Books On My Night Table

I still remember the day when I heard that Sandy Koufax refused to pitch a World Series opening game because it was Yom Kippur.

It was, to say the least, something of a shock. We, baseball mad yeshiva kids, knew that the great Southpaw was a Jew from Bensonhurst, but we also knew that he was not observant. In fact, Koufax never even had a Bar Mitzvah. Shock was quickly replaced by pride as this assimilated Jewish superstar made a very public stand for, what we saw as, Torah values.

Jane Leavy’s bio, Sandy Koufax, A Lefty’s Legacy is not a conventional biography. Koufax refused to be interviewed, and Leavy agreed not to contact his two ex-wives. Such decency is a rarity among writers.

Leavy does explore Brooklyn’s powerful culture, the home turf that nourished Koufax. Thus, Leavy delivers a superb volume that is  more an exploration of the meaning of Koufax, arguably the greatest pitcher who ever lived, and who’s arm was blown out by the time he was just thirty years old.

Settling into a long retirement, Koufax remains deeply private, and still exerts a powerful influence on the imagination that is almost mystical.

If you want a real baseball bio, filled with wall to wall dirt, try Leavy’s book about Mickey Mantle, in which Mantle boasts of leading the league in hits, home runs and “the clap.” Leavy, a secular Jewish woman from, where else? Brooklyn, writes just beautifully.  She might be the greatest sports writer we have.  I look forward to reading her book about Babe Ruth.

Koufax had just two pitches: the fastball and the curve. But with those two he absolutely dominated. Mickey Mantle prayed for “Yom Koufax” to keep from facing the great Southpaw.

The 1941 winter siege of Leningrad by the Nazis was apocalyptic. Over six hundred thousand Russians died of starvation and disease. Helen Dunmore, a British writer, wisely keeps this huge canvas properly intimate in her slim novel, The Siege. She focuses on the Levin family. Forced to survive in one small apartment, the twenty-two year old daughter Anna dreams of being a great artist, but is reduced to foraging for food like an animal. Dunmore’s elegantly written book asks: when the material world is cruelly shrinking, is it possible to love, is it possible to have an inner life? This is a profoundly moving story about horror and spiritual transcendence.

In the introduction to this important history of the Soviet Gulag, author Anne Applebaum asks a simple question: why do we know so much about the Nazi concentration camps, and yet so little about the Soviet concentration camps? The answer is simple and sobering: The Nazis systematically liquidated human beings, mostly Jews, on an industrial scale. The Soviets, who took over many camps, did not murder on a mass scale, but they did work and starve tens of millions to death. And the left in Europe and America have always given a pass to Communists and their endless atrocities.

Applebaum details how the Gulag had its origin in the Bolshevik revolution, and how millions of political and criminal prisoners were herded into these vast prison camps through all of Soviet history, reaching its logical and terrifying apotheosis under Stalin.

This is a book which, quite frankly, kept me up many nights. I kept thinking of the Democrat Socialists in America who are all the fashion now and how their anti-Capitalist rhetoric is a near perfect replication of Soviet totalitarian ideology. As George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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  1. Bill Brandt
    Posted November 7, 2018 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I had a friend while in the Army who ran the photo lab – and while he said very little about his wartime service – other than being drafted – the heady days of marching into Paris – then Norway – he then went to the Eastern Front and apparently ended up in a Gulag for 10 years.

    Only thing he said about it was the way he survived he was a diesel mechanic and the Russians had some use for him.

    I surmise if they had no use for you you would slowly starve or die from disease.

    You might be right about Koufax being the greatest and when I read your piece thought “hats off” to Leavy who, despite being denied access to Sandy, honored his request not to interview his ex wives. Most authors wouldn’t do that I believe.

    On Leningrad I was in Russia in the early 90s and you will see everywhere huge monuments to “The Great Patriotic War”.

    And in St Petersburg there is in a park a huge mound where 10s of thousands are buried.

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  2. Barry
    Posted November 7, 2018 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Re Baseball. A f ew years ago we optioned the film right to Jerry Amernic’s novel Gift of the Bambino (St. Martin’s Press.) Which w as, and is, about the Babe’s first professional home run, hit at Hanlan’s Point, an island off the cost of Toronto, the immigrant experience, and its affect on a child who just happened to be there. Worth checking out.

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