Monday, December 18, 2023

Books: The 23 Best of 2023


Photo by Jason Schott.

This was an incredible year for new books, and Brooklyn Digest had the pleasure of reviewing many wonderful titles on a full range of subjects, from sports to politics to culture, and we are honored to present the 23 best for 2023. You can click on the book's title to access our review or author interview.


23. FehertyThe Remarkably Funny and Tragic Journey of Golf's David Feherty, by John Feinstein

22. Sixty-OneLife Lessons from Papa, On and Off the Court, by Chris Paul, with Michael Wilbon

21. AltheaThe Life of Tennis Champion Althea Gibson, by Sally H. Jacobs

20. Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made, by Derek Leebaert

19. Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life Of Karl Lagerfeld, by William Middleton

18. To the Temple of Tranquility...And Step On It!, by Ed Begley Jr.

17. The Big TimeHow the 1970s Transformed Sports in America, by Michael MacCambridge

16. Bogie & Bacall: The Surprising True Story of Hollywood's Greatest Love Affair, by William J. Mann

15. Borderline: Defending The Home Frontby Vincent Vargas, Former U.S. Border Patrol Agent

14. Brooklyn Crime Novel, by Jonathan Lethem

13. Power PlayersSports, Politics, and the American Presidency, by Chris Cillizza

12. The Wuhan Cover-Up: And The Terrifying Bioweapons Arms Race, by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

11. The Biden MalaiseHow America Bounces Back from Joe Biden's Dismal Repeat of the Jimmy Carter Years, by Kimberley Strassel

10. The Longest Minute: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906by Matthew J. Davenport

9. The New GuysThe Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel, by Meredith Bagby

8. The Six: The Untold Story of America's First Women Astronauts, by Loren Grush

7. Elvis and the ColonelAn Insider's Look at the Most Legendary Partnership in Show Business, by Greg McDonald and Marshall Terrill

6. Bartleby And Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, by Gay Talese

5. Once a Giant: A Story of Victory, Tragedy, and Life After Football, by Gary Myers

4. Tao of the Backup CatcherPlaying Baseball for the Love of the Game, by Tim Brown, with Erik Kratz

3. American Breakdown: Why We No Longer Trust Our Leaders and Institutions and How We Can Rebuild Confidence, by Gerard Baker

2. The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever, by Jack Curry

1. The Lost Sons of Omaha: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy, by Joe Sexton


The Lost Sons Of Omaha: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy

By Joe Sexton

Scribner; hardcover, $30.00

Joe Sexton is a former senior editor at ProPublica who spent twenty-five years at the New York Times, and this engrossing book, The Lost Sons of Omaha, Sexton traveled uncovers the real story behind the tragic deaths of James Scurlock and Jake Gardner during the protests and unrest after the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020.

Sexton tells this delicate story with an empathy that will have you feel sympathy for both of these men, no matter which side of the political divide you are on.

Jake Gardner was a veteran who enlisted in the Marines straight out of high school, and earned a fistful of medals and combat ribbons as part of one of the first units that invaded Iraq in March of 2003. When he returned to Omaha, he ran one of the city's more popular downtown nightclubs, The Hive, and Gardner reinvented it in 2019, with the addition of an adjacent space, into The Gatsby. At this time, he had just restocked his bar full of high-end liquor, with a reopening from Covid lockdowns scheduled the following week. 

James Scurlock had become a father in the months ahead of the protests. The family hoped that the birth of the baby girl, Jewels, would give him purpose, but his relationship with the girl's mother, Mari Agosta, was tumultuous. There was a violent incident between them in February of 2020, and he ended up in jail before being released in the third week of May.

Sexton interviewed Mari and wrote, "Scurlock, she said, did not hide his record from her. He'd been arrested for the first time at eleven. He'd pleaded guilty for his role in an armed robbery at sixteen. But neither could Scurlock hide what seemed to her to be clear evidence of trauma, the anger and insecurities and suspicions born of poverty, family chaos, and years of his childhood spent behind bars."

When the protests over George Floyd's murder exploded in Omaha, Gardner was defending The Gatsby with two pistols and a shotgun, and on the third night of unrest, May 30, it reached his doorstep. Scurlock was one of the protesters making his way along Harney Street, and he eventually ended up as part of the group outside The Gatsby, which by that point was in ruins, and he was pressed to fight Gardner, which he did, with deadly consequences. 

Sexton looks at this at all angles, including a secret grand jury inquiry, revelatory cellphone texts, letters between lovers, nasty confrontations between investigators and witnesses, trail transcripts, autopsy results, multiple video recordings, privately recorded conversations, police investigation reports, and many on-the-record interviews.

One overriding theme is how misinformation affected the aftermath of this tragedy. These two men were made into grotesque characters - one a violent white racist, the other a Black thug - with their histories cherry-picked to fit competing political agendas. 

This story encompasses many of the pressing issues America faces today, from gun control to mental heatlh reform, and the part it played in this painful moment in the country. It is also an emotional story that will leave you, at times, in tears reading it.

The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever 

By Jack Curry

Twelve; 288 pages; hardcover, $30; eBook, $16.99

Jack Curry is an an analyst on the Yankees' pregame and postgame shows on the YES Network, where he has worked since 2010. He has won five New York Emmy Awards. Prior to that, Curry covered baseball for 20 seasons, first as the Yankees' beat writer and then as a national baseball columnist for the New York Times

In his new book The 1998 Yankees, Curry examines why this team, that went 125-50 on their way to winning the World Series, should be acknowledged as one of the greatest ever.

Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner said at the time, "Right now, you would have to call them the best team ever."

With the 25th anniversary of that wonderful season upon us, Curry revisits the season to discuss how the team was built and why the Yankees were such a talented, compelling, and successful club. 

The story of the season, which was full of memorable moments, is told through Curry's observations and reporting from that season, as well as interviews with more than 25 players, coaches, and executives, who revealed some behind-the-scenes stories about the journey they took to reach greatness. One of the big moments was David Wells' perfect game, and the story around that remarkable achievement shows what made the team special.

The players that led this team, and other championship seasons before and after 1998, are some of the most recognizable, beloved players in Yankees history, among them Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada, and the uncomparable closer Mariano Rivera.

In addition, the 1998 Yankees had new faces added to what was already an incredible lineup that had won the World Series two years before. Chuck Knoblauch was brought in from Minnesota to be a solid presence leading off, Scott Brosius took over at third base and became the World Series MVP, veteran Chili Davis was a force, and, at the end of the season, phenom Shane Spencer, who did nothing but hit home runs in September. There also was addition of El Duque, Orlando Hernandez, and all the excitement around what he brought to the team, to one of the best rotations in history.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jack when this book was released in May and he said of pitcher David Cone being the true leader of the team, "Cone was very big on being a teammate in the four days where he wasn't pitching, and he said not every starting pitcher is like that, but he felt that if he could help a teammate on a day he wasn't pitching, well, why wouldn't he do that? If he knew there was something that a right-hander was trying to do to Chuck Knoblauch, he would let him know, and a lefty was doing this to Paul O'Neill, he would let him know. Some guys were receptive, some guys weren't, but yeah, they didn't have a captain back then, but put it this way, I'll take captain out of the equation, if you took a poll in 1998 and asked those Yankees players who was their favorite guy on the team, who was the most popular guy, it would be David Cone, without a doubt Cone would win that."

American Breakdown: Why We No Longer Trust Our Leaders and Institutions and How We Can Rebuild Confidence

By Gerard Baker

Twelve; hardcover, 288 pages; $30.00

Gerard Baker served as the Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief from March 2013 to June 2018. He is currently an Editor At Large at the Journal and writes the WSJ Opinion column "Free Expression," which is the basis for his podcast of the same title, where he speaks to  leading writers, influencers, and speakers every week.

In Baker's new book American Breakdown, he delivers a must-read account of how American suffers from a "trust deficit" that has weakened its landmark institutions and divided our society. That is evident from any recent poll of President Joe Biden, Congress, the Supreme Court, political leaders or the media.

This thought-provoking account, which reads like Baker's incisive columns, explores the way American have been let down and offers solutions for how to rebuild trust and reclaim purpose.

Baker dissects how, in the span of a generation, the pillars that sustained the once-dominant superpower have been dangerously eroded. From government to business, from media to medicine, the strength and security of the experiment that is America have been weakened by a widening gap between the elites who control these institutions and the public.

"This pathology of distrust across American society is eating the country away from the inside," Baker writes. 

Millions of Americans have little faith in their country's future, and no longer seem to have trust in their leaders, in their important social and civil institutions. That extends to losing faith in their common values and ideals, or ultimately in each other.

The United States itself hasn't failed - instead, its people have been failed by inept and deceitful political leaders, one failed administration from both parties after another. Baker contends that where elites lay all the blame for the country's problems on Donald Trump, there was already a massive distrust in government by 2015 when he began his campaign for president.

The American people have also been deserted by predatory and cynical corporate chiefs, and above all else, betrayed by a cultural elite that has exploited the very freedom the country provided them in order to destroy it.

The Tao of the Backup Catcher: Playing Baseball for the Love of the Game

By Tim Brown, with Erik Kratz

Twelve; hardcover, 304 pages; $30.00

Tim Brown has covered baseball for more than thirty years, including when he covered the Yankees in the 1990s for the Newark Star-Ledger. He has written two New York Times bestsellers, The Phenomenon, with Rick Ankiel and Imperfect, with Jim Abbott.

Brown's new book, which he co-wrote with Erik Kratz, is The Tao of the Backup Catcher. He takes you through Kratz's path through a 19-year professional baseball career as a backup catcher playing for 14 teams, which included a memorable stint with the Yankees in 2020. There are also incredible stories of other backup catchers just like him, who spent years performing one of the most unique rolls in sports with no guarantee of what the future might hold.

I had the opportunity to talk to Tim when it was released in July, and he said of the essence of it, "Well, let's see, the book comes out on All-Star Game day, which I think is awesome because hardly anyone in this book sniffed being an All-Star; I think the timing is perfect. At its most basic, The Tao of the Backup Catcher chronicles the journey of Erik Kratz, you know, a forever backup catcher, and the journeys of a lot of guys like him, but I think, Jason, what it's really about is all of us, and who we are when the reality doesn't quite match up to the intentions and the dreams, and how we conduct ourselves then, and what it takes to be a good friend and a good teammate, part of something bigger than ourselves, who we choose to be in all of those times."

While Kratz is the focus, there are stories on memorable familiar names throughout the years, such as Eddie Perez, who was Greg Maddux's personal catcher, Vance Wilson, who played for the Mets in the early 2000s, and Josh Paul, who played for the Angels and had an unfortunate moment. Brown said of filtering their stories into the overall story on Kratz's career, "I thought it was important, as much as I loved Erik's story, I really thought what would appeal to the reader was not so much a story about one backup catcher, but all of the backup catchers, more about the culture of backup catchers because then I start to grab onto that crossover element of stay-at-home mom or dad, or the teacher or people who think, you know, 'geez, I'm not really in the boxscore today, I didn't get my uniform dirty today, I guess I didn't contribute anything,' but what I'm trying to convince people, if they think about, is this is about all of us, this is about being the best 'you' you could be given your circumstances."

Once a Giant: A Story of Victory, Tragedy, and Life After Football

By Gary Myers

PublicAffairs; hardcover, 304 pages; $30.00

Gary Myers is the former NFL columnist for the New York Daily News and Dallas Morning News, and has covered the league since 1978. He has authored six books, including the New York Times bestseller Brady vs. Manning, an inside look at the greatest rivalry in NFL history, and recently My First Coach (please click here for our review) and How 'Bout Them Cowboys (click here for our review). Myers also was a long-time member of the cast of HBO's Inside The NFL and the YES Network's This Week in Football.

The New York Giants have won four Super Bowls since 1986, and as Myers points out, that is the most in the time period since then, aside from the six titles that the New England Patriots have won. Of course, the last two of the four Giants' championships were their stunning upsets over the Patriots.

While those two recent Giants title teams were fronted by Head Coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning, the first two championships, in 1986 and 1990, had a distinct look as well. 

Head Coach Bill Parcells and his wunderkind defensive assistant Bill Belichick were at the helm, and the team was full of players whose names are now legendary and roll of the tongue of any Big Blue diehard, future Hall of Famers and All-Pros Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Harry Carson, George Martin, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson, Maurice Carthon, and Mark Collins.

The one that holds a special place in Giants' fans hearts, because they watched the team build up to the moment, in a way a football team can't develop anymore is 1986. The Giants raced to a 14-2 record, the best record of their four Super Bowl champions. They then ran through the stalwart San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins in the NFC playoffs before dominating the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, to deliver the Giants their first ring in 30 years.

The '86 Giants are the focus of Myers' new book, Once a Giant, and while the insights on that season are incredible, it is a story of friendships, how close members of that team were then and are to this day. 

This was a tight-knit bunch that knew how to force each other to play their best, while also having fun. They constantly played practical jokes on each other, in the locker room throughout the season and at training camp, such as the day Jim Burt pulled multiple pranks on Phil Simms, starting the day by spraying a fire extinguisher into his room and leading him to think his $50,000 car was missing by parking it across the Pace campus. Hazing, which was common in that era, was nearly non-existent with these Giants, especially after Carson and Banks nearly came to blows in the locker room in 1984. 

When the gridiron glory faded, chronic pain, addiction, and in some cases, crime followed. Many football players face these realities, but the Giants have confronted and survived them as one. With unprecedented access, Myers gives a window into Bavaro's battles with injuries, Lawrence Taylor's struggles with sobriety, and the breakup and reconciliation of Parcells and Belichick. They had a falling out after Belichick reneged on coaching the Jets in 2000 after Parcells stepped down, and he went to the Patriots, where Parcells had bolted from to take the Jets job in 1997. After they reconnected, Parcells even recommended Belichick move into the same development in Palm Beach county, and when both are in town at the same time, they meet regularly for breakfast on Saturday mornings. 

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