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.