was a dreamer. You get the point. Anyway, they operated on a system of checks and balances, not unlike our government. They had been in business for 20 years as partners after having failed on their own. It was only after they got together that they achieved any success.

There had been a slight recession in 1973 going into 1974. The Vietnam War had just wound down and Watergate was about to give us our first unelected President in Jerry Ford. There had been talk of some cutback in hours or possibly some layoffs in the store during the fall months leading up to the holidays. Harry had been in and out at all odd hours compared with his usual schedule, which was etched in stone like the Tablets on Sinai. We assumed he had been meeting with bankers to negotiate some financing.

The holidays approached and with them all the excitement that is generated by the prospect of the “Christmas Bonus.” This boiled down to two very basic questions- how much and when? The tradition at Harry and Al’s had always been a weeks gross pay in cash on Christmas Eve just before closing. We were all paid on the basis of 15 hours per week on the books at minimum wage ($2.50 an hour) and then the balance of our pay was in cash at a higher rate. This ensured that we made enough cash to live on and also that our Social Security Accounts would not be bare. It also helped when the Labor Dept Inspector dropped in to make sure we were all on the books.

Christmas Eve finally arrived and we rushed through all the last minute tasks before closing early for the holiday. Harry and Al were still busy counting the days receipts as the rest of us pretended to work, waiting for the “moment”.

Al and Harry stood behind the counter and we were all gathered on the customer side exchanging best wishes etc as Harry handed out the envelopes with our bonus. There was one for Milton, Izzie, Leo, Steve, Bob, Paul and myself. Angelo’s name was not called.

Meekly coming forward with hand outstretched Angelo spoke; “Me, dinero?” he implored, eyes showing the shame of asking. He was here illegally and there was no guarantee of a bonus for anyone, let alone this poor fellow. He continued, “Me mucho trabajo- no dinero?” Al held his hand up, arm outstretched, palm facing Angelo and said, “You no work bueno- you no dinero.” And then he turned away. The silence, as they say, was deafening. Angelo turned and ran to the basement to be alone with his disappointment and probably anger.

Suddenly from the basement we heard the sounds of laughter and tears. Seeing Harry and Al as they exchanged satisfied glances we knew things were not as they appeared to be. Milton and Leo seemed unusually calm as the rest of us herded toward the basement steps to investigate the cacophony of sounds.

There was Angelo, surrounded by his wife and five children, tears streaming down their faces as they embraced the greatest Christmas gift imaginable- one another.

And then we realized, Harry hadn’t been going to the bankers as we all thought. He had been going to Immigration arranging the visas and job commitment necessary to re-unite Angelo with his family.

There was not a dry eye as we left the store that night. We filed out under the caring gaze of 2 of the wisest men I have ever known - and I believe we had seen the true Spirit of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley

If the Treaty of Versailles was the harbinger of World War Two in Europe, then what was the catalyst for the Japenese expansion in the Pacific that led to Pearl Harbor? I have often wondered where the connection was. In "The Imperial Cruise" James Bradley provides the answers.

In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt, acting as his own Secretary of State (John Hay had recently passed away) initiated a series of treaties and negotiations that would have devastating effects and rock the world for a hundred years or more. We are still in the grip of what was begun in 1905. It is of interest to note that some of these treaties were illegal under our Constitution. Only Congress has the power to draw up, or agree to, treaties for the United States. "Big Stick" Teddy once said-"I took the canal and let Congress debate."

Sending his daughter Alice, who was the Jackie Kennedy of her time, on the cruise provided great cover for the mission her father had decided to undertake. With the Presidents' Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, at her side she embarked from San Francisco on a voyage to Hawaii and on to Japan, Korea and 3 stops in China before returning via the Phillipines.

The treaties and agreements negotiated and signed on this trip led Japan to embark on an agressive campaign to modernize her military. This eventually led to attacks on China, Korea and ultimatley to Pearl Harbor. Ironically it was left to Theodore Roosevelts' cousin Franklin Roosevelt to clean up the mess. FDR was also left with the need to apologize to the Phillipine Government for the treachery of his Uncle Teddy.

The book delves into the reasons that the elder Roosevelt felt the need to undertake this mission. His vision of American style democracy included importing it beyond our West Coast and Hawaii. He was also an avid Aryan. That's right- a race purist. He believed that we are descended from the Tuetons and Aryans and as such had the responsibility to civilize the whole world west of our Pacific border.

The real aim was to establish "coaling" stations for ships crossing the Pacific. It is several thousand miles from the West Coast of the United States to Hawaii. From there we were seeking other islands for the same purpose. To this end Roosevelt decided that the Japenese were the most civilized of the Eastern nations and he set about in securing conflicting "treaties" with Japan and Korea and China. He called this his "Pacific Monroe Doctrine." This policy, and the treaties, became the vehicle by which Japan militarized and began invading other Asian nations.

Eventually they got too big for our liking and we cut off all of their access to the raw materials they needed to wage war. This led to increased aggression on the part of Japan and opened the door for the later Japenese atrocities in Nanking and the road to Pearl Harbor.

If I have over simplified things here it is because the scope of the subject is so vast- beginning with Commodore Perry in Japan. The insights into this period of Japanese history are an essential part of understanding what happened then as well as what is happening now.

The book is carefully researched, as are all of Mr. Bradleys' books. He has a unique way of putting history in its' proper perspective and looking beyond the facade of what we were taught in school. This book will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about the road leading up to World War Two and beyond. It will also make you wonder why we honor Teddy Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore.

An informative and gripping read, I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Graduate

My daughter, Sarah Ruth Williams Hoffman graduated Cum Laude yesterday afternoon from Winthrop University. At 22 years of age she has been married for 4 years to Michael Hoffman. He has been instrumental in her having arrived at her goal.

I was fine until Sue started to cry and I found myself getting a bit weepy because of it. But it has been a long journey to this day. Most of the credit goes to Sarah,of course, but her brothers and sister in laws, as well as my wife Sue,were all major forces behind Sarahs' accomplishment.

This photo was taken by my daughter in law Becky Hart. Congratulations Sarah- we love you and you make us proud!

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Let's Face It" by Kirk Douglas

This is Kirk Douglas' last book. At least that's what he says. I doubt it. His memoirs, there are three, are filled with such warmth and wisdom, they make you want to read "just one more page, please?"

Drawing on his extraordinary career and family, he seems to still get a larger kick out of life at 90 than I do at age 55. He admits to whining a bit after his double knee surgery but is quick to acknowledge the gifts in the life that he has been privleged to lead.

Life is filled with lessons to be learned and Mr. Douglas is trying to learn them all before the end comes. And he is so adept at passing on some of the wisdom he has accumulated during his time with us.

No plot line to discuss here- just a great read from an author who has seen and done so much with his life.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Movie Review: "Secondhand Lions" with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine

This is one of my favorite movies. It has two of my favorite actors and is a memoir. What more could I ask for?

When 12 year old Walter is dropped off at his Uncles farm by his irresponsible Mom, played by Kyra Sedgwick, the two old men are indifferent to him. He is terrifed of them. To make things more interesting there is the implication that the two old guys have hidden away a fortune on their farm. Walter's Mom wants the boy to find this fortune. She leaves him there for the summer while she goes off on her own.

The 2 old men don't have a clue about boys and Walter knows nothing of old men. His room in the attic leads to the discovery of an old photograph and some sand in a trunk. Who is this woman and where did the sand come from?

Over the course of the summer the boy learns the story of his two Uncles in the form of some unbelievable flashbacks. Uncle Garth, played by Caine, is the more sympathetic one, and through him we learn the story of the two mens lives.

Uncle Hub, played by Duvall, is brillant as a crusty and tough old man, haunted by lost love and who has "fought in two world wars and countless smaller ones on three continents."

Walter has no father and these two Uncles become his world. He learns about life and what is important from them. And he teaches them an equally valuable lesson, that love is not just in the romance of the past or the glory of battles once fought. Love is what you do now to change the future and make a difference.

The film ends 3 times, by that I mean the film seems to come to an end and you're satisfied, but then it goes one step further and you're amazed. So, when when it goes one more step to a surprise last 3 minutes, you simply fall in love with the whole thing.

And then you realize what Uncle Hub has been saying all along- "Some things are worth believing in- and true love never dies. You believe in these things not because they are true, or not, but because they are the things worth believing in."

Superb direction by Tim McCanlies, who also wrote the screenplay, and wonderful acting by all, make this a movie to see more than once.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chanukah - Festival of Lights

For millions of the world's Jewish population, me included, this is the first night of Chanukah, our "Festival of Lights."

The holiday commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews' 165 B.C.E. victory over the Hellenist Syrians. Antiochus, the Greek King of Syria, outlawed Jewish rituals and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods.

In 168 B.C.E. the Holy Temple was seized and dedicated to the worship of Zeus.

While many Jewish people obeyed the Greeks others began to fight. The fighting began in Modiin, a village not far from Jerusalem. A Greek officer and soldiers assembled the villagers, asking them to bow to an idol and eat the flesh of a pig, activities forbidden to Jews. The officer asked Mattathias, a Jewish High Priest, to take part in the ceremony. He refused, and another villager stepped forward and offered to do it instead. Mattathias became outraged, took out his sword and killed the man, then killed the officer. His five sons and the other villagers then attacked and killed the soldiers. Mattathias' family went into hiding in the nearby mountains, where many other Jews who wanted to fight the Greeks joined them.

Judah Maccabee and his soldiers then went to the holy Temple, and were shocked by the outrages they saw before them. Most of the religous items had been broken and some stolen, including the Golden Menorah. They cleaned and repaired what they could, and when they were finished they decided to have a ceremony to rededicate the Temple.

For the celebration, the Maccabees wanted to light the Menorah. They looked everywhere for oil, and found a small flask that contained only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. This gave them enough time to obtain new oil to keep the menorah lit. Today Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days by lighting candles in a Menorah every night, thus commemorating the eight-day miracle.

So Happy Chanukah to all!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Very Special Book

This is a very special book. It was given to me by my Mother for my 8th birthday in 1962. She bought it at the Farmers Market on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. In 47 years it has never been far from me.

The book is comprised of 85 Children's poems. "The Walrus and the Carpenter", "Who Has Seen the Wind", "The Animal Store", "The Land of Counterpane", "The Owl and the Pussycat", "Wynken, Blynken and Nod", they are all here.

And inside the front cover there is a little inscription from my Mom that says simply "To Robert." It appears that she never finished writing whatever it was she had planned to write. She was ill a good deal of the time and actually was in the hospital the morning of my birthday. I remember waking up that morning and going to the kitchen for breakfast. My Dad had left early to see her but there was a card and some presents for me on the table. I don't remember what else I got that day- but the book, with it's unfinished inscription from my Mom, was the one which I cherished the most.

I still return to its' pages now and again to read the innocent rhymes and be carried away by their cadence. And sometimes when I hold the book I am 8 years old again- lost in the magic of the poems.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"that bird has my wings" by jarvis jay masters

The small letters at the top of the page are no accident. No typo. They are indicative of the humility with which Mr. Masters writes of his life.

Dealt an awful hand at birth, he details his early years vividly. Raised for the first 4 or 5 years in a drug house in Long Beach, California his recollections there are of playing with the multi colored ballons which were popular in the late 1960's for dealing heroin. After being taken from his mother by the Department of Social Services, he is placed in a foster home. He speaks lovingly of Mr. and Mrs. Procks, two elderly Christian folks who never had a child of their own. Theirs may have been the only unconditional love that he has ever known. But this respite from misery doesn't last too long.

He is taken from Mr. and Mrs. Procks and sent to live with the Duponts, as villianous a couple as ever invented by Charles Dickens. Deprivations and beatings are the norm in this house. This is the point where you start to see the system fail the author. His innocence becomes a casualty of the very people who are supposed to protect him.

Running away to Los Angeles he meets and is befriended by "Rags", an elderly black shoeshine man, at the Greyhound Station. After about a week of living at the terminal "Rags" convinces him to be placed in Juvenile Hall.

The juvenile hall is where he first becomes “institutionalized.” He sees the fence surrounding him as being protective rather than restrictive. Having had all the love and it’s attendant experiences snatched from him twice already and with the experience of his last foster parents still fresh in his mind, he is comfortable in the predictability of his life at Juvenile Hall.

Being surrounded by kids whose lives have been as troubled as his own makes him feel “normal.” But he cannot stay there forever and his caseworker tries for a year to find him a home. But everywhere he is taken he can see the signs of abuse in the other childrens eyes, all the while wondering why the caseworker cannot.

After searching unsuccessfully for a year he is transferred, at his own request, to “Boys Town of the Desert.” This is an institution for troubled kids, ones who have been sent there by the courts. They eagerly count down the days until their release, which confuses Jarvis. After all, this is the first place he has been in since the first foster home that seems safe to him. He soon discovers the truth.

The place is run along the lines of a prison, with the inmates organized into rival gangs. At this point his life takes it’s first wrong turns. While the others use the point system to have their sentences shortened so they can go home, he begins to “act out” in order to remain incarcerated. After all, he has no where to go if they release him early. This would mean going back to a foster home, which, given his last experience, is not an option for him.

He is now in the grips of the system and it will have terrible ramifications for him in the years to come. This is the point at which the system truly fails him. All the warning signs are there and yet his case worker remains blind- concerned only with "placing him" somewhere.

After running away and getting caught several times he finally comes to live with his Aunt and Uncle and his cousins. They're into dealing pot and eventually he falls into a pattern of crime and spends most of his life incacerated. Finally he is charged with conspiracy to murder a guard and is sentenced to death. He is currently appealing that sentence based on a technicality, though he still maintains his innocence.

The book is well written and reads quickly. It is astonishing to me how so many people could have failed this kid so badly. His sense of self worth still intact, Mr. Jarvis has written a superb account of one of the most neglected groups in our country- juvenile offenders.

They are locked in a wasteland from which someone must rescue them now or pay the larger bill later. This is an exceptional read.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor- 68 Years- Nothing Learned

Today is the 68th Anniversary of the Japenese Attack on Pearl Harbor. This was a day that changed America. It brought us out of the despair of the Great Depression and may have been the last altruistic war we ever fought. Our Nation pulled together in a common cause- people did that back then. And I want to take this opportunity to say thanks to all those who fought in it. Abroad, and here at home.

But my focus is not on the war, right or wrong. Instead it is on the faces in the photographs of that day. They are so vivid, so real- almost larger than life. Bigger than the moments they portray.

The faces of these young men as they face a devastating surprise attack cannot be seen without affecting the viewer. What were they thinking as the attack raged all about them?

War is never pretty- even when it is a just war fought for valid principles. These pictures serve as a reminder of the wasted potential of the good within us all. That we have not moved beyond war as a means of settling our disputes is not encouraging. It is a reminder of how much work still needs to be done if we are to survive as a world united.

Take a moment today to reflect on a world free from war. A world in which all people would be free to maximize their potential. What a world that would be...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Follow up on "Decoding the Lost Symbol" by Simon Cox

I reviewed this book by invitation a few weeks back and got the following article by Simon Cox from his Publicist Anna Suknov today. I wanted to share it here and hope that you will find it interesting.

Simon Cox article starts here;
I don't read much non-fiction. I simply don't have the time, and when I do, its not generally from the "thriller" genre. So how come I have written three guide books to three thrillers? The answer is simple. Dan Brown. What Brown has managed to do brilliantly within the framework of his novels, is weave facts and fiction seamlessly together in a coherent and logical way, the like of which is rarely seen. I'm not saying its all perfect -- indeed, as I point out in my guide books, some of his factual research leaves much to be desired -- but he does have an uncanny knack of being able to hit the zeitgeist of the moment when it comes to historical themes and ideas.

Brown seems to follow certain pre-set rules within his Robert Langdon based novels. Generally there is a religious element and this element is stacked up against a scientific element. Then there are the codes and clues -- mainly left within an historical framework -- mathematical conundrums being a favorite of Mr Brown. Finally there are the secret societies that seem to be the glue that holds the stories together. In The Da Vinci Code, we see an exploration of the sacred feminine and an alternative life of Christ. In Angels & Demons, the very heart of Christendom, the Vatican is central to the story and in The Lost Symbol Brown takes it all a step further as he espouses the ideals of deism and universal godhead. Essentially what Brown has written are three books that have woven between them a central theme of tolerance to all faiths, but above all, an acknowledgement that faith plays an essential role in the development of mans consciousness and being. As a historian, I can attest to the fact that this mantra was crucial to most if not all ancient cultures. In this respect Dan Brown is carrying on a long standing tradition.

The Lost Symbol is at first glance a less remarkable book than its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code. It seems to lack the one major hook, the heart in mouth fact that suddenly makes one gasp out loud as you read the page. However, this book is a slow burner. Its message of tolerance and universality is not at first obvious -- but the more you read and digest the message within the pages, the more you realize that this time 'round, Brown has a clear and decisive meaning that he is trying to get across. When I first saw this I was aghast. A novelist trying to change the way the world thinks from inside a story of chases and code breaking. But then, think about it. Brown has an audience unlike any novelist ever has. The Lost Symbol was awaited as if it were the harbinger of a new messiah after the enormous success of The Da Vinci Code -- some eighty million people the world over had become instant fans of his writing -- he had an audience who patiently waited for every word on every page. What better way to change the world.

It remains to be seen if the book will have any effect at all. Its early days yet and the response, though swift in sales, has been less than that of The Da Vinci Code. However it is to be remembered that The Da Vinci Code itself was very much a slow burner of a book at first -- not really exploding until some time after its launch. I have attempted to give a clear and easily understandable view of where Mr. Brown researched his facts and what parts of his book are fact and what fiction. It was a writing exercise that I really enjoyed, just as I had with the other guides. Decoding The Lost Symbol is a book that I am very proud of, especially given the incredible time constraints that I was under -- it was fun to do and fun to write. I hope you will enjoy it too, should you choose to pick it up and should you choose to explore some of the themes and ideas within The Lost Symbol itself. I encourage debate and criticism and can be contacted via my website at:

Copyright © 2009 Simon Cox, author of Decoding The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Expert Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction

Author Bio
Simon Cox, author of Decoding The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Expert Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction, was the founding editor in chief of the successful newsstand magazine Phenomena. Having studied Egyptology at University College London, he went on to work as a research assistant for some of the biggest names in the alternative history game, including Graham Hancock, Robert Bauvel, and David Rohl. He splits his time between Britain and the United States.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Movie Review: In the Valley of Elah with Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon

This movie will leave you thinking about the pre-conceived notions which divide us all.

Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon play the parents of a young man who has just returned from Iraq but is nowhere to be found. His father (played by Jones) makes the trip to his son's base to find out what has happened to his son. As an ex military man he was largely responsible for his son enlisting and going off to war.

When he arrives at the base no one seems willing to go the extra step it will take to find his son. The military says it's a Police matter and the Police say it's a military affair. The only Detective that seems willing to take an interest in the case is played by Charlize Theron. At first skeptical, she is gradually drawn into the case, largely because she is frustrated by the treatment of her fellow, all male Detective Squad.

Following the path of his son the father begins to see the underbelly of the War on Terror. Quick sex, strip clubs and drugs offer the father a rare glimpse behind the New Militarism that has followed in the wake of 9/11. And he begins to realize how different that world is from the one he remembers.

When the sons' cell phone is downloaded and the images from the camera are made clear the suspicion arises that the son may have been involved in drug smuggling. The images of an argument between the son and an Hispanic platoon member lead Jones and Theron to believe that the boy was killed by a Mexican Cartel that has employed soldiers to smuggle Heroin back home. When the body is found hacked up and burned in a field near the base it appears that all loose ends have been tied up. Or have they?

What is in the unopened package that has arrived at the boys home and addressed in his own handwriting?

The lessons learned in this film are timeless. We all want the answers to our questions. Sometimes the answers are not what you expect. And sometimes the answers can really hurt.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

America's Girl - Gertrude Ederle by Tim Dahlberg

This is a fascinating account of an American woman who was way ahead of her time. After training for and winning the Olympics in Paris 1924 she goes on to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. She also beats the previous record set by men.

Born October 23, 1905 in NYC she trained for the Olympics by swimming from Battery Park in NYC to Sandy Hook, New Jersey against the tide. The distance was 21 miles. At one point she was actually swimming in place for 2 hours! Another favorite spot for her to train was the shorter distance between Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn to Brighton Beach.

The Paris Olympics of 1924 included swimmers like Johnny Weissmuller who would later go on to play Tarzan in the movies.

Jabez Wolffe, her trainer for the crossing, was a 22 time failed aspirant but knew the currents and risks better than anyone else. With his steady hand and knowledge of the endeavor she was about to undertake he guides her to sucess.

One of the biggest problems she faced was the drag created by the women's swimsuits of the day. Although these were not the skirt and leggings type of suits, they were made of heavy wool, which added weight. She needed something better. So she made her own version of a bikini by cutting the suit into a bra and shorts. Slathered with crude oil to ward off the cold of the frigid waters in the Channel she went on to triumph over the elements and set new standards for women everywhere.

Arriving home to New York she is given a Tickertape Parade the likes of which would not be seen again. The Parades for Lindbergh and even the World War Two Victory Parades (VE and VJ Day) would be dwarfed by comparison.

Set against the backdrop of the 1920's and flappers and jazz, the book is written in a very readable fashion. With the aid of Gertrude Ederle's niece, who kept every newspaper clipping about her famous Aunt, the book is an accurate and inspiring story of the determination it takes to make dreams come true.

And swimming must be good for you- Ms. Ederle passed away at age 98.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Movie Review: Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang with Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr.

A very different movie with a very different approach in its' Direction. The film is told (narrated) by the principal character(played by Robert Downey). The story unfolds in pieces much like "Pulp Fiction." One big difference- the narrator. He fills you in on little things that you might have missed, or in some cases not been told.

The story centers on Downey's character, a shady but likeable kind of guy who gets caught up in a burglary which leads to a brief chase which lands him a part in a movie playing a Detective. Simple enough? Not on your life.

When he arrives in Hollywood he befriends a woman who turns out to be his high school crush. They were good friends then, but what are they now?

Val Kilmer plays a gay Detective in a movie with more twists and turns than the Cyclone at Coney Island. The quick and unusual direction and the use of narration by Robert Downey, Jr. as he stumbles through all of this, make the viewer feel connected and sympathetic to Downeys' character.

It's kind of like Frank Capra meets Quentin Tarantino. That alone should makes this film worth watching. Throw in some decent acting by both Downey and Kilmer and this is a highly entertaining film. The only question I have is where was I when this film came out?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mental Floss History of the World by Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand

They say never to judge a book by it's cover but I have to confesss that I often do.This book is one of those. It was sitting facing out and staring at me like a Monty Python's Flying Circus poster. And the words "History of the World" immediately evoked images of the Mel Brooks' film, so I thought, "What's not to like?"

This edition is the 2009 soft covered release of the 2008 book of the same name. It has 2 added chapters. The book is arranged chronologically and is literally the type of book you can just pick up and open to any page.

Filled with facts the book is not one dimensional. It is ordered in such a way that the average reader will come away with an understanding of where are now, as compared to say, Ben Hur. Or the beginning of using copper.(The Copper Age)By the way, did you know the Copper Age began in the area which is now Wisconsin and Michigan? I didn't.

The book even touches upon Human Rights as they have evolved through history. Everything here is so readable that it just may turn you into a history buff!

Indexed very simply this is a book that the reader can keep close at hand for quick checks on things like who were the Estrucans? Popes and Religion, all are included. Space Race? No problem. This is a highly entertaining read of the History of the World. And the cover is great!

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Timeless Quality of Glass

Glass comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. It graces the windows of Cathedrals in beautiful depictions of Religous events. It comes in bottles that house your favorite beverage. It serves as a window to the world around us. It is also art.

Thousands of peolpe collect bottles, I am one. I prefer the medicine bottles of the 1800's and the earlier 20th century soda pop bottles with the names embossed in the glass itself. I have also been fascinated with "beach glass" since my early childhood when I would pick up small pieces at Riis Park and Rockaway Beach in New York.

Something about the irregular shapes, smoothed edges and varied thicknesses has always seized my imagination. Where did they come from, what were they, how did they get here?

And so I was really thrilled to receive some "beach glass" from my freinds at Garden Lust Journal ( They are so much more than just pieces of glass to me. They are a symbol of something durable- something lost and then found again.

The glass is making it's way through the house- first it was on the dining room table, where I do alot of reading. Then they went to the TV room where I do alot of movie watching. Now they are on the piano, adding grace and charm to an already warm room. They are seeking their proper place in my home. And like the tides that washed them ashore thousands of miles from me- the tides of fate will decide where they will permanently reside.

But these faded and smooth colored pieces of glass will always be close at hand- a symbol of endurance- an affirmation of a freindship that so long ago drifted away on a tide, only to be returned when ready. I am so glad to have them.

Movie Review:The Man Who Would Be King with Sean Connery and Michael Caine

In 1975 John Huston released his epic version of a 15 page short story by Rudyard Kipling and 2 Geniuses collided. The film is long, about 2 and 1/2 hours, but when it is over you are left longing for more.

Set against the backdrop of India during the late 1800's the scenery and costuming are perfect. The opening scene alone, which is a smorgasbord of an Indian market place in Calcutta, is as accurate today as it was then.

The film opens in Kiplings office at the Northern Star, where he is a correspondent.(Kipling is played by Christopher Plummer) The rest of the movie is a flashback told through the eyes of Peachy Carnahan (played by Michael Caine.)

From the theft of Rudyard Kiplings watch by Peachy Carnahan in a Calcutta train station, a chain of events ensues locking the three main characters in a saga that will take "three summers and a thousand years" to come to a conlusion. Their relationship is grounded in the fact that they are both Masons and bound to one another by this connection. The implications of this are far reaching and though Kipling is only in the movie at the beginning and at the end, he is with you through the entire story in spirit. This is Direction and Screenwriting at it's best!

Character development is the key to writing a screenplay. More so when the entire screenplay comes from a short story with so little clue as to who these guys really are. Huston delivers on that score, serving up 2 of the most cagy and uncanny anti-heroes to ever cross a screen.

The 2 principal characters, Peachy Carnahan and Danny Dravot(played by Connery)are so accessible, so familar, and grow so close to you, that you want them to reach their goal.

The plot of course, centers on Peachy and Danny. They are intent on going through the Kyber Pass disguised as Hindus, Caine as a trader and Connery as a dumb Priest.(Wait until you see Connery doing a Whirling Dervish as he tells fotunes in a language of his own device, with Caine translating.)

The journey across the mountains and through an avalanche is awe inspiring. They face death more than once, singing and rejoicing in the events that have lead them to their fruitless ends. But another event saves them and they find themselves in what is today the mountains of Northern Afghanistan, past the Hindu Kush, where they intend on establishing themselves as Kings.

Meeting the local Chieftains they vow to help conquer all their enemies. They only wish to take some "small souvenirs" as a reward. But somewhere along the way, being King becomes attractive to Connery and they push on past their original intent. This leads to disaster and also to one of the most noble scenes on film as Connery pays the ultimate price for having lost sight of himself.

Of special interest is the character Roxanne, who is played by Caines wife Shakira. She literally fell into the role at dinner one night when Huston was discussing who they could cast. She is one of the events that trip our heroes up as they struggle onward towards their goal of becoming Kings.

An extraordinary work, this film should not be missed. To make a 2-1/2 hour epic from a 15 page short story takes some talent and imagination. This movie has both in abundance.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Making of Some Like It Hot by Tony Curtis with Mark Vieira

This is a delightful book. "Some Like It Hot" has long been a favorite of mine and to get a glimpse behind the scenes through the eyes of one of the principal actors is a treat!

Mr. Curtis spares nothing in his recollections of the filming of one of Hollywood's best loved masterpieces. There is a little bit of "kiss and tell" here, but not too much. The book is more a narrative of what it was like working with the creative genius of Billy Wilder.

The book is filled with anecdotes and tidbits of information about not only the movie but Hollywood itself. The rift between George Raft, who plays one of the gangsters, and Edward G. Robinson is explored. This goes back to the filming of "Manpower" with Robinson and Raft as Linesmen in love with the same woman, Marlene Dietrich. In reality they were both smitten with her and came to blows on the set. There was a Life photographer there who got it on film. Due to this , Robinson turned down the part to play opposite Raft in "Some Like It Hot."

The parts of the book that are the most entertaining involve Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon learning how to dress and act like women. The big surprise for Mr. Curtis was how well Jack Lemmon adapted to the role. He revelled in it!

The creative process is explored extensively. Billy Wilder never made a film with a complete script. He would film what he had and then rewrite or revise as necessary. This gives his films the spontaneity they are known for.

Filled with photographs from the studio and some of the authors own collection this book is a great read for holiday travel. The color photos are a real treat as the movie was shot in black and white.

The freindship between Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis is beautifully expressed. This will be of interest to all Monroe fans. He has a unique ability to let you peek inside without being sleezy. He obviously recognizes Marilyn Monroes faults but also gives her credit for the complex and sensitive person she was.

Originally I picked this off the shelf as a quick selfish read. It turned out to be so much more than that. I'm glad I took the time to look behind the magic of the movie and see how it was accomplished.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

The remarkable thing about this book is the way in which the author has approached such an expansive and multi faceted subject. And that’s just in reference to Henry Ford as a person! Add to this already complex individual some very radical ideas concerning Industry and you can easily get lost!

But Mr. Grandin doesn’t get lost at all. He leads the reader on a carefully laid out journey from the Ford plant in Michigan to the jungles of Brazil.

In the 1920’s, as America prospered, teetering towards the Great Depression, Henry Ford released his newest creation, the Model “A” Ford. With it's varied colors and other added features it was quite a departure from the earlier Model “T”. Available to almost every American in those days of easy credit it became a mainstay of the newly emerging road trips that ever more Americans were discovering.

Fords factory techniques of mass production and his progressive wage of $5 a day were legendary. The mass production allowed for greater profit for the owner and greater wages for the working man.

But this all came with a price. Time management experts followed the worker, recording his every move, constantly looking to increase productivity and profits.

At this same time Mr. Ford was privately engaged in many pursuits. From soybeans as a “do all” product encompassing plastics, food, fibers and a myriad of liquid solvents, to lobbying for new regional currencies based on hydro electric outputs, Mr. Ford was a very busy, thinking man. And he expected as much from his employees as well.

He was also engaged in newspaper publishing with his own, decidedly Anti-Semitic newspaper.

But his real passion was to create a rubber producing state in the Brazilian rain forests. With a need for tires on his automobiles he was intent on carving out an empire in the jungle. He envisioned bringing American middle class life to the indigenous people of Brazil. This was a fantastic undertaking,fraught with peril.

He established “Fordlandia”, as it came to be known, along the banks of the Tapajos River, a tributary of the Amazon River which flows to the Atlantic Ocean. He was intent on cutting out the middle man and again, increasing profits. The way things turned out, or didn’t, make for quite a read!

How do you teach an indigenous people factory style rules? And how do you justify trying to regulate the lives of these people? Is their compliance really voluntary, or is it self imposed slavery? Great questions that are all posed within this book.

There are some interesting tid bits as well. For instance,the first "in flight movie" was shown on a Ford Tri Motor Airplane. It was a Harold Lloyd comedy about the last horse drawn streetcar in New York City.

That the author manages to take the reader on such a complex trip through the jungles of the Amazon, as well as the corporate boardrooms of Detroit, in such a coherent manner is a tribute to his ability as a writer.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Fork and The Spoon

They weren't always like this. I remember them in black and white from the fifties when they were just my Favorite Aunt Gloria and my soon to be Uncle Bobby. They have changed a little over the years, but not too much. The picture above was taken on Halloween aboard the Norwegian Jewel. They went on a cruise to celebrate a landmark birthday, they are both the same age.

They are still as much fun and as playful as when they were young. I'm 15 years younger, but I feel 20 years older than them. What keeps them laughing and roaming around while I am drying up?

I look at the pictures through the years and they are always there- big smiles- not phony ones- real smiles. You can see that they enjoy the things they do. And part of that has to be that they enjoy one another.

These are the same two newlyweds who used to take me to Breezy Point when I was a kid. This is the same Aunt Gloria that took me fishing in Sheepshead Bay so many years ago.

I lost them for awhile- 25 years to be exact. Don't know why, that happens in so many families. People drift in and out of one anothers' lives. Sometimes there is a perceived slight or an argument. But that's not the case here.

They were at my wedding in 1986. He was wearing his Captain Kangaroo jacket and she wore a striped blouse with a white skirt. But shortly after that we disappeared from one anothers radar.

And then, just as suddenly,25years had passed and we were in touch again and all those years just melted away. Bobby is still the laid back person he was then and Gloria can still make me laugh just by saying hello.

So here's to the Fork and the Spoon! Thanks for all the laughter and the photos and the stories that you have passed on to me through the years.

And I think I just realized why they are so special to me- they aren't afraid to be themselves. That's the secret! They aren't afraid to be The Fork and The Spoon.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Decoding "The Lost Symbol" by Simon Cox

This book was a surprise. And a pleasant one at that. I expected it to be a book dedicated to debunking any misinformation found in Dan Browns new book "The Lost Symbol". But it's not that at all.

It is, instead, a pleasant companion to have while reading the other. My wife has the Dan Brown book and is looking forward to reading it. We will invariably end up discussing some of the history it refers to. She will also have questions on the background of the Masonic stuff. Usually she asks me and I tell her what I know on the subject or just google it. Now I can just peek at my little book and she will think I'm a genius!(Thanks Mr. Cox!)

The book is carefully researched and contains some illustrations, which makes for a really interesting read all on it's own- even without reading the Dan Brown novel. If you have any interest in the history of the Masonic Lodges and the symbolisms contained in our Great Seal of the United States, this book will be of great interest to you as an introduction to those topics.

I must stress, again, that the book is NOT a vehicle to debunk anything in Dan Browns new novel. If anything, I think it will enhance the readers experience should they choose to utilize it. A very coherent work by an accomplished Egyptologist.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Laughing Gorilla by Robert Graysmith

This is a sprawling account of America's first transcontinental serial killer,Slipton Fell. Raised by parents engaged in the Funeral business he learns to do autopsies and has an obsession with death. A huge man with large hands he is quickly dubbed "The Laughing Gorilla" due to the insane laugh he emits as he leaves his crime scenes.

This book is also the story of the Police Detective in San Francisco, Captain Charles Dullea, who pursues the Gorilla Man for almost a decade. While trying to solve the case he is also faced with cleaning up a very corrupt Police Department. To complicate matters the Public Defenders Office has become a clearing house for criminals and crime. A string of safecracking heists is finally solved only to discover that the ring is lead by a Policeman. He gets his cohorts from the Public Defenders office!

When I refer to the book as sprawling I mean that the author takes you from the initial crimes in San Francisco in 1926, to the wilderness of Canada and the interior of the United States as we follow the trail of the killer. Which murders are the work of the Gorilla Man and which are copy cat killings? In the days before forensic science had reached it's current state, this was no easy question.

The book is loaded with characters, some who rival even the most imaginative creations of fiction. There is Police Chief Quinn with his armored automobile complete with a machine gun mount; there is the "Flying Squad", an elite motorcycle unit used to battle the criminal gangs along the waterfront; there are Madams and Longshoreman. They are all locked in a struggle to survive the daily life along the San Francisco waterfront of the 1920's through 30's.

While Captain Dullea battles his own demons within the Department he never loses sight of the Gorilla Man. He let him slip away once and has never forgotten it. When the Gorilla Man returns to San Francisco after an absence of almost 10 years, Dullea is determined to bring this monster to justice.

A must read for lovers of San Francisco and its' colorful history. The authors descriptions of the wharves and the Embarcadero,the Clock Tower and the daily grind of San Francisco all ring true. Set against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge being built, you get a sense of a city emerging from it's past and building to a future.

Written by Robert Graysmith, the man who idenitified the infamous "Zodiac Killer",this book is a product of the same painstaking research skills which aided in cracking that case.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Today is the 158th Anniversary of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This astonishing book was unappreciated when it was first released, but over time has become recognized as the true classic it is.

The story of Ishmael, the novice whaler, and his journey through an immoral and indifferent world has never lost it's relevancy or it's bite. We still live in a world of Ahabs chasing personifications of Evil, mostly to the detriment of the innocent.

The questions raised within this book are timeless and universal. Who has the right to Vengeance? Is it the provenance of the man afflicted by Evil? Or does Vengeance truly belong to a Power larger than ourselves?

Truly a literary gem this book is still worth the time it takes to read it. From the naming of Ishmael as the principal character, to the Resurrection of the coffin after the Apocalyptic battle between Ahab and the Whale, the book is filled with references to Scripture and the lessons within.

Happy Birthday to Moby Dick and thanks to Herman Melville for this ever relevant saga of Good vs Evil.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Veterans Day

To all who serve, and to those who have served, Happy Veterans Day! Whether at Peace or in times of War, your service is not forgotten nor diminished.

And as a fellow Veteran- I salute you.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Movie Review- Vantage Point with Forest Whitaker, Dennis Quaid and William Hurt

This movie is not unique in it's plot,which involves the assassination of the President of the United States while at a Summit in Spain, the thing that makes this movie different is in the direction. The story is laid out in reverse from about 7 different perspectives. And as each one is revealed you get a little closer to the whole truth.

Very action packed, which is usually not my thing, the movie keeps you looking for that one clue, which you know is there. The direction actually pushes you to try and solve the crime. You feel involved.

An outstanding performance by Forest Whitaker. He plays the roll of the guy who gets it all on film but has no clue as to what he is filming. Nonetheless, what happens to him in the space of less than 20 minutes will change his life and alter his priorities forever.

Great film, a little different for me but glad I watched it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

God Sleeps In Rwanda by Joseph Sebarenzi with Laura Ann Mullane

How did all the troubles start in Rwanda? We all see and hear the stories of the Genocide that took place there- but how and why did it begin? And what is it really like to have experienced such an ordeal? How do you come to terms with it? Is there a reason to go on living in the face of such an experience? These are some of the questions I had when I started to read this book. And you know what? Mr. Sebarenzi answers them all in a beautifully arranged narrative of his own experiences.

Born into a Tutsi family in Rwanda Mr. Sebarenzi is sent across Lake Kivu to get an education in the city of Idjwi. His father has forseen the coming ethnic violence and wants his 3rd eldest son to go in order that someone from the family will survive. He hopes that armed with an education his son can someday work for change. This was a fortuitous decision.

Rwanda is a small country nestled beside the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. The whole area was once under French and Belgium control. When the end of colonization came the people were basically unprepared for self rule. The conflict between Tutsi and Hutu dates back to about 1959 and the end of colonial rule.

Throughout the uprising of the Tutsi and Hutu tribes the author is constantly questioning why and how such things happen. He meets and marries a woman and they flee, he to Canada and she and their children to Uganda.

When the war ends he elects to return home with his wife and 2 children. He wants to see what has become of his native land and if there is anything he can do to help rebuild it.

When he returns he finds the Tutsi in control and the tables turned on the Hutus. But rather than rejoice at this victory he questions how people can justify these acts. He wonders how they can forgive and move on. When he meets the former Mayor of his village, a Hutu, now imprisoned, and realizes this man was responsible for the murder of his Mother, Father and most of his brothers and sisters, he is puzzled by his own lack of hatred. Instead of wanting revenge he feels sorry for him.

He now sees that the Hutus are in the same position as the Tutsi were and tries to understand how hatred breeds hatred in a never ending cycle. He recites the following story from an old Cherokee legend;

An old man was explaining to his grandson the nature of good and evil. "My son," he said, "there is a fight between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger,envy, jealousy,greed, arrogance, self pity, resentment,inferiority, false pride and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, faith,love, hope, humility,empathy, genorosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson looked at his grandfather with fear in his eyes and asked, "Which wolf wins?"

The grandfather answers, "The one you feed."

With this valuable lesson he becomes active in church and then in politics. He eventually rises to the elected post of Speaker of Parliament. He works for change and reconciliation in his war ravaged homeland.

This book is a wake up call. It is an alert to extremism. Any extremism. The lesson here is that just because your side has the might it doesn't have the right. Those come from somewhere higher.

An enlightening read on a subject that gets too little attention, I can strongly recommend this book. And one final word, Mr. Sebarenzi's father was right- his third son lived to get an education and work for change. And that is a tribute to his father as well as to Mr. Sebarenzi.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Movie Review- American Violet with Alfre Woodward and Charles Dutton

This is a true story. It happens in every major city across America. The War on Drugs creates such enormous profits for the Government Agencies tasked with upholding the drug laws that Justice is often left far behind.

A single working Mom, who lives in the Projects, is caught up in a drug sweep. She is completely innocent. Represented by a Public Defender she tries to fight the charges. If convicted at trial she faces 16-25 years behind bars for a crime she did not commit. So she remains in jail, unable to post a $70,000 bond. She is offered a plea bargain, prison time suspended, but she has to fight the charges as even accepting the plea bargain will make her a Felon. This would result in her losing her Housing Subsidy, Food Stamps, Medical Care and leave her and her children homeless.

Between the Prosecutor and the Public Defender this woman is just a statistic. If she pleads guilty the State makes their quota and gets more Federal money to fight the War On Drugs. If she beats the charges the prosecutor looks bad. (Hence the empty offer of the plea bargain.) Money and Politics are at stake here- and when that happens Justice is denied.

Strong performances by all. Alfre Woodward as the Mother of the accused and also Charles Dutton as the Preacher are exceptional. With strong direction the movie makes it's point about Justice in America today.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween- Night of Magic

Halloween- a celebration based on chocolate! What better to unite us in these troubled times? We had quite a turnout for about 2 hours. The usual assortment of X-Men and Super-heros, along with a sprinkling of princesses and fairies. It's a great holiday to meet your neighbors, you know the ones you have nod and wave relationships with. Suddenly they are at your door and you confront one another in a face to face, verbal human transaction. And it's cultural,too.

We have some Indian families here in our community. They have had their homes decorated for about a week or so in celebration of Diwali, which is their Festival of Lights (kind of like Chanukah and Purim rolled into one!) and commemorates the death of the Evil King who kidnapped Prince Rama's wife. He returned after 14 years in exile to reclaim her love. It is also the beginning of their Lunar New Year and the tradition is to share sweets with your neighbors.

So we are all alike. I keep mulling it all over and always come up with the same answer. We are all alike- we all want some free candy and a smile from our neighbors. We all want to see the magic that we once felt, reflected in the eyes of the children at our doors. And we want them to pass that along to their children.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Children of Dust by Ali Eteraz

In a time when we have all become conscious of Islamic Fundamentalism it is a pleasure to read a book by a normal, run of the mill Islamic Man. How he has escaped the wrath that was shown to Salmaan Rushdie for his fictional writing is a conundrum.

This book is non-fiction and describes the authors journey from a childhood in Pakistan to his current residence in the United States. Along the way he has been an Islamic student in Pakistan and in America. This gives him a unique perspective on the subject of Fundamentalism, whether Islamic or Christian.

Enamored of Islam from an early age when he is taken to Mecca on a pilgrimage the story progresses to his youth in Pakistan and his wondering about the things that are forbidden to him- and why.

When the family moves to America they begin a journey that takes them across the United States. This offers the author, as well as the reader, an unusually frank look at Islam and how it relates to America and her values of religous freedom and thought.

By drawing comparisons to our differences Mr. Eteraz has shown us a mirror of our common values. The book is laid out in such a way that you needn't be a religous scholar to understand the rituals or practices that are the same in all 3 major religions. We share so much in our respective cultures yet the politics of discontent seem to have overtaken these similarities, pitting us all one against the other. Can this really be the Will of God?

Interspersed along the way is a story of a young mans journey to find himself. And in his self discovery the reader finds a piece of himself.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

Ever since the release of Kaffir Boy I have made it a point to read all of the African memoirs that I have come across. With their lyrical use of the English language these books have a way of reaching out to the reader and making you a part of the story. Coupled with the natural gift of storytelling these books can be enjoyable and informative at the same time. In “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba these assets are combined, making this book a joy to read.

Coming of age amidst the turmoil that is Africa today, Mr. Kamkwamba, with the skillful aid of Bryan Mealer, tells the story of his life in his village in Malawi, located in Eastern Africa.

Through the trials and setbacks arising from changing politics to the devastation of famine Mr. Kamkwamba persists in his quest for knowledge. When he can no longer afford to attend school he spends his time at the village library absorbing all he can about science and electricity.

His plans progress from the simple desire to hear music to the concept of what electricity really means. An extra harvest each year, no more carrying water several kilometers to water the crops. And so he begins a quest to find the materials he will need to make his vision a reality. He is going to build a wind driven turbine.

The most amazing thing about this book is having Mr. Kamkwamba, who had never seen a power plant, describe the basics of electro magnetism in a way that anyone can understand. And when his dreams become actions that reshape the way his family lives you simply want to cheer!

Another aspect to this book is the feeling that so much is wasted in our own lives- so many opportunities squandered. You read this book and feel the loss of ambition that plaques our own society.

A lyrical and exciting read by an author who takes you on his journey of discovery. And that journey leads you to examine your own life and what effect you have had, or not had, on the world that surrounds you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Packing the Court by James MacGregor Burns

This is a very controversial and thought provoking read. The author is the Woodrow Wilson Professor Emeritus at Williams College (no relation) and is widely regarded as the most leading authority on the Ethics of Leadership.

His previous 20 something books include the outstanding “Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom” which won a Pulitzer Prize. I read it and found it most insightful- both as to the man and the politics surrounding him.

This book begins with a 5 page Prologue which is so enticing you just have to read the book to see where he is going with it all.

The biggest Court Packer in history was Roosevelt with his attempt to “stack” the court by adding 6 more judges. The idea was shot down and FDR had to find a new way to launch his NRA, which had been struck down by the court. He did so in the form of the WPA and other agencies.

Mr. Burns proposes that due to the lifetime appointment of Justices to the Court, that there is a disconnect between what the country needs and what the Courts will allow. The NRA and Franklin Roosevelt are good examples. Sometimes change can take too long.

He also questions the apparent lack of a Review of all legislation by the Court prior to something becoming the law of the land. He states that this lack of review amounts at times to a lifetime Veto which is in direct opposition to the Powers of Separation which make our country so unique. And remember, this is only the Prologue!

The book goes on to review the various incarnations that the Court has taken over the 200 plus years that it has been in existence.

For instance, he reviews the Conservative Court of the 1920’s and compares them to the Liberal Court that reigned throughout the last 50 years until the current shift in the Courts’ decisions. Given the disparities in times and social moors I am not sure this is a valid comparison. To compare them is almost to refute the notion of having a “Living Constitution.”

At the end of the book he proposes changes to the Court and thus the Constitution, particularly Article 3, which outlines what the Founding Fathers thought prudent for a Supreme Court within the confines of a stable and workable government.

The book is fascinating and is wide in scope. It may take another read to fully comprehend all of the information imparted here before I rush to judgment on it’s merits or flaws. I am no scholar.

I do find that the idea of changing the way the Supreme Court operates disturbs me. Since the time of Marbury v. Madison this issue has never been entirely settled, although the decision remains undisturbed. Even with all of its flaws the Court represents to me the swinging pendulum of this Republic. At times we have swung too far left and at other times too far right. But we have never gotten stuck in either position. To me this is the embodiment of what is called the “Living Constitution.”

To add justices, or even have them elected to finite terms of office, appears to me as an attempt to politicize the Court. This is also true of Judicial Review of a law prior to it being enacted. It smacks of Populism.

If I have learned anything of the history of this nation it is that the Founding Fathers aims can more often be discerned by a careful review of what they did not include rather than a focus on what they did include.

A very provocative read for anyone interested in the Supreme Court; where it has been and where it might be heading.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Movie Review- Charlie Bartlett with Robert Downey, Jr.

This film is a unique look at today's high schools and the choices/pressures faced by todays students.. Think of it as today's "Rock and Roll High School" but on designer drugs. The big difference is that this movie has a message and draws a conclusion.

As seen thru the eyes of a former prep school boy suddenly thrust into a Public High School, Charlie Bartlett comes to understand power and the great responsibility that goes with it. At the same time he and the Principal, played by Downey, both come to understand that we are all equally screwed up. And that can be a strength, rather than a weakness, when we let it serve to unite us.

With crisp and clear performances by all this is a very unusual film and worth the time.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Halsey's Typhoon by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

If someone were to tell you that Admiral Halsey, the great American Naval Hero of World War Two, had almost been Court Martialed at the height of the war, you would not believe it. I know I didn't! And I am a big fan of history- Naval History in particular.

In December of 1944 Douglas MacArthur was due to return to the Phillipines, just as he had promised 3 years earlier. Admirals King and Halsey had made this possible through a series of "island hopping" invasions. They were highly sucessful in their endeavors and so by the time of these events all was in place for that return.

But a seies of lapses, most notably in the weather predictions, led the fleet into one of the worst typhoons in history. Almost 800 men from 4 different ships perished in this storm. Aboard one of the vessels was a young Seaman named Gerald Ford, who would later go on to become President of the United States.

This book will have you white knuckled all the way through. And leaves me wondering, once again, why I bother to write about my own life at all. Any of my worst experiences pale in comparison to what these men went through.

As an interesting aside, this book describes in great detail, the events that were later captured in the best seller by Herman Wouk, "The Caine Mutiny." Mr. Wouk served in the Pacific during the time of these events. His experience certainly led to the realistic description of that storm. As a matter of fact the chapters describing the mutiny on the ficticous USS Caine are right in line with what actually took place aboard the USS Hull at the height of the real typhoon.

This book is a must read for all Naval History buffs. And also for those looking to see beyond the legend of Admiral Halsey. Written with great energy and style, this book is a page turner.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Today Is My Birthday!

This is me the day I was born. At 3 AM my Mom woke my Dad and they had to get a cab to take them to the hospital. We wouldn't have a car until I was about 3 years old. My Dad, having waited on my older brother's arrival for 12 hours, figured he had enough time to go out and get something to eat and pick up a present for my Mom. He got back and fell asleep in the waiting room, waking up at about 10:30AM and wondering how my Mom was doing.

Approaching a nurse, he asked, in that timid way that only expectant Fathers can,how my Mom was doing. She looked at him as if he were the dumbest thing she had ever laid eyes upon when she informed him that my Mom had given birth to me several hours ago at about 7:47 AM.

I know this story as my Mom told it to me every year for the 30 years of my life that she was here. I never got tired of hearing it and I never get tired of telling it. Hell, I was almost born in the taxi! And to top it off I was a full breech baby- arriving feet first- ready to hit the road. You can see it in the picture, my fists are all balled up and I'm leading with my left, holding back that right until it's needed.

Here I am today, at 55. I don't see much of a difference. However,feel free to draw your own conclusions. I just know that I wouldn't be who I am if it hadn't been for all of the colorful,and not so colorful, people that I have met along the way.

So, from all of me to all of them- Happy Birthday to all of us! And thanks...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Movie Review- Nanking with Mariel Hemingway and Woody Harrelson

This is a movie that needs to be seen. The Rape of Nanking has been covered in many books and documentaries before. But never with the intensity of this one.

Mariel Hemingway and Woody Harrelson potray the 2 American Diplomats who refused to close the Embassy and flee. Along with Stephen Dorff playing the Nazi businessman who also found himself morally bound to remain and help, this documentary reaches out and draws you in. It becomes real to you.

The insanity of war aside, the horrors of war crimes are particularly applicable today, when all sides seem to have lost their collective reason.

Remember, this is a documentary, not a movie as I had expected. The stars mentioned appear only as characters reading from their own diaries and letters. It is an intensley researched film. Also of note is that the Chinese witnesses and diplomats speak in Chinese with English subtitles. This adds to the multi-national color of the story.

And the back story is the co-operation betwen the Nazi run German Embassy and the United States as they try to avert the impending tragedy. A strange alliance considering what would take place in only a few short years.

A worthwhile experience, this docu-drama will affect you. And that's what makes this film so important.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Movie Review- A Man For All Seasons with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw

I'm not much of a fan of old English Royalty type films. This movie however is an exception. It explores the battle of wills between Sir Thomas Moore and King Henry the Eighth. The battle, of course, stemmed from the King wanting his childless marraige to his wife Anne annulled.

Sir Thomas' silence on the subject was tantamount to a rebuke of the King as well as the hypocrisy of the aristocracy. Retribution was sure to come. And come it does.

With strong performances from Shaw as the King (he positively roars at times)and equally matched by Paul Scofield as his quiet but firmly defiant Royal Adversary,this film will keep you engaged and interested.

The direction keeps the film flowing and the portrayal of Oliver Cromwell by Orson Welles will chill you with it's utter ruthlessness.

This film was first released in 1966 and won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. I don't know how I missed this one...

And I hope you don't.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Movie Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets with Dennis Price and Alec Guiness

Dennis Price plays Louis Descoyne in this brillant British send up of murder mysteries. He plays 13 parts. Narrated by Alec Guiness,this movie is a gem.

When his mother is cast out of the family her son is denied his rightful title of Earl. This leads him to not getting the woman he loves who is only interested in money and power.

When his Mother dies he vows to attain his righful place as Earl. To do this he must ingratiate himself with his estranged family.(All played by Dennis Price.) After becoming acquainted with them one by one,he kills them, one by one,each murder bringing himself one step closer to the title he so eagerly covets.

When he is accused of the one murder he didn't commit, he is sentenced to hang. Recognizing the irony of it all he proceeds to pen his memoirs the night before his execution. When dawn arrives and with it a Pardon, he joyfully leaves the cell a free man.

But a last minute twist of fate, which rivals anything by O. Henry, leaves you with no doubt that crime- while attractive- does not always pay. And things are never quite what they appear to be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb

Neal Bascomb writes in a pulse pounding way that brings urgency to the topic at hand.

When he opens this book on Garibaldi Street outside of Buenos Aires, we already know what is going to happen. But as you are waiting for the bus to arrive you find yourself worried when it is late, that something has gone wrong. This is writing at it's best.

In recounting the tale of one of the largest manhunts in history Mr. Bascomb provides background on all of the lead characters. He also skillfully weaves in and out of the politics that wrought these events.

I was 7 years old and living in Brooklyn, New York when Israels' Mossad kidnapped Eichmann from Argentina and tried him for murder. He was found guilty and hung. I had seen the documentaries about his capture and trial but never gave much thought as to exactly how he got to Argentina in the first place.

I always assumed that Eichmann, along with thousands of other former Nazi's, went there immediatley after the war was over. This is not true.

Eichmann wound his way through several American detention camps in Europe at the close of the war, escaping several times. He carefully kept his identity hidden through the use of false documents provided by an extensive network of former Nazi's.

Mr. Bascomb takes us on a journey through the mountains of Germany and Austria showing us Eichmann on the run. He works as a lumberjack for 18 months before finally making his way to Genoa. From there he obtains the necessary Visa's and Passport to travel to Argentina. His new name is Ricardo Klement.

Carefully woven into the story is the subplot of why Argentina became the haven for former Nazi's. This involved Juan Peron's government and their quest for industrial leaders to become a major power in South America. Ironically, the Argentine government declared war on Germany a few weeks before the war ended. In this way they would remain unlinked to the war crimes trials that were going to take place. Argentina had been the main intelligence gathering point for the Germans during the war, while carefully retaining "neutrality."

This book reads like a master spy thriller. With the Haganah team tracking every possible lead Eichmann still manages to board the Giovanna C in Genoa and actually makes it to Argentina. There he uses his experience as an Architect to gain some employment with the government.

Simon Weisenthal plays a large role in keeping the fires lit so that the search will not die. His efforts are instrumental in bringing Eichmann to justice. A group of Israeli operatives, who have a very personal stake in this chase, are relentless in their pursuit and capture of Eichmann in Argentina.

This book covers the years 1945 through the trial and verdict in 1961. During those 16 years there was always someone looking for Eichmann. With every false report of his death Eichmann hopes that he has eluded his past. He rationalizes his role in the Final Solution as having only obeyed orders.

His wife and children eventually arrive in Argentina. Mr. Bascomb gives us an up close look at the family and how they coped with living this secret life.

This book is the result of painstaking research - even utilizing some of Eichmanns' own account of his time on the run.

Eichmann was transported out of Argentina in a steamer trunk aboard an El Al flight to Israel. There he was tried, convicted and hung for his role in the murder of 6 million Jews.

This book lives up to everything I have come to expect from this author. He lures you in, keeps you interested and then delivers the goods.