The Tennis Partner

The Book of the Week is “The Tennis Partner” by Abraham Verghese, published in 1999.  This is the autobiographical account of the relationship between a medical professor (the author) and an intern at a teaching hospital in the United States.  The two play tennis against each other.  At the time, they are each going through traumatic personal problems; the professor, the aftermath of a failed marriage that produced two sons, and the intern, a struggle to beat drug addiction.  Verghese deftly describes these in engaging detail, throws in his perception of the playing styles of various professional tennis players, and recounts some interesting medical cases.

Lieutenant Birnbaum

The Book of the Week is “Lieutenant Birnbaum: A Soldier’s Story:  Growing Up Jewish in America, Liberating the D.P. Camps, and a New Home in Jerusalem” by Meyer Birnbaum, published in 1994.  This is the autobiography of a memorable character. He rose quickly through the ranks of the U.S. Army during WWII, though not without trouble.

In one incident, he was court-martialed for practicing his religion.  Religious law dictated that Birnbaum wear a yarmulke all the time, including meal times.  An Army rule prohibited the wearing of a “hat” while eating. Birnbaum’s  attorney was incompetent, so Birnbaum defended himself at his hearing.  He argued that a phrase in the oath he took upon his military induction indicated that his religion was more important than his patriotism:  ” …to serve God and my country …”  He was acquitted.

Read the book for further adventures of this clever military officer.

The Vineyard

The Book of the Week is “The Vineyard” by Louisa Thomas Hargrave, published in 2003.  It is a memoir about the first wine-grape farmers on Long Island in New York State.

In the early 1970’s, Louisa and her then-husband, Alex, wanted to grow grapes to make wine to sell.  “I [Louisa] decided that having a vineyard wouldn’t take much time, so I enrolled in chemistry and calculus courses at the University of Rochester while we scouted for vineyard property.”  They thought they would be able to spend more time with the children they planned to have, if they worked in the same place where they resided.  Running a winery seemed to fit the bill.  The endeavor turned out to be more difficult than they imagined.  The Hargraves had never managed a vineyard before, let alone any business, but prior to plunging in, they “did their homework” the best they could, were passionate about wine and were willing to work hard.

They purchased a plot in Cutchogue on the North Fork of Long Island.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were the first grape varieties they planted.  Fortunately for them, the soil was compatible with these high-quality varieties.  They released their first wine in July 1977, from fruit picked in 1975, aged in barrels.

Louisa provides a detailed account of the numerous risks grape farmers and wine makers face; the birds, bugs and weather, to name a few. She also recounts problems her family encountered, including educating their daughter and son and dealing with legal tangles concerning their business.   One particularly stressful episode involved fighting an extortion attempt by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Despite all the hardships, the Hagraves nurtured a successful vineyard because they possessed and/or acquired the passion, courage, focus, skills, talents and luck in sufficient amounts.

Stand for the Best

The Book of the Week is “Stand for the Best” by Thomas M. Bloch, published in 2008.  Thomas M. Bloch is the son of the founder of H&R Block (“Block” in the tax-advisor chain is spelled with a “k” so people do not mispronounce the name). Bloch made a career change in mid-life, becoming a teacher.

Bloch taught at a Catholic school, then co-founded a charter school in a low-income area of Kansas City, with a super-rich friend of his. He approves of private money donations to schools, but admits he is an idealist when it comes to closing the racial achievement gap. The school founders experienced a long, frustrating learning curve, although they thought they knew what they were getting into.

They started with middle-school students, but learned that starting with the early grades and adding older students later, would have been a better approach.  For, students’ problems multiply as time goes on.  In an urban area, in addition to a high dropout rate, gangs, drugs, and disruptive behavior, there may be multiple ethnic groups who must get acculturated.

Bloch relates the quote, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”  This is not just the lament of a modern teacher, but of an Assyrian sufficiently educated to write on a clay tablet, living in 2800 B.C., proving once again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

Walking on Walnuts

The Book of the Week is “Walking on Walnuts” by Nancy Ring, published in 1997.  This book is the career memoir of a pastry chef in New York City.  Ms. Ring discusses the uncertainty surrounding the fiercely competitive restaurant business in New York, and thus the attendant job insecurity of a pastry chef.  She discusses the details of the job– long hours, difficult bosses, hard work, and a hilarious episode in which The Fig Tree restaurant personnel were tipped off that a very influential restaurant reviewer, one Bette Brown, was to visit one night.

A woman fitting the reviewer’s description entered the eatery with her entourage.  She proceeded to complain about a draft at her table, then when moved, about being too close to the waiter’s station.  The bread basket caught fire from a candle on the table…  You can see where this is going– a long series of further mishaps, complaint-fodder for the fussy diner, “… who sarcastically asked Liz [the waitress] if she had graduated from high school.” Ms. Ring, who was also a waitress there at the time, witnessed Liz’s feisty temper flare as she finally told off the customer.

The supposed Ms. Brown confronted Carl, the restaurant owner, who, at the bar, was “… busy crying into his fourth double bourbon.” With the ‘don’t-you-know-who-I-am’ speech, she told off Carl, telling him her name.  It was not Bette Brown.  Carl was extremely relieved.  A good dining experience was had by the actual Bette Brown, who had been there earlier that evening.

This book contains not only entertaining anecdotes, but recipes, too.