Sunday, September 27, 2015

City of Promises: A Trilogy on the History of Jewish New York

Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865 (City of Promises)

Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920 (City of Promises)

Jews in Gotham: New York Jews in a Changing City, 1920-2010 (City of Promises)

General Editor: Deborah Dash Moore
Written by Howard B. Rock, Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer, Jeffrey S. Gurock With a Visual Essay by Diana L. Linden

The three-volume series was the winner of the 2012 Jewish Book of the Year Award as named by the National Jewish Book Council.

Comprehensive and ambitious, it can be a dry read at times.

Volume I takes us back to pre-colonial America where we see the first Jews arriving to New Amsterdam.  Howard B. Rock shows us how they were challenged by both the politics and economics of the time.  However, they overcame those barriers and soon laid the foundation for what would eventually become a thriving Jewish community.

Volume II, written by Annie Polland and Daniel Soyers, takes us through the next few decades of Jewish New York.  Perhaps because of the time period that it covers, this volume was a dry read and one that I had to fight the verge to sleep just to read it.  This volume focuses in on how Jews built their surrounding environments: tenements, banks, shuls, shops, stores, and settlement houses. It shows how complex that the Jewish immigrant society was in this era.

Volume III, by Jeffrey S. Gurock, takes us all the way up through modern times.  How shows how the Jewish neighborhood life has become the most distinct feature of New York City.  NYC is still the capital of American Jewry because of the deep roots in worlds that supported diversity in politics, religion, and economics.

The account of Jewish New York is the first of its kind and Diana Linden's visual essay complements the three volumes.

Book Review: Bream Gives Me Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg

Bream Gives Me Hiccups & Other Stories by Jesse Eisenberg
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (September 8, 2015)

Inspired by The End of The Tour, the veteran actor of the screen takes to print to write his fiction debut: a collection of short stories.  In this book, we now know that he can write just as well as he can act.  An author of three plays, Eisenberg's work has previously appeared in both The New Yorker and McSweeney's.

What we have in Bream is a collection of 44 short stories that are hilarious, moving, and inventive.  Eisenberg is able to explore the insanity that is the modern world...or ancient Pompeii if you will.

The unique title comes from the title of the first section, a collection of restaurant reviews as written by a nine-year-old who goes out to eat with his recently divorced mother.  From present day LA, we travel to the dorm rooms of a St. Louis college and ancient Pompeii.  He gives us a world of misfits, reimagines history, and the ridiculous overreactions that some stories may bring us.

One of the funniest pieces is an email exchange from a guy and his girlfriend.  The guy's sister soon takes over the exchange and it goes in a direction where no one even thinks to consider: the Bosnian genocide.

Another exchange sees a college freshman from New York now enrolled at a university in St. Louis.  She's now living with a roommate that steals her ramen.  Upset, she writes her high school guidance counselor in a series of letters.

Eisenberg brings us the first five phone calls from telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

Perhaps from having worked with great screenplays in the past and writing plays of his own, Eisenberg has a gift of writing both humor and character.  His writings are grouped into chapters and in doing so, they work better than being collected in a random order.  Eisenberg is funny, self-ironic, and offers readers an original voice in print.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Recently Published Baseball Hall of Fame Biographies

Pedro by Pedro Martinez
Published just before his induction this summer into Cooperstown, the colorful Hall of Fame pitcher opens up and tells his story for the first time.  Before we knew him as the 8x All-Star and 3x Cy Young Award winner, Pedro Martinez was a little kid in the Dominican Republic who dreamed of playing pro ball one day.

He was said to be not durable enough to last in Major League Baseball.  He was a scrawny power pitcher with a lightning arm.  What nobody saw coming was the fire inside the pitcher.  Nobody saw his ability to will his way into baseball immortality.

In his memoir, we relive it all.  From the lowly days in the minors to his days with Montreal all the way to his run with the Boston Red Sox.

This memoir shows that Martinez is bold, outspoken, and intimate.  It's no-holds-barred as the pitcher will entertain and inspire future generations of baseball fans.

War on the Basepaths: The Definitive Biography of Ty Cobb by Tim Hornbaker
DO NOT READ THE AL STUMP BIOGRAPHY.  We finally have a book that we can call a definitive bio of The Georgia Peach.

I know what they say about Cobb.  He played dirty.  He was rude, nasty, racist, and hated by fellow players and the press.

Hornbaker does for Cobb what he did for Charles Comiskey in providing us with an unbiased biography of one of the greatest players to ever step foot on a baseball diamond.  Using detailed research and analysis, Hornbaker gives us the full story--one that is not unaltered like previous books have been.

Tommy Lasorda: My Way by Colin Gunderson
Lasorda managed the Dodgers for 20 years and led the team to two World Series championships in the 1980s.  Known for his honesty, humor, enthusiasm, and Dodger blue, Lasorda was a two-time Manager of the year and a 1997 Hall of Fame inductee.  This authorized biography is written by a longtime Dodgers press coordinator.  One of the game's greatest ambassadors, Lasorda has been able to foster connections with players, fans, and management.

Gunderson interviews 30 former players and closest friends of Lasorda to bring us a glimpse of the iconic manager that has never before been seen.  In doing so, Gunderson gives us a book that is enlightening, uplifting and hilarious as we see the game from Lasorda's eyes.

Coming later this year: Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk by Doug Wilson.

Book Reviews: Presidential Biographies

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
Meacham draws on original research to gives us a new portrait of a president that is overexposed but the least understood.  Complicated and elusive, Jefferson is familiar to everyone because of his writing the Declaration of Independence among his many other accomplishments in the early days of America.  This biography offers up Jefferson as the human being and as a politician.  He was a Renaissance man that led America through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare during an era of both economic change and external threats.

All due respect to historian Joseph Ellis, this is the single-volume biography that Jefferson deserves.

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan
The award-winning biographer offers is a new take on a president that is often overlooked despite his being a prescient statesmen.  You won't find Adams on any best or worst presidents list.  The stereotypical thought about Adams: grim, rigid, and largely irrelevant disappointment.

For the first time ever, Kaplan gives us a multifaceted portrait of a misunderstood figure.  He evaluates Adams' triumphs and disappointments but also manages to explore Adams' far-reaching influence of his enlightened principles, definition of leadership, and vision for America's future.

Engaging and carefully researched, Kaplan's book on Adams makes for a groundbreaking look at Adams and his legacy.

Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands
Brands is back.  Back again.  Brands is back.  Tell a friend.  Brands has previously given us biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt.  With Ronald Reagan, he gives us a sixth biography that re-tells American history.  This is the first major biography in the time that has passed since Reagan died in 2004.

Controversial as Reagan was--seen as an icon of strength or a caricature of ideological rigidity--Brands has brilliantly succeeded in reconciling those views in order to give us a powerful new portrait of the former president.

Brands takes us on a journey through Reagan's life from the time that he voted four times to FDR to the revolution of conservatism in American politics.

The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson
With elegant prose and exacting research, Larson tells us how Washington played an indispensable role in rescuing the nation.  Often overlooked, Larson uncovers the role that our nation's first president played in the Constitutional Convention and the first federal election.  The states truly came together after Washington showed his willingness to serve as the first president of the United States.

The examples set by Washington have never been more poignant than today.  Our nation has been fractured by political parties since the country's founding in the 1700s.  Friction is foundational, Larson reminds us, but so, too, is compromise.  Where is the Henry Clay and Daniel Webster of this era?

The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House by Chuck Todd
With his comfortable perch from NBC, Chuck Todd has had unfettered access to the White House.  Todd examines both Obama as a president and as person in telling what can only be described as a crucial story of the Obama presidency that will shape America for the decades to come.

This book is more than being a book about politics.  It's also about the psychology of the presidency.  Todd draws on hundreds of interviews for this book of over 500 pages--including exclusive interviews with the president himself.

Todd's book is unique, provocative, and a comprehensive examination of Obama's presidency.

Book Review: Ally by Michael Oren

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide by Michael Oren
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Random House; 1St Edition edition (June 23, 2015)

Oren's memoir is a personal account  of his time serving as the Israeli ambassador to the United States.  What he does is provide a frank yet fascinating look at the relationship between America and Israel.

Growing up in New Jersey, Oren would later relinquish his American citizenship so that he could serve as the ambassador form 2009 until he stepped down in 2013.  This was not a pretty time for the Middle East.  The Arab Spring started during this time and America's role changed with the start of the Obama administration.

Oren provides cultural, personal, and historic ties that bind the two countries even as the relationship seems strained over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iran nuclear program.  Oren beautifully interweaves his own personal story with the behind-the-scenes meetings of leadership.

All in all, Oren gives us a ringside seat to some of the significant political moments of recent years.  The memoir is compelling and it is certainly timely with the debate over the Iran agreement.  Yet, at the same time, it's a testament to the alliance between the two countries.  Oren proudly served the Jewish State of Israel while still treasuring his American identity.

Next month sees the release of Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama by Dennis Ross.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reviews of Sports Biographies and Other Sports Books

Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball by Dolph Grundman
Hardcover: 232 pages
Publisher: Syracuse University Press (October 7, 2014)

Grundman gives us the first-ever biography of Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes.  One of the fifty greatest players to ever play in the NBA, Schayes may very well be the only Jewish player to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.  Schayes life is profiled from the time he grew up as the child of Jewish Romanian immigrants through his playing career at New York University and with the Syracuse Nationals.  It isn't just Schayes life that Grundman reflects on but also how basketball as a whole was undergoing some major changes.

Frank Robinson: A Baseball Biography by John C. Skipper
Paperback: 220 pages
Publisher: McFarland (October 31, 2014)

Skipper gives us the first biography of the Hall of Famer.  Robinson, one of the few Triple Crown winners in baseball, played for both the Reds and the Orioles.  He became the first African-American to manage teams in both leagues.  No matter what he was doing, the Hall of Famer always demanded respect.

Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary by Robert F. Burk
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: University of Illinois Press; 1st Edition edition (January 26, 2015)

Miller is one of the few contributors to the world of Major League Baseball that is not in the Hall of Fame.  He should be and Burk goes the distance in giving baseball fans the first biography of the labor leader.

Miller may have been the single person to change the business of sports when he was named as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.  Burk follows his life from hard times during the Great Depression to dealing with racial and religious bigotry along with Washington politics before he made his mark in history with the MLBPA.

Miller's legacy is as follows: decent workplace conditions, a pension system, outside mediation of player grievances and salary disputes, a system of profit sharing, and the dismantling of the reserve clause which led the way for free agency.

Allies and adversaries alike praised Miller for his attitude, work ethic, and honesty.

Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life by Mort Zachter
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press (March 1, 2015)

Like Miller above, Gil Hodges is one of those that should have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame a long time ago.  It's a travesty that he hasn't.  Zachter's biography of the Brooklyn Dodgers great and former New York Mets manager is the one that he deserves.

Hodges was a hero on the playing field, in the Marines during World War 2, and during his life in general.  One of the finest first basemen to ever play the game, Hodges was an icon in New York City.  He later managed both the Washington Senators and New York Mets.  He was the Mets manager when they won it all back in 1969.

While Zachter examines Hodges' career on the field and in the dugout, he also looks at the life he led.  Hodges had a dry sense of humor but was a witty man.  His honesty and integrity by far are his defining elements.  First hand interviews with those who knew him help to provide a better appreciation for this should-be Hall of Famer.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Book Review: Repeat by Neal Pollack

Repeat by Neal Pollack
Paperback: 236 pages
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (March 24, 2015)

Repeat is what Groundhog Day could have been had Bill Murray's character been forced to relive his entire life up to that day rather than the same day over and over.  As a novel, it is quite daring as we have seen a similar story play out on screen but never can I recall reading one in book format.  Hilarious scatological, Pollack has written what Groundhog Day could have been like had Phillip Roth written it.

Repeat tells the story of Brad Cohen, a failed screenwriter.  As a screenwriter, he's down on his luck.  Somehow, through strange circumstances, he finds himself reliving the first 40 years of his life again and again.  Each time he goes to bed on the night before his 40th birthday, he finds himself in his mother's womb.  Cohen knows what has happened during his lifetime and upon repeating his life, he takes advantage of the stock tips and sports wins.

Try and try as he may to get out of an infinite loop of repeating his life, nothing seems to work at all.  His wife, Juliet, may be a way out but as Cohen soon finds out, it's not easy being able to win somebody's heart again especially when he already knows her that well.

In his various repeats, Cohen finds himself working as a political pundit, being a millionaire playboy, to exploring yoga in India, or just being a lifelong independent scholar.  One of my favorites is his time working as a political pundit especially when he jumps on the Clinton bandwagon in 1990 and the Obama bandwagon very early on, too.  He decides to quit his job when he realizes that nobody is taking any action on his knowledge of bad events to come.

All in all, Pollack gives us a book that is unique but comes with the heart and warmth of what we expect from a novel written by Nick Hornby combined with that of sociopolitical satire.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review: The President's Shadow by Brad Meltzer

The President's Shadow (The Culper Ring Series)
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (June 16, 2015)

Brad Meltzer is at  it again.  With his third thriller in the Culper Ring series, readers are bound to be on the edge of their seat turning page after page after page.  The third book finds Beecher White seeking to uncover his father's past. In the process, it is revealed that there were government cover-ups, secret military locations, and of course, the key to finding out just how Beecher's father died while serving in a speciial navy unit called the Plankholders.

Meltzer is known for his fast pace, suspense-filled, and historically reseatched novels.  This book is no exception with my having finished it in the span of one day.

What kicks off this book is the discovery of a severed arm in the Rose Garden.  The arm carried a Plankholders memento, thus requiring a visit from Beecher in a secret laundry room at the White House as the White House is not sure who to trust after a security lapse.

With a would-be presidential assassin on the loose, Beecher aims to track down what happened to his dad when he was just a kid.

Meltzer's work continues to show that he belongs there with the ranks of John Grisham.  Personally, he's above Grisham at this point.

One of the most anticipated books of 2015, Meltzer doesn't disappoint and leaves you wanting more even though it feels as if Beecher's store may be coming to an end.  If it does, I'm fine with that.  I trust that Brad can come up with a new cast of characters for people to fall in love with.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Media silence on Extortion Threat against Daniel Grossberg

Last Monday, Joe Sonka broke the news at Insider Louisville that Daniel Grossberg, a candidate for State Treasurer in Kentucky, was being threatened by his former media consultant, Jacob Conway, with extortion.  Conway, in a tape recording, also made anti-Semitic comments.  Those comments were picked up by JTA News on Monday.  The JTA article was picked up, in turn, by the Forward.

Sonka's story was picked up by The Washington Free Beacon and the Independent Journal Review.

Now, outside of Joe Sonka, did any Kentucky media report on it?  Not really, no.  The Kentucky media was silent aside from Joe Arnold of WHAS-11 TV in Louisville.  Arnold's report, which focused on the extortion more so than the anti-Semitic comments, aired on Friday evening to lead off the 5:30 PM news.

I am privy to information that has not been covered anywhere in the media, including in Sonka's story.  I emailed this information to all the major newspapers, radio and television stations in Kentucky.  I reached out to the national media as well.  Aside from JTA and the Forward, there was no traction on that front.  The only person to respond was Joe Arnold.  In the interest of full disclosure, I know Joe Arnold and he follows me on Twitter.

What I do know is this:  The county attorney in Jefferson County has been looking into issuing an indictment against Jacob Conway for extortion and pursuing all criminal charges.  Daniel Grossberg, who was a candidate for state treasurer, was called in as an eye witness during the last week, where he was questioned by the county attorney, detectives, and handed over all evidence of extortion.

There is an investigation into extortion, harassment, hate crime, etc.—much more evidence than the tape.  As of this past Friday, they have hired a special prosecutor

The Courier-Journal and the Herald Leader should be ashamed of themselves.  If one is being extorted, I guess they need to be a basketball coach in order to make the front page, let alone the newspaper.  Joe Gerth was way too busy dealing with allegations against Jamie Comer that are over 20 years old (Let me stress: any form of domestic abuse is wrong).  Meanwhile, what happened to Grossberg was only recently and yet the Kentucky media was just nowhere to be found.  Though Gerth did have the following comments to say: "If any charges come of it later, I’ll be interested in following."

Who knows when the charges will be filed but that's beside the point.  The deafening silence, and I cannot stress this enough, is enough to make one bang their head against the wall.

Sure, the treasurer's race is a down-ticket race but it's still an elected position and what happened is sad.  The lack of media coverage, to say the least, is very frustrating.  If I were a publisher, I would be up in arms with my chief political reporter to ask why in the hell did they choose not to report anything on this!

To WAVE-3, WLKY, and WDRB, where were you during the last week?  I know that people from WAVE-3 follow me on Twitter and I've been pushing the above articles very hard on my Twitter account during the last week so it's not like they didn't know what was happening.

The CJ has a larger circulation than Insider Louisville.  It gets read by people who do not have the internet, like my grandmother for one.  And yet?  They were just silent like they didn't even care at all.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


I have a pile of unread books that I am making my through as fast as possible so as to get reviews published here or other sites, if need be.