Three books by Sun staff writers: A horse, railroads, religion in TV

On Books

April 20, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

I have made a practice that when books by members of The Sun's staff are published I review them myself. I am always interested in the work of my colleagues, of course. But beyond that, I want to avoid any appearance of the hypocrisy that, to my mind, may stain the credibility of reviews of staff-written books. With that said, I am delighted to have found the most recent trio of such volumes to be exceptionally pleasing -- three books of utterly different theme and character, yet each fine in its genre.

So, in alphabetical order by author:

Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost, Hero of a Golden Age, by John Eisenberg (Warner, 272 pages, $25.95). There is heroism in equine sport -- at least for people who feel that great horses are great athletes, that they demonstrate complexity of character, will and courage that are akin to those qualities in humans. Among the most memorable thoroughbreds in the rich history of racing is Native Dancer -- who won 21 of the 22 races he ever ran. That single loss was the Kentucky Derby of 1953, 50 years ago this spring, a tragic moment to millions of enthusiasts.

Dancer, lovingly known as the Grey Ghost, had an unforgettable quality of starting slow and gaining fast in the latter part of a race -- bringing vastly greater suspense and excitement to the contest than offered by a front runner, who leads the pack from starting gate to finish line. There is something mysterious and engaging about gray horses, amid the vast herds of chestnuts, bays and browns.

The power of Dancer's public image is hard to imagine today. He reached far beyond the close-knit racing world. TV Guide in 1953 declared him to be, along with Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey, one of the three most popular figures in the U.S. Time magazine put him on its cover.

John Eisenberg, a sports writer for The Sun, has mined the literature, legends and living memories of the story of that great animal, and has produced a book of extraordinary drama, pathos and excitement. The tale of a horse among horses, and of humans engaged with him, is greatly enriched by painstaking detail, briskly delivered. Eisenberg's knowledge of and respect for racing is matched only by his sensitivity for the intricate agglomeration of people who were involved in the Dancer saga -- from stable boy to the horse's owner, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt.

Thoroughbred racing for centuries has produced a wealth of noble writing, including two major volumes very recently. Native Dancer joins Seabiscuit and Monarchos in a superb modern trifecta.

Trackside Maryland: From Railyard to Main Line, photographs by James P. Gallagher, text by Jacques Kelly (Johns Hopkins, 224 pages, $29.95). Leaping from blooded horses to iron ones, this compelling volume will find a place on the coffee table of practically anyone who suffers -- as I do -- from biting nostalgia for the era of rails.

First published in 1992 by a specialty house and out of print, it now leaps into the general market. It is mainly a book of photographs. Gallagher, a lifelong serious and successful photographer as well as a stockbroker and businessman, demonstrates here something close to adoration of the high drama of great railroads, especially those in the age of steam, though diesel and electric locomotives figure significantly in the book as well.

Maryland is the homeland of railroading. The Baltimore and Ohio is, of course, the dominant player, but appearing as a co-star is the Maryland and Pennsylvania -- the "Ma and Pa," which ran only 80 miles, with 114 bridges, between Baltimore and York, Pa. Gallagher's photographs from the 1950s forward are classic examples of the visual power of heavy steel being propelled by steam across steel rails. Camera angles, choice of light and what appears to be infinite patience give many the artistic power of easel art. It is hard to imagine a set of photographs that could more emphatically declare the strengths possible with black and white that can never be achieved with color.

Jacques Kelly, a columnist and staff writer for The Sun, is a multi-generation Baltimorean and unflinchingly proud of the city's heritage. His introduction and extended captions throughout the book give the pictures continuity and historic and social perspective. He writes with grace and fondness.

A lovely volume -- and for railroad or Maryland fans, an obligatory one.

The Jews of Prime Time, by David Zurawik (U. Press of New England, 275 pages, $29.95). Zurawik, The Sun's always freshly readable television critic, who earned a Ph.D. in American studies, marries wonderfully accessible popular writing with scholarship in this superb narrative of the deep and wide-ranging ambivalences about Jewish identity that for two generations haunted U.S. television.

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