“Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” — Henry Ward Beecher

January 15, 2010

Children at Theresienstadt. Yad Vashem Archives.

It’s been a good reading season squeezed in between semesters. The pace will slow down when classes resume next week, though I just started a fascinating book about Isaac Newton’s little-known career as the scourge of counterfeiters. Of that, more later.

I just finished “The Girls of Room 28” by Hannelore Brenner, which describes the lives of children who were incarcerated at the Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, between 1941 and 1944. An estimated 13,000 children passed through there; 25 survived. Some died of disease or other consequences of neglect. Most died in the concentration camps further east. Brenner presents first-hand accounts from some of the survivors as well as material from diaries and other such documents. She also records how the Nazis bamboozled the International Red Cross  into thinking that Theresienstadt was a model community for Jews, founded on the benevolent nature  of Adolf Hitler. There is a lot of information and photographs about the ghetto on the YAD VASHEM web site.

Abraham Lincoln reading to his son Tad.

I can’t read too many books about Abraham Lincoln, and I was delighted with “Lincoln, Life-Size,” a volume that includes digitized reproductions of all 114 known photographs of Lincoln, most of them portraits. The book was assembled by three descendants of Frederick Meserve, one of the best-known collectors of Lincoln images. The authors used high technology to calculate the size of Lincoln’s head. The head was cropped from each of several dozen photographs and reproduced on the facing page in life size. The result is fascinating and, at times, unsettling. The authors also accompany each photograph with texts drawn from a variety of sources, some putting the photo in context, others illuminating some aspect of Lincoln’s public or private life.

GERTRUDE EDERLE

“America’s Girl” is a biography of Gertrude Ederle, a young woman from New York City who, in 1926, not only became the first woman to swim the English Channel, but far surpassed the previous record — set, obviously, by a man. Ederle did not lead an exciting life in the long term, but in the weeks and months after her achievement, she was a celebrity of proportions that have only rarely been exceeded —  even in our own age of instant notoriety. More  important, really, is that her accomplishment had a significance that transcended her personal fortunes. Ederle confounded the widely accepted assumption that women were not capable of feats like the one she performed. Her crossing helped to accelerate brewing changes in how women were regarded and what they were permitted to do in a society in which only men were allowed to vote until only five years before. The book was written by Tim Dahlberg with Mary Ederle Ward – the swimmer’s niece – and Brenda Green.

Yogi Berra jumps into Don Larsen's arms after the last out of the perfect game.

“Perfect” by Lew Paper, is based on Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Paper examines the well-worn but still fascinating fact that this feat – achieved only once since the World Series was inaugurated in 1903 – was carried out by a mediocre pitcher whose name would long have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for that day. But Paper makes his book good winter reading for baseball fanatics by devoting each of his 18 chapters to one the half-innings in that game, and focusing each chapter on one of the players who participated. In one instance only, he profiles two players – Jackie Robinson and Gil McDouglald – in a single chapter. In each case, Paper recounts the personal history that brought the player – Mickey Mantle, Enos Slaughter, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese – to that historic moment in sports. Not the least of these figures is Dale Mitchell of the Dodgers who was pinch hitting for starting pitcher Sal Maglie in the top of the ninth when he took the called strike that sealed Larsen’s place in history. Mitchell, who had one of the best batting eyes of his era, thought  the pitch was high. So, according to Paper, did most of the Yankees on the field. But, as one baseball wag observed, when the umpire calls strike three on you, even God can’t get you off.

Authorities estimated that a third of the population of New York City - about two million people - turned out for this ticker-tape parade for Gertrude Ederle. It remains the largest such event to honor an individual athlete. (© Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS)

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