Evicted.

I have two new Insider posts on the Verlander trade and the Justin Upton trade.

Princeton sociology professor and ethnographer Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a stunning work of first-person research that examines a major socioeconomic problem from the ground level, rather than the top-down, data-driven approach I expected from a book in his genre. Desmond spent several months living among the inner-city underclass in several neighborhoods in Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009, shadowing tenants and landlords, witnessing evictions and forced moves, accompanying residents to rehab, AA meetings, even to court, recording what amounted to over 5000 pages of transcribed notes and conversations, to produce this devastating and utterly human portrait of people who simply do not exist to the house-secure classes.

Desmond’s aim here is clear: eviction is more than just a temporary loss of shelter, but a massive disruption to the economic and psychological well-being of entire families, a process that can lead to job loss, substance abuse, and crime, and a scarlet letter on a person’s record that can make it harder to obtain future housing and employment. The vulnerable class of the working or semi-working poor are victimized repeatedly by a system that takes the majority of their income, often over 75% of it, to cover rent for substandard housing, then punishes them if they fall behind and are evicted in a process that overwhelmingly favors the landlords. Tenants are often afraid to assert their rights, if they have any, or to report building code or maintenance violations for fear of retaliation. Once evicted, families may end up having to pay exorbitant fees to place their limited possessions in storage, with no access to their things, until the almost inevitable time when they can’t afford the monthly cost and lose what little they had.

Desmond accompanies several single residents and entire families on their journey through multiple evictions and the Lodge, a homeless shelter readers will know all too well before the book is complete. The access these people gave him is remarkable, as he captures their words at some of their most vulnerable and depressed moments, often witnessing their stuff being carted out to the curb in trash bags by Eagle Movers, who apparently maintain a truck (or two?) just for the purpose of serving landlords who are evicting residents. He also relates a firsthand account of housing discrimination – and explains in an afterword how the Fair Housing Authority did nothing with his formal complaint. (And that was under a Democratic administration; I doubt it’s any better today.) He also spends significant time with two slumlords – although he refuses to refer to either as such – to give their perspective, usually in their own words, even explaining how one, Sherrena, was “proud” of her landlord status and her collection of properties, even though Desmond makes it very clear that she is a nightmare landlord whose failure to maintain safe conditions in her buildings should probably have landed her in court.

By spending so much time with poor residents, Desmond also makes it clear what critical needs are not addressed when most of someone’s income – often income from disability payments – goes to cover the rent. Going without food, or without enough food, is an obvious outcome. But such tenants often have no heat or hot water, or sometimes can’t cover the gas or electric bills. Medical care is often entirely out of the question. Buying a new pair of shoes for a child, a mundane event for even middle-class families, is an enormous achievement. One of the few success stories in the book, Scott, a former nurse who lost everything when he became addicted to painkillers, has to borrow from his parents to cover the cost to get into a rehab program and begin taking methadone. Many other people Desmond follows don’t have even that bare safety net of a parent or relative to help cover a payment – or, in the case of one single mother, her safety net repeatedly refuses to help.

Desmond saves his prescriptions and recommendations for the epilogue, choosing instead to let the individual narratives tell the reader the overarching story of a system that traps these American untouchables in a cycle of poverty from which it is very difficult to escape. It’s easy to say, as so many politicians like to do, that the solution to poverty is to make poor adults go to work. That facile, elitist answer ignores the realities of work for the underclass: Available jobs barely pay enough to cover the rent, evictions and other related actions (police are often involved, with Milwaukee employing sheriffs specifically for this purpose) can count against someone on a job application, and missing time to try to find new living space can cost such a person his/her job. Affordable – or “affordable” – housing is often located far from work, with poor public transit options in many or most cities. We get repeated examples of people evicted because of the actions of someone else. One woman is evicted because the police were called to her apartment by a neighbor because her partner was beating her. Another loses what sounds like a perfect apartment because her young son got in a fight and her babysitter asked neighbors if they had any weed. And landlords get away with this because tenants don’t fight back, enforcement of what few rights they have is scarce, and there’s a line of people waiting to get into every apartment the evicted vacate.

In that epilogue, Desmond offers ideas and potential solutions, including universal housing vouchers that can be used anywhere, without discrimination, the way that recipients use food stamps. He speaks of reasonable housing as a fundamental human right, which is how western European governments and societies view it, arguing that “the pursuit of happiness” is impossible without adequate shelter. Desmond also pushes solutions that are, at best, antithetical to the capitalist underpinnings of our society, including broader rent control, without sufficient consideration of the economic consequences of such policies (rent control programs can stifle construction and push landlords to convert rental properties to non-rental ones). He seems to advocate for more public housing, but doesn’t discuss how we can expand the housing stock without repeating the problems of previous housing projects, many of which became unsafe and were razed within 20 years of their construction. His proposed solutions should spark discussion of how to solve the American housing crisis – or, at least, a discussion that there is a housing crisis at all – but seem like they will trade current problems for new ones rather than creating comprehensive solutions that at least consider how the market will react to major policy shifts. That’s a minor issue in a remarkable work that is dedicated more to exposing these problems to the wider audience, to bringing people in distress out of the shadows and into the public consciousness, because without that there won’t even be a conversation about how best to help them in an economy that still places a high value on the rights of private property owners.

I listened to the audio version of Evicted, which is narrated by actor Dion Graham, whose voice will be familiar to fans of The Wire. Graham does a masterful job of bringing the various characters to life with just subtle changes in tone – and treats these people, who are largely less educated and less articulate than, say, Graham himself is, with respect. It would be easy to caricature these underprivileged tenants, but Graham’s renditions infuse them with the quiet dignity they deserve, so that the listener may feel sorrow or pity for them, but not scorn.

Next up: Thomas Stribling’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Store. I’m about 60 pages in, and while the story is moving along, the casual racism in the writing – Stribling was from Alabama, set the novel in Florence, and has it taking place shortly after the Civil War – is appalling.

The Last Days of Night.

Graham Moore won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2015 for his work on The Imitation Game, particularly impressive for a first-time screenwriter with just that and one novel under his belt at the time. His second novel, The Last Days of Night, came out last August and just appeared in paperback this spring, and is about as good a work of popular, contemporary fiction as I’ve come across.

Moore takes the term historical novel to a new extreme here, creating a coherent narrative around the War of Currents of the late 1800s – the public dispute over whether the nation’s power grid should run on direct current, favored by Thomas Edison, or alternating current, favored by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse – by relying on the historical record as much as possible for descriptions of characters, scenes, and even dialogue. This type of novel typically makes me uncomfortable because it potentially puts words and thoughts in the mouths of real-life personages, potentially coloring or distorting our impressions of them; Moore includes an appendix explaining source materials for many of the depictions in the book, even explaining the origins of some of the dialogue, and also delineating which events and timelines in the book are real and which he created or rearranged to fit the narrative. I’ve read “non-fiction” books that played faster and looser with the truth than Moore does here in his work of fiction.

The War of Currents was kind of a big deal, and a lot more public than you’d expect a scientific debate to be, largely because the two figures at the center of it, Edison and Westinghouse, were both famous and powerful at the time – Edison the revered inventor and showman, Westinghouse the successful businessman and an inventor in his own right, the two embroiled in a public dispute over whether DC or AC was the safer choice for the nation’s emerging electrical grid. (AC was the inarguably superior technology, and eventually won out, but not necessarily for the ‘right’ reasons.) Moore wraps this battle, including the bizarre entrance of one Harold Brown, inventor of the electric chair, into the debate, in the larger one over who really invented the incandescent light bulb, spicing things up a little bit with some fictional details like the firebombing of Tesla’s laboratory and a hostile takeover of Edison’s company.

Told from the perspective of Paul Cravath, a young attorney who handled Westinghouse’s side of the various lawsuits back and forth between him and Edison and later founded the Council on Foreign Relations, The Last Days of Night manages to turn what could have been dry history into a suspenseful, fast-paced novel (aided by lots of short chapters) populated by well-rounded characters. Edison’s depiction might be a little too on the nose, but Westinghouse, Cravath, and even the enigmatic Tesla – whose Serbian-accented English is recreated in clever fashion by Moore, who explains his technique in the appendix – come to life on the page in three dimensions even with the limitations of their roles. Moore relied largely on historical information to flesh out the characters, with the main exception of Agnes Huntington, Cravath’s wife, on whom there was very little documentation, leading Moore (or perhaps simply allowing him) to create her backstory and eventual romance with Cravath out of whole cloth. The trick allows Moore to give the book its one proper female character, since the War of Currents was fought entirely by men in domains – science and the law – that were closed to women until the last century.

I found the pace of Last Days a little frenetic, definitely aimed more at the popular end of the market than the literary end; events move quickly, as Moore compressed almost a decade into about two years, and the book has short chapters and tons of dialogue to keep up the velocity. That meant I tore through the book but found it a little balanced towards action over meaning; there was just less to ponder, especially after the book was over, but I also never wanted to put the book down because there are so few points where the pace slackens. That makes it a rarity for me – a book I could recommend to anyone who likes fiction, regardless of what sort of fiction you like.

Next up: Still playing catchup with reviews; I’ve finished Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce ($2 on Kindle) and Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, and am now reading Anna Smaill’s weird, dystopian novel The Chimes.

Tower.

On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman, a white, Catholic 25-year-old who had trained as a sharpshooter with the Marines, murdered his wife and his mother, then went to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower and began targeting and shooting anyone he could see, killing 14 and wounding 31 others. It was considered the first mass “school shooting” in U.S. history and the worst mass murder in Texas history to that point.

The documentary Tower, which was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, recreates the 96 minutes from when Whitman first started shooting until he was killed by policemen who, with the help of one courageous civilian, cornered him on the observation deck. By using first-person accounts from survivors and witnesses, Tower tells the story of the shootings via animation, some of it overlaid on actual footage from either that day or that time period. It’s an utterly gripping account that comes as close as possible to putting the viewer on the scene, and focuses on the victims, both those killed that day and those injured or involved who had to carry those memories for the rest of their lives. The film is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Whitman’s motives remain unknown to this day, although there are multiple theories, including that a brain tumor pressing on his amygdala had caused him to have murderous or delusional thoughts. Tower doesn’t get into Whitman’s story at all; in fact, he never appears in the film, not even in animation. Instead, the documentary gives us the stories of the people who are rarely if ever mentioned when the story of the Tower shootings are told.

One student, Claire Wilson, who was eight months pregnant and walking with her boyfriend was among the first people shot by Whitman; she survived, thanks to the help of multiple good Samaritans, two of whom eventually risked their lives to drag her to safety, but she lost the baby and her boyfriend was killed immediately. Another student, John “Artly” Fox, was one of the men who went into the open to bring Claire out of the sniper’s sight so she could get medical attention, and after three months in the hospital, she survived. Tower brings the two of them together for the first time since the shootings at the end of the film. A boy delivering newspapers was shot while on his cousin’s bicycle; he survived, but his parents were first told he’d been killed before finding him alive at the hospital. Air Force veteran Allen Crum, then the manager of the campus co-op store across the street, came out to break up what he thought was a fight, then realized there was a sniper and decided to make his way to the tower itself, eventually joining the officers on the observation deck and providing cover for them as they crept up on Whitman and killed him.

Many of the principals are still alive today and appear twice over in the film – as themselves, near the end of the documentary, but in animated form as their younger selves during the reenactments. The animation gimmick works incredibly well, more than simply hiring actors would have (if such a thing were even feasible), because it allowed me at least to focus completely on their words. There’s no question of someone overacting or rendering a person inaccurately here; we get their memories, enough to give us a fairly complete picture of those 96 minutes of hell, and a closing segment as those still alive discuss life after the shootings. And because this story is rarely told – victims are largely numbers, and modern accounts will always focus on the killer instead – there are tons of details here I’d never heard before, as well as the angle that elevates some of the day’s heroes over the murderer in the telling.

I’m floored Tower didn’t advance and earn of the five nominations for Best Documentary Feature. It’s better than the four nominees of normal length, with a clear narrative and a strong angle that remains important to this day (perhaps even more so, as the current federal government wants to ensure people with serious mental illnesses have easy access to guns). And it did something novel, combining animation with real footage to provide an accurate historical rendering of a major event in American history – one that I would say is somewhat forgotten outside of Texas, perhaps because school shootings have become so commonplace. It’s better structured than I Am Not Your Negro, more compelling than Life, Animated, and lacks the fatal flaw of The 13th. For it to fall behind all of those films defies understanding.

O.J.: Made in America.

My latest Insider column discusses Mike Hazen and diversity in baseball, and my latest boardgame review for Paste covers the pirate-themed Islebound, which looks great but plays too slowly.

My employer’s eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America is a real tour de force of nonfiction storytelling, combining two separate, strong narratives to give us the rise and fall of one of the most beloved celebrities of the last fifty years within the context of American race relations, particularly between white police and government authorities and African-American civilians. It paints pictures of two O.J.’s: the sports star who crossed over to become an icon to black and white audiences, and the manipulative wife-beater who eventually killed Nicole Brown and innocent bystander Ronald Goldman, only to be acquitted in a ‘trial of the century.’ Aired in five separate parts, the film casts an incredibly wide net and manages to inform the viewers not just on the facts but on the landscape in which those facts took place. (The film is streaming via the WatchESPN app and can be purchased on amazon or iTunes).

The documentary starts more or less with Simpson in community college, although it dips back into his childhood to introduce us to many of the figures who appear in the documentary on camera or in the action itself, as he’s about to head to USC, where the nation first became aware of his superlative talent on the field. The Buffalo Bills drafted Simpson, but their system didn’t make good use of his abilities for the first few years of his career and he appeared to be a disappointment until new head coach Lou Saban built the team’s offense around him in 1972. Simpson took off from there, becoming the first back to rush for 2000 yards (back in the 14-game schedule), breaking Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record, winning the league MVP and several rushing titles, and eventually retiring with the second-most rushing yards in NFL history.

Simpson started to convert his football prowess into commercial success early in his career, and began acting in films shortly after becoming a football star. Although the documentary focuses more on his comic work – he was Nordberg in the three Naked Gun films, probably the role for which he’s most remembered now as an actor – he also appeared in dramatic works, including an episode of Roots, only the greatest miniseries of all time (per Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz). By the time Simpson hung up his cleats, he was a cross-platform star, a bankable celebrity whom the film credits with ushering in the era of the sports star endorsement that we can blame for those awful Peyton Manning Nationwide commercials.

That story takes up the first two hours or so of the film, and it’s exhilirating to watch: there’s plenty of game footage, but we also get to watch the development of a national icon, turning from a charming but very unpolished athlete into a confident, ambitious actor and pitchman. In an era where endorsements were limited to white stars, Simpson broke the mold. That he did so by avoiding any emphasis on his race, such as commenting on political matters or protests, did not seem remarkable at the time; it was the path of least resistance for someone who wanted the fame and income that came from celebrity, not the power or the podium.

This part of the documentary is interspersed with the backdrop of rising racial animus in California, including the Watts riots, the police shooting of Eulia Love, the murder of Latasha Harkins by a Korean grocer (convicted but sentenced only to probation), and the Rodney King beating and acquittal. In a sense, it’s all prologue for the murder trial of Simpson, where the context of a city where many black citizens were convinced that they were being unfairly targeted by the police and treated differently by the courts informed a trial that included a cop, Mark Fuhrman, with a history of racist statements, and the defense accusation of planted evidence. The physical evidence, including DNA, should have made this a slam-dunk for the prosecution, but the defense created plenty of reasonable doubt, including prosecutor Chris Darden’s own inexplicable decision to ask Simpson to try on one of the gloves with his DNA on it, as well as by playing the race card to gain Simpson a fast acquittal.

I remember being disgusted to see people celebrating the verdict at the time, and the images still repulse me today: the fact that a black man could beat the system should not be more important than the fact that an abused wife and a total stranger were brutally murdered. But O.J.: Made in America doesn’t pass judgment itself; the film gives us both contemporary footage from the trial and reaction along with commentary today from so many participants, including two jurors (both black women) and the practically made-for-television civil rights lawyer Carl Douglas. Although a few key people are missing from these confessional interviews – Al Cowlings, Marguerite Simpson, and Darden stand out among the missing – the sheer number of people who did talk, and talked at length, is the production’s greatest strength. Furhman’s here. So are several of the cops who arrested Simpson, including those involved in the absurd white Bronco debacle. Many of O.J.’s longtime friends appear, including a childhood friend, Joe Bell, who comes as close as anyone here to defending the subject.

From there, we get the ugly post-trial life of Simpson up to his 2007 arrest and 2008 conviction on kidnapping and burglary charges that the film strongly implies was all payback for the 1994 acquittal. Simpson believed, according to his friends, that after the original verdict, he’d return to his old life as if nothing had happened, only to find his endorsements evaporating and many of his friends distancing themselves from him. The narrative gets a bit flimsy at this point, but the story is one of a man who relocates to Florida (to avoid the civil judgment against him), starts hanging out with less and less savory characters, and eventually adopts a “gangster” (their word, not mine) image along with his increasingly erratic behavior and poor judgment. Of course, the worst people Simpson was hanging with were collectibles dealers, and you can interpret that as you wish.

What the documentary doesn’t do, unfortunately, is even explore the question of why. Domestic violence itself is worthy of that kind of discussion – are abusers born, or are they made? If the latter, how do we interrupt the cycle that creates them? – but in Simpson’s case, the program itself gives us portraits of two extremely different men. The Simpson of the 1960s and 1970s that we see in episodes 1 and 2, married to his high school sweetheart Marguerite and out of any sort of trouble, is completely different from the controlling, obsessed Simpson who abused and eventually killed Nicole Brown. This dichotomy all but requires explanation: Was Simpson always a potential abuser, but didn’t become one until his second marriage? (Marguerite has steadfastly said that Simpson never abused her, and there is no record of any violence during their relationship.) Did his football career have anything to do with him becoming abusive or aspects of his personality that changed? The directors seem to hint at O.J.’s troubled relationship with his father, who was gay and later became a well-known drag performer, as a cause, but that’s hardly a justification for violence against women and the subject is barely discussed. It appears the directors didn’t ask any of the many longtime friends and business associates of Simpson the question: was this really who Simpson was all along?

The documentary itself is riveting; I don’t remember any single-story work of this length that held my attention as long as this one did. The pacing is brisk, and the first-person commentaries from folks as diverse as Marcia Clark, Hertz CEO Frank Olson, and Simpson’s friend Ron Shipp, a retired LAPD officer who testified against Simpson at the murder trial, are invaluable for framing (no pun intended) the story. The directors delivered even more on their “in America” part, showing how the racial and cultural context first made O.J. into a star and then helped him avoid a conviction for the two murders, even more than they tell us how O.J. was “made” into a domestic abuser and killer. ESPN released the film to theaters in New York and Los Angeles for a week so it would be eligible for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and I find it hard to imagine any two-hour challenger could come close to topping it.

And a Bottle of Rum.

Wayne Curtis tries to downplay the ambitions set in the title of his book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, implying that he’s not going to credit human existence or history to rum the way other authors have to cod or salt or other mundane foodstuffs. That’s all to the good in my opinion, as he sticks mostly to the history of rum and various people and products associated with its rise from “the distilled essence of industrial waste” to a top-shelf liquor commanding premium prices for aged varieties as you might pay for whiskey or brandy. (It’s also available on iBooks.)

Rum is, of course, distilled from molasses (or, rarely, sugar cane juice), which was originally discarded by plantation owners as the unwanted, unsaleable waste product of sugar production and refining. It gained popularity among sailors, even becoming part of a daily grog ration for members of the Royal Navy (a practice that was only discontinued in 1970), and then became the main liquor in colonial America, first as an import from the Caribbean and later as a homemade product, playing a role along the way in the Sugar and Stamp Acts. (Curtis also attempts to dispel the myth of the triangle trade, with a few references, saying that there’s no evidence any ship actually sailed those three legs or that the trade was as simple as the middle-school story indicates.) Rum faded from view in the U.S. only to regain popularity during and after Prohibition through Cuba tourism, the song “Rum and Coca-Cola,” and the rise of the tiki bar. It is a tumultuous history with plenty of associations with major world events, even if rum itself wasn’t always the cause of them.

Along the way, Curtis provides digressions about the real Captain Morgan and his namesake rum (which wasn’t always spiced), the American temperance movement against “demon rum” even though rum was rarely consumed at the time, the history of the mai tai and the tiki bar trend, Coca-Cola (and the Andrews Sisters’ song about the two), and Paul Revere’s ride with its possibly-apocryphal stop for a dram of rum. He weaves these stories into ten chapters, each covering a specific drink, including planter’s punch, the daiquiri – not the frozen sickly-sweet concoction, but the original rum-lime-sugar-crushed ice beverage that was the libation of choice of Ernest Hemingway – and the mojito. To his credit, he has proper scorn for flavored rums, pina coladas, and Coca-Cola, since all of the three take the focus of the drink off rum by inserting a dominant alternate flavor.*

*Curtis hits on a distinction I’ve been thinking about between cocktails and mixed drinks. If you read about the history of alcoholic drinks, you’ll come across two kinds – those that try to enhance the flavor of the central liquor or push it to the front of the drink, and those that cover it up because the liquor is of low quality or because the drinker can’t abide the taste of alcohol. The former group, what I think of as cocktails, comprised drinks that were seen as masculine, like you might find a Bertie Wooster drinking at the club, while the latter, simply mixed drinks, were seen as either girly or just déclassé. Curtis even mentions the rise of vodka, a liquor devoid of character and nearly devoid of taste, and its rise as younger male drinkers in the 1950s refused to acquire the taste for strong drink. A true daiquiri remains an acceptable drink in this dichotomy, as the rum is the star ingredient with the rum and sugar as supporting players. A pina colada isn’t, as Curtis explains, because “pineapple and coconut are the linebackers of the taste world,” obliterating any indication that there’s rum in the beverage. A dark-and-stormy (dark rum and ginger beer) works because ginger and rum are complementary flavors, much like mushrooms and onions or haricots verts and almonds, but a Cuba Libre doesn’t work because it’s just a Coke with a higher proof content. I’m not quite sure how a mai tai passes muster with Curtis – I think that’s only an acceptable drink if you’re on a tropical island, and even so, there are likely better options – but in general he’s pretty consistent.

Curtis also includes recipes for modern drinks as well as brief recipes for ten classic (or just old) drinks that lead into the ten chapters. One of them, just called “punch,” looked familiar, and after making it I realized it’s the drink called “planter’s punch” in Bermuda, where my wife and I honeymooned and to which we returned for our fifth and tenth anniversaries. It’s strong and the predominant flavor is rum (Gosling’s Black Seal in Bermuda), and while you can garnish it with all manner of garbage, at its heart it’s a daiquiri with some water and maybe a pinch of nutmeg, the latter a nod to the classic punches of Britain. And it’s very easy to assemble:

Juice half a lime into a glass. Add one tablespoon of sugar, simple syrup, or agave nectar; 1 1/2 ounces of rum; and two ounces of water. Mix well and add ice.

The end of the book has a brief selection listing Curtis’ favorite rums from a cross-section of countries and multiple price ranges. I found most of them at a nearby liquor store (the one at Fresh Pond next to Whole Foods, for those of you who live around here). They’re sipping rums rather than mixing rums, for more serious drinkers than myself.

Next up: Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Alice Adams.

Taking on the Trust.

There is no one left: none but all of us … The public is the people. We forget that we all are the people; that while each of us in his group can shove off on the rest of the bill of today, the debt is only postponed. The rest of us are passing it on back to us. We have to pay in the end, every one of us. And in the end the sum total of the debt will be our liberty. – Ida Tarbell, The History of the Standard Oil Company

Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller is Steve Weinberg’s short biography of Tarbell, perhaps the first true investigative journalist in American history and one of the original muckrakers, set off against snippets of the biography of Rockefeller. It’s a good read, but it’s not the story of the battle between these two individuals, who in fact, only met once and had no direct contact even as Tarbell was laying bare the unethical practices of Standard Oil.

Tarbell’s magnum opus was the book quoted up top, an 800-page tome first published in installments in McClure’s magazine, which at the time was an intellectual rag that combined serious (if muckraking) journalism with pieces of short fiction. Tarbell’s father had been involved in the western Pennsylvania oil boom, but also saw his fortunes derailed by the monopolistic practices of Rockefeller’s firm. Weinberg presents the thesis that Tarbell’s drive to expose Rockefeller’s dirty pool, although her earlier work indicates a passion for reformist journalism, with Standard Oil as a likely target of any dogged reporter of the time. What set Tarbell apart was her willingness to work to unearth new sources, including first-person accounts that had not previously come to light, but also documents and letters that other journalists had not bothered to find. She made great use of court documents and filings from the small towns where Standard Oil set up shop, often via shell companies, and identified people who’d had contact with Rockefeller or his minions during Standard Oil’s rise to domination.

Unfortunately, we don’t get much on the direct impact of Tarbell’s book, which only merits a chapter and a half towards the end of Taking on the Trust. Standard Oil was broken up via court ruling a few years afterward, but how direct is the link between Tarbell’s work and that legal decision? And how did Tarbell’s groundbreaking efforts affect the world of journalism afterwards? I imagine that later investigative reporters would have given her at least some credit either for directly inspiring them or for opening doors through which they could walk, but Taking comes to a fairly abrupt end once the narrative reaches the breakup.

I may post something over the weekend, but I’ll be on vacation from Sunday to Saturday and probably won’t post anything next week. I’ll keep an eye on the comments, as always.

Top 25 non-fiction books.

Since this is probably going to be my lone post of the week, I figured it should be a long one. I started out planning to offer a list of the ten best nonfiction books I’ve read, and then found I’d written down thirty titles. I trimmed a few and settled on twenty-five. I’ve omitted self-help/instruction books (like books on cooking) and stuck to more serious topics, although some are lightly treated.

25. Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. Heard the movie was terrible, which is a shame because the book was great. It’s a classic underdog story – horse thought to be too small, jockey blind in one eye, trainer with unorthodox methods, and so on – with Seabiscuit’s rise punctuated by several high moments and an almost too-good-to-be-true shot at redemption when he gets one last chance to win the race that has always eluded him.

24. The Catholic Church: A Short History, by Hans Küng. I’ll admit that this book may have a narrow appeal, but I think it’s a solid read even for those with no direct interest in the Catholic Church. Küng is the Church’s greatest internal critic, a Catholic priest and theologian who underwent an excommunication proceeding for his teachings. He rejects or questions several doctrines of the mundane Church, pointing out that such concepts as papal infallibility and the celibacy requirement for clergy are man-made, not divinely granted. The Catholic Church serves as a summary of many of his major works to date within the context of a Catholic’s history of the Church itself, dating back to its early days as a small-c catholic church hewing much more closely to the teachings of Christ than the bloated and often corrupt bureaucracy we see today.

23. The Prize Game, by Donald Petrie. A bit short and a bit slow, The Prize Game still has a fascinating and improbable story at its core: Piracy was once a government-sanctioned business with clear rules of engagement. Captured ships were known as “prizes” and there were strict guidelines for how captured cargo and sailors were to be treated. This style of privateering was all but ended after 1815, although the book does go briefly into privateering during the U.S. Civil War. If you’ve read any Patrick O’Brian books or perhaps played the Sid Meier game Pirates!, this book’s right up your alley.

22. The Invention of Clouds, by Richard Hamblyn. Reviewed briefly here. Hamblyn tells an interesting story about the amateur meteorologist who came up with the system of nomenclature and descriptions for clouds that is still more or less in use today. The only hitch here is that there wasn’t a lot of drama in the book – not that Hamblyn should have made any up – so the book just sort of flows along without the tension that tends to drive successful history of science books forward. There are some interesting asides, and it’s amazing to think that there was a time when science presentations to the public resulted in packed houses.

21. Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. Hilarious and cutting and explosive in its revelations of kitchen culture, Kitchen Confidential will make you think twice when deciding where to eat when eating out. And I would hope that it would teach all of you to head in the other direction when you see a sign that says “Discount Sushi.”

20. Catch Me If You Can, by Frank Abagnale. The movie sucked, but the book was great, and it’ll make you wonder why the movie’s producers felt the need to alter anything given how outrageous Abagnale’s life of deception was. He pioneered a new type of check-kiting and is one of the greatest social engineers the world has ever seen – all because he wanted to impress the ladies. And if his tale is to be believed, impress them he did.

19. The Power of Babel, by John McWhorter. Reviewed in depth here, Power offers us a history of human languages with a good dose of McWhorter’s own opinions, including his view that language is a dynamic, living entity that can only be constrained through fiat. He also takes the view that all “languages” are merely dialects, and explains why some languages still have nasty features like noun declensions and the subjunctive mood while others have lost them over time.

18. The Island of Lost Maps, by Miles Harvey. The Island of Lost Maps tells the story of one of the boldest and for a time most successful thieves of whom you’ve never heard, a milquetoast man – appropriately named Bland – who cut antique maps out of rare books in university libraries and sell them to collectors. Bland made about a half-million dollars in the early 1990s before he was caught. Harvey weaves Bland’s story in with a few other narratives, including a description of the map-collecting industry, the history of this sort of maps, and his own obsession with the story and with learning about the map world. That last thread is the one major negative of Island, as I’m firmly in the camp that says that a nonfiction book’s author doesn’t belong in the book unless he’s the subject as well.

17. God’s Equation, by Amir Aczel. Aczel’s first book was Fermat’s Last Theorem, a history of that famous equation and the math that led up to the ultimate solution by Andrew Wiles. The book started with a riveting description of Wiles’ first presentation of his solution – I’m serious, you’ll be caught up in it too – but the rest of the book was dry and very mathy, with only the occasional bit of real-life drama (like the suicide of one of the Japanese mathematicians whose work was invaluable to Wiles) to keep it moving. For his second book, however, Aczel chose a broader topic and crafted a much stronger narrative, describing how Albert Einstein’s greatest “mistake,” that of the cosmological constant (a sort of high-physics fudge factor) turned out, in the end, to be correct.

16. The Lighthouse Stevensons, by Bella Bathurst. The family of Robert Louis Stevenson is known for something very non-literary: constructing a series of lighthouses around the dangerous coastlines of the British Isles. Not only were these projects dangerous and very difficult, they also disenfranchised the various communities of wreckers who thrived on the proceeds of shipwrecks off their shores, often killing survivors to ensure their hauls. (Bathurst, also a journalist and the author of one novel, started to lose her hearing a few years ago after a head trauma suffered in a car crash, and wrote a column on how the loss is not entirely without compensations.)

15. The Tummy Trilogy/Feeding a Yen, both by Calvin Trillin. A series of four books that are more collections of stories of the quest for good eats across America and eventually the world. The Tummy Trilogy’s stories are more folksy, while Feeding a Yen seemed more focused on the food, although the disappearance of Trillin’s wife Alice midway through that tome is a sad reminder of her early death in 2001.

14. All the President’s Men , by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Still riveting thirty-plus years later, the book is more about the reporters’ gradual uncovering of the Watergate scandal than it is about the scandal itself. Loses a bit of its romance now that we know who “Deep Throat” was.

13. Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King. The story of the construction of the cupola on the duomo of Florence, Brunelleschi’s Dome focuses on the technological advances that Brunelleschi had to drive to be able to construct such a large dome without internal supports or risk of collapse. The story offers a surprising intensity because of the deadlines, the pressure from the Church, and various other external factors that make the project’s completion seem uncertain, although I can assure you from firsthand experience that it all worked out in the end. If you enjoyed this one, you might like the similar but fluffier Tilt, by Nicholas Shrady, about that crooked tower an hour down the A11 in Pisa.

12. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, by Giles Milton. I picked this one up in the remainders room of a local independent bookstore for no other reason than the inclusion of my favorite spice in the book’s title. It turns out that it’s a riveting and thorough history of the Indonesian spice trade, which has not a little to do with the fact that we in the United States are speaking English today and not Dutch. Black pepper, mace (the aril covering the nutmeg seed itself), and cinnamon all make appearances, but nutmeg was the spice that drove the markets and led to fierce battles and even torture over the control of the Spice Islands, particularly the tiny nutmeg-producing island of Run.

11. Millionaire, by Janet Gleeson. I may be biased on this one, as the subject of Millionaire is the inventor of paper money, a manor-born English ne’er-do-well named John Law. Law’s financial genius (just sounds right, doesn’t it?) led to the development of modern currency systems and credit markets, but also created one of the biggest speculative booms and crashes in history, and led to the need for a new word to describe those who had amassed so much wealth: “millionaire.”

10. The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto. The story of the Dutch colony New Amsterdam, the early history of Manhattan (starting with the arrival of the Europeans, that is), and the enduring influence of the Dutch culture, language, and society on New York, both city and state, and the United States in general. Shorto had access to a recently-unearthed trove of over 12,000 pages of documents from the Dutch colonial government, and the result is a fascinating story with two heroes, the idealistic Adriaen van der Donck and the better-known but half-villian Peter Stuyvesant, some serious villains in the English, the Swedes’ short-lived foray into colonization, and early experiments in things like democracy, tolerance, and free trade.

9. Living to Tell the Tale, by Gabriel García Marquéz. I’m not big on memoirs, but this book has a lot of the feel of a Marquez novel, and if you’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude, then Living to Tell the Tale will give you a lot of insight into where the amazing stories from that novel originated. He’s lived a fascinating life, and his role as a journalist in the midst of revolutions and strife provides some incredible and often darkly comic stories.

8. Lords of the Realm, by John Helyar. Still the best book about Major League Baseball I’ve ever read, although it’s somewhat out of date. Helyar looks at MLB as a business and delves into a lot of the self-dealing and corruption that have shaped the monolithic monopoly we see today. And indeed, the self-dealing hasn’t stopped since the book’s publication.

7. Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The book responsible for the -onomics nomenclature scourge does do wonders to lift the image of the dismal science, showing how we can use data to learn things about human behavior and how we respond to changes in our economic world. Freakonomics includes a highly-controversial study of the connection between the legalization of abortion and the drop in crime in the 1990s, but also includes an interesting chapter on the life cycles of baby names, a chapter on why realtors – excuse me, Realtors® – are running a bit of a scam, and an ever more relevant chapter on cheating.

6. The Professor and the Madman/The Meaning of Everything, both by Simon Winchester. These two books, not strictly original/sequel but still inextricably linked, revolve around the production of the Oxford English Dictionary, a 70-year project that outlived all of its original heads and contributors. Professor is the better-known and more successful of the two books, telling the story of the asylum-bound murderer who proved to be one of the most prolific contributors of example sentences to the OED project, but I found it lacked the sort of narrative greed that propels Meaning, which tells the story of the OED’s history from genesis through publication, forward. I don’t see why you’d read one and not jump to read the other, though, since each offers a built-in teaser for its partner book.

5. Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis. I’ve got some serious issues with Moneyball, where Lewis put the narrative ahead of strict adherence to the facts, fabricating the anecdote that includes a mention of me towards the end of the book (and declining to correct it between the hardcover and paperback editions when I pointed out that it wasn’t true). As a result, I look at Liar’s Poker with a slightly jaundiced eye, because I’m not sure if the same accuracy problems infect Lewis’ other books. But I can’t deny that Lewis is a master of prose and storycraft, and Liar’s Poker is a cracking good read, with hilarious stories and comical characters and the intensity you’d expect to see in scenes set in a bond-trading room in the wild boom leading up to the 1987 crash.

4. Longitude, by Dava Sobel. I’ve always seen Longitude as the book that started the whole history-of-science book craze, by taking an esoteric story around a forgotten hero and crafting it as a novel, complete with villains, setbacks, and a linear plot that leads to a big climax. And as it turns out with so many of the best books in the genre, the invention at the heart of Longitude made the world as we know it possible: Transoceanic voyages were not safe until the invention of the chronometer, a device that allowed a ship in the middle of the ocean to determine its longitudinal location and thus its distance from Europe or the Americas. Longitude remains one of the kings in this field because the trials and tribulations faced by its hero, clockmaker John Harrison, were so severe.

3. Mauve, by Simon Garfield. The remarkable story of a teenaged chemist named William Perkin who in effect invented a color while trying to create a synthetic form of the anti-malarial compound quinine. Perkin’s mistake left him with a strong dye he called mauveine and an industrial process that would allow for easy, large-scale production. Perkin became a global celebrity, and his visit to the United States in 1906 was front-page news in the New York Times. He’s all but forgotten today outside of an award named after him that is given to a leading scientist in the field of applied chemistry.

2. Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile. Reviewed at length here, and soon to be a major feature film adapted by Aaron Sorkin and starring Tom Hanks. The book revolves around two amazing characters and their successful launching of the largest covert military operation in history, the U.S. funding and arming of the Afghan mujahideen, whose guerrilla warfare against Russian invaders was a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

1. Barbarians at the Gate, by Brian Burrough and John Helyar. Still, for my money, the most novelesque non-fiction book I’ve ever read. Helyar and Burrough couldn’t have created better characters if they tried. The superficial story here is the takeover battle for RJR Nabisco, but the real story is how some very wealthy and intelligent men managed to act like teenaged boys when winning became more important than maximizing profits. The leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco, until 2007 the largest LBO in history, ended up costing the victors in the battle nearly 50% more per share than the original offer due to the bidding war between multiple suitors, with the primary players being a management-led group that includes Shearson-Lehman, the buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and rival buyout firm Forstman Little. One entertaining subplot is RJR’s then-failing effort to introduce a smokeless cigarette without admitting that cigarette smoke itself was a health hazard. Good luck with that.