Fighting For Justice

Just MercyReading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is no easy task. I found it so enraging and disheartening, I had to take breaks from reading. It lays bare inequity, injustice, and straightforward cruelty. Stevenson writes with passion and facts, highlighting multiple assaults on our conception of a just society.

At the same time, the book is the story of hope. It is not tragedy or jeremiad. Stevenson believes that we can and must do better. In fact, the overall message is deeply positive and humanist: there is worth in every human being.

Stevenson was raised in rural Delaware. He was touched by the horror of random crime when his grandfather was murdered by teen robbers. He did not become bitter, however. His focus was education and fighting for a better world. He earned a JD from Harvard, sought a career making a difference, and eventually created the Equal Justice Initiative. Located in Alabama, its aim is providing legal help to those who have been denied justice. In the past decades Stevenson has become a national figure, advocating against the death penalty, racism in the criminal justice system, and other issues of inequity.

Just Mercy is about some of the cases Stevenson has taken on. Anchoring the book is the story of Walter McMillian, a black man sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of a white woman. We learn about McMillian the person, the victim, Ronda Morrison, and the structures of race and power in the community where the crime took place, Monroeville. It is also the home of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The parallels are stunning but there was no Atticus Finch in McMillian’s trial. It is also reminder that in the novel, Tom Robinson, the black man who is unjustly accused of rape, dies.

The police were under great pressure to find Morrison’s killer. They pressured an informer, Ralph Myers, who was being investigated for a different murder, into naming McMillian. Myers’ stories did not add up, but that did not stop the district attorney from charging McMillian. Myers was relocated on death row to scare him. When he finally agreed to name McMillian, the trial was moved to a nearby county that would most likely give an all-white jury. Fed information from other informants, the the jury convicted McMillian of murder and requested a life sentence. The elected judge overrode the jury and sentenced McMillian to death. Ignored were eye witnesses giving McMillian an alibi, a lack of any physical evidence connecting McMillian to the crime, and multiple conflicting accounts from Myers. It was injustice of the first order.

When Stevenson agreed to pick up the case, he was inappropriately challenged by the presiding judge and much of the local law enforcement system. Stevenson refused to be deterred and he filed challenge after challenge. He learned that information was illegally withheld from the defense team. With no relief in offing and the state pressuring to put McMillian to death, Stevenson turned to Sixty Minutes for outside attention. It worked. The prosecutor bowed to pressure and agreed to an external investigation. It concluded – as is clear from anyone looking at the case as a whole – that McMillian could not have committed the murder. An appeals court overturned the conviction and McMillian was released. He was traumatized from the ordeal, however, and never regained his health or well-being.

Had not Stevenson intervened, Alabama would have executed an innocent man.

Stevenson shares other examples in the book. He writes of teens who have been unjustly treated by the system as adults. These people, all convicted of murder and other crimes, suffer tremendously in the criminal justice system. For example, a young man named Charlie killed his mother’s boyfriend after the boyfriend beat the woman into unconsciousness. Arrested and with no protection, Charlie was repeatedly sexually abused in an adult jail. It was only after Stevenson’s intervention that Charlie’s case went back to juvenile court.

Our criminal justice system depends upon advocacy to decide both truth and justice. Situations like these make it obvious that many defendant never receive the legal support or advocacy necessary to keep the system honest. There are other structural inequities that work against mercy or tolerance. For example, judges in Alabama are elected. This is common in most states. The result, of course, is that there is an electoral arms race to “prove” to voters that the candidates are tough on crime.

Despite Stevenson’s optimism in the human spirit, what I took away from Just Mercy is that long-standing issues of racism, poverty, fear and ignorance undermine the pursuit of justice to such a degree that greater change is needed if we are to approach real justice. We cannot hope for individuals as talented and committed as Stevenson to make things work.

David Potash

The Appeal of Personal Hygiene

When I was in my early 20s, I read that the advertising industry created the demand for people to shampoo. Furry animals don’t need to shampoo. Why should everyone in the twentieth century spend a fortune on shampoos and conditioners? I learned that initially my hair would feel oily, but it would then become softer, shiny and healthier. I decided to give it a try, helping my head and my wallet. Stronger Than Dirt

I bathed regularly and used soap – but avoided shampoos and conditioners. My hair performed as predicted. Initially gross, it became nicer as the weeks turned into months. It looked healthy but it did not smell particularly nice. I lasted about three months and have been shampooing and conditioning ever since. Every time that I do, a small voice in my head asks whether I am doing so because of personal choice, societal pressure, or manipulation by the advertising industry.

That voice grew a tad louder as I worked my way through Juliann Sivulka’s engaging book, Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875 to 1940. Sivulka, now a professor of American Studies at a Japanese university, is a rarity among academicians. She has practical hands-on experience as a marketer and consultant as well as formal training as a scholar. Those dual perspectives help her immensely in laying out a fascinating story of how Americans became convinced that they need to buy and use soap.

Over the centuries different cultures have dealt with hygiene – personal and for their clothes – a variety of ways. Those without resources rarely washed. In classical Greece and Rome, those with funds scraped themselves, anointed themselves with oils, and had their clothes washed in urine. Soap was homemade until the 1800s and only affordable after mass manufacturing. In the United States, the push for hygiene was aided by the Union Army in the Civil War.

Sivulka’s book provides a helpful periodization to the rise of soap in the home and the social importance of cleanliness. From 1875 – 1900, the development of mass marketing and mass consumption is the main story. The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a proliferation of arguments made to women consumers about the importance of personal cleanliness. Women were targeted to buy and use soap for sex appeal and for health. Then, as today, women make most household purchases.  Soap companies’ appeals became more sophisticated and increasingly tied to the mass communication from 1920 – 1940. It was, and remains, very big business. By the start of World War II, American society as defined by the middle class had high expectations for soap, for regular washing, and for clean clothes. Rounding out Sivulka’s narrative is a chapter highlighting the differences in the African-American market.

Stronger Than Dirt is solid cultural history. The narrative is grounded in primary sources with a focus on advertisements. Sivulka avoids theoretical claims and instead zeroes in on behavior, impact, and what the evidence looks like. She is not particularly interested in questions of morality. What excites her are effective campaigns and tangible signs of change. The growth of personal hygiene and soap took place, she argues, because of effective products and advertising, and because American consumers wanted it to happen.

Stronger Than Dirt is the kind of history book that is fun to teach. Evidence is easy to understand and discuss. It is clearly written and memorable. Most of all, students would find it relevant with clear connections to our world today. My hunch is that it would raise many questions – but that they would still use soap.

David Potash

First Bite – Food, Family & More

First BiteI have always liked eating. As I child, my mother channeled my interest in food into cooking. “If you want to eat well, learn to cook.” The years, happily, have been good to my palate. I’ve often been able to cook and eat well. I greatly enjoy restaurants, and that, with a little travel, makes for enjoyable and adventurous eating.

My thinking about food changed when I became a parent. “What should the children eat?” and how much of it quickly became an ongoing topic of discussion and inquiry. Pediatricians recommend more of this and less of that. Books make things harder as warnings abound. Too much sugar! More vegetables! Watch out for genetically modified foods, chemicals, and certain kinds of fats. My wife and talked with other parents and no one ever seemed to have it sorted out.

Adding stress to it all, what parent doesn’t encounter family eating as a high stakes endeavor? One would hope for a family meal with love, great conversation and nutrition. Instead, it is often power politics at its worse: negotiation, ultimatums, and a seesaw bouncing from indulgence to punishment simply through the addition of a wrong side dish to the table. Or maybe the wrong foods touch each other. We cook, we serve, plead, argue, and hope for the best.

What happened? What’s so difficult about figuring out what to feed one’s family?

There are a slew of books and studies about the changing nature of the food industry. We now know a lot about how things are raised, grown, processed, packaged and marketed. We have learned much on the scientific front, too, from what is a healthy diet to how lead a more healthy lifestyle. All is to the good. What remains, though, are difficult questions about why we eat what we do.

Bee Wilson, a well-known food writer, tackles these questions in First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. It’s a rigorously researched study into how humans learn to eat, something I had never given much consideration. I thought that each of us is born with individual preferences. Some like salty foods, for example, and others have a “sweet tooth.” Turns out it that taste and diet do not work that way at all. Yes, biology does matter and for some people, it plays a large role in what one likes and eats. For most humans, however, tastes are learned.

We start to develop tastes while still in the womb. A pregnant woman’s diet has an impact on her child. From our first foods as babies – breast milk or formula – our brains and bodies create complicated rules and relationships with our food. That dynamic continues through childhood. Wilson explains how this works. Food is hard-wired into emotions, memories, understanding and preferences. What makes First Bite special is that Wilson expands this to show how we can teach ourselves and others how to eat differently. We are much more in charge of our palate than I ever thought.

Wilson is neither scold nor food dictator. She has strong opinions, but even her advice is offered as “not advice.” Wilson knows that our relationship with what we eat and how we eat is personal and powerful. She cares and gives stories of adults who are held hostage by their food likes and dislikes, fussy eaters who have been unable or unwilling to graduate to a broader and healthier diet. She is eminently reasonable and moderate. Birthday cake is a lovely treat and for most children, will create with its sweetness happy associations. But we do not have to eat birthday cake everyday. Nor do we necessarily birthday cake flavored ice cream or frozen yogurt.

The example is telling. Food companies are effective at promoting the strong tastes of childhood and marketing them to adults. The consequence is that many adults today eat as a spoiled child might. They simply have never developed mature tastes for wide range of healthy foods. If we are to have a healthy society, they tastes and diet will have to grow up. Counselors and therapists are helping adults and children make this important transition.

First Bite is a considerate and thoughtful book. It has made me reconsider my own food likes and dislikes, as well as what we regularly serve at the family table. Now if only she had written it when the kids were toddlers . . . .

David Potash

Steel Barrio – Labor, Immigration, and Chicago

Getting a better understanding of Chicago – an endlessly fascinating city that never fails to engage, challenge, and surprise – is an ongoing project of mine. It’s also a project without an end. Chicago presents itself many different ways. As I have listened and learned more from many Chicagoans, I have increasingly turned to the past to try to get a better feel for the present. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Chicago is the second largest site of Mexican immigrants in the United States. (Los Angeles area is first and Houston is second). Why Chicago? How and when did this happen? Who were the first Mexican immigrants to Chicago? And what has life been for those who have journeyed from Mexico to Chicago over the years?Steel Barrio

Great insight into these and other questions are found in Michael Innis-Jimenez’s Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940. The book is thoroughly researched and carefully argued labor and immigration history of the best kind. Innis-Jimenez is a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. A study of the first-wave of immigrants to Chicago, Steel Barrio goes far in explaining the foundation of the Mexican community in the windy city. It adds much to the puzzle that is Chicago.

The pull for Mexican labor came from the steel mills of South Chicago. First recruited in large numbers to break the 1919 strike, Mexican workers found themselves in a cauldron of labor and racial strife. For these early immigrant workers, their hopes and experiences were different from many other groups who moved to Chicago for economic opportunity. History, geography and citizenship laws were part of the difference. Most Mexican laborers did not express a desire to make America their long-term home. Special immigration rules and status created a mobile network for Mexican labors, who could move from job to job in the United States. Even if they remained in Chicago for years, their overall tendency – as reported by Innis-Jimenez – was to see the arrangement as temporary. They had what Innis-Jimenez calls a “sojourner” attitude, engaging in civic and cultural life differently from immigrants who believed America would be their new home.

Innis-Jimenez explains how racism and power structures limited opportunities to Mexican immigrants. Chicago was less a melting pot for immigrant groups than a city where groups competed for resources. Racism ran in many directions and life was tough. Without governmental protection and support, Mexican immigrants had to help each other. They formed mutual aid associations and other systems, formal and informal. Innis-Jimenez highlights their efforts and how the contributed to a vibrant culture and shared identity.

Sports figures prominently in the community and in Steel Barrio. Neighborhoods took great pride in their athletes and teams. Baseball was very popular. Through baseball games and Mexican inspired fairs and events, the Mexican community made claims on public space.

Innis-Jimenez provides thoughtful analysis of how gender roles and expectations shaped daily life. The immigrant community reflected very traditional Mexican gender roles. Women tended to stay home and focus on the family. Men worked and were more active in public life, but only in certain arenas. The workers tended to stay away from unions. Language was both a community bond and a barrier. Overall, Innis-Jimenez effectively helps the reader understand the community’s path to activism and achieving a greater voice in economic, political, and cultural matters.

While the history covered in Steel Barrio ends with WWII, the legacy of these early immigrants remains. It is a very good book, one that I hope is regularly taught in college classrooms. It has a pride of place in my growing library of Chicago studies.

David Potash

Work spaces and Workplaces

CubedThe “office” is a cultural construct made real in three dimensions: a special place for certain kinds of labor. Just as much a work space as a foundry, mine or factory, the labor that takes place in offices is decidedly less physically active and much harder to categorize. I think that elusiveness is one of the reasons Nikil Saval gave his book Cubed an odd subtitle: “A Secret History of the Workplace.” Millions of us toil in offices, cubicles, and work stations. There is nothing secretive about them. The book reveals no secrets. Saval writes about offices how we have end up working in these spaces.

Over the long-term, historians have explained much of this already. Saval leans heavily on focused economic, labor and business histories to document the rise of the clerks and administration. It is a rich body of scholarship that has increasingly taken a sharp eye at power, gender and race. Defining the political and economic tendencies of white-collar workers is an ongoing site of inquiry. However, this is no academic study.

Saval brings architecture, design, anthropology and popular culture to the task. He writes from a journalist’s perspective, illustrating key points with anecdotes and personal stories. Robert Probst, the idiosyncratic designer of the “Action Office” and many other inventions, is featured. So, too, are the architects who designed the seminal office buildings of the twentieth century. Saval travels to the Googleplex and TBWA\Chiat\Day, too, to look at trends in future office design. Large corporations are the norm in Cubed. The home office and the small business are not part of the narrative.

Cubicles, surprisingly, are not front and center. They clearly matter to Saval, who has an underlying political and cultural argument that he struggles to lift out of the larger book. He is concerned about the consequences of the depersonalized anodyne office and its impact on human agency, decision-making and creativity. Others have written about this as well – most famously William Whyte in the Organizational Man. Saval never really wrestles with this is in clear way. Further, he seems to understand technology and its impact on office work. I would have expected him to fold that into his analysis, but instead, it lurks in the background.

Cubed is an interesting book. Saval writes well. He has a good sense of what will pique curiosity about work spaces. Anecdotes and small-bore linkages, though, do not necessarily add up. The whole of the book is less than the sum of its parts. It would have been more successful if Saval had focused more effort on what he thought important and less on what he found interesting.

David Potash

Manufacturing Matters

Made in the USAMy maternal grandfather worked metal and wood. A talented craftsman, metalworking got him through the Great Depression, helped further his education (correspondence courses), allowed him to open a metal shop, and gave him a path to move up the economic ladder. By the end of his career he was an executive at a large company. Making it possible were the skills he gained from working in manufacturing.

As I child, I was fascinated with his basement workshop. He showed me how to use tools and explained their function. There’s something immediate and magical about fixing things and making something useful. Early on, I connected making things with making money. Later on I learned through history that manufacturing is at the very core of America’s economic development.

Examining what American manufacture makes today is complicated. The US economy is enormous. Many companies and industries make things in the United States. On the other hand, we regularly read about the loss of industry, loss of jobs, loss of factories, and loss of know-how. Globalization and free trade can drive manufacturing to other countries. These are real changes with significant consequences. Some experts sound caution and others describe the US as a “post-industrial” country.

Getting a better handle on this issue drew me to Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing by Vaclav Smil, one of Bill Gates’s favorite authors. Smil is a clear communicator who hits the reader like a drop forge. He writes of facts and data, giving the reader a ton of information – almost like a textbook or a briefing. Smil’s argument is clear, compelling and supported by facts: a prosperous economy needs a vibrant manufacturing sector and its jobs.

He explains that manufacturing has been and remains a significant component of the US economy. One statistic makes this clear. In 2010, the US manufacturing sector on its own was the seventh largest economy in the world, just behind Brazil. Smil also explains the many ways that manufacturing has a multiplier effect on other parts of the economy. It creates jobs, wealth, organizations, and “useful knowledge.” In other words, manufacturing matters a great deal.

Smil provides an excellent history of US manufacturing. His focus is mostly on business statistics and less of governmental macroeconomic policy until he reaches the 1970s. That chapter is titled “The Retreat” and it describes how multiple factors, from innovations in transportation to foreign policy to politics to technology combined to weaken US manufacturing. Smil believes that specific choices had a real impact on the vibrancy of American manufacturing. We are living today with the results of those decisions.

The last chapter of the book outlines opportunities and challenges for the future of US manufacturing. Smil is no idealist. Nor is he nostalgic for an earlier time. His perspective is about the bottom line: what decisions will maximize profit and what political and economic environments will lead to what choices? He is not optimistic about the return of mass manufacturing in America. He takes pains to draw distinctions between more manufacturing and more jobs. Nonetheless, he argues that if we want to keep the American economy strong, we have to find ways to support manufacturing.

It is an informative, thought-provoking book. And even though it is filled with facts, it leaves the reader with many questions.

David Potash

Street Smarts for Smart Streets

Samuel I. Schwartz is a quintessential Brooklynite. If he wasn’t a real person, a screenwriter would have invented him. Raised in Bensonhurst in the 1940s and 1950s, he played on the street, loved the Brooklyn Dodgers (hated Walter O’Malley when he moved them to Los Angeles), and worked hard at school, encouraged by his immigrant parents to get an education and make something of himself. Brash, smart, opinionated and not at all afraid of taking a stand, Schwartz parlayed his mathematical talent into an engineering degree at Penn and his love of Gotham into a job with the New York City Department of Traffic.Street Smart

Schwartz proved to be no ordinary civil servant. As he recounts in Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, Schwartz’s battles – both wins and losses – mirror many of the broader transportation questions facing the United States in the past fifty years. Buildings come and go, he writes, but roads last forever. Now the head of his own international engineering company, Schwartz is in a unique position to explain what is and is not possible when it comes to urban transportation planning and implementation. He knows that cars are not going away and that they will play an important part in transportation for the foreseeable future. Schwartz, however, also understands that the trends for humans for the future are for more walkable cities that do not depend upon automobiles. He is a closet cyclist. Much of Schwartz’s professional career has been about reorganizing transportation networks to decrease the preeminence of automobiles. He is fundamentally a pragmatist who writes with great humor and charm. If you were a mayor, you would want Sam Schwartz – “Gridlock Sam” to the New York City tabloids – on your team.

In a variety of positions in NYC, Schwartz consistently worked toward traffic decisions that would give more options to pedestrians. Jane Jacobs only receives a brief mention but she and Schwartz share a similar point of view about the urban environment: it is best when it is actively shaped by people.

Engineers have a special set of tools when it comes to defining a problem – like slow-moving traffic – and designing a solution – like adding more lanes. Schwartz learned these tools, studied them, and decided at a relatively early age that they missed the big picture about how transportation systems can shape a city. People often mistake and misunderstand their environment, he writes, and engineers can compound the problem.

Take congestion – Schwartz makes it clear that reducing congestion is never a simple process and that in some situations, congestion can lead to an improved quality of life. It can also be a massive headache. In a multi-modal transportation environment (cars, buses, trains, light rail, etc.), with the right planning and options, congestion can lead to smarter public transportation choices.

For New Yorkers, some of Schwartz’s anecdotes will memories and flashes of recognition. “So that’s why that road in the park was closed off. . . .” His account of the options that the city faced when the Williamsburg Bridge approached failure is telling. Schwartz took a decisive role in rejecting a new bridge, which would have flattened several neighborhoods. His plan, accepted by the city, called for smaller, less dramatic repairs. It saved money and communities. Schwartz does not believe that more money for infrastructure necessarily has a good return on investment.

Schwartz also provides insight into how and why certain decisions about transportation were made. Mayoral preferences are extremely important. A mayor who does not see the value of the subways, for example, is not going to support multi-modal transportation. Schwartz asserts that any changes in the transportation system will ruffle feathers and demand leadership.

The book covers much more than New York City. Schwartz references other cities, other problems, and other strategies. He sees several key trends: reduction in the attraction of automobiles for millennials, people seeing environments in which they can walk, a heightened frustration with long commutes, and the value of transportation systems engineering. He believes that ongoing improvements in technology, from GIS to Uber, will allow for greater innovation and more people-friendly designs.

Most importantly, he believes that these tectonic shifts in how we live will not be driven by ideology or politics (in fact, they may be delayed by politics), but by a basic human desire to live socially. I would wager that Schwartz believes there is a little Brooklyn in everyone.

David Potash

Mayoral Musings

With the drama and politics surrounding Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel, I have been thinking about mayoral leadership and what it takes to be a successful mayor. It is not an easy job. Mayors offer an unusual kind of elected political leadership. They face challenges and opportunities very different from representatives at the state level or in Congress. Mayors are almost never as partisan as governors, though the may share some similar traits. Effective mayors are relentlessly pragmatic, an uncommon characteristic of elected officials. As New York City mayor Fiorella LaGuardia once quipped, there is no Democratic or Republic way to pick up the garbage.If Mayors Ruled the World

Scholar and political theorist Benjamin R. Barber thinks that the future of effective government lies with mayors. He believes that nation-states will become increasingly unreliable in future years. The mayors of mega and major cities will find ways to solve problems and enhance the lives of those who live in their cities. He explains this and highlights successful mayors in If Mayors Ruled The World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. In Barber’s mind, the key issues we face: terrorism, environmental collapse, poverty and public health can be best addressed though cities led by mayors with a pragmatic bent.

It is a provocative concept. Can mayors save democracy? The book meanders and there is no appropriate mechanism for aligning mayoral priorities. Barber’s interviews and research lead him to high-concept issues and the mundane, like how to get rid of abandoned cars. The challenge is that the urgency of the pragmatic is far from inspirational. Barber has high expectations for those that have to find ways to make sure that the garbage is removed.

A mayor who understand this is former Miami mayor, Manny Diaz. The son of Cuban immigrants, Diaz is a local boy who succeeded. A strong athlete in high school, he attended FIU and then the University of Miami School of Law. Diaz was involved in local politics behind the scenes until the Elian Gonzalez case made him a national celebrity. He ran for mayor in 2001 and again in 2005.  Under his leadership Miami’s finances stabilized and many meaningful reforms took place. Diaz championed transportation focused design, clean streets and sustainability. He received several awards and much positive press as mayor. When he left office, he headed to Harvard, where he wrote a book about himself and his time in office: Miami Transformed: Rebuilding America One Neighborhood, One City at a Time.

Diaz and Miami TransformedDiaz’s autobiography is resolutely positive. He sees progress in his family’s journey (his father was imprisoned in Castro’s Cuba), in his childhood in Miami, and his professional life. He writes that he beat poverty through education. He believes that others can do the same. Diaz’s hope is that his focus on the pragmatic – solving problems and getting things done – will inspire others. He sees a need for greater involvement, especially among the young, in public service. Not everyone viewed Diaz as favorably, of course. He has his share of critics and a few scandals did mar his time in office.

When Diaz writes of a grand vision, it is of Miami several decades in the future. He imagines greater educational opportunities for all, a thriving economic base, and a city that keeps its inhabitants safe, secure, and happy.

It seems to me that the traits that successful mayors bring to the table might very well be what we need in other leaders in other arenas. Less of an imagined Nirvana, perhaps, and instead solid incremental improvements. I do not believe that global leadership necessarily demands a focus on the small bore, but it isn’t a bad way to run a complex organization. In fact, in can be quite effective. We could do much worse than turn government over to mayors.

David Potash

Theodore Roosevelt and an Historian’s Obsessions

Tell someone you want to be a history teacher and you’re likely to get an old joke: if you’ve studied it once, you don’t need to study it again. History, after all, doesn’t change.

If only.

When Trumpets CallWhen you really dig into a historical subject, start to obsess about it, write about it and argue it, you see it in new ways. You don’t tire of it and instead, re-interpretation and re-re-reinterpretation becomes natural. Interest leads to curiosity, which in turn catalyzes ever more curiosity. It’s a strange feeling and a good one, too – humbling.

I had that sensation when doing graduate research on the early part of the twentieth century in American politics. It emerged slowly, over years of work. Reading primary sources complemented secondary sources, which in turn gave me insight into different primary sources. I read and read and read, to the point when I was working on my dissertation that I dreamed of living in the early 1900s. Reading newspaper from the period again and again will do that. Even though today I do not teach or write history, I find myself pulled to that period out of interest and familiarity. It has become part of me.

Recently I finished When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House – another biography of Theodore Roosevelt. There are many biographies of the man. The broad outlines of Roosevelt’s life are well-known, as is his over the top personality, and his emergence as a popular culture icon. It’s no accident that Robin Williams played a touching TR in the Night at the Museum movies.

Roosevelt is a fascinating figure to study and there is much to admire in his early years. His post-presidency rhetoric, though, and his strident militarism can make for a difficult subject. O’Toole – a writer, not a professional historian – renders him with patience and deep appreciation. Her research was with direct sources, so her reading of Roosevelt’s correspondence and those of his colleagues helps to flesh out the man’s complexities. She is a skilled author. O’Toole is able to add drama and impact to the history.

That said, O’Toole does not add anything really new to the study of the man. This is no closely argued academic tome. She comes to the subject with no broad argument, no ax to grind, and no key thesis to prove. She writes for understanding and to sell books. In these goals, she succeeds.

What is missing from the book is the sort of deep appreciation and understanding of a trained historian. She writes history without an historian’s passion. And somehow I doubt that she dreams about what it was like in the summer of 1912, in Chicago, as the Republican Party tore itself apart trying to find a candidate and consensus. As I said, I’m a little bit obsessed.

David Potash

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Conference

SkiosI remember the first time I noticed the difference in the bookstore between “Fiction” and “Literature.” There didn’t seem to be the same distinction in the library. I knew of fiction (the made up stories) and non-fiction (the real stories). But what did make of the sorting of fiction from literature? Literature struck me as older, often written by people now dead, and published by Penguin. It was more English. Fiction, on the other hand, was newer and often came in hardcover with dramatic art. Literature was serious. If I wanted something funny, I headed to fiction. This sorting from long ago popped into my head while reading Michael Frayn’s Skios. Frayn is a genius, a British author and playwright that cranks out serious works and interesting plays the way most of us go shopping. Another season, another errand, and for Frayn, another brilliant piece of work. Frayn’s play, Noises Off, is a farce that makes me smile just thinking of it. Written as a play, it was also made in to a movie. It is silly, tightly paced, and pretty much guaranteed to make you laugh. That is no easy task. You will never think of “sardines” the same way after seeing it.

Skios is funny, too, but not in the same way. It is a comedy of mistaken identity, awkward situations, and a gentle satire of the high-flying world of conferences for the wealthy and privileged. Action takes place on the island of Skios, home to the pretentious Fred Toppler Foundation, and a host of Greek nationals. An attractive sociopath is mistaken for the foundation’s visiting speaker and he runs with the opportunity. The actual speaker, a self-important and pompous academic, is routed to a series of proper comeuppances. The joy comes not in the book’s resolution, but in the humor along the way.

Frayn renders the characters with compassion as he gently mocks them. The set-pieces are described beautifully. Though it did not double me up with laughter, Skios gave me more than a few chuckles. I’d wager that the play and the film would do the same. And as to whether it is fiction or literature, I have a sense that it will end up in the literature shelves at some point in the future. Now if there was only an opportunity for a beach read in the chill of December . . . .

David Potash