A Different Transatlantic History

We have multiple accounts of Europeans traveling the Americas in the 1400s and 1500s. Cross Atlantic journeys, though, were not unidirectional. Indigenous peoples of the Americas also went to Europe. Caroline Dodds Pennock, Britain’s foremost historian of the Aztecs, examines the histories of those who went to Europe in an extraordinarily interesting book: On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe. It is a provocative look at colonialism through a different lens. Many of the trips to Europe were forced, with indigenous people captured, coerced or enticed to Europe. However, indigenous people also demonstrated agency, diplomacy and a power in these exchanges. More than a corrective, Pennock’s study recasts early modern history in new light.

History is not a simple account of what has transpired in the past. It is about making sense, crafting meaning, and telling stories that give us knowledge about what has happened, what is important, and what matters. The eurocentric “discovery” of the Americas has long been recognized as incomplete, racist, and politicized to an unacceptable degree. Real understanding demands broader and thoughtful inclusion. Pennock’s book, grounded in meticulous primary source research, gives the reader much more of that broad perspective. The author keeps us wondering – what was this like for the Totonacs, the Inuits, the Taino, and the many others who came to Europe? There were thousands and their voices have not been systematically heard.

The records are limited. Pennock, accordingly, focuses attention on the margins and the contexts, pulling meaning from scant sources. Most of the people she studies hailed from central America. She reminds us that translations were often done by the indigenous peoples, that their words are often hidden in colonial accounts. Indigenous people drew maps, wrote, argued in courts, and often had more agency and influence than the western writers and colonialists would ever admit.

The cross-cultural exchanges in On Savage Shores are especially fascinating. For example, Albrecht Durer, perhaps the most important artists of the Germanic renaissance, was captivated by the Aztec-Mexica artifacts displayed by King Charles V in Brussels in 1520. The world was significantly smaller and more known than we might recognize.

Some knowledge of European history and laws helps the reader untangle this complex history. For example, while slavery was common in the 1500s, Spanish law carefully assigned differing degrees of rights to different types of people. Cannibals, for example, could be treated much more harshly than other peoples defeated in war. Is it any wonder that so many early accounts of indigenous peoples stressed cannibalism? Slavery and other forms forced labor were extremely profitable. Women had few rights and were often victims. Pennock shares horrific accounts of sexual abuse and exploitation.

On Savage Shores is very good, very eye-opening history. The writing is clear, engaging, and accessible. It’s the kind of history that leaves one with a greater sense of understanding and also hungering for more information. Most importantly, Pennock’s book raises very important questions about who was and was not savage, questions that remain with me.

David Potash

A Glass Castle Recommended

Librarians in my local public library branch are fond of calling attention to their favorite reads. One of their recent recommendations, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, is a gripping memoir that I had heard about but had never explored. A big thanks to Chicago Public librarians – you know your books!

Walls is an award-winning journalist and writer. The Glass Castle is a first person account of her harrowing childhood. Told in a matter of fact manner with scary good cheer, it’s a gripping account of children’s resilience and the tremendous damage parents can cause. The book, which came out in 2005, was on best-seller lists for years. In 2017 it became a film. Walls’ story remains relevant today, perhaps even more so, and the candor of her writing deserves extra attention and appreciation.

Walls’ first memory is of being badly burned while living in a trailer park in Arizona. She was three at the time. The accident – she was cooking herself hot dogs – is terrifying. Walls narrative, from her perspective as a toddler, is all the more frightening because she is not aware of just how serious her situation is. That pattern of forced optimism in the face of real concern is repeated throughout her childhood.

Severely injured, Walls is taken to a hospital for treatment. Her father, Rex, steals her away before she is released or a payment is due. This is another pattern of behavior – skipping town, the “skedaddle” – that the family does repeatedly. There is very little stability at home, or precisely, at homes. Walls’ mother, Rose, is a fantasist, an artist, and poorly equipped to care for a family with children. Rex is a charming high-functioning alcoholic given to violence. He makes do on scams and luck, and is far from a stable provider. Walls loves her parents and knows, too, that they are dangerous to her well-being. When the family finally settles in abject poverty in West Virginia, close to Rex’s parents, the naive positivism of the younger Jeannette gives way to awareness of the severity of their situation. The kids are bullied, abused, neglected and often hungry. It is truly horrific. Eventually the oldest sister escapes to New York City and Jeannette follows.

Living apart from their parents was essential for the children to have some semblance of a healthy life. Things with their parents were that bad. Escape, though, proves difficult. Rex and Rose follow their children to New York City. As the children struggle to find employment, housing and stability, their parents battle mental health issues, addictions, and become homeless. The Wells children’s mutual cooperation and coping skills are outstanding. Jeannette works her way through Barnard. Her elder sister becomes a successful artist. There are some good moments. Rex gifts Jeannette with poker winnings to pay tuition. It is the kind of grand gesture, an act of generosity, that makes a reliably positive relationship with Rex so impossible. An inveterate dreamer, he promised that he would one day build a glass castle for Jeannette and the family. Along with the promises, there were many darker moments. Jeannette’s shame at seeing her parents scrounge through garbage, trying to scrape by, is an indelible moment.

Walls’ memoir is a testament to her strength, her resilience, her courage. She is direct about all manner of problems, whether it is fending for herself or fending away predators. There were many, too. Jeannette and her siblings are survivors and heroes. One one level, The Glass Castle is inspirational and speaks, I am sure, to many who have struggled with toxic home life. It offers a message of hope.

Ironically, The Glass Castle has been regularly banned by schools and libraries. Some have complained that the language, the descriptions of violence and sexual abuse are inappropriate for young adults. They are inappropriate. In fact, they are deeply wrong and troubling. Sadly, though, they took place. It is exactly Walls’ candor that makes this book important for so many people of all ages. We do not choose our parents and have little control over the first years of our lives. Walls’ harrowing journey to adulthood, like that of sadly many other children, is a powerful reminder that it is possible to find happiness, with or without a healthy and supportive family. That is an extremely powerful message.

David Potash

Justice, Women and the Law

Dahlia Lithwick is one of the nation’s most influential law commentators. Active across many publications and platforms, Lithwick is probably best known for her ongoing attention to the Supreme Court. She writes, presents, comments, and teaches with rigor and passion.

In 2022, Lithwick wrote Lady Justice: Women, The Law, and the Battle to Save America. Through a series of sharp biographical studies, Lithwick’s best-selling book examines the massive changes in women’s rights from the latter part of the Obama presidency through the Trump administration. It’s a story of rights being curtailed, denied, changed and re-evaluated – and the immense effort to push back and secure those rights by women lawyers. The book is a reminder of just how contentious the last six years have been. Lithwick zeroes in on a number of battles – at airports, in courtrooms, in the media and in demonstrations – and the tremendous trauma and costs. Many of these incidents are familiar, if only through the headlines at the time. Lithwick’s book gives context, broader legal understanding, and highlights the women attorneys who throughout found strength, strategy and alliances to fight for women’s rights. The book is encouraging and cautionary.

The women who emerge in Lithwick’s study are described with care and consideration. While we may have first heard about them through the media in times of drama, when they were often reduced to stereotypes and sound bites, in Lady Justice they emerge as complete human beings. Lithwick stresses that these women came from different backgrounds, with different agendas and ways of describing the law. What they share is a belief that law could provide structure. Its very rules would permit agency, a meaningful career, and the potential to make a difference.

Lithwick’s attorneys include Sally Yates, who was the US Attorney General at the end of the Obama administration and who was fired by President Trump when refused to implement the Trump administration’s executive order barring Muslims from entering the US. Yates, who is very much a believer in institutional stability, as Lithwick emphasizes, refused to act on an order she believed was unconstitutional. Becca Heller, who fought the Muslim ban as an attorney, has less faith in the system. Nevertheless, she played an instrumental role in organizing grass roots legal defense of immigrants at airports throughout the nation when the Trump Executive Order was implemented. The organization she founded, the International Refugee Assistance Project, continues to have an impact today. Although it took time, Yates and Heller’s legal arguments eventually were endorsed by the courts.

The courts also vindicated attorney Robbie Kaplan, who went after the Charlottesville, VA, white supremacists on behalf of the people they harmed. Kaplan had earlier played a leading role in securing the rights of homosexuals to marry. Brigitte Amiri, who has been fighting for women’s reproductive rights for decades with the ACLU, worked tirelessly on behalf of a pregnant teenager held at the border during the Trump administration. The young woman sought an abortion and the US government prevented it until Amiri’s arguments prevailed. Lithwick also looks at Vanita Gupta, who has a career advocating for civil rights, and Stacey Abrams, who has made the expansion of voting rights a priority.

Lithwick also talks about her own experiences with Judge Alex Kozinski, who sat on the US Court of Appeals. An influential jurist whose clerks often became judges, Kozinski was well-known in legal circles for his abuse and sexist behavior. When enough women and complaints came forward to seem to force accountability, Kozinski retired. One of his clerks, Brett Kavanaugh, claimed ignorance of his behavior during his confirmation to the Supreme Court. In these sections, Lithwick’s pain and anger at misogyny and blatant unfairness in top legal circles comes through loud and clear.

Despite that anger, Lithwick’s message is still ultimately about the importance of faith in process. She has belief in the law as a place for order and orderly change. Better arguments, over time, will win. The histories in the book reinforce the law’s slow and irregular move towards inclusivity and justice. It may be political, but it is not partisan. Tempering Lithwick’s optimism though, is that the legal system can be unduly influenced by partisan politics. Without process and care, the law can become a tool of repression. What I found most inspirational in Lady Justice was the immense heroism of these attorneys, their willingness to go above and beyond in pursuit of their clients and justice. Though perhaps not household names today, their efforts are what makes our democracy function. We are a national of laws. These attorneys, and Lithwick’s book, are most deserving of our time and appreciation.

David Potash

Upper East Side Field Research

“Going native” takes on a different level of research and accountability in Wednesday Martin’s sly book, “Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir.” Martin is a writer, public expert on a host of issues, from parenting to gender to families, a researcher and cultural critic. Her background includes rigorous academic study, with an undergraduate focus in anthropology at the University of Michigan and a doctorate from Yale in cultural studies. Martin is an interdisciplinary scholar with a skill for rendering theory in accessible and humorous ways. Her book defies easy categorization, just as one my expect from the author’s background. If you are curious about the lives of extremely rich families in New York City, Primates is most worth your time and consideration.

As a straightforward interpretation of the work, Primates is a field study of the wealthy mothers who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the early 2000s. Martin, who married into New York City money, moved to the city, started a family and began a journey of friendship, competition, and socialization among an elite group of mothers. A member of the tribe, at least through her marriage, Martin brought all the tools, references and methodologies to do a serious ethnography of her new environs. What makes this book intriguing is that she isn’t just a visitor. She is one of the group, a wealthy New York mom. Possessing the analytic and reasoning skills to try to better understand and navigate her environs. Martin’s effort, restructured into this popular book, makes for an unusual read. She makes maps, tracks behavior, and is delightfully cued into issues of status, shame, networks and social power. Martin is also very good with a joke.

Primates is no dry academic text. Martin’s prose is lively . For those that haven’t read much anthropology, there is much to pick up here about how anthropologists see things and sort information. The arguments are intriguing and the references clear and understandable. Martin is not writing to impress. Her aim is clarity, providing understanding and explanation. As Martin moves from outsider to insider over the course of book, as her children make friends and age, more and different opportunities emerge for Martin’s study. She gains trust. And like many other famous anthropologists who do extended field research, she becomes more and more sympathetic to those that she is studying. Like many in her tribe, she is a smart, ambitious, highly-focused wealthy mom.

This plays out in both theory and sense-making. For example, Martin recognizes that a key moment in her acceptance in the group stemmed from the affirmation of an alpha male, an extremely wealthy dad. Arranging for a play date of their respective children gave Martin greater status. She used it, too, opening up doors to more conversations, more interactions and greater knowledge of the community.

The second key turning point in Martin’s position came from power of prized objects. In this case, it isn’t a yam – it is an expensive Birkin bag. This accessory is a required sign of status in the tribe. Purchased through her husband’s money and his connections with others (it bears stressing that males are the architects of the system and prized items are always difficult to obtain) the bag provides access and deeper knowledge of the how and why of group and personal dynamics. The final turning point in the narrative, as Martin’s children become more independent and the fixed strictures of the Upper East Side community loosen, is the tragic death in utero of what would have been her third child. The loss, as one would expect, hits Martin very hard. It is traumatic. She is grateful to her fellow mothers, who provide comfort and support.

All of this is very interesting. Setting Primates apart are two threads that Martin weaves throughout.

The first is a line of analysis grounded in Martin as a cultural critic. She questions the rules of the community. She mocks herself for wanting status and for obsessing over a expensive handbag. Accordingly, she makes fun of herself for enjoying the Birkin bag so much. Martin questions the dieting, the incessant exercising, and the omnipresent anxiety throughout the community of women. Men do not seem to have the same stresses. Martin offers more than a few “Mean Girls” references. Her critiques sharp, humorous, and very humane. After all, she is studying a most unusual community.

The second line of analysis is personal. Martin is a smart, warm woman, and it is easy to relate to her voice in the book. Doctorate and wealth notwithstanding, she wants to connect with the reader. She wants to be liked, to be accepted, and she wants what is best for her children and family. These are normal values. She readily acknowledges faults and failures. Martin wrestles with problems, wonders what is best, and opens up to the reader. Martin’s humanity shines through. It is, after all, a memoir.

Primates of Park Avenue is an inside and outside study, a look inside the townhouse by someone who wonders just what the townhouse is all about. Martin’s study, which is being made into a television series, is most interesting. Good anthropologists do fascinating work.

David Potash

Warriors For The Working Day – Classic WWII

In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, King Henry tells a Frenchman before the Battle of Agincourt that “we are but warriors for the working day; our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch’d with rainy marching in the painful field.” Not a boast, it is a statement of fact regarding the commitment and sand of the English soldier. “But, by the mass, our hearts are in the trim” the soliloquy ends. Powerful and moving.

Peter Elstob lifted the quote for the title of his outstanding WWII novel about tank warfare. It’s an apt choice. Warriors for the Working Day is a superb book about the day-to-day of fighting in World War II from the solder’s perspective. It is beautifully written and extremely compelling, pulling the reader into the grit and internal stresses of the war. Most importantly, it is lightly fictionalized. Elstob knew the subject, personally and intimately, and that knowledge informs the entire endeavor. Published in the 1950s, it has resonance and impact today.

Gripping and engaging, the book is sprinkled with literary allusions and devices. The novel is structured into two parts. Book One, “First Light” is based on when it’s possible to distinguish between black and white. Book Two, “Last Light” is when it’s no longer possible to distinguish. The structure is literal and metaphorical, capturing the kinds of battles the soldiers’ face and the arc of the war through a soldier’s eyes. There is action, drama, and quite a bit of thoughtful reflection. Elstob’s skill allows one to enjoy the book’s prose, too. His writing is that good.

One character, Brooks, functions as the key thread throughout the novel, anchoring the action and the plot. However, the novel explores more than Brooks and his growth as a tank commander. We meet the senior officers and soldiers who school him, his colleagues, the men he commands, and a wide range of people he encounters in England and Europe. The book opens with training before D-Day and ends as the tank command is in Germany, heading toward the war’s conclusion. Characters come, go, live, die, and through it all, the soldiers must fight. They also have to fight in order to fight. The stresses, the demons, the pressures are constant and debilitating.

Warriors for the Working Day stands as a powerful corrective to narrative war history, the kinds of books that explain battles with maps, arrows and charts. With outcomes known, they give sense to what is inherently impossible to comprehend. Those kinds of history books are necessary but far removed from the actions of the poor folks who have to drive the tanks, shoot the weapons and hope for the best. There’s an immediacy to Elstob’s writing that carries you directly to the battlefield, to the bureaucracy, and the day to day. He is particularly good in his characterization. Everyone seems more than real.

Elstob’s personal war experiences made certain of the reality. He was a Royal Tank Regiment volunteer (his attempts at the RAF were unsuccessful). Elstob saw action in Asia, Africa, England and Europe. He lived through all that is recounted in Warriors for the Working Day. Moreover, he penned several military histories. Elstob truly knows his subject and that shines through his writing.

Massive thanks to the Imperial War Museum for reissuing this classic novel. It was as strong as anything new that I’ve read in years.

David Potash

For One, Please

Eat alone? Travel alone? Be alone? Solitude can come with unwelcome baggage: questioning looks, lingering distrust and occasionally approbation, as if solitude equates to selfishness. Even medical science informs us that we are social creatures. So we are. But without time to reflect, think and consider, we may be far from fully realized.

Stephanie Rosenbloom, a travel writer and journalist, makes an outstanding case for the value of traveling solo in Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities and the Pleasures of Solitude. It’s a gem of a short book, an easy read rich with moments. The concept is clever. Rosenbloom travels alone, walks, dines, chats and thinks in Paris, Istanbul, Florence and her home, New York City. She meets people, she asks questions – though the book is not really an exercise in deep, investigative journalism. Curious and reflective, above all, she observes. A talented writer with a gift for aligning the small perspective with the larger point, Rosenbloom takes us, the reader, as an unseen companion. She is a very good traveler and a fine confidant.

The section on Paris is the longest, most interesting and best realized. I would wager, too, that Paris is Rosenbloom’s favorite. The chapter on Istanbul felt slightly rushed, as though another few weeks would have provided more material. The tourists and bustle of Florence rubbed our intrepid traveler somewhat the wrong way. While she felt connection with art, I did not get the sense that Florence truly resonated with her. I doubt that she’ll be hurrying back to the Uffizi. On the other hand, being solo in her home city, New York, afforded Rosenbloom observations that felt right. I, too, can feel both at home and a visitor in Gotham. It is one of the joys of the city. The end of the book contains some helpful suggestions for solo travel.

Reading Alone Time was somewhat akin to taking a practice trip, an imaginary journey to four fascinating metropolises. It offered validation in an unexpected way to the desire all of us have, every now and then, to have a coffee or a moment by ourselves, to slow down and just watch and listen. That’s a good thing, a healthy necessity in 21st century life. It is not selfish. Rosenbloom guides us, too, in ways that being alone can enhance our experiences. I found it most intriguing that often the best place to do that kind of “slow thinking” is in places filled with hustle and bustle.

David Potash

Squadron Airborne – WWII Classic

There’s something humbling, fascinating and exciting about discovering a successful author and one of their books. “Why didn’t I know this?” is a common first response, and if the book is really good, then it’s “No wonder it was so successful!” That is often followed by a “Others should read this, too. This book should not be forgotten.” Soon after is “I wonder what other works by this author I should read?” I cycled through all of these while devouring Squadron Airborne by Elleston Trevor, an extremely gifted and prolific novelist. Published in 1955, it is a very good WWII novel. In fact, it is a good novel regardless of the setting. It’s a riveting read that need not be categorized as wartime fiction.

The book tells the story of the pilots and support team and neighbors at a fictional Spitfire fighter base in England in 1940. Taking place over a week, it is rich with authentic detail, memorable characters, tons of action and well-crafted interplay driving the plot. This was during the “Battle of Britain,” the early stages of the war when England’s very survival was at question. The novel is heroic, thrilling, scary, and has more than thread of romance. Above all, Squadron Airborne is very much a book about how a team works together. It is a novel grounded in high-stakes labor, and it is that sense of shared purposed and threat that holds it together. It all makes for a very engaging, very interesting read.

Elleston Trevor was a pseudonym but the eventual legal name of Squadron Airborne’s author. Born Trevor Dudley-Smith in 1920 in England, Trevor had a knock-about life before World War II, where he served with the RAF. Research indicates that some of Trevor’s military service was as an aircraft mechanic. Regardless of responsibilities through the war and beyond, he wrote and wrote, eventually penning more than a hundred works under several different pen names. He moved to the USA where he enjoyed commercial and critical successes. His best-known novel, Flight of the Phoenix, was made into two movies. Trevor also found many fans and readers in his Elleston Trevor was a pseudonym but the eventual legal name of Squadron Airborne’s author. Born Trevor Dudley-Smith in 1920 in England, Trevor had a knock-about life before World War II, where he served with the RAF. Through the war and beyond, he wrote and wrote, eventually penning more than a hundred works under many different pen names. He moved to the USA where he enjoyed commercial and critical successes. His best-known novel, Flight of the Phoenix, was made into two movies. Trevor also found many fans and readers in his Quiller spy novels, several of which were done for television and cinema. The man knew how to pace a story, how to say a lot with few words, and to engage readers. He https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiller

” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Quiller spy novels, several of which were done for television and cinema. The man knew how to pace a story, how to say a lot with few words, and to engage readers. He died in 1995.

Big thanks to London’s Imperial War Museum for re-issuing Squadron Airborne and other wartime classics. Looks like I have a lot more Trevor to read.

David Potash

Theroux’s Chicago Horror

Paul Theroux is a very good writer, known best for his works on travel and some novels, a few of which has been made into movies. In 1990 he wrote Chicago Loop, a grim work of fiction about a killer’s downward spiral. The primary character is no Raskolnikov; he’s probably more familiar to readers of Brett Easton Ellis. There are no great surprises, no philosophizing in Chicago Loop. Instead, it paints of picture of Windy City anomie through the lies and violence of a “successful” white male predator with a job and a family. Nicknamed the “Wolfman” the murder bites his victims. He drives a BMW and calls it a “beemer.” It’s dark stuff indeed.

The novel, all told, is not successful. A murder, in the middle of the story, serves as a structural pivot point. The first half leans toward the analytic, the critical, with a focus on a psychopath who lies as easily as he breathes. In the second part of the novel, the same lead character is consumed with guilt and images of the murder he committed. The two major sections – character development and exposition – do not hold together neatly. Each on its own, though, has a certain integrity.

Theroux did his Chicago homework assiduously. He’s strong on the city, its neighborhoods, the borders between city and suburb. The faces of the city also ring true. I can imagine Theroux strolling with a notebook and pen, sketching out the setting.

Chicago Loop is a worthy experiment in horror. It also highlights the challenges of the genre: how to maintain reader’s interest in a detestable main character, what does and does not hold attention, how to build and release tension, and the importance of big picture narrative structure. Most of the needed literary components are present. It’s a testament to Theroux’s skill, as is the well-written prose down to the punch of individual sentences.

Theroux, though, does not seem to enjoy the journey as fully as one might expect. He is in the story and out of the story. I felt his dislike of his protagonist. It’s understandable; the man is scum. There is no joy, though, in the protagonist’s comeuppance and little perverse thrill in being along for the ride. I cannot picture Theroux as a fan of horror movies. He is interested in internal dialogues, in values, in rendering some form of explication. That makes him a more thoughtful writer, a more caring writer. Ironically, though, those admirable traits don’t necessarily lead to goosebumps.

David Potash

Telling One’s Extraordinary Story

Have you read James McBride’s The Color of Water? Written in the 1990s, it’s been a best seller ever since. McBride followed it up with other successful books. A talented musician and composer, a professor at New York University, a collaborator with Spike Lee in films, McBride is an award-winner in multiple fields, a supremely talented and prolific artist. Today he is a leading voice in American arts and letters. The Color of Water is powerful and moving. It has stayed relevant, too, especially because of how it addresses issues of race, racism and identity.

McBride’s memoir is about his family, his childhood, and above all, his mother, Ruth. She was the child of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. They emigrated from Poland in the 1920s and had difficulty adjusting to life in the United States. Her father eventually settled in the south, running a small store. A horrible person, he abused his family and exploited his African-American customers and community. Ruth escaped a terrible childhood, moving north and marrying a loving African-American man. They formed a tight bond in New York City and started a family. Sadly, he died young. Ruth struggled, kept the family together, and eventually married again. Her second husband, also African-American, was caring and supportive. The family grew larger. After a few years of happiness , Ruth was widowed yet again. This loss hit her exceptionally hard. Poverty, which was always at the door, became an even greater problem. Consider the difficulties she and her family faced, a single white women with a large African-American family, in post World War II America. Nonetheless, Ruth pulled herself – and her family together.

It was into this large family, with eleven brothers and sisters, that James McBride grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He and the family faced racism, poverty, and all manner of difficulties. They also were bound together by their mother and her faith in God and education. The family, in many ways, flourished. The pride that McBride has in his family – he lists their accomplishments at the end of the book – is palpable. It’s an extraordinary story.

The book’s title comes from one of Ruth’s observations. A woman of great faith who abandoned Judaism for Christianity, she told once James that God “is the color of water.” It was her unshakeable beliefs that drove Ruth McBride and gave the family direction. The courage of Ruth and her love of her family is off the charts. She was also very reluctant to share her history with her children.

One of the book’s great strengths – and it has many – is the interchanging focus, moving between Ruth’s story and McBride’s. It highlights the interaction of choice, family and community in the development of one’s own self. McBride’s writing is accessible and thoughtfully crafted. Ruth’s determination, her ability to find a way to direct her life, is inspirational. She faced tremendous hardships and still raised a loving and successful family. The children all found ways to grow and find a path, each in their own way. McBride’s insights, his observations and deeply felt appreciation through multiple perspectives, point to better lives and better ways to live.

More than memoir, The Color of Water is a provocative personal history that explores the complexity of identity. The book underscores the ways the society, family and personal choice can direct – or redirect – a life. It challenges expectations and assumptions. Above all, it’s a beautifully written tribute to amazing woman.

David Potash

Changing One’s Spots

Eric Weiner, an inquisitive grump, is a reporter who successfully made the transition from journalism to best-selling book author. His first book-length effort, The Geography of Bliss, is brilliantly conceived travel book brimming with philosophy and wry observation. Funny and profound, the work spans the globe while asking an important question: if happiness is around the corner, where is that corner?

Weiner’s quest takes him to the Netherlands, Iceland, Switzerland, Thailand, Qatar, Moldova (one of the least happy places on earth), India, and the good old United States, his home. Along the way he talks with experts, officials, writers, and everyday people. He eats local foods, questions folks about what makes them happy – or unhappy – and tells us stories. Woven in the narrative are scientific studies, scholarly references, and data. Weiner’s idiosyncrasies – he is obsessed with bags – and predilections give the journey extra flavor. It’s first-person writing with an eye on the local and big-picture questions.

Happy places, it turns out, are slippery. They work for some people and not for others. They depend greatly upon expectations. Weiner learns that most happy places do have something in common: they refresh the soul and they connect us with something larger. Makes me wonder if my happy places – Coney Island, anyone – fits the bill. Weiner also realizes that he can learn more from the unhappy spots.

This is a book with some important insights nestled among jokes and asides. Weiner is smart enough to have made it a more thoughtful book. Hints of that are everywhere. However, that was not his aim. Clearly, too, he was plenty smart in finding the right tone. It’s a perennial best seller and he’s replicated the formula.

I thought of the Wizard of Oz when reading The Geography of Bliss. Home is where the heart is, though it often takes us a lot of time and travel to come to that realization.

David Potash