Madison Square Garden in New York
(Madison Square Garden)

Let me begin by stating that I have been a Knicks fan going back to the 1960s.  The great teams led by Willis Reed, Walt Clyde Frazier, Bill Bradley and company will always be the benchmark for success, a model that has been impossible to replicate.  After a few down years, the drafting of Patrick Ewing created hope that was almost realized in the 1990s.  Since that time there is only one way to describe this franchise; dysfunction, incompetence, and an inability to draft properly despite the presence of the supposed genius of Phil Jackson.  Today it seems the team may have ended the thirty year point guard drought by signing Jalen Brunson to go along with its young core, but who can tell whether this is the first step back aside from the Julius Randle mirage and false hope of two years ago.  When one thinks of the plight of the Knicks fan there is nostalgia for the past and prayers for the future.  Since this is the case if one wants to feel better one can return to the last time the New York Knicks were relevant and Madison Square Garden was rocking.  To meet that need I must thank Chris Herring, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated whose new book,  BLOOD IN THE GARDEN: THE FLAGRANT HISTORY OF THE 1990S NEW YORK KNICKS fills that void.

(Pat Riley)

Herring’s deeply researched account highlights a number of combative personalities.  Coach Pat Riley and his Armani suits instilled a fighting spirit in players like Charles Oakley, John Starks, Anthony Mason and others which after two years of “intimidating” basketball led the National Basketball Association to alter certain rules.  The 1990s team had an amazing work ethic highlighted by its “wars” with its perennial enemy Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls, and later with the Riley led Miami Heat.  Their playoff games were classics, though in the end the Bulls were more talented, and they presented a roadblock that the Knicks could never overcome, and the Heat would succumb to the Knicks more often than not.  Herring dives deep into the player relationships, player attitudes and talents, and a number of fascinating personalities as he describes the highs and lows of the decade, but also the staunch support from New York basketball fans who grew to love the team.

Herring begins his narrative at the New York Knicks’ first practice under Pat Riley in 1991 with a fight between Xavier McDaniel and Anthony Mason during a rebounding drill.  This would set the tone as to the type of team the Knicks were on the way to becoming.  Under Riley they would emulate the physicality of the then recent two time world champion Detroit Pistons, a strategy that would dominate the team for a decade.

Herring reviews Riley’s physicality drills, one called “suicide ally” in detail and how players reacted and adapted.  In Riley’s world there was no such thing as working too hard and Herring takes a deep dive into Riley’s methods and psychological approach to coaching.  He was a master at manipulating his players, presenting speeches that captivated his team and provided a motivation that few coaches could replicate as he turned the team into a winner.  In their first playoff series in 1991 they even out bullied the Detroit Pistons, replacing them as the leagues’ “bad boys.”

The epitome of the type of player Riley favored was Charles Oakley whose 1992 playoff hit on Indiana Pacers Reggie Miller shocked officials into not calling a foul, but later he would draw a $10,000 fine and would lead the league in flagrant fouls.  The question for the media was whether the Knicks were dirty or overly aggressive as they pushed the envelope with their type of play.  Herring provides numerous examples of hard fouls, fights, and other types of melees involving players and coaches.

The aberration to the Knicks type of play was Charles Smith obtained in a trade in 1992 from the Los Angeles Clippers.  Smith’s personality and on the court makeup was the opposite from most of his teammates.  Herring’s discussion of Smith is just one example of how he analyzed players for their temperament, approach to the game, relationships with coaches and teammates.  He explores the likes of rambunctious and at times dangerous players like Anthony Mason and John Starks, players with short fuses who played with a sharp edge.  Patrick Ewing, the key to the team, is ever present in Herring’s analysis as he describes Ewing’s triumphs and disappointments.  Ewing was the rock that the Knicks leaned on throughout the decade and it is a shame that he never earned that championship ring no matter how much heart he left on the court.  Herring also focuses on players outside the core including Latrell Sprewell whose controversial arrival to the team turned out well as did the drafting of Larry Johnson.

Charles Oakley
(Charles Oakley)

Herring introduces coaches aside from Pat Riley in an interesting fashion.  Riley’s replacement Don Nelson was the anti-Riley.  Riley was a bit paranoid and a control freak who rarely exhibited empathy.  Nelson came across as a mad scientist who created an “inverted, semi-position less system” that has evolved into a dominant coaching strategy two decades later.  The most important coach apart from Riley during the decade was Jeff Van Gundy, a workaholic in the Riley mode but exhibited greater sensitivity toward his players.  Always looking behind his shoulder because of the arrival of the new owner James Dolan he drove the Knicks to the 1999 NBA finals and was an exceptional teacher of basketball.

Opens profile photo
(jeff Van Gundy)

After reliving the 1990s with Mr. Herring I am still trying to determine which loss was the most heartbreaking – 1994 to Houston, 1996 to Miami, Reggie Miller’s 9 points in 12 seconds, a brawl that knocked out their five best players from a playoff game, and 1993 to the Bulls which still hurts as I still have memories of Charles Smith’s inability to put back a rebound.

The sports media cauldron of New York is always front and center.  The arrival of James Dolan and the decline of the Knicks over the last two decades does not receive the coverage it should and perhaps a longer epilogue would have enhanced this component of the story.  However, overall, Herring has delivered an exceptional sports book dissecting a team that was adored in New York and as he states that the reason he accepted the challenge of authoring the book was  to fill the void for Knick fans – I will point out he has accomplished his mission.

Madison Square Garden in New York - All Access Tour Knicks

ETERNAL by Lisa Scottoline

Italy remembers the Nazi raid on the Rome Ghetto
(Memorial to former residents of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto)

Lisa Scottoline has written over 30 novels most of which are legal thrillers.  She decided to change her approach and investigate the Italian Holocaust because while in graduate school she had taken a course from Philip Roth on the literature of the Holocaust and was an avid reader of Primo Levi, the Italian Elie Wiesel.  In her latest effort she branches out to historical fiction  where she continues to deal with issues of family, justice, and honor but in a different format.  Her new novel, EITERNAL is set in Italy beginning in 1937 and follows a group of teenagers who are living a simple life until European politics and war engulf them.  Scottoline examines friendship and love and what they mean to her characters who must mature quickly as war overtakes their lives.

Scottoline begins by introducing one of her main characters Elisabetta D’afeo whose youth was encompassed by the regime of Benito Mussolini wondering how after twenty years she is finally going to tell her son who his father really was.  Scottoline immediately turns to May 1937 in Rome and focuses on the friendship triangle embodied in three teenagers; Elisabetta, who aspires to be a writer, works in the Casa Servano restaurant, caring for her alcoholic father and wrestles with the fact her mother has abandoned her.  Next we meet Marco Terrizzi, a young man who joins the local fascist party and disagrees with his father who fought in World War I and his brother, a priest over the course of Italian politics.  Lastly, we meet Sandro Simone, a brilliant Jewish mathematician, whose father becomes obsessed with helping fellow Jews acquire exemptions when the government begins to pass racial laws that destroy the lives of Italian Jews.

Rome marks 1943 bombing of S. Lorenzo
(Allied bombing of San Lorenzo/Rome, October, 1943)

The three are close friends and a love triangle emerges as both Marco and Sandro fall in love with Elisabetta, a tomboyish girl they have known all their lives.  The first half of the novel revolves around this love triangle but once war commences all three find their lives turned upside down.  Religion, personal loyalty, relationships, and the pressure of racial laws and the war dominate the novel.

Scottoline develops the love triangle very carefully until it is undone by Mussolini’s racial laws.  Each family is affected by its contents particularly those who had been loyal fascists and even fought in World War I.  The story evolves in conjunction with the layering of racial laws by the Fascist government which are proclaimed over a few months.  Scottoline is meticulous in her  command of history and scenes are well thought out as she applies events, documents, and the beliefs of her characters which she integrates into her novel.  Examples of historical accuracy abound.  Aside from the development of racial laws, her recounting of the allied bombing of the San Lorenzo section of Rome in July 1943 and its impact that led to the overthrow of Mussolini is carefully presented while at the same time reflect how her characters react to the bombing which sets the stage for the last third of the novel.

Scottoline develops wonderful characters apart from Marco, Sandro, and Elisabetta.  A prime example is Sandro’s father, Massimo.  Once a successful tax lawyer he becomes the conduit for many Jews to obtain exemptions from the increasingly intrusive racial laws promulgated by the Italian government.  Massimo is a member of the Fascist Party and fought in World War I and can not understand why his family is denied an exemption because of his background.  Another is Nonna, a wonderful woman who owns the restaurant that Elisabetta works in.  When the young girl is left alone by her family she moves in with Nonna who becomes her surrogate mother, and she in turn becomes Nonna’s surrogate daughter.  There are numerous other characters which the author lists at the beginning of the book which makes it easier for the reader to keep up with as they are introduced and become major players in the novel.

The story develops slowly on a number of levels.  First, Marco whose job with the Fascist Party separates him from his closest friend because of the racial laws which he finds appalling because of its effect on Sandro’s family.  Second, Elisabetta, after severing her relationship with Marco and is turned away by Sandro, turns to authoring her novel as a means of healing.  Finally, Sandro, devastated by the racial laws accepts his plight and teaches math to children at the synagogue as part of his solace.

The book is a well written and an accomplished historical novel that is steeped in period detail and full of relatable characters and is a welcome addition to the ever expanding list of new historical novels dealing with World War II, and in this case focusing on Italy.  The concept of blind faith is severely tested throughout be it a loving relationship or loyalty to a growing anti-Semitic regime that has led Italy into a disastrous war denying people their livelihoods and for some their total existence. 

(San Lorenzo 75 years after the war)

Scottoline focuses on the personal journeys of her characters.  Two stand out, Marco and his father Beppe.  The two become estranged over a series of issues but they will come back to each other.  What made it difficult was Beppe’s World War I experience and his belief in fascism.  His son Marco, also a committed fascist loved Mussolini and his country which his father warned him about before the war.  Once Italy surrenders and the Nazis seize Rome father and son join each other in the resistance.

Scottoline does a superb job of ramping up suspense as she delivers a slow-build up as she traces the October 1943 Nazi roundup of Rome’s Jewish ghetto and its impact on her characters that culminates in scenes where Jews are being shipped from a transit camp to their deaths in Auschwitz.  Scottoline offers many poignant scenes, many of which culminate in disaster.  Scottoline’s success in achieving such a wonderful novel leads this reader to hope that her foray into historical fiction will continue.

(Rome’s former Jewish Ghetto)


The Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C.

To date there have been countless books written about Donald Trump’s machinations.  They seem to cover all aspects of his presidency, personality, and private life.  They range from psychological profiles, the women he has been involved with, his career in business, his election in 2016, his presidency, and finally his defeat in 2020 and its ramifications for the American people.  The books are written mostly by reporters who have covered Trump, acolytes, family members, and people that Trump has used.  Most are well written and are supported by author’s research in addition to the facts and reality of living with the MAGA world.  No matter how important each book may be in their own right, none can compare with Mark Leibovich’s new book, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVITUDE: DONALD’S TRUMP’S WASHINGTON AND THE PRICE OF SUBMISSION.  What sets Leibovich’s work apart from others is his writing style, which is humorous, sarcastic, caustic, and in its own way analytical.  Leibovich’s narrative encompasses much of the same material as others, but it is in his presentation that makes another rehash of the Trump years palatable.

As he has done in his bestseller, THIS TOWN which dissected the current political culture in Washington, his latest focuses and confronts the leadership of the Republican Party and their minions and appley describes the type of power hungry individuals who have ridden roughshod over the former principles of the GOP and latched onto Donald Trump to maintain their own self-interest and political office. In his entertaining account Leibovich zeroes in on Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, along with other characters like Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Reince Priebus, among others who seem to dominate Trump’s circle, despite the fact that most previously chronicled their distaste for Trump.  What all of these personages have in common is that they sold their souls to the devil, in the name of the “Donald.”

Leibovich’s profile has a locus that seems to be the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC.  After reading Leibovich’s account it is hard to distinguish between the importance of the Hotel and the White House.  It is clear that the hotel is the center of power where acolytes, notable members of society, Trump supporters, and administration colleagues gather to make policy and plan what is best for Donald Trump and America in general.  

Unlike many of the new books on Trump, personal memoirs by individuals who have seen the light and analyze how the MAGA world has altered American politics, Leibovich zeroes in on the creation of a dangerous culture of submission within the GOP and the nihilism and cynicism that has resulted.  At times Leibovich’s humor and sarcasm dominates the narrative, but in reality his narrative is based on factual information, and it is a serious analysis of what Trump and his MAGA converts have done to America.

Leibovich’s purpose in authoring the book is not to rehash events and personalities that have dominated the news for the last seven years but to tell the story of the ordeal Trump has put this country through – “the supplicant fanboys who permitted Donald Trump’s depravity to be infected on the rest of us.”

Leibovich is correct that the key to Trump’s support in 2016 and 2020 was that his followers saw him as a truth teller, despite the fact he was a habitual liar.   Further, Trump’s appeal in the MAGA world is clear – “Trump’s spool of personal grievances had become their own.  In effect, his narcissism did, too.”  From the outset Trump presented an alternative reality that was supported by the likes of Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Hope Hicks, Vice President Pence. Mark Meadows, Reince Priebus and a host of many other enablers.  Leibovitch takes the reader through each of these individuals and their role in dealing with Trump, be it the size of the 2016 inauguration crowd, the cabinet meeting when Trump’s appointee kowtowed to their leader, to the clearing of Lafayette Park by the military in order for Trump to have a photo op in front of a church holding a bible.  Leibovich’s commentary is priceless as he describes Hicks – “She has the distinct superpower in her ability to manage Trump, not unlike how a care provider might have a special knack for managing a particular toddler.”

Leibovich has the ability to put on paper exactly what mature  people were thinking in response to Trump’s latest scheming.  Mitch McConnell comes under Leibovich’s lens as the political operator and power hungry person that he exhibits each day.  It is a fundamental problem, but Leibovich makes it acceptable as he describes McConnell’s “zombie walk – stony faced, owlish, and keep walking” approach to responding to the most egregious actions taken by Trump.  McConnell is not the only person to be skewered by Leibovich.  Lindsay Graham is a special target particularly his relationship with Senator John McCain, supposedly his friend and accomplice in the senate.  But his true nature is front and center when McCain passes away and Graham “sucks up” to Trump as he knew how to stroke the president’s erogenous zones, i.e., undoing Obama’s accomplishments and restoring America to greatness.  In a sense McCain’s death was liberating for Graham as he could now be out in the open about what type of person he really is.

Washington, D.C., January 4 2019: President Donald Trump enters the Rose Garden at the White House after meeting with Democratic leadership to discuss the ongoing partial government shutdown.
(President Trump and Congressman Kevin McCarthy)

Trump converted many lemmings such as Ron DeSantis and Devin Nunes who experienced non-descript careers before attaching themselves to Trump.  Trump had a gift in knowing how to draw in disaffected characters.  Leibovich is correct that in a sense that Trumpism was like “group therapy for conservatives who feel alienated from, and hostile toward, the progressive consensus…Trumpism is, at heart, not a philosophy, but an enemies list.”  Republicans had the remarkable ability to “suspend belief” when it came to impeachment and other issues and illegalities.  They had to or else the Trump smear brigade of Fox News and co, plus supporters would have made their lives miserable.

(Congresswoman Elizabteh Cheney)

Leibovich tries hard to find heroes in the Republican Party.  He praises Mitt Romney for voting for impeachment and other comments, but in the end Romney can not overcome his past, just look at his actions in dealing with the “Big Dig” in Boston when he was Massachusetts governor. Perhaps the topic that is most disturbing which even Leibovich’s sarcasm and humor cannot overcome is the rehashing of January 6, 2021.  It is here that the author describes the “land the plane” strategy pursued by the GOP leadership to get the country to January 20th and Joe Biden’s inauguration.  Along the way Leibovitch drills down into the duplicitous and hypocritic Speaker of the House hopeful, Kevin McCarthy.  There is no need to trace his anger at Trump for January 6th to his visit to Mar-a-Lago a few weeks later when he realized he could not be Speaker without Trump.  So off he went to kiss the ring and kowtow once again.  What is most disturbing is that January 6th underscores how extreme Trump’s one way loyalty really is and the contempt he has for those most devoted to him.

If there is a pseudo hero in Leibovitch’s account it is Liz Cheney who despite her conservative credentials and voting record (93% with Trump) is being drummed out of the GOP because of her stand for constitutional principles and democracy.  Be that as it may, we as Americans are stuck.  Even if Donald Trump passed from the scene, Trumpism is embedded in the GOP and almost half the country.  It will be interesting if Attorney General Merrick Garland decides to prosecute Trump, Trump declares for the GOP nomination for 2024, or any matter of things that could rip our country further apart.  One thing is clear in that the Trump acolytes will continue to serve his interests because they correspond with their own need for power and recognition.


(Rickey Henderson after he broke Lou Brock’s alltime base stealing record)

There are few more talented and interesting characters in baseball history than the enigmatic Rickey Henderson.  Be it his personality or ego which dominated a number of clubhouses or his play on the baseball diamond one accurate description emerges, unchallenged talent and a desire to be the greatest or one of the greatest in baseball history.  Henderson set the record for the most stolen baseball in a season, the most career runs scored, walks, the most lead off home runs, 3000 hits, earning a series of gold gloves and was a force in of himself.  All of these accomplishments are captured by Howard Bryant in his latest book, RICKEY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL, which is an apt title for his biography.  Bryant has written a number of deeply researched and insightful books dealing with baseball and racism in American society.  His JUICING THE GAME: DRUGS, POWER, AND THE FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL is a superb recounting and expose dealing with the steroid era in baseball; SHUT OUT: A STORY OF RACE AND BASEBALL IN BOSTON zeroes in on the Yawkey family and their role in making the Red Sox one of the most racist franchises in baseball history; FULL DISSIDENCE: NOTES FROM AN UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD uses baseball as a meditation on the idea that we are living in a post-racial America which he easily destroys; and  THE HERO: A LIFE OF HENRY AARON which explores the life story of a different type of person and player than Henderson.  Unlike Henderson, Aaron was not as flamboyant or controversial and was beloved for his dedication to his craft and “played baseball the right way,” not rubbing his peers the wrong way despite his talent and on field performance.  In his latest effort, Bryant has prepared an intimate portrait of “the man of steal” discussing all aspects of his background, career, and life after many of his skills had eroded.  What emerges is a very complex portrait of a man who thrilled baseball fans on a daily basis for over two decades.

As in all of his books Bryant places his subject in the context of the civil rights movement and racism in sports.  RICKEY is no exception as he presents Henderson’s early  life story within the framework of white backlash against integration as he grew up in Pine Bluffs, AK, 45 minutes from Little Rock amidst the “Crisis at Central High School” in 1957 to Oakland, CA which became central to the black exodus from the south following World War II – in a sense the city was the black Ellis Island.  In 1940 Oakland was 2.8% black and by 1950 81% of blacks living in the city were born in the south and followed the concept of “chain migration.”  Bryant’s approach is a thoughtful one as he recounts why so many blacks migrated to Oakland.  The lure of jobs at the docks and defense industry as World War II commenced became a lifeline for southern blacks to escape violence, murder, lynching’s and all the “accoutrements” of living in the racist south.  It is fascinating to realize the baseball talent that accrued to Oakland as southern black families arrived.  Hall of Fame sports figures such as Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Joe Morgan, Curt Flood, Bill Russell, and Paul Silas all seemed to have the same migration background.

MLB Photos Archive
(New York Yankee manager, Billy Martin)

Bryant’s methodology toward sports biography is different than most.  His portrayals are steeped in American history, especially white racism, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and the forces in American society and uses Oakland as a microcosm for white racism and the plight of the black community.  It should not be a surprise that the Black Panther Movement of the 1960s and leaders such as Bobby Seale and Huey Newton hailed from Oakland.  In the 1940s and 50s Oakland was 90% segregated and it is in this climate that the 10 year old Rickey Henderson arrived from Arkansas in 1969.

Bryant carefully traces Rickey’s early years and his path to the major leagues.  Along the way we meet important personages like Charles O. Finley, the controversial and innovative owner of the Oakland A’s, Billy Martin, the abusive, racist, and brilliant manager of the team, Mike Norris, a pitcher who became Rickey’s best friend along with numerous characters that dominated baseball during Rickey’s career.  Rickey was all about himself – what was his worth, and his overall goal of becoming the greatest base stealer of all time breaking Ty Cobb and Lou Brock’s records.

Rickey’s life story reflects the lack of education due to segregation to the point that Henderson never really learned how to read in school as with many black athlete’s teachers would pass them on despite not mastering basic reading and writing skills as long as they could perform on the field or the arena.  Bryant explains this is why Rickey refused certain obligations knowing he could not read well and feared embarrassment and humiliation.  “Rickey speaks,” or “Rickey being Rickey” was a reputation he acquired in large part because of his own inferiority when it came to private interaction or activities involving public speaking or reading. 

Oakland Athletics
(Mike Norris)

According to Bryant Rickey burned to be great, but he was often a singular character, someone set apart from the rest.  He was not one of the guys in the clubhouse and he showed none of the deference veterans expected.  His lack of reverence was possibly a by-product of football being his number one choice as an athlete.  Another reason was his belief in his own ability.  He did not walk into the clubhouse in awe of everything baseball as many young players did.  Thirdly, Rickey never forgot the day he was drafted and who was drafted ahead of him.  He was chosen in the 4th round and believed he was a $100,000 ballplayer, not the $10,000 he signed for.

Billy Martin played an outsized role in Rickey’s development.  Perhaps because they both hailed from Oakland and had a similar view of baseball they would get along except that Martin was a control freak who refused to give Rickey the “green light” to steal at will.  Everything needed Martin’s approval, but it was under his managerial tenure that Rickey excelled and would break numerous records, which brought about Rickey’s resentment as his manager took a great deal of credit for his accomplishments.  In the end it did not matter who his manager was, Rickey was fueled by his obsession with greatness.

Rickey Henderson Field Dedication
(Rickey Henderson, his wife Pamela and their children)

Importantly, Bryant discusses Rickey’s “crouch” in the batter’s box which reduced his strike zone leading to increasing numbers of walks and steals as it forced pitchers to throw directly into his power.  Outfielder Billy Sample described Rickey’s strike zone as that “of a matchbox.” Opposing players, umpires, particularly pitchers and catchers complained in vain, and Bryant’s vignettes are priceless.  Rickey’s “style” made catchers look bad, increasing their hostility toward Rickey.  When he slid into home they hit him hard, when pitchers tried to pick him off first basemen would slap on a tag to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible – but nothing stopped him.  Rickey’s reputation as a “hot dog,” i.e., the development of his “snatch catch” was part of what he termed his “styling” something he had done since he was a kid, but according to Bryant many reporters evaluated his performance with a racial tone.

Bryant deftly places Henderson’s career and personality in the milieu of baseball history and carefully compares and contrasts him with others, contemporary and in the past.  Stories about Joe DiMaggio, Lou Brock, Willie Wilson provide insights into Rickey’s approach to baseball and his amazing accomplishments.  Different from others in his approach to his sport Rickey seemed to me in his own world.  He would talk to himself in the batter’s box, he would stroll slowly to the plate, and had so many eccentric habits that a Yankee executive, Woody Woodward described him by saying, “I’ve never seen a guy look so fast in slow motion.”

FILE - Oakland Athletics pitcher Dave Stewart celebrates the team's 6-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 5 of baseball's AL Championship Series on Oct. 12, 1992, in Oakland, Calif. Stewart is still waiting for his number retirement ceremony. Stewart, now 65, found out in August 2019 the club planned to retire his No. 34 jersey, then it didnt happen during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season or last year. The former World Series MVP and four-time 20-game winner posted on his Twitter account this week some frustration with his hometown team. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
(Dave Stewart)

For Rickey, the “unwritten rules of baseball” should never have been written!  He went by a different drummer where his personal statistics were paramount.  Bryant compares Rickey’s accomplishments with contemporaries like Tim Raines, Willie Wilson and James Lofton and despite their success they came up short.   Rickey always measured himself against the accomplishments of others, particularly those he felt were a threat and these three individuals appear repeatedly in Bryant’s narrative.

At times Bryant digresses but does a wonderful job discussing Rickey’s relationship with managers such as Tony La Russa, who always believed and still does that he is the smartest man in the room, Buck Showalter, his New York Yankee manager who was considered a hard nosed manager, Bobby Valentine, the New York Mets Manager who Rickey held in disdain.  Of course, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner appears, Dave Stewart, one of his closest friends, Jose Canseco, a home run hitter who Rickey saw as a buffoon, Reggie Jackson, a teammate in Oakland with an outsized ego, and Don Mattingly, a Yankee teammate who he admired among many portraits that are depicted. Bryant’s work is extremely entertaining and satisfying.  It is well written as all of Bryant’s books and provides evidence for Rickey’s place in baseball history.  The book is a great read just for all the “Rickey stories” and “Rickeyisms” he quotes.  As his career evolved his reputation changed from a self-absorbed record seeker who in his late thirties became a beloved person whose feats and numbers spoke for themselves.  Playing at a time when players were beginning to flex their  legal muscle entering the age of free agency as owners could no longer control them for life, Rickey’s performance on the diamond cannot be challenged.  An excellent read.

** FILE ** In this May 1, 1991, file photo, Oakland Athletics' Rickey Henderson celebrates and raises third base after setting the all-time stolen base record during the Athletics' baseball game in Oakland, Calif., against the New York Yankees. The stolen base was Henderson's 939th, moving him past Lou Brock. Henderson was voted into baseball's Hall of Fame on Monday, Jan. 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

ASHTON HALL by Lauren Belfer

The Parterre Garden at Blickling Estate, Norfolk. Blickling is a turreted red-brick Jacobean mansion, sitting within beautiful gardens and parkland.
(Bickling Hall, York, United Kingdom)

From the outset I must point out that Lauren Belfer is one of my favorite authors.  That opinion is predicated on a series of wonderful historical novels that she has written since 2003.  The first, CITY OF LIGHT, Belfer a New York Times bestselling author delves into turn of the century Buffalo, NY and evidence of a murder tied to the city’s cathedral-like power plant at nearby Niagara Falls.  She then authored the NPR Mystery of the Year, A FIERCE RADIANCE, a story centered around the uncertain days following Pearl Harbor, and the clinical testing of a new medication at the renowned Rockefeller Institute in New York. Belfer  follows with perhaps her finest work, AND AFTER THE FIRE: A NOVEL a story inspired by historical events—about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.  In her latest effort, ASHTON HALL Belfer pursues a different approach as for the first time her novel takes place in the present and does not focus totally on the past.  She still creates a strong evocative story which focuses on Hannah Larson, a frustrated academic who decides to leave New York City as she is dealing with a problematic marriage and takes her nine year old son, Nicky to Cambridge, England for a summer at a historic manor house.  She will soon be exposed to a discovery that will alter her life – her son Nicky finds the skeletal remains of a woman walled into a forgotten part of the manor.

An image posted by the author.
(Lauren Belfer)

Hannah had been working on her Ph. D in Greek art when her son Nicky was born.  She decided to put off her graduate education and take care of her son full time and relied on her husband, Kevin for support.  As Nicky grew he developed certain emotional and behavioral issues that seem to border on autism, but in the novel it is labeled “neurodiversity in children.”  Nicky is prone to violent and angry episodes at times which he cannot control.  Hannah is at a crossroads.  She wants to complete her dissertation, provide a new experience for her son, and after learning that her husband is bi-sexual decide what to do about her marriage – the offer to stay with her uncle Christopher who is dying of cancer at Ashton Hall seems like a fortuitous opportunity to recalibrate and experience the life she thought she should have, not the one she was living.

Once she arrives and gets settled at the mansion Nicky makes the skeletal discovery and the focus of the novel shifts.  Belfer has constructed a story that runs on parallel tracks.  First, we have Hannah’s personal quest to change her life’s path.  In conversations between characters, we learn a great deal about Hannah.  She comes from a family that survived the Holocaust with a self-willed and independent mother with no father to speak of.  Nicky becomes the core of her existence, but she is trying to ameliorate her situation by turning to her past to rekindle a new avocation.  Second, Belfer uses the discovery of the skeletal remains to pursue another story line and a historical character that Hannah can relate to and to whom she will develop a deep attachment.  Third, she begins to develop a relationship with Professor Matthew Varet, a Cambridge University archeologist who is assisting in trying to identify who the skeleton was and in what time period.

The model for Ashton Hall was Bickling Hall in York, England, a national trust historical mansion.  Legend holds that Anne Boleyn was born at the site and each year she haunts the estate on the anniversary of her execution.  Years ago, Belfer had visited the mansion and stayed at a nearby cottage and after years of deliberation decided to use it as a model for her current work.

Ashton Hall

Belfer carefully unravels the research process that will identify the skeleton as Isabella Cresham who lived in the latter part of the 16th century.  Hannah identifies with Isabella in a number of ways, and it seems the two women are linked across the centuries.  By going through the books Cresham has read in the mansion’s library Hannah learns of their mutual interest in art and from genetic testing she learns that the woman is between 35-45 years old, is physically healthy, is of a high social class, has reddish hair and never gave birth to a child.  Hannah is clearly haunted by the discovery of Cresham, and she sees parallels between their lives with a nagging question: did Cresham choose this life, or was she locked away?   The undercurrent for the Cresham discovery was the reappearance of plague, and the religious conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism in England during her lifetime, a theme that continues to reappear throughout the novel, and evidence that points to Cresham’s devotion to Catholicism.  Intolerance, murder, death, and violence, characteristic of Elizabethan England has similarities for Hannah because of her families’ experiences during World War II.

The physical structure of Ashton Hall is on full display with moats and priest holes along with the architecture  of the castle.  Different personages from the period, i.e., Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VII, and VIII among a number of historical personalities appear.  Belfer employs account registers, library records and key 16th century documents to provide Professor Varet and his academic partner, Dr. Martha Tingley’s tools research in reconstructing Cresham’s life.  Belfer writes with a light touch and digs up fascinating details of the period.  For example, the role of mothers in 16th century England included that of a medical practitioner applying various herbal remedies.  For instance, during his reign Henry VIII suffered from gout and used the homeopathic remedy, colchicum, a remedy that is still used today by homeopathic practitioners and some MDs.

ASHTON HALL is a well crafted novel and draws the reader into the story in a slow careful manner.  Though Belfer’s approach may be different from previous novels, in the end it is a success as one is drawn into the two parallel lives.  The story abounds with comparisons of what it is to be British, and what it is to be American.  The differences and similarities are interesting and point to Belfer’s astute observations. In the end, if you fancy Tudor England, historical fiction, the history pertaining to libraries, and a story that is a struggle for self-identity and discovery you should enjoy the story.

Blickling Hall in Norfolk


Rudolf Vrba
(Rudi Vrba)

Two words dominate Jonathan Freedland’s new book, THE ESCAPE ARTIST: THE MAN WHO BROKE OUT OF AUSCHWITZ TO WARN THE WORLD; trust and escape.  These terms would dominate the life of Walter Rosenberg, a Slovakian Jew who along with three others would escape from Auschwitz in 1944.  Only seventeen in February 1942, Rosenberg was rounded up by the Nazis which would begin a horrible journey that would culminate in being deported with his family to Poland.  Passing through Novaky, a Slovak transit camp, he would wind up in Majdanek and then on to Auschwitz by June 1942 where he would remain until April 1944 when he and his compatriot, Fred Wetzler would become the first Jews to escape “the crowning achievement of Nazi extermination.”

From that point on Walter Rosenberg, who would change his name to Rudi Vrba would dedicate his existence to gathering evidence of Nazi atrocities in order to warn Jews of what they could expect once they were deported to Auschwitz.  It was his hope that once warned, Jews would put up as much resistance as possible apart from marching docilly to their deaths.

Freedland’s gripping book sets out to bring Vrba to prominence as a name to be mentioned in the same category as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Oskar Schindler, and Anne Frank.  In telling his story Freedland focuses on Vrba’s prodigious memory as he mentally catalogued what he witnessed each day in the camp.  At the outset he may not have realized it but thanks to a series of arbitrary events and lucky breaks Vrba had acquired an unusually comprehensive expertise in the workings of Auschwitz.  Freedland writes that “he had lived or worked in the main camp, at Birkenau and at Bu8na; Auschwitz I, II, III.  He had worked in the gravel pits, the DAW factory, and in Kanada.  He had been an intimate witness of the selection process that preceded the organized murder of thousands….He knew the precise layout of the camp and believed he had a good idea as to how many had entered Auschwitz by train, and how many left via chimney.  And he had committed it all to memory.”


Freeland describes Vrba’s experiences with a keen eye and his ability to process what he experienced as preparation for his escape to warn his fellow Jews.  Freeland relies on the work of two prominent Holocaust historians, David Cesarini and Nikolaus Wachsmann in his retelling of the Final Solution and integrating those events into Vrba’s story.  Freeland’s chapter entitled, “Kanada,” provides insights into Vrba’s methodology as he was assigned to an area where he would separate and quantify the possessions of prisoners upon their arrival at the camp.  Later, he would be assigned to greet and assist in separating arrivals as they exited the cattle cars.  Freeland’s detail is remarkable as even toothpaste tubes were used to hide diamonds.  These experiences helped him master the numbers  that Nazi extermination produced.

Freeland’s overriding theme rests on Vrba’s obsessive drive to escape.  No matter where he found himself or what condition he was in he was always thinking and plotting.  Once Freeland turns to April 1944 and Vrba’s tortuous journey out of the camp we see a young man wise beyond his years realize his dream of warning Jews that deportation to Auschwitz meant death.  He had watched the SS decide who was to live and die with a flick of the finger, now after witnessing so much he decided he could sound the warning that obviated the process.

Freeland describes how observant Vrba was and focuses on the idea that no one could be trusted, even the few he felt comfortable with.  He partnered with Fred Wetzler, another Slovakian Jew and two others in planning and carrying out their departure and what emerges is an amazing story that provides many insights into the resistance to the Holocaust and how difficult it became to educate Jews as to what their fate would become.

Interestingly, Vrba took a course in “escapology” from Dimitri Volkov, a Russian POW who had escaped from Sachsenhausen, another Nazi concentration camp.  The key was to carry no money or food and live off the land.  Further, a watch was needed, as was a knife which could be used for suicide because capture meant torture and death.  Salt and matches were also needed and most importantly, trust no one.


As Vrba’s journey evolved he develops a deep resentment towards the Jewish Councils that had cooperated with the Nazis and facilitated their methodology in deporting Jews to the death camps.  Freeland notes that Vrba would carry these feelings for the rest of his life particularly involving the actions of Rezso Kasztner, the controversial head of the Budapest Jewish Council who blocked the dissemination of Vrba and Wetzler’s report of what transpired in Auschwitz.

Once the escape proved successful Vrba’s mission was to prepare a report that would support newspaper and eyewitness accounts of what transpired in the death camps.  This discussion is one of the most important aspects of the book as the report is retyped, translated, and printed and eventually reaches the desks of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and a series of high Vatican officials.  Freeland analyzes this process as to why little or nothing was done, concluding that politics, anti-Semitism, and years of denigrating Jews by church officials was responsible.

Freeland’s rendering of Vrba’s life continues after the war as he lived in Israel, London, and eventually settled in Vancouver.  He became a successful research scientist, married twice, and had two daughters.  Despite professional success following the war he was haunted by bouts of paranoia, anger, lack of trust, and an inability to gain true acceptancefor what he tried to achieve during the war.  As the years passed on he never wavered in his belief that the Jews knew nothing of Auschwitz, despite evidence to the contrary.  Despite this in the end his report was pivotal in saving 200,000 Budapest Jews from extermination as President Roosevelt warned the Hungarian government in late 1944 as to the consequences if more jews were slaughtered.  But this only occurred after a frustrated Vrba and Wetzler decides to print and disseminate their report by themselves when others would not cooperate.

According to Blake Morrison in his The Guardian review of 8 June 2022, “Vrba had three core beliefs about Auschwitz: that the outside world didn’t know about the “final solution”; that once they did know, the allies would intervene; and that once Jews knew, they would refuse to board those fateful trains. Without in the least diminishing Vrba, Freedland disproves all three. Word of the Nazis’ “cold-blooded extermination” had got out at least 18 months before his escape. Allied policy was inhibited by inertia and antisemitism (“In my opinion a disproportionate amount of time of the Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews”, wrote someone in the Foreign Office in London). And whereas younger Jews believed Vrba, the majority were with philosopher Raymond Aron, who said: “I knew but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”

Freedland has written a remarkable account combining the history of the Holocaust with the life experiences of a young man, who will emerge emotionally damaged from the war suffering from PTSD.  Despite Vrba’s flaws as a person his commitment to warn Hungary’s Jews stands as a tremendous accomplishment despite the negative opinions of a number of Holocaust historians toward his work.  The book is well written, an absorbing read, and an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust.

No photo description available.
(Rudi Vrba)