• Draft No. 4 by John McPhee *** (of 4)

    McPhee is one of the preeminent nonfiction craftsmen of the last half century. As a staff writer for The New Yorker his longform essays have culminated in 31 books, four Pulitzer nominations, and a Pulitzer Prize. He has summarized his decades of experience as writer, and writing instructor at Princeton, in Draft No. 4, a book that is richer than chocolate mousse: every word is at once carefully calculated and placed with seeming effortlessness so that it is best digested in small servings.

    McPhee shares universal truths such as the observation that all writers are either insecure about their writing or, falling into a second category, find that having other people read their work makes them feel insecure. You are not a writer, says McPhee, unless you experience bloc and that bloc is best overcome by typing at the top of the page, “Dear Mom, here is what I am working on now…” Assembling a first draft is painful, but second and third drafts are easier. Fourth drafts are a necessity at a bare minimum.

    It is hard to say if non-writers will get as much from this book as those who have agonized over putting together a compelling essay. For readers, rather than writers, I recommend any of his 30 other books.

  • Talking to Strangers *** (of 4) by Malcolm Gladwell

    Vintage Gladwell as he describes a seemingly ordinary encounter or observation from which any reasonable person would draw an obvious conclusion and then takes a deep dive into social psychology to demonstrate how wrong we (all) are. Talking to Strangers opens with the recorded encounter in rural Texas between a white state trooper and a young Black woman, Sandra Bland, is pulled over for failing to signal when changing lanes. Failing to signal, that is, after a state trooper has turned on his flashing lights behind her insisting she pull over. Not surprisingly, the encounter degenerates, the cop loses his cool, Bland is handcuffed, and after three days in jail (for failing to signal a lane change?) commits suicide.

    The obvious conclusion is systemic racism and patent stereotyping by the trooper. In fact, we even think we know Sandra Bland. Now comes all the back story, carefully unpackaged to describe what happens when two people who don’t know one another meet. All people carry preconceived perceptions including what Gladwell describes as something called, “default to truth.” We believe what people tell us. There are evolutionary advantages to trust, even when we are being lied to and have been told we are being lied to. (Explanations for how and why Trumpians believed and still believe are unmissable.) There are additional lessons about how policing came to rely on a system of pull-over-and-suspect. And why access to instruments of suicide increase rates of suicide, though, quite surprisingly, Gladwell says nothing about Bland’s previous suicide attempts. This despite devoting chapters to predictors of suicide rates.

    The conclusion Gladwell draws is that when two people meet who don’t know one another well (and sometimes even when they do) they draw assumptions which can lead to terrible outcomes. Not only isn’t that a terribly new idea, but Gladwell offers almost nothing by way of a solution.

  • Yiddishkeit by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle *** (of 4)

    yiddishkeit_62025Even the title of the book isn’t really translatable, encompassing as it does more than a language.  Yiddishkeit is a people, it’s culture, and an era of history, all but obliterated by the Nazis.  So all the more interesting to take on a language, a sound, and the essence of Ashkenazi Judaism in a graphic novel, that is with pictures.  Yiddishkeit, the book and the culture, are a sprawling amalgam of history and storytelling, plays and text, cartoons, and serious literary analysis, and above all, opinionated.  Pekar, Buhle, and their coauthors have assembled a textbook with a surprising format, but they capture the spirit and for those of us that love Yiddishkeit, we are glad that they have.blog-yiddishkeit-122211-copy

  • Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd by Sam Apple

    A journalist who traveled from childhood memories to adult memories from urban NY to Austria’s highest peaks in search of Hans Breuer, Yiddish folk singer and “last wandering shepherd of Austria.” Apple manages to seamlessly tie shepherding and Yiddish into his questions about post-war Austria and contemporary anti-semitism in Europe suspensefully and full with satisfaction.

  • Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky *** (of 4)

    As a Hampshire College student in the late 70s, Lansky decides to learn Yiddish. At that time Yiddish, having barely survived the murderous rampage of the Holocaust, was being finished off by assimilating Jews anxious to distance themselves from their ghettoized past. Lansky found himself a teacher, an old textbook, and I.B. Singer’s Satan in Goray. Then he could not find any other Yiddish book in print. He puts an ad in the paper searching for extant Yiddish books and starts collecting. Outwitting History is the story of how he saves more than a million Yiddish books and in so doing probably also saves a language and a culture from extinction. He does it, too, with enormous modesty. July 2008

  • Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All its Moods by Michael Wex **** (of 4)

    Wex is three-fourths scholar and one quarter stand-up comic. In departure from say Rosten’s books on Yiddish, which list words, definitions, and accompanying anecdotes, Wex puts Yiddish in its sociological and historical context. So more than learning a few words, which by and large go by too fast and in constructions that are too long to recall, I learned an immense amount about why Yiddish was an essential language for people living apart — both by choice and by force — from their European goyish neighbors. If it is at all possible, I recommend listening to Wex read his book on CD. September 2006

  • The Know it All by A.J. Jacobs **** (of 4)

    Proof that passionate writing overwhelms mundane subject matter. AJ Jacobs read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and writes a book about it.. Naturally, his book begins with A-ak and ends with Zywiec. The interstices are largely filled with esoterica (both short and long), but my what fascinating trivia there is. His writing is compelling, the selection of topics unfailingly topical, one-liners had me laughing aloud, frequently, and there is enough plot surrounding what happens to AJ’s friends and family while he disappears on an apparently fruitless journey that in sum I kept turning the pages to see what was next. I can’t ask for anything more of any book. July 2008