Book Reviews

Book Review: The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800

For history lovers, The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800 is a must read. Author Jay Winik guides readers through the major events of this pivotal global turning point. The American Revolution’s ideals of freedom and liberty were felt over much of the world. Motivated to strike a blow to England, his country’s enemy, King Louis XVI of France helped finance and support the revolution, sending troops like the famous Lafayette, At the same time, the enlightened Catherine the Great of Russia initially pursued these ideals and embraced the enlightened philosophies of Voltaire as well as prominent Russian reformers like Alexander Radishchev and Nikolay Novikov. Ironically, the revolution also inspired French radicals, who overthrew and then beheaded King Louis, resulting in France embroiled in a bloodbath of violence and anarchy.  As for Catherine, when the progressive ideals of freedom and independence threatened her authoritarian monarchy, she promptly crushed it, imprisoning Radishchev and Novikov in a major turnabout. Both Lafayette and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a statesman and national hero of Poland, fought in the American revolution but failed to achieve similar reforms in their respective countries –Lafayette was forced to flee the violence of France and Kosciuszko’s valiant attempts to free Poland from Russia’s tentacles failed.

Winik’s book is very readable, consisting not simply of dates and names. He relates the story behind the events and examines the lives of the major players. As an example, this book only heightened my respect for America’s first President, George Washington. In a time of reigning kings who ruled for life, Washington made the historic decision to step down after two presidential terms despite Americans’ plea for him to be crowned king. There were great minds at the country’s inception  –Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Adams immediately come to mind, but it was George Washington who utilized the best of their ideas and rose above their clashes in ideas and personalities, demonstrating  that this country provided a template for democracy all over the world during a critical time of turbulence and change.

My recommendation: Read, learn, and enjoy.

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Book Review: Marking 75 Years of the Liberation of Paris, a Review of Mistress of the Ritz

August 25 of this year marked 75 years of the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. In honor of this historic event, I am posting a review of the novel Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin. The story is based on the real lives of Blanche and Claude Auzello, an American woman and her French husband. Together they managed the Ritz, Paris’ world-famous hotel. They hosted many notable people of the time, including Earnest Hemingway, Coco Channel, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They were living the good life until the Nazis took over the city. Then the Auzello’s were forced to follow their orders and make them comfortable while fearing for their lives if they did not comply. However, in secret, they helped the Resistance at every opportunity. Below is my review:

Mistress of the Ritz was an engrossing book based on the lives of the Frenchman Claude Auzello and his American wife, Blanche. Claude ran the famous Paris hotel, the Ritz, during World War II. The Ritz was the last name in luxury, and famous people frequently stayed there. Author Melanie Benjamin captures the opulence of the hotel amidst the horrors of the war. Claude and Blanche had a difficult marriage-Claude was unfaithful and they kept secrets from each other as they struggled to survive the war years and waited for the Allies to liberate the country from Nazi occupation.

The writing is extraordinary and the reader cannot help but get lost in this story of the Nazis taking over the hotel, the Resistance’s covert operations to undermine them, and Blanche and Claude’s efforts to deal with each other as well as the German invasion. Benjamin portrays the darkness and hardship of the occupation vividly. The reader cannot help but be terrified for the Jewish families who disappear in the middle of the night. With the exception of the collaborators, the French hate the Nazis but must be subservient to them if they want to stay alive. 
Toward the end of the story, the author reveals the biggest secret of all, but I figured it out because Benjamin alluded to it often enough. The ending was shocking and leaves readers with many questions.  Recommended.

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Book Review: Dreyer’s English

I was an unusual kid in school – I loved English grammar. I still remember diagramming sentences to demonstrate my understanding of the different parts of speech. Reading Dreyer’s English brought me back to the days of my high school English classes.

Of course, reading an entire book about straight grammar, style, and punctuation would be dry and boring, even for me. But this book is anything but. Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, gives entertaining and often humorous explanations and comments while writing about proper English usage and style. Dryer writes about words and rules in which people often make mistakes. Some examples include similarly-spelled words like aid and aide, which titles need quotation marks and which require italics, and the frequent mistake of using two words when one is sufficient (For example, the term “free gift” is a redundancy). Dreyer uses famous people, books, TV shows, and songs as examples. Together with his wit, Dreyer’s English a pleasure. While I was reading, I started wishing I became a copy editor myself because he made the rules so fascinating – I would love to work with words on an everyday basis. My only complaint is the footnote symbols are so tiny that I often missed them, so by the time I got to the bottom of the page, I didn’t know which section each footnote was referring to. Overall, it is a handy reference book for everyone.

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Book Review: The Will to Live On by Herman Wouk

The Will to Live On by Herman Wouk is an engaging read. Growing up, I had read This is My God, the first book about Judaism he wrote in 1959. The Will to Live On is the companion volume he published in 2000. Even though it is not a recent publication, the issues he discussed are still relevant today in 2019. Herman Wouk, who passed away at age 103 this year, was a bestselling author of numerous novels, including two that were made into television miniseries, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

Similar to his first book, Wouk explains why religion is an integral component of his life. Back in 1959, his first book was well-received despite the prevailing lack of interest in Orthodox Judaism among the Jewish mainstream and the media. The nation of Israel was strong and unafraid of its belligerent neighbors. Wouk expounded on his steadfast traditional observance even though his lifestyle was going against the tide of American Jewish life. By the time he wrote The Will to Live On, Israel had already gone through wars that endangered its very existence and it is now subject to much controversy on the world stage. He shares his thoughts on the public’s renewed interest in traditional Judaism even though only a small percentage of Jews are still observant. Wouk expresses doubts whether Jews would continue on as a people or fade away due to dwindling observance. He concludes his work by stating that he instinctually believes the Jewish people will continue to survive as a distinct people, perhaps in innovative ways.

Wouk had a life most writers would envy. He was able to write full-time, travel the world for background material for his writing, and meet famous people and world leaders. He briefly summarizes the history of the Jewish religion and ends by discussing the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform camps and the views of individual Jews on religion, Israel’s future, and their thoughts on the future of the Jewish people

As much as I enjoyed reading the book, I felt Wouk missed one important component–even in America, the land of the free, many employers require their employees to work on Friday after Shabbat begins and even on Saturday. The Jewish holidays throughout the year, always occurring on different dates due to the Hebrew lunar calendar, make it difficult for those considering a more observant lifestyle to take so many days off of work. Added to that, Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods are often located in expensive neighborhoods. To walk to a synagogue and observe with other Jews, a person or family must make a very sizable income. What’s more, the cost of Jewish day schools is soaring and many simply cannot afford the tuition, forcing them to send their children to public schools. I wish Wouk would have addressed these issues rather than just focusing on the allure of the secular lifestyle. These are very real obstacles to living an observant lifestyle. 
Otherwise, a good recap of Jewish history and Jewish life today. 

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