Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories (Tadeusz Borowski)

Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish writer and journalist who survived time at Auschwitz during World War II. Borowski’s short stories about life in the Polish ghettos and Nazi death camps have been translated by Madeline Levine into a collection called Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories.

Borowski’s time in Auschwitz was harsh and brutal. He reflects on working on a railway ramp, witnessing Jewish victims arriving to their deaths in the gas chambers, being told to leave their personal effects at the train station as soon as they arrived. He also describes his time working in a Nazi “hospital” and the torturous experiments done on Jews and others. After the war, a small sampling of writings from Borowski discusses more of his time in Nazi camps. Silence, which is included in this collection, describes the aftermath of the liberation of Dachau. 

Here in Our Auschwitz is certainly not light reading. It is dark and not something that can be easily read. It will require reflection and likely will need some time to digest. Borowski’s stories are a reminder of how evil our worst side of humanity can be and that we need to remain vigilant to ensure the continuation of human rights and decency towards all.


Saturday, November 27, 2021

Churchill, Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War 1895-1945 (Anthony Tucker-Jones)

Winston Churchill is known for his military career - not just in active military service. Churchill also had journalistic adventures writing about war while in South Africa, as well as leading militaries throughout his government career. Churchill’s military exploits took him to Cuba, India, and the Sudan before embarking on decades in Britain’s Parliament, ultimately serving as British Prime Minister during World War II. 

Churchill, Master and Commander, by Anthony Tucker-Jones, highlights Churchill’s military track record. While many of us remember his leadership as Prime Minister, resolute in helping Britain survive and ultimately help the Allies defeat Germany and Japan, his track record of military strategy is much more of a mixed bag. Tucker-Jones discusses those failings, as well as Churchill’s highlights throughout a long career.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a fair, detailed, and well-written account of Churchill, showcasing his leadership but also his mistakes and how his experiences helped shape a man who had a complicated but legendary career of leadership. If not for Churchill, it’s quite conceivable that British history and the outcome of World War II would have been markedly different. Fans of history and particularly fans of Winston Churchill will enjoy reading this book.


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Taste: My Life Through Food (Stanley Tucci)

Always a wonderfully reliable actor, Stanley Tucci also became something of an Internet phenomenon during quarantine, showing us all how to make delicious cocktails. It's this love of everything food and drink that comes out loud and clear in Taste: My Life Through Food.

Taste is everything you'd expect from Stanley Tucci and more. It's delightful, comforting reading, and I dare you not to want to cook and eat everything Tucci mentions. Each chapter tells of a tale of his life in food, from having delicious homemade Italian dinners every night growing up to his newfound obsession with his wife's roasted potatoes. A variety of recipes are interspersed throughout, encouraging you to put the book down for a few minutes to go try something yourself.

I loved this book. Its comforting premise is just what the world needs now as we try to come out of Covid. Strongly recommended!


Monday, November 22, 2021

Retail Recovery: How Creative Retailers are Winning in Their Post-Apocalyptic World (Mark Pilkington)

Much has been made of the term “retail apocalypse”, which alludes to the demise of many conventional retail establishments and the slow decline of shopping malls over the past 15 years. This trend accelerated in the run-up to the COVID pandemic and then increased more as the pandemic developed. While many traditional retailers declined in sales or went bankrupt, not all of them did so. Mark Pilkington writes on the innovation taking place in the retail industry in Retail Recovery: How Creative Retailers are Winning in Their Post-Apocalyptic World.

Pilkington’s rapid-fire writing brings short chapters and brevity in describing events but provides an effective story in showing that retail is not being swallowed in total by the Amazonian behemoth. Using examples from large bigbox to innovative upstarts, the author shows how numerous retailers have taken creative approaches, used social media and influencers, and have heavily invested in their customers as advocates for their brand to help build loyalty and sales. Some upstarts tapped into millennials’ and Gen Z’s beliefs that they want to support brands and products that are socially conscious or environmentally friendly to help build their brands.

Retail, as the author points out, is far from dead. Will it be different in the years to come? Absolutely. The smart retailer - the one that ultimately survives in the future - will be savvy with technology, adaptable to changing consumer tastes, and will be able to build loyalty and a “movement” with its brand.


Monday, November 15, 2021

The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Edward J. Watts)

 The discussion of Rome’s decline and renewal has been a part of the conversation in society for over 2000 years. Starting in the late Roman Republic during the 3rd Century BC and continuing on through recent times, politicians, philosophers, theologians, and pundits have all used this narrative to show negative consequences of events going on in the world. In the 1960s, Ronald Reagan harkened the need to counter the counterculture movement and Hippies of the late 1960’s as a way to prevent decline, using Rome as a reference in several speeches he gave. Yes, Rome eventually declined, split up, and then fell.

Edward J. Watts’s The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: A Dangerous Idea talks less about the causes and effects of the decline and more about those who promised Roman renewal and those who were blamed for Roman decline. Seventeen hundred years of Roman and Byzantine (the eastern half of the Roman Empire that split off in the 4th Century) history is hard to weave into 230 pages. While this book does a good job of highlighting the major events and causes that fed the constant state of discussion about Roman renewal and fighting off Roman decline, it does so at a high level and does not provide a ton of in-depth analysis of those events. 

The author’s intent, it seems, is more to feed the idea that the rhetoric of decline and renewal can have disastrous consequences and knock-on effects that ultimately did not help the Roman state, especially when its leaders were corrupt or incompetent. On that point, he does succeed in showing some connection between the two. Ultimately, I wish the book had more depth and insight to help further explain the author’s point. It is a concise summary of a concept that arguably could have been in a book twice its size.


Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Baseball 100 (Joe Posnanski)

As a fan of baseball in its older days, I’ve always enjoyed books that ranked the game’s great players from the days before TV or even radio. Joe Posnanski’s The Baseball 100 is his ranking of the 100 greatest players of baseball history.

I’ll preface this review by noting that Posnanski slots players in with some creative liberty included. You’ll see evidence of this with Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Mike Schmidt. Like any list book, you may have disagreements with his rankings. I don’t agree with where Cy Young (too low), Ted Williams (too low), or Barry Bonds (too high) ended up but I can live with their rankings in general. Posnanski’s reasons and ranking system are his - his house, his rules. I can’t pick nits about a player being a few spots off where I think he should be given there have been over 20,000 baseball players in top level baseball.

With that said, The Baseball 100 is a great read into 100 great baseball players. Stories grow in length as you approach the top ten. All stories are more than just “Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs” fact checks. You’ll find some interesting insights on some of the bad boys of baseball’s early days - specifically Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, and Rogers Hornsby. In addition, the struggle Black baseball players had to gain in not only acceptance but also respect is seen clearly through their bios. 

All told, The Baseball 100 is a very enjoyable book.


Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres (Kelefa Sanneh)

Pop music is made up of many different components. Sometimes, a hip hop track will reach critical mass and break through to reach popular airplay everywhere. At other times, it could be country music. a dance track, a rock jam, or even something that fits the general “pop” label but doesn’t quite fit in the other categories. America’s popular music over the past 70 years has diversified and splintered into many different genres and subgenres.  Kelefa Sanneh, a long-time music critic at both the New York Times and the New Yorker, breaks down the history of popular music into seven main genres in Major Labels.

I loved this book. I laughed at the wit. I enjoyed the jogs down memory lane in all of the various musical genres. I felt that Sanneh had a great grasp of music history in many of the genres that he wrote about. You could tell in some of the chapters the breadth and depth of his personal knowledge as the stories were more personal and introspective in terms of how music impacted him in his youth. This stands out in the chapters on rock, punk, and hip hop specifically.  However, each of the seven genres he defines as contributors to pop music are given proper coverage. Major Labels reads quickly and enjoyably. I never felt strained to turn the page as I recalled  watching 120 Minutes or Yo! on MTV while growing up - back when MTV showed music videos.

If you’re into rock, hip hop, or whatever passes off as “pop” these days, regardless of autotune enhancement or not, you’ll enjoy Major Labels. This is one of the better general history reads on the subject of American pop music that’s come along and offers great insight into what Gen-X listened to while growing up.