Pete Croatto

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War is a complex subject with many aspects to explore, but one thing is clear: It makes for good books. Four new releases examine the American experience in three wars through the remarkable stories and objects that survived them.

A GENERATION PASSES

Richard Rubin (Confederacy of Silence) roamed the country to interview The Last of the Doughboys, the only surviving American veterans of World War I. Just a few dozen of them remained when he began his research, including a man who transferred bodies to Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and another who regretted not serving in combat. Though not all of the subjects are chatty, their remembrances give Rubin the opportunity to provide dignity to the elderly and show how a simpler time was actually quite complicated.

Rubin reminds us that 1.3 million men were killed in just one battle, the Somme. The era of WWI saw segregation as the norm, as well as the marginalization of women, who could not serve in combat. Immigrants were a significant presence in America, but the culture of the day was to support the U.S.—or else. Those are among several themes explored by Rubin, who is so determined to detail the battles and tasks of his interview subjects—while discussing other topics such as the challenges of interviewing 100-year-olds—that he’s nearly foiled by his own ambition. Still, he manages to fashion a nice ode to a generation whose role in shaping modern-day America is fading from public consciousness.

HITLER’S ART HEIST

Robert M. Edsel’s Saving Italy examines the United States’ attempt to save valuable artistic works in WWII-ravaged Italy. Bombings and gunfire were not the only threats: The Nazis were smuggling art from various Italian cities, including works by the most famous artists of the Renaissance. Salt mines in Austria were converted into a hideout for thousands of pieces of art, some of which belonged to Adolf Hitler himself.

Saving Italy works best in showing how a picture is worth more than a thousand words. For the Nazis, the paintings and sculptures were spoils of war. For the Italians, art was a crucial part of their history, one that the Americans recognized. Out of that concern rose “a new kind of soldier charged with saving, not destroying, what lay in the path of the conquering army.” Among these soldiers were the book’s two protagonists, “Monuments Men” Deane Keller and Fred Hartt.

Though some readers may grow impatient with the book’s structure, which loads the story with a detailed accounting of military strategy (including the Nazis’ surrender), Edsel tells a readable and ultimately triumphant story.

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME
Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey possesses the juiciness of a beach read. Peter Carlson’s excellent book covers the plight of two reporters from the New York Tribune, Junius Browne and Albert Richardson, who were captured by Confederate troops in the Battle of Vicksburg.

Since both men were non-military personnel, they were quickly paroled. But getting released was another matter entirely. Because the Confederacy so loathed the Tribune and prisoner exchanges between the North and the South had stopped, Browne and Richardson were stuck in purgatory. After 20 months, escape on foot and horseback to Union territory near Knoxville, Tennessee—a 340-mile journey laden with potential enemies—was their only option.

Carlson works with wonderful efficiency, describing the political and social environment both men faced but never losing sight of the story and its momentum. The writing is compact and vivid as readers are escorted to the hell both men endured. “Freezing rain fell all night,” Carlson writes, “and in the morning the corpses piled outside the dead house glistened with a thin coating of ice.”

THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY
I’m guessing the New-York Historical Society doesn’t have corpses, but it probably has everything else. The Civil War in 50 Objects, written by Civil War historian Harold Holzer, is a fantastic museum tour of a book. Fifty items out of the Society’s nearly one million Civil War items are presented in mostly chronological order. Holzer provides historical background and context for each piece, which range from a pike used by John Brown’s freedom fighters to a footlocker belonging to Lt. Col. William H. Paine of the Fourth Wisconsin.

The beauty of the book is its format. Readers familiar with the Civil War can head to an item of particular interest—as a reformed beat reporter, I flipped right to the prison newspaper—while casual readers will enjoy an inviting atmosphere for a historically intimidating subject. With such an effective strategy, it’s no wonder that Holzer is an editor. Perhaps he should have been a general.

War is a complex subject with many aspects to explore, but one thing is clear: It makes for good books. Four new releases examine the American experience in three wars through the remarkable stories and objects that survived them. A GENERATION PASSES Richard Rubin (Confederacy of Silence) roamed the country to interview The Last of […]
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Three newly released books remind us that history is more than just a series of big moments. It resides in the small details and in unexpected places.

Bill Bryson’s best-selling At Home: A Short History of Private Life is now available in an illustrated edition. In it, the veteran author embarks upon a detailed exploration of his house, a Victorian parsonage in southern England. We are so immersed in our daily lives that we often fail to see that a back story exists to everything around us. Plumbing this notion could be a daunting task for a writer, but Bryson gracefully transitions from room to room and anecdote to anecdote with a sharp, playful intelligence. New readers will be enthralled; returning readers will be re-enthralled and appreciate the accompanying illustrations.

There’s a joy to Bryson’s writing, as if he’s tickled and astounded by his discoveries. Take his discussion of salt: It’s a coveted and essential mineral, but the absence of salt, Bryson observes, “awakens no craving. It makes you feel bad and eventually it kills you . . . but at no point would a human being think: ‘Gosh, I could sure do with some salt.’” His infectiousness will propel readers through the book. 

THE LONGEST DAY

Illustrator Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is a panoramic, 24-foot-long, black-and-white drawing of World War I’s signature (and gruesome) battle. On that day, some 20,000 British soldiers—not knowing that a weeklong strategic artillery bombardment had failed to wipe out German machine-gun emplacements—essentially marched to their slaughter. Another 40,000 were wounded. We see the soldiers proceeding as if they’re going to work, laughing and yawning and waiting. Then, there’s a wave of uninterrupted terror. Men shout and wear masks of grave concern. Bodies lie in immobile stacks. Each panel is packed with the aspects of war we prefer not to see. The final one, where soldiers dig rows of graves, is a grim reminder of the misery that remained even after the battle died down. Sacco’s astounding depiction of that day is overwhelmingly moving because he captures the little strokes among the epic chaos.

STORY OF A NATION

In many ways, The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin is the ideal coffee-table book. Featuring a thoughtfully curated selection of objects from the Smithsonian’s vast collections—including Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Thomas Edison’s light bulb and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet—the book boasts an abundance of stunning photos and short, info-packed chapters that make it easy to dive in at any point and come away with something useful. Gawk at a photo of Julia Child’s kitchen, and learn that her mainstream success was partially set up by Jackie Kennedy. Gaze upon Abraham Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hat, and discover that most clothes in pre-industrial America were made specifically for an individual. What also becomes apparent in perusing the pages of The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects is that items we might dismiss as merely stuff may end up being part of our nation’s history. Fifty years from now, an iPhone could be a relic that represents a culture gradually seeing the world through mobile technology. History is in the objects all around us—not just in books.

Three newly released books remind us that history is more than just a series of big moments. It resides in the small details and in unexpected places. Bill Bryson’s best-selling At Home: A Short History of Private Life is now available in an illustrated edition. In it, the veteran author embarks upon a detailed exploration […]
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Starting with its subtitle, “The Man Who Bet on Everything,” Kevin Cook’s biography of legendary gambler Titanic Thompson pulls you in with stories of crafty bets, pretty women and narrow escapes. Cook isn’t content just to tell those tales; he reveals the person behind the conniver. It proves to be a wise decision.

Born Alvin Thomas, Titanic grew up bored and poor in rural Arkansas, pitching pennies and dealing cards to pass the time. He left home at 16, and spent the rest of his life looking for action. And regardless of where he was—Pittsburgh, New York, California, Texas—he found it. Titanic won millions playing cards, pool, golf, even horseshoes. He loved making outlandish bets and duping marks by finding the profitable loophole. Like a grifter Forrest Gump, he rubbed elbows with notorious icons such as Al Capone and Minnesota Fats. Titanic was no angel himself, killing five men and marrying five women.

Titanic never saved anything, and he couldn’t stop chasing the next big pot. With Las Vegas eliminating opportunities and his reputation known throughout the land, the action slowed to a trickle in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Elderly and in failing health, Titanic was reduced to picking “coins from a dish in the kitchen so he could take his wife out for ice cream.” His final days were spent in a nursing home, where nothing changed. He chipped golf balls outside, played poker (his hands were so stiff that he used his knuckle to deal the cards) and paid a nurse $80 to parade around his room nude. Later, he asked to touch her, but not for obvious reasons: “He had only married girls with soft skin,” Cook writes.

Cook deftly includes historical observations and biographies of Titanic’s associates (such as Guys & Dolls writer Damon Runyon, who based Sky Masterson on Titanic), and his colorful prose brings Titanic and his schemes to life: The man’s blood pressure, he observes, was “somewhere between the values for hibernation and coma.” But Cook avoids being seduced by Titanic’s glorious past, and thus provides readers with the gambler’s sobering reality: Eventually everyone learns your tricks. Filled with equal parts gusto and poignancy, the compulsively readable Titanic Thompson chronicles the lush life of a hard-living high roller—and his sad aftermath.

Starting with its subtitle, “The Man Who Bet on Everything,” Kevin Cook’s biography of legendary gambler Titanic Thompson pulls you in with stories of crafty bets, pretty women and narrow escapes. Cook isn’t content just to tell those tales; he reveals the person behind the conniver. It proves to be a wise decision. Born Alvin […]
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Dinosaurs keep grabbing our attention because they are the closest things in the earth’s history to monsters: flying, fanged, scaly things that speak of a past that is part mythology and part science fiction. These creatures actually roamed the earth—and continue to do so. Birds, believe it or not, are dinosaurs.

Does that fact diminish the mysterious aura of the tried-and-true dinosaur? It shouldn’t. Thanks to advances in science and the discovery of more fossils, new details of dino life keep emerging. It’s next to impossible to reconstruct 230 million years of existence, so the civilization they lived in will always be under construction. Our curiosity will never die.

Author Brian Switek, a dinosaur aficionado turned professional writer, tries to reconstruct that world in My Beloved Brontosaurus, posing questions and exploring the possible answers. This ambitious objective is immeasurably helped by Switek’s good humor and enthusiasm. Reading the book, you know that Switek understands this is a fool’s errand, but the guy can’t help himself: He’s fascinated by the results of the research—and what it promises.

Thanks to Switek’s non-technical delivery, we are too. Using living organisms is a great way to examine dinosaurs. So if we look at the example of birds and crocodylians, we can hypothesize that dinosaurs may have hidden their genitalia in a slit called a cloaca, which would have made sexual relations tricky business. Parasites, and the spread of them through cannibalism, may have contributed to the dinosaurs’ demise, though many researchers favor a fatal, gigantic asteroid. Who’s right? It’s impossible to say.

It may surprise you that Switek’s book provides clarity. The dinosaurs didn’t just show up, bellow, and then disappear. They were around far longer than humans, who have been around a mere 200,000 years. Dinosaurs, Switek writes, represent “evolution and extinction—triumphant and ultimately tragic creatures that beautifully illustrate the duality of life’s constant thread. They are guideposts to the past and harbingers of what the future might bring.”

Dinosaurs keep grabbing our attention because they are the closest things in the earth’s history to monsters: flying, fanged, scaly things that speak of a past that is part mythology and part science fiction. These creatures actually roamed the earth—and continue to do so. Birds, believe it or not, are dinosaurs. Does that fact diminish […]
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Most of us would like to believe that we’re free-thinking, fair-minded folks who treat everyone equally. In this age of political correctness and diversity, that’s built into the code of everyday life. There’s proof. Americans elected an African-American president—twice.

Yet, according to Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, authors of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, such gestures don’t atone for the various “mindbugs” we possess: “ingrained habits” that dictate how we perceive and react to, well, everything around us.

That I can summarize the book so easily is a credit to the authors, longtime psychology professors at Harvard University (Banaji) and the University of Washington (Greenwald), who complement their data with straightforward explanations and examples, whether it’s real-life stories or famous “Seinfeld” episodes. The result is a riveting book steeped in research that feels personal, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Blindspot’s first moment of clarity comes when you take the authors’ much-discussed Implicit Association Tests (IATs), especially the one on race. You may find that you’re not as enlightened as you believe. (A 2009 meta-analysis of 184 studies showed that “the race IAT predicted racially discriminatory behavior.”) By allowing us to participate in the science—as I did—and not just digest data, Banaji and Greenwald capture our attention.

And what we learn is fascinating. Examples: Stereotypes may help us navigate the world, but they can force the affected to live up (or down) to that description—which can be good and bad. Discrimination doesn’t have to involve overt acts of hatred, but can be as simple as “maintaining the status quo.” (The authors describe a doctor at a university hospital whose effort increased when he learned that his youthful-looking patient was a professor.) Automatic preferences steer us away from uncomfortable situations, which is why undertakers may have a hard time finding dates.

In this accessible and sobering book, Banaji and Greenwald dig into our soul’s deepest crevices. And that’s great. Because it turns out that before we can all get along with each other, we need to work on ourselves.

Most of us would like to believe that we’re free-thinking, fair-minded folks who treat everyone equally. In this age of political correctness and diversity, that’s built into the code of everyday life. There’s proof. Americans elected an African-American president—twice. Yet, according to Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, authors of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of […]
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The literature of the Vietnam War does not feature much hagiography, just stories of inner torment, senseless deaths and shattered ideologies. What’s tragic—and overlooked—is that the soldiers were not the only ones who endured an unimaginable hell. In the sobering Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse provides an exhaustive account of how thousands upon thousands of innocent, unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were senselessly killed by a military that equated corpses with results.

Turse’s book, a graphic collection of rapes, shootings and wanton disregard for human life, is a difficult, frequently depressing affair. By the end, it reads as a parody of machismo taken to fatal, troubling extremes. But this actually happened. Who’s to say it won’t happen again?

Relying on interviews, government documents and other research, Turse breaks down how these atrocities came to pass. Recruits in basic training became killing machines; indeed, they were rewarded for a high number of kills. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s game plan for the war boiled down to “killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace.” The U.S. military did little to protect Vietnamese civilians, essentially shooting anyone running away or wearing black. A bit of clerical fudging turned farmers, children and the elderly into kill-crazy Vietcong.

It went on like this for years, with the infamous massacre at My Lai serving as just the most publicized example. The incidents become a blur of awfulness, a rush of power run amok. Kill Anything That Moves is a staggering reminder that war has its gruesome subplots hidden underneath the headlines—but they’re even sadder when our heroes create them.

The literature of the Vietnam War does not feature much hagiography, just stories of inner torment, senseless deaths and shattered ideologies. What’s tragic—and overlooked—is that the soldiers were not the only ones who endured an unimaginable hell. In the sobering Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse provides an exhaustive account of how thousands upon thousands […]
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Everyone can think of a grim anecdote about Detroit—the highest murder rate in the country, 70,000 abandoned buildings—that they saw in a magazine article or in a news report. The city is an easy punch line, a convenient example to use when citing how America’s good fortune is running out.

There’s a larger truth. A city does not reach this state without a story behind its decline. And what about the thousands who live and work in Detroit, who must grow tired of being viewed as targets of pity or weary subjects for magazine features?

Rolling Stone contributing editor Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be is part history, part explanation and part profile of a city he knows intimately—he grew up in the Detroit area. Sounds complex? It is, and it should be. The city doesn’t need any more labels or quick summaries. It needs someone to put a face on Detroit, to show that it’s not rolling over and playing dead. Binelli proves he’s up to the task in this refreshing, intriguing work.

What’s most apparent in Binelli’s thorough reporting is that Detroit is in constant battle mode. With so much unused land in the city, urban farming has become popular, but there are also those who want to make this neighborhood unifier into a corporate endeavor. Neighborhoods have become havens for creative types, but the changes brought by this influx “were miniscule in comparison with the problems facing the rest of the city,” Binelli reports. The American auto industry has created some noteworthy cars in recent years, but the unions are in the middle of a slow, endless death.

Binelli actually lived in Detroit while writing the book, and he talks to dozens of residents. It feels like he’s invested in Detroit’s future, not just reveling in the relevancy. He wants to understand what happened and what will happen. By looking beyond the troubling headlines and promises of politicians, Binelli discovers what determines a city’s fate: people who care. Detroit has more than you might expect.

Everyone can think of a grim anecdote about Detroit—the highest murder rate in the country, 70,000 abandoned buildings—that they saw in a magazine article or in a news report. The city is an easy punch line, a convenient example to use when citing how America’s good fortune is running out. There’s a larger truth. A […]
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When Merriam-Webster announced the new words included in its 2012 Collegiate Dictionary—entries that included “sexting” and “energy drink”—the news was greeted quietly, perhaps because most of us understand how language evolves. Slang makes its way to grandparents; jargon becomes commonplace. Or maybe we’ve exhausted our anger.

Tolerance was in short supply 51 years ago when Webster’s Third New International Dictionary caused the intellectual, journalistic and academic worlds to go nuts over one little word—and a change in the dictionary’s philosophy. David Skinner traces the evolution of this language battle in The Story of Ain’t, a fascinating, highly entertaining cultural history that will enchant an audience beyond word nerds.

Webster’s Third hit shelves in 1961, 27 years after the release of Webster’s Second. In the intervening years, World War II, pop culture and other changes had broadened the language. Plus, many researchers had concluded that defining the “right way” to speak English was, at best, an elusive concept.

Editor Philip Gove decided that Webster’s, the leading dictionary of the day, would fit these less formal times. He updated the literary references, shortened the definitions and steered the book away from its encyclopedic past. Even the pronunciation key was dumped. The response to this new approach was met with an anger that rose to pitchfork-carrying levels when the press release for the new dictionary focused on the premiere of “ain’t.” The sloppily prepared release portrayed the word as a staple of educational speakers, neglecting to mention that “a substandard label was attached” to the word in the Webster’s Third entry.

Despite the title, the scandal over “ain’t” is not the book’s best part. It’s the way in which Skinner nimbly, concisely—and without academic dryness—traces the everyday changes that shaped what came out of Americans’ mouths and into our dictionaries. Ain’t that something?

When Merriam-Webster announced the new words included in its 2012 Collegiate Dictionary—entries that included “sexting” and “energy drink”—the news was greeted quietly, perhaps because most of us understand how language evolves. Slang makes its way to grandparents; jargon becomes commonplace. Or maybe we’ve exhausted our anger. Tolerance was in short supply 51 years ago when […]
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In the introduction to Hidden America, Jeanne Marie Laskas observes that “we become so familiar with the narrative [of celebrity culture] we forget that there are any others happening at all.” That’s how Kim Kardashian gets branded a success while the truck driver who brings valuable parts to factories is viewed as unimportant.

A veteran journalist, Laskas gets her hands dirty in this collection of profiles, many of which are based on her work for GQ. Among her stops: an Alaskan oil rig, a gun shop in Arizona and an NFL stadium.

Great stories define these occupations. A trip to a California landfill leads to an engineer-turned-PR guy who sees trash as an opportunity to improve the world, by using landfill gas to produce electricity. Working on a cattle ranch is a rustic throwback complete with cowboys, but its existence hinges on technology. For immigrant farmers, many of whom are in the United States illegally, the promise of a good paycheck comes with the daunting prospect of not being able to trust anyone.

No job is examined the same way, a tribute to Laskas’ talents as a writer. Her attention to detail is vivid: One man is “packed solid as a ham”; the Cincinnati Bengals’ cheerleaders are “glimmery and shimmery kitty-cat babes.” She is also adept at giving explanatory passages a conversational feel, essential in a book introducing readers to jobs and mindsets.

Laskas’ enviable stylistic flow hides her most useful tool: restraint. The chapters in Hidden America aren’t star-spangled odes to American pluck or pleas for working-class understanding. Laskas simply gives voice—as well as dignity and poetry—to America’s blue-collar ranks.

In the introduction to Hidden America, Jeanne Marie Laskas observes that “we become so familiar with the narrative [of celebrity culture] we forget that there are any others happening at all.” That’s how Kim Kardashian gets branded a success while the truck driver who brings valuable parts to factories is viewed as unimportant. A veteran […]
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According to author Rich Cohen, a corporation “tends to have a life span, tends to age and die.” Remember United Fruit, which at one point controlled 70 percent of America’s banana market? It was the U.S. Steel of easily bruised produce.

The man behind its success was Samuel Zemurray, a Russian immigrant who turned $150 worth of bananas into a $30 million fortune. He was one of the most powerful men in America, the embodiment of immigrant industriousness. Zemurray has since fallen into irrelevance, but in The Fish That Ate the Whale, Cohen resurrects the memory of America’s Banana King in a rollicking, colorful tale that proceeds with a spy novel’s pace. You swallow the prose in big, greedy gulps.

That partly has to do with Zemurray’s life, a mixture of hustle, power and philanthropy. His hands-on approach—he planted banana fields in Honduras, he loved the rhythms of the docks—helped turn his company into a model of efficiency.

When shifts in government policy in Honduras and Guatemala threatened United Fruit, Zemurray helped stage government overthrows. But he also donated to Tulane University, founded an agricultural school in Honduras and was instrumental in securing votes to partition Israel.

Cohen, displaying the rhythm and keen introspection that made his Sweet and Low so good, knows when to delve into Zemurray’s psyche. His stylistic touches enhance the story of a man propelled by “righteous anger.” Zemurray may be fading from the country’s entrepreneurial lore, but Cohen says America would be wise to follow his example: “As long as you’re breathing,” Cohen says, “the end remains to be written.”

According to author Rich Cohen, a corporation “tends to have a life span, tends to age and die.” Remember United Fruit, which at one point controlled 70 percent of America’s banana market? It was the U.S. Steel of easily bruised produce. The man behind its success was Samuel Zemurray, a Russian immigrant who turned $150 […]
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In America, the car has long been associated with freedom: the open road, the ability to come and go as you please. Getting a driver’s license is one of the hallmarks of teenage life, a chance to legally drink from the frothy cup of adult pleasures.

Travel writer Taras Grescoe has a less starry-eyed view. In Straphanger, he paints cars as a force of destruction. The lifestyle created by cars—freeways, parking lots and suburbs—has eaten up land and stripped our continent of its character, turning towns and cities into glorified driveways. Cars destroy the environment and lives (each year, worldwide, they kill 1.2 million people), while cutting us off from human interaction by “pav[ing] over so much of what was authentic and vital in our cities.”

Life independent of cars exists, and in Straphanger Grescoe travels the world to prove it. He rides subways in New York, Tokyo and Paris. He hops on Bogotá’s famed bus rapid transit system TransMilenio, a key part of the city’s revitalization, and survives a testy crowd on a Philadelphia bus. These colorful anecdotes amuse us and, more importantly, show us that a city that invests in mass transit also invests in itself. Paris’ urban integrity, the one that inspires dreamers worldwide, would have been destroyed had it not been for its métro. Now that bicycles are the main mode of transportation in Copenhagen, street life thrives. Bike lanes, Grescoe notes, provide a way to grasp the city’s layout that’s absent in New York or London. Plus, you don’t have to go the gym.

The statistical and historical nuggets Grescoe unearths lend credence to his grievances against cars. After World War II, public policy favoring the car-friendly suburbs made buying homes there a no-brainer, while America’s freeway program frequently targeted urban ethnic enclaves for development, destroying long-established communities and erecting highways in their place. And Phoenix, a city built around freeways and suburbs, is in free-fall after the real estate market crash.

These aren’t the musings of a rail snob or some desk-bound pundit. With Straphanger, Grescoe has fashioned a cogent, spirited call-to-arms that is also a practical, insightful handbook for change. By not blindly worshipping one of the icons of individuality, we may save generations from serious trouble.

In America, the car has long been associated with freedom: the open road, the ability to come and go as you please. Getting a driver’s license is one of the hallmarks of teenage life, a chance to legally drink from the frothy cup of adult pleasures. Travel writer Taras Grescoe has a less starry-eyed view. […]

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