Tag Archives: Non-fiction

Saving One Million Books from Destruction

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004

ISBN Price for hardcover $24.95 (at this writing, the highest price on Amazon is $9.89)

Outwitting History

Outwitting History — find it at Amazon!
Available in Hard Cover and Paperback

(5/5)

Pros: Well-written and includes a bibliography for those who are interested in reading some of the books and articles quoted

Cons: If I have to pick on something, I caught a few grammatical errors

When Aaron Lansky and a few fellow college students decided to learn Yiddish in order to understand modern Jewish History (since the 10th or 11th Century), he could not imagine that he would be dumpster diving or rubbing elbows with Woody Guthrie’s widow. Yet this and many other miraculously interwoven adventures became part of his odyssey into Yiddish literature.

I’ve known about Aaron Lansky’s National Yiddish Book Project – now known as the National Yiddish Book Center – for many years because of my activity with the International Association of Yiddish Clubs. When I started my own Yiddish Club in Nevada, I visited the National Yiddish Book Center’s website (yiddishbookcenter.org) and discovered a wealth of articles, blogs, and video interviews. My favorite section is a series of interviews with the late Leonard Nimoy, who was an actor in Yiddish Theater long before he was
Mr. Spock. The first clip begins with him reciting Hamlet’s Soliloquy in Yiddish – worth enjoying whether or not you understand Yiddish.

What I didn’t know was the whole story (in Yiddish, di ganse geshikhte) of Lansky’s search and rescue of Yiddish books, some dating back to the 1800s. This book takes the reader back to the very beginning when Lansky was a college student in search of Yiddish books to learn and practice reading. As I read the early chapters, I realized that Yiddish is not a dead language – yet. Unfortunately, Jewish immigrants, in an effort to be 100 percent American, i.e. assimilated, have been suffocating Yiddish for many years.

This reminds me of my childhood. I always felt that I was caught between generations. I spoke Yiddish almost as well as English. Most Jews of my generation remember their parents and grandparents using Yiddish to keep them from understanding the discussion. For me, it was a way of keeping the rest of the world from understanding the discussion. When I even came close to misbehaving in public, my mother would give me “the stare” and tell me in Yiddish to stop whatever it was I was doing or about to say.

These memories were the basis of understanding I had going into the reading of Outwitting History. My husband first borrowed the book from the library and told me that I would enjoy it. He began slipping bits and pieces, such as the Woody Guthrie story, because he just had to share. I didn’t quite get the need to share the stories because I was concerned that he would spoil it for me. Yet, that’s not at all what happened. When I started to read and could tell that an anecdote was one that my husband mentioned over dinner, I was even more interested.

Although Outwitting History isn’t a novel and we already know the ending, I still don’t want to take the chance of spoiling the middle. Learning how ultra-orthodox Jewish Scholars look upon Yiddish literature is an eye-opener, even for someone who is familiar with the various factions in the Chasidic community. The general feeling is that books in Yiddish are a distraction from studying Torah and Talmud (it encompasses more than just the Hebrew Bible; it includes the foundation of Jewish Law). Of course, once I read about it, I understood why they have a disdain for Yiddish books, even though I disagree with them.

Yiddish books include poetry, reference books, novels, and history books – everything necessary to learn about a society. This includes a world destroyed by the Holocaust and a world conceived by American life.

When Lansky relates the stories of finding the first batches of Yiddish books, what sticks with the reader is that each donor insisted on treating Lansky and crew as welcome guests. Elderly couples would cook feasts for them and package extra food “for the road.” Many of them were giving up their personal libraries because they were coming to the end of life and wanted to ensure that someone somewhere would read their books.

The one story I want to single out is the encounter with Woody Guthrie’s widow:

One day, Lansky received a letter from Marjorie Guthrie asking if he was interested in her family book collection. In addition to being the widow of Woody Guthrie, Marjorie was the daughter of a Yiddish poet and songwriter, Aliza Greenblatt. “Fort a Fisher,” one of Greenblatt’s songs is a favorite of mine. It tells of a young man watching a fisherman prepare to go out to sea and compares it to his own fishing expedition for someone to be his love. When the fisherman comes back in the evening with empty nets, he feels his own loneliness that much more deeply.

Lansky was familiar with all of Greenblatt’s work and couldn’t imagine that there was such a close connection between her and Woody Guthrie. To quote:

“Amazing. Could it be that the daughter of ‘Fort a fisher’ was also the wife of ‘This Land is Your Land’ – and, come to think of it, the mother of ‘Alice’s Restaurant?’ ”

As Lanky spends more time with Marjorie, she tells him about Arlo and Nora who had a visiting tutor for Jewish studies because Woody (who was not Jewish) and Marjorie wanted their children to have a Jewish education. I won’t ruin the surprise identity of the tutor.

Although this is a very Jewish book, Lansky explains a lot of inside information so that everyone can understand the significance of each adventure. Because of that, I believe that Outwitting History is for anyone who loves books and has an interest in the development and rescuing of a language and culture. This was the best nonfiction read I’ve had in a very long time!

An Enjoyable but Unnecessary Chronicle of Pro Wrestling’s Worst: WRESTLECRAP by R.D. Reynolds

WRESTLECRAP: THE VERY WORST OF PRO WRESTLING by R.D. Reynolds/Randy Baer

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See it at Amazon 

(3.5/5) decent

Pros: Perfectly enjoyable and easy to read; nostalgic value

Cons: Doesn’t quite live up to its billing  – imagine that!

Spotlighting the all-around worst the world of professional wrestling has to offer, the Wrestlecrap website was launched in the year 2000 and has gone on to achieve increasing notoriety and recognition over the years despite some sweeping changes and periods of inactivity. The site’s main claim to fame may be its annual “Gooker Award” (named after the infamous GobbledyGooker) in which the year’s most asinine gimmick, storyline, or event is recognized, but co-founder R.D. Reynolds (the wrestling pseudonym of Randy Baer) has also branched out to author several books based on the content of the site.

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Tugboat – the wrestler who thought he was a boat – yes, just about anything goes in the whacked-out world of pro wrestling…

Though it may sound like an all-encompassing examination of pro wrestling’s low points, Wrestlecrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling (published in 2003 by ECW Press – which has no connection to the wrestling promotion of the same name) is, in fact, something slightly different. Though it does chronicle numerous wacky and/or jaw-droppingly awful personalities and situations from pro wrestling’s history, the book devotes a substantial amount of its pages (I’d estimate almost half) to the period of the so-called “Monday Night Wars” when Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (now called the WWE) went head-to-head with Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling – in large part through their respective Monday Night Raw and Nitro television programs which played weekly in the same time slot.

who's who
A veritable who’s who of Wrestlecrap!

Focusing on this period of wrestling history can either be viewed as a good or a bad thing. On the plus side, this era will be fondly remembered by fans as the time when performers such as Goldberg, Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, and Triple H really came into their own while more established names like Bret Hart, Hulk Hogan, Sting, and Shawn Michaels solidified their Hall of Fame statuses. Additionally, the late 1990s were indisputably the period in which pro wrestling achieved its highest level of mainstream fame: before this period, the sport had been largely viewed as a lowbrow entertainment with minimal mainstream appeal. The period of the “Monday Night Wars” did nothing if not demonstrate just how popular pro wrestling had the potential to be, and I suspect many readers would enjoy and appreciate Reynolds’ text for the nostalgic value alone.

wtf
You really have to wonder about some of the things that fly in a wrestling ring…

On the downside, while it’s convenient to focus on subjects that readers probably would be familiar with, there’s more to the history of pro wrestling than just the period from the early 1990s until 2001. Even if Wrestlecrap provides a different perspective on this period of wrestling history, there’s no escaping the fact that I, being a seasoned and longtime wrestling fan who came of age as it were in the late ’90s, didn’t learn much of anything from this book. Maybe my main problem with the choice of subject matter to focus on is that less than a year after Reynolds released this first Wrestlecrap book, he would release another – this one devoted exclusively to the “death” of WCW. As such, there’s a ton of crossover between the two books, a fact which (when combined with Wrestlecrap’s very minimal coverage of non-WWF and non-WCW promotions) only further accentuates the notion that the book doesn’t honestly provide the all-encompassing examination of the stupidity and excess of pro wrestling that its title hints at.

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No caption needed. If you have to ask, you’ll never know.

Potentially problematic as it may be though, there are still many reasons why a fan of “sports entertainment” would want to give this book a looksee. As mentioned, it offers up a ton of nostalgia, much of which is of the “I completely forgot about that…but it’s completely hilarious” variety. It’s very clear that Reynolds has the same love and appreciation of pro wrestling that many of his readers would possess, and his book is perfectly written in a manner to appeal to that crowd. Though easy to read to the point where I might even say that it appeals more to dim-witted readers, the tone and writing style seen here is precisely what the material calls for: I’d hardly expect a book dealing with this subject to be a scholarly piece full of ten dollar words. That being said, there are a handful of noticeable grammatical and spelling errors present in the final text, and some of the language used in this book might turn off some readers. Inexcusable though the errors are, I have to emphasize that the crowd who would read a book dealing with pro wrestling in all likelihood not only wouldn’t notice subtle errors, but also wouldn’t be turned off by the occasional instance of colorful word choice and raunchiness.

giant gonzales
The Undertaker versus … a hairy, nude man?

The book’s main selling point is obviously the humor inherent in the subject, and Reynolds emphasizes the comic value of the material at every opportunity. Generally speaking, the tone text seems to “laugh with” not “at” the wrestlers/performers involved in the situations – after all, pro wrestling is nothing if not completely absurd through and through. On occasion however, the author does seem to head down a path that’s somewhat tasteless and the whole of the book could probably be labeled as being “sophomoric.” Again, I think this is more or less par for the course in a book of this nature; in any case, I wound up chuckling to myself quite regularly while reading.

zombie!

Accompanying the text are a handful of photographs, including a section of full-color prints. Though I might have liked additional images just to see who and what the author was referring to at various points throughout the book, I think there was a nice assortment and amount of pictures here. It’s certainly fortunate that, with the aid of youtube, a reader can virtually “re-live” any of the goofy gimmicks and storylines discussed herein. Overall, Wrestlecrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling is an enjoyable read from cover to cover even if it’s something I’d be more inclined to apply a somewhat mediocre rating to. 268 pages in length and featuring a font size that looks large to my eyes, it’s probably not the best or most comprehensive pro wrestling book out there: it’s one that ultimately is content to poke fun at the goofiness of the sport rather than tell the reader anything he didn’t previously know. Still, while it probably wouldn’t be something that the average reader would have an interest in, the book (which includes a forward written by the late John Tenta, best known for wrestling under the name “Earthquake”) comes highly recommended to the fan of sports entertainment.

The more things change, the more they stay the same…
alex
bryan

No conspiracy fable here, folks

The Day Kennedy Was Shot

by Jim Bishop

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$10.67 at Amazon  

(4/5)

Pros:  Clear, no-nonsense reporting by Bishop

Cons: None, but conspiracy buffs may want to avoid it

For over 50 years, no crime in American history has prompted as much speculation and controversy as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books, monographs, print and Internet articles, movies, TV and film documentaries, and other presentations have discussed every possible angle of the traumatic events that took place in Dallas, Texas.  If you go to Amazon and search for “JFK Assassination Books,” you’ll get a list of 928 results.

Many of the books tend to follow the template of Mark Lane’s 1966 best-selling Rush to Judgment, a critique of the Warren Commission’s investigation of the Kennedy assassination and its conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot and killed the 36th President of the United States and Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit. Though the various conspiracy theories point the fingers at a plethora of suspects – the Mafia, the Castro brothers, the CIA, and Lyndon B. Johnson are the most prominent – they seem to have one common theme: JFK was the target of larger, darker forces than a 24-year-old, Marxist-leaning ex-Marine with a gigantic chip on his shoulder.

Jim Bishop’s 1968 The Day Kennedy Was Shot was published two years after Lane’s Rush to Judgment  and can be considered that book’s antithesis. Although it was controversial in its own right because former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy attempted to suppress its publication because she didn’t want to lose control of the Camelot narrative, Bishop’s book is a journalistic hour-by-hour account of the events that took place on Nov. 22, 1963, starting at 7:00 AM and ending at 3 AM on November 23.

In The Day Kennedy Was Shot, Bishop (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, A Day in the Life of President Kennedy) follows the comings and goings of all the major players (JFK, Jackie, Lyndon B. Johnson, Oswald, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby), as well as first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses.

Some of the persons Bishop interviewed for The Day Kennedy Was Shot  include Helen Ganss, an elderly Ft. Worth widow who had been allowed to stay at the Hotel Texas even when the other guests were moved out by the Secret Service.

Another vivid account is given by Linnie Mae Randall, an Irving, Texas housewife who, while washing the dishes in her kitchen that morning, “saw Lee Harvey Oswald, bare head down, coming up Fifth Street with a long package in his hand. He held the fat part under his arm; the tapered end was pointing at the sidewalk. The rain didn’t seem to bother him. He walked steadily, up Fifth, across the corner lot, toward Mrs. Randall’s garage. She kept watching him, a dark, pretty woman with shoulder-length black hair. By rote, she set the dishes upright in the drain.”

President John F. Kennedy had less than six hours left to live, of course, but while turning the pages of Bishop’s 1968 book, I feel the tension building up with each seemingly mundane detail (such as Mrs. Randall’s dishes). It is sobering to read this book, because we know that once the President’s party leaves the Hotel Texas for Carswell Air Force Base to board Air Force One for that short hop to Love Field, JFK’s fate is sealed.

Bishop, working from various sources despite Mrs. Kennedy’s attempts to block publication of his book, describes every minute detail of those tragic 20 hours (from the rainy weather over Texas to the bloodstained pink dress that Jackie Kennedy wore throughout that horrible day) in crisp and clear prose.

(Parts of this review originally appeared in Epinions)