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New York City’s East Side at the turn of the 20th century comes vibrantly alive in The Incorruptibles: A True Story of Kingpins, Crime Busters, and the Birth of the American Underworld. In the late 1800s, Eastern European Jews began fleeing Germany’s pogroms and Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the largest ghetto in history. The East Side became their American ghetto, soon in the grip of an underworld of gamblers, grifters and pimps, and an upper world of titans of manufacturing and politics. Then along came Abe Shoenfeld and his vice squad, the Incorruptibles.

Dan Slater (Love in the Time of Algorithms) stumbled upon Shoenfield’s “reams of reportage and intelligence about the Jewish underworld of pre-World-War-I New York.” Combined with reporting from newspapers of the day, as well court cases, sales receipts, government findings and memoirs of those involved, Slater provides rich context for the setting the Incorruptibles hoped to reform. In a city plagued by abominable labor conditions in factories, the political machine of Tammany Hall and corruption blocking the path to justice, Shoenfeld’s homegrown vice squad was determined, against all odds, to be incorruptible.

Slater recreates the notorious stars of this underworld—the likes of dapper Arnold Rothstein, ruthless Big Jack Zelig and comically clueless gangster Louie Rosenberg—and the women in their shadows, some of whom, like Louie’s widow, Lily Rosenberg, kept their own notes. He also weaves in the critical impact of fomenting antisemitism throughout the country. The vices plaguing the East Side were being attributed to Jewish immigrants at large, rather than the small cabal of wealthy schemers and corrupt politicians. Slater shows how this metastasizing hatred of Jews foreshadowed Nazi Germany.

While the need for reform was an easy message to sell to the public, actually prohibiting popular illegal activities like gambling and prostitution proved hard. Working with a scrupulous lawyer named Harry Newburger and detective Joseph Faurot, whose technical acumen, like bridging telephone wires to listen in to private conversations, revolutionized criminal investigations, the Incorruptibles prompted The World to print on the front page: “BIGGEST GAMBLERS QUIT; BROADWAY SECTION CLEAN.”

If this was the sole substance of Slater’s book, it would be a singularly worthy read. Yet it is so much more. The Incorruptibles is a compelling crime story, colorful history and an ominous warning about antisemitism.

Dan Slater’s vibrant The Incorruptibles chronicles the homegrown vice squad that took down New York City’s most notorious turn-of-the-century gangsters.
STARRED REVIEW

June 12, 2024

5 books that dads will love

Dads are notoriously difficult to shop for. For Father’s Day, we recommend five dad-worthy history books, including the latest from Erik Larson, a biography of John Lewis, the story of the space shuttle Challenger and more.

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Adam Higginbotham’s international bestseller, Midnight in Chernobyl, chronicled the disastrous 1986 nuclear reactor explosion in Ukraine that was caused by a Soviet program plagued with a toxic combination of unrealistic timelines and dangerous cost cutting. His new book, Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space, describes a surprisingly similar catastrophe that very same year, this time at the hands of NASA: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven people aboard. Hefty, compelling and propulsive, Challenger overflows with revelatory details.

Reading this book is like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. One can’t help but hear a drumbeat of dread while getting to know the astronauts—Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith—and their families. Details will stay with readers long after they close the book: McAuliffe’s appearance on The Tonight Show, her husband’s increasing anxiety at launch time, the horror and disbelief of the families as they watch their loved ones die, the grim details of the recovery efforts and the attempts of professionals both to warn against the mission and to bring to light why it failed.

Among the latter is engineer Roger Boisjoly, who, over a year before the explosion, wrote a memo voicing fears to senior management, stating, “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action . . . we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch facilities.” Unbelievably, in the hours just before the mission commenced, Boisjoly and a team of 13 other engineers unanimously advised against the launch, yet their concerns were not even voiced up the command chain. After the explosion, physicist Richard Feynman sought to bring clarity to the commission tasked with investigating the tragedy. The scientist noted that “the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”

Higginbotham excels at delineating not only the science, technology and history of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, but also the bureaucratic snafus and mismanagement that led to the catastrophe, including economic pressures and a nonstop race to get people into space. As with Midnight in Chernobyl, Challenger proves Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, demonstrating an unflinching ability to pierce through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.

Challenger proves Adam Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, piercing through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.
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There’s no such thing as a spoiler alert when a story’s subject is taught in most every American history class across the country. Injecting hold-your-breath suspense into a narrative history, particularly one in which we already know the story’s ending, is a task that Erik Larson has mastered. In the Garden of the Beasts took on Nazi Germany on the cusp of war; The Splendid and the Vile explored Winston Churchill’s stewardship of under-siege England. In his new book, The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War, Larson turns his attention to the immediate aftermath of the election of Abraham Lincoln and the unlanced boil where the war began: Fort Sumter.

Larson covers just a few months of American history—but perhaps the most consequential few months. Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and other well-known figures from the period play key roles, but so too do a British journalist on assignment, a young private stuck in the besieged fort and a Southern society woman watching the events unfold. They aren’t key characters in the grand arc of the Civil War or the country’s history, but they did write a lot down. Their accounts help Larson propel the narrative without relying entirely on the stories of people who have already been the subject of hundreds or thousands of other books.

There are obvious parallels to the current moment: a refusal to accept the results of a presidential election, threats to march on the Capitol, a tendency toward civility and appeasement in the face of existential threat and other more subtle links to the present. Some of the connections are unavoidable and necessary; others, Larson perhaps injects as a result of recency bias.

Even after a century and a half of books about the subject, it remains remarkably unclear what course of action key figures should or could have taken to avoid America’s bloodiest war. Maybe we’ll never figure that out, but The Demon of Unrest is a damn good read.

In The Demon of Unrest, Erik Larson crafts a tale of hold-your-breath suspense about the crucial three months leading up to the Civil War.
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June 1939: British naval sub HMS Thetis sinks in sea trials. Ninety-nine people die. August 1942: Allied forces raid the coastal town of Dieppe in German-occupied France. Thousands are killed, captured or wounded, in part because coastal scouting was minimal. September 1942: British-manned torpedoes attack German battleship Tirpitz. All crewmen are captured or killed. Catastrophes have a way of concentrating the mind: Do it right next time. Luckily for the Allies in World War II, a group of scientists in London risked their lives in secret pressure chamber “dives” to give future underwater and amphibious missions better odds.

Author Rachel Lance is a biomedical engineer and blast injury specialist who has worked on underwater equipment for the U.S. Navy, making her unusually suited to unveil the forgotten story of these scientists in Chamber Divers: The Untold Story of the D-Day Scientists Who Changed Special Operations Forever.

Their project at University College London was led by J.B.S. Haldane, a brilliant, annoying eccentric who hired scientists shunned by others, among them Jewish refugees, women and Communist sympathizers. As the bombs in the Blitz exploded around them, these scientists subjected themselves again and again to dangerous pressure in chambers that simulated deep underwater dives in order to design more effective breathing equipment for submarine crews, frogmen and torpedo riders.

Relying on their experiment notes, Lance takes us inside the metal tubes where scientists suffered life-threatening injuries. She explores their backgrounds and relationships, which included a love affair between Haldane and research colleague Helen Spurway. And she ranges throughout combat zones to show us the dangers of underwater action, from the perspective of individual combatants on both sides. But Lance’s singular strength is her lucid explanations of the complex science behind the experiments, making it accessible to untrained readers. Lance also uncovers the combination of official secrecy, prejudice against outsiders and bureaucratic skullduggery that obscured this story until now.

Lance begins her book with the Dieppe disaster and ends with D-Day—an Allied triumph that might have gone badly wrong without the chamber divers’ dedication and resilience. Chamber Divers is a necessary reminder that not all war heroes were on the front lines.

In Chamber Divers, Rachel Lance uncovers the Navy scientists who risked their lives to improve the odds of underwater and amphibious missions in World War II.
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With its near 500-page count and robust endnotes, The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq might at first glance scare off readers who haven’t sniffed a textbook in years. But thanks to Steve Coll’s crisp and dynamic prose, what’s between the covers feels little like an academic tome.

Despite appearances, The Achilles Trap is not really an Iraq War book (just as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is not really a 9/11 book). Yes, you get there eventually, but Coll, like Wright, has more to say about the years leading up to that cataclysm. The narrative details Saddam’s upbringing, rise to power and entrenchment as a key strongman in the Middle East, sometimes allied with the United States and sometimes its biggest pain in the ass—and sometimes both at the same time.

In the two decades since the American invasion of Iraq began, Saddam Hussein has become a sort of caricature. Here, Coll reintroduces the dictator to an audience that has either forgotten his nuances or never knew them. There is unimaginable cruelty, family drama and even comedy—like when Saddam sets out on a career as a historical romance novelist just a few years before his death.

Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars and a longtime journalist for The New Yorker and The Washington Post, has a special combination of mostly unrelated skill sets that eludes so many narrative nonfiction writers: He’s a groundbreaking reporter and researcher who is able to uncover new information in a tightly wound arena, but also a deft stylist with a natural gift for both narrative structure and fluent yet surprising writing. Like a baseball player who can both pitch and hit with the best, the rare union places Coll at or near the apex of the craft.

Detailing Saddam’s own cruelty does not mean Coll lets the U.S. off the hook, though. Sprinkled among what is at times a tense political thriller are scenes of astounding myopia, hubris, miscommunication, dark hypocrisy, betrayal, stupidity, cruelty and violence of our own. Though the events of The Achilles Trap concluded 20 years ago, there are few better roadmaps to where American foreign policy in the Middle East has ended up today.

With agile prose, groundbreaking reporting and narrative splendor, The Achilles Trap is a gripping history of the Iraq War.

Like his mentor Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis had a dream. Amid the turmoil and violence of a segregated South and a nation embroiled in the struggle for racial reconciliation, Lewis envisioned and championed what he called a “Beloved Community” in America, “a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.” In his captivating John Lewis: In Search of Beloved Community, Raymond Arsenault narrates the mesmerizing story of Lewis’ evolution from a Civil Rights activist to an eminent congressman who never lost sight of his vision for a just and equitable society.

Drawing on archival materials and interviews with Lewis and his friends, family and associates, Arsenault traces Lewis from his childhood in Troy, Alabama, where he daily witnessed the indignities and violence of racial segregation. Steeled and inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he entered American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and began his storied activism in earnest. Lewis and his contemporaries incorporated the principles of rightness and righteousness—what their teacher James Lawson called “soul force”—with methods of nonviolent resistance. Arsenault documents Lewis’ participation in the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Selma to Montgomery marches and his advocacy for the Voting Rights Act. After King’s 1968 assassination, Lewis’ optimism turned to despair; he had a feeling, Arsenault writes, that “maybe, just maybe, we would not overcome.”

But that didn’t last. Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis went to Washington with a legacy to uphold and a commitment to carry on the spirit, goals and principles of nonviolence and social action. He was always disillusioned by self-serving politicians and their infighting, and he devoted his career to building coalitions among opponents. In a 2020 speech, Lewis uttered the remarks that cemented his legacy: “We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. . . . Go out there, speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

With John Lewis Arsenault offers the first comprehensive biography of the icon and serves as a fitting bookend to Lewis’ own autobiography, Walking With the Wind. The work provides an inspiring portrait of a man whose vision and moral courage propelled him to share his belief in the Beloved Community and inspire generations.

Raymond Arsenault’s mesmerizing biography of John Lewis chronicles the life of the Civil Rights icon and congressman whose vision of a just and equitable society has inspired generations.

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Dads are notoriously hard to shop for. For Father’s Day, we recommend five dad-worthy history books, including the latest from Erik Larson, a biography of John Lewis, the story of the space shuttle Challenger and more.

For so many of us, the refrigerator is an appliance we’ve interacted with daily for as long as we can remember. It’s also one we take for granted, rather than viewing it as emblematic of the world-changing innovation Nicola Twilley explores in Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves. As readers will learn from Twilley’s extensively researched, impressively wide-ranging ride along the “cold-chain,” artificial cold is much more than a convenience, thanks to its effects on what we eat, how we feel and the future of our planet.

You note in Frostbite that your interest in the cold-chain began 15 years ago when farm-to-table eating was becoming increasingly popular, and you “got stuck on the conjunction. What about the to?” Why do you think that space between, so to speak, captured your curiosity and sparked a yearslong drive to learn more?

Back in 2009, when I first started writing about food, I loved the way Michael Pollan took me to a Kansas feedlot in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He made the places a steer travels through on its way from farm to slaughterhouse real and tangible, so I could picture them, as well as understand why they matter. I decided that I wanted to do the same for the spaces we’ve built for our food to live in. I suspected (correctly, it turned out!) they might be equally fascinating and equally important in terms of transforming our diet, health, economy and environment.

Book jacket image for Frostbite by Nicola TwilleyYour first book was 2021’s Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine, which you co-wrote with your husband and fellow writer Geoff Manaugh. And you co-host the podcast Gastropod with Cynthia Graber. What was it like to move away from your (clearly, wonderfully strong and productive) partnerships and take the helm of Frostbite solo?

Nerve-wracking! Having an extra brain and an extra perspective to draw on is often essential and always a bonus. Fortunately, I still did: Although it’s just my name on the cover, Geoff still read every word in the book many times. His edits—and his encouragement, enthusiasm and patience as I tacked on visits to refrigeration landmarks on vacations and family trips—were essential. (He also came up with the title!) That said, it is undoubtedly lonelier to work solo, which makes me all the more excited to talk about the ideas and stories in the book with readers.

Of course, as per your extensive acknowledgements section and the wealth of experts and sources you introduce throughout, a global village of cold enthusiasts provided information and insight on refrigeration’s past, present and future. Will you share a bit about how you decided what to explore, who to interview, where to go and what to include in your book?

When I began the research that inspired Frostbite, there hadn’t been a book about refrigeration (that wasn’t a textbook for HVAC technicians) published since the 1950s, so I really had to just follow my curiosity, cold call banana-ripening facilities and scour industry publications for clues. Because I quickly became obsessed with the subject and talked about it at every opportunity, friends started sending everything refrigerated my way: My friend Kevin Slavin introduced me to Kipp Bradford, for example, who helped me build a fridge in order to understand how cold is made; my friend Alexis Madrigal tipped me off about the refrigerated warehouse’s appearance in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. Then, after I wrote about China’s race to refrigerate for the New York Times Magazine, people inside the cold-chain industry reached out to share their stories, and those connections led me to working in a refrigerated warehouse myself as well as traveling to Rwanda to see what the future of refrigeration might look like.

One of the things I love the most about the kind of writing I do is the opportunity to peek inside weird, fascinating places that are otherwise off-limits.

Speaking of “where,” you traveled around the world and did loads of experiential research, including exploring underground cheese storage caves in Missouri, wearing a safety harness on a crane high in the air at the 12-story NewCold warehouse in England, and venturing to the Arctic to visit the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. What was the most exciting, wow-inducing place you visited?

One of the things I love the most about the kind of writing I do is the opportunity to peek inside weird, fascinating places that are otherwise off-limits. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I loved the gigantic, subterranean cheese cave in Missouri—a former mine where Kraft stores our national reserve of Cheez Whiz and Kraft Singles—and the juice tanks at the Port of Wilmington, Delaware, where most OJ drunk in the Northeast spends months or even years, stripped of flavor molecules and stirred slowly under a blanket of nitrogen, before it making its way onto shelves as “fresh” orange juice.

You drew from novels like The Mosquito Coast, East of Eden and The Great Gatsby as you wrote Frostbite. What was refrigeration’s role in these works of fiction?

Given refrigeration’s importance, and my love of fiction, it was surprising and disappointing to realize how few appearances the cold-chain makes in novels, or theater or film for that matter. (I truly believe that a cold-storage warehouse would make a great setting for a movie or TV show—call me, Hollywood!) One thing that’s interesting is that, in both The Mosquito Coast and East of Eden, ice-making is a project of flawed idealists—characters whose visionary zeal exceeds their grasp on reality. Artificial cold itself is seen as both progress and corruption, as beneficent yet dangerous, which is how I ended up seeing it too.

Frostbite was created over a 10-year period in your life. How has your work, your life as a writer (including your regular contributions to The New Yorker), evolved over that decade? 

It’s possible that Ann Godoff, my wonderful editor at Penguin Press, might feel differently about the wait for me to deliver my manuscript(!), but I think Frostbite is definitely richer for everything I’ve learned over the past decade. Being edited by Leo Carey at The New Yorker, in particular, has been a masterclass in how to tell stories both beautifully and economically, and I am a much better writer for that training. Meanwhile, my reporting for Gastropod, on everything from Native American cuisine to cocktails, has expanded my perspective on so many aspects of food. Refrigeration is one of those topics that touches everything—flavor, popular culture, technology, public health, climate change—and so, the more context I was able to bring to it, the better the book became.

Cheers to you for having a “date-ready fridge,” according to “the world’s first and only refrigerator dating expert”! Will you share what you learned about “fridge compatibility” and why you assert “It is the humble fridge that offers a window onto the twenty-first century soul”? And also: Please tell us more about your fabulous fridge and its French doors.

Although I was pleased (and surprised) that my fridge was rated so favorably, and I will happily admit to judging people based on their fridge contents, I actually believe that fridge-peeping offers more value as a collective self-portrait, rather than as a guide to an individual’s character.* The size of American fridges as opposed to European ones reflects the form of our cities; the amount of junk stuck onto a fridge door correlates directly with female stress levels; the wilting salad leaves are a testament to our aspirational goals and dietary reality!

*At least, I hope so: My own fridge is full of far too many curious condiments, a somewhat concerning quantity of beer and wine, and enough neatly stacked grain-, bean- and roasted veg-filled Tupperware to warm the most anal-retentive heart. The overall effect is a confusing mix of adventurous, fun-loving and uptight. Hmm, maybe there is something to this fridge-dating business after all . . .

Regarding use-by, sell-by and other such dates, you note that in today’s world “freshness is a belief system.” How does that relate to food waste, and how might we more effectively counteract it?

Before the refrigeration time machine was invented, no one would have expected a fresh peach or milk to last more than a few days, unless they turned it into jam or cheese—fresh food was by definition ephemeral. Today, the cold-chain, including our home fridges, does such a marvelous job of slowing time that food can stay good for ages. That’s fantastic, but it does have a couple of downsides. First of all, it seems to encourage us to buy more perishables than we can eat, or assume they’ll be fine for another day if we don’t feel like cooking that evening—and, because the fridge can’t actually confer immortality, they do eventually go bad and we throw them away. Secondly, refrigeration has almost erased more traditional ways of sensing whether food is good or not. The risks and lack of transparency built into a refrigeration-extended supply chain lead many of us to trust a sell-by-date over our own judgment. And, because we no longer have any idea how old produce is, metabolically speaking, when it gets to us, it doesn’t matter if we know roughly how long to expect, say, a cucumber to last after it’s been harvested; we don’t have enough insight into the supply chain to use that expertise, even if we still have it.

Refrigeration improved people’s lives in so many ways, but it’s also had numerous unintended consequences on our health and environment. What are, say, the top three things we should be thinking about when we consider purchasing and consuming refrigerated and/or frozen food?

I’m definitely not in the business of telling people what to eat, but I can say from personal experience that minimizing your refrigerated footprint can lead to a more delicious, more nutrient-rich diet. It’s easier to do this in California than most places on Earth, I’ll admit, but, given what I discovered while writing this book, I rarely eat fruit and vegetables that are out of season or shipped from another continent anymore. I love apples, but, in June, I’d rather not eat an apple that’s been stored for nine months when I can buy locally grown berries or cherries that have more flavor and more nutrients. (Of course, unless I’m planning on eating them that day, I put them in my fridge after I’ve bought them—but at least they haven’t traveled halfway around the world through the cold-chain, losing flavor and vitamins en route.) And, after realizing how much of our pre-refrigerated diet would have consisted of fermented food, as well as talking to researchers about the emerging science of the gut microbiome, I eat more miso, sauerkraut and yogurt than before. Finally, I’ve tried to become better about not stockpiling perishables, so that I rarely have to throw food out.

Realizing that radical change is quite possible makes me feel much more optimistic about our shared future

As you explain, the advent of refrigeration has caused us to become disconnected from the seasons, from nature’s rhythms and from the Earth itself. You note that “reducing our dependence on refrigeration might also allow us to rebuild our relationship with food.” What might individuals want to do first to set themselves on that path?

As Natalia Falagán, one of the refrigeration experts I spent time with in the book, has discovered, there’s nothing like growing fruit and vegetables to understand what freshness really is and how to value it. You don’t need a backyard—you can volunteer at a community garden, which has the side benefit of being a lot of fun. With meat, fish and milk, if you eat animal products (which I do), the scale encouraged by refrigeration has allowed inhumane, ecologically disastrous practices to become the norm, while the distance enabled by refrigeration has made it easier to turn a blind eye to them; being conscious of those implications can’t help but lead to making choices that are healthier for both yourself and the planet. But also, as with climate change, individuals aren’t and can’t be responsible for transforming our entire food system. Right now, a lot of money and effort is being thrown at building cold-chains in the developing world by both institutions like the United Nations and megarich philanthropists like Bill Gates. I would love for policymakers and funders to read my book and consider how they can learn from the unintended side effects and less desirable impacts of refrigeration that I tease out in Frostbite, so that the rest of the world doesn’t make the same mistakes we have—at even larger scale and with disastrous consequences for all of us.

What were you most hoping to convey or accomplish with Frostbite? And what’s up next for you?

Mostly, I want readers to share my sense of fascination while exploring this utterly essential but mostly invisible world. But I would love readers to share the sense that I developed that, given how recent and transformative and somewhat arbitrary our embrace of refrigeration was, our food system is clearly a lot more amenable to change than it seems. That’s important, because today’s food system is damaging our health and our planet, as well as contributing to inequality. Realizing that radical change is quite possible makes me feel much more optimistic about our shared future—I hope readers come away feeling that way, too. I would also love to inspire a new generation of inventors to think creatively about how to keep food fresh and stop it from going bad. Ice cream needs to be cold, but meat doesn’t necessarily, and refrigeration needn’t be humanity’s final answer to the problem of preservation. As far as what’s next: I would like to take a very long nap, but, in fact, I have a couple of new New Yorker stories in the works, and Gastropod never stops! I’m also starting to tinker at the edges of what I think will be my next book-length projects—I have an idea for another nonfiction book but also the start of what might become a novel. I’ve never written any publishable fiction, so who knows whether I can pull it off, but I’m excited to give it a go.

Read our starred review of ‘Frostbite’ by Nicola Twilley.

Photo of Nicola Twilley by Rebecca Fishman.

 

The Gastropod host's adventurous Frostbite takes readers into cheese caves, ice cream warehouses and the world of “refrigerator dating."
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Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, Americans have spent much time interpreting its meaning. As Corey Brettschneider, a professor at Brown University who teaches constitutional law and politics, points out in his informative and stimulating The Presidents and the People: Five Leaders Who Threatened Democracy and the Citizens Who Fought to Defend It, “two ingredients—popular sovereignty and a powerful executive—are an odd pair for the same constitutional system.” For many reasons, presidents can be tempted to overreach, but in our democracy, the legitimacy of the government comes from the preamble to the Constitution: “We the people.” The author reminds us that “The Supreme Court is not the final arbiter of constitutional meaning” and “constitutional rights throughout American history are won by citizens prevailing upon the political branches, not by courts proclaiming them out of thin air.”

This carefully researched book explores in detail how presidents in different eras abused their power. The Presidents and the People presents a litany of their misdeeds. When John Adams signed the Sedition Act in 1798, he targeted editors of newspapers owned by his political opponents, and at least 126 defendants were prosecuted as a result. The policies of James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson advanced slavery, guaranteed white supremacy after the Civil War and nationalized Jim Crow, respectively. And then there’s Richard Nixon, who ordered his aides to abscond with potentially damning evidence that proved he undermined democracy in the wake of the discovery of the Pentagon Papers. 

But concerned individuals who responded to these presidents’ anti-democratic approaches are, Brettschneider writes, “a testament to the power of citizens to push past authoritarian moments toward democratic ones.” No one of them is more important than Frederick Douglass, who is featured prominently in four separate chapters. His influence on Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant was crucial, as was his decision to support the Constitution rather than abandon it as other abolitionists advocated. Others who fought against abuse include journalists William Monroe Trotter and Ida B. Wells, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. 

These Americans stand as beacons of decency and hope, who sought to see the Constitution’s promise of “We the people” secured. Anyone interested in the ups and downs of American history should be inspired by reading about the courageous citizens who challenged powerful leaders and changed the direction of the nation.  

Corey Brettschneider’s carefully researched The Presidents and the People chronicles American heads of state who abused their power, and people who stood up to them.

“Rat stories are like ghost stories: everybody has one,” writes British author Joe Shute at the start of Stowaway: The Disreputable Exploits of the Rat. Shute’s own original rat story involves going to an alley to watch a ratcatcher and his trained dogs at work. The rats escaped down a sewer, sparing the author the carnage of a rat versus dog encounter. 

Still, it was unsettling. After all, as Shute points out, rats have long loomed as fearsome creatures in our imaginations. “We are obsessed as a society with the notion of rats mustering in the gloom and waiting to invade our lives,” he writes. That’s not surprising, given history. Although it’s now thought that the 14th-century bubonic plague was spread by lice and fleas, rats still shoulder the blame for the death of millions.  

To challenge his own biases and overcome his fears, the author purchased two dumbo rats, Molly and Ermintrude. In the early days of their relationship, Shute walked a “tightrope between disgust and fascination,” but as he continued his “rat therapy,” he was amazed by their social habits and how responsive the rats were to his touch. In fact, Shute interviewed a neuroscientist who, while exploring the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and the loss of touch on humans, studied—wait for it—how tickling rats impacted their behavior and hormone levels. (Conclusion: Touch helps both humans and rats build resistance against stress.)

One fascinating section delves into how rats help humans in unexpected ways. Shute traveled to Tanzania to learn about Apopo, an organization that trains rats to detect landmines as well as tuberculosis. Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, was awarded a Dickin medal for sniffing out landmines in Cambodia. “Not for the first time,” writes Shute, “rats are cleaning up humanity’s mess.” And, of course, rats have been used since the 1800s in laboratories that study human diseases. That use has accelerated, in part because, as Shute points out, almost all human genes associated with disease have counterparts in the rat genome. 

Stowaway may not be an obvious choice as a gift for a family member who loves animals. But it will undoubtedly be enjoyed. Be prepared, though: You may end up with your own rat experiment. In Shute’s family, Molly and Ermintrude were joined by Aggy and Reyta, forming a rat colony. In getting to know the rat better, Shute did not find a creature with no redeeming qualities, but “empathy, cooperation, mischief, fun, loyalty and resilience.”

In the entertaining Stowaway, Joe Shute explores and exalts the resilient, cooperative, derided and, ultimately, misunderstood rat.

It’s been 40 years since synchronized swimming was accepted as an Olympic discipline, and Vicki Valosik’s Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water is an excellent way to celebrate the anniversary. 

In her introduction, the author—a masters synchronized swimmer herself—recounts her own history with the sport. Curiosity drew her to a class at her local pool, and there she found swimmers several decades her senior who “were all as graceful as mermaids and generously set about teaching me, the beginner, the foundational body positions and propulsion techniques of synchronized swimming.” As her lung capacity increased, her confidence grew and the central question of Swimming Pretty surfaced: “Are we athletes first or are we performers? Is what we are doing a sport or is it entertainment?” 

Esther Williams may have been the best known synchronized swimmer thanks to her groundbreaking Hollywood career, but in this captivating, multifaceted book, Valosik reveals that Williams was preceded (and followed) by a long line of skilled and talented women. Together, these women helped to change everything from safety practices to swimsuit design, embodying women’s strength and artistry along the way.

Just a couple centuries ago, Valosik explains, swimming was only for men, including Benjamin Franklin, who practiced “scientific swimming” in the early 1700s. In the 1800s, women were permitted to join the water scene when “ornamental swimming” in tanks became popular entertainment. Australian swimming champion and stuntwoman Annette Kellerman became famous in early 1900s American vaudeville and has often been called “the mother of synchronized swimming.” 

Interest in the sport remained strong through the decades, surging after exhibitions in various 1930s world’s fairs and Williams’ midcentury “aquamusicals.” When synchronized swimming debuted at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1984, it was a cause for celebration and, competitors hoped, a turning point. Valosik writes, “they had finally made it and were eager to show the world not what synchronized swimming once was, but what it had become.” 

Although the sport has since gone global, areas of debate remain, including its 2017 name change to “artistic swimming” and the addition of male competitors in 2024. Thanks to Valosik’s extensive research and gift for illustrating the ways in which her titular women in water have influenced history, culture and athletics, readers surely will be inspired to view synchronized swimming in a new light—and perhaps even attempt a “rocket split bent knee twirl hybrid” themselves.  

Vicki Valosik’s captivating Swimming Pretty charts the evolution of women’s swimming and aquatic performance.
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National Book Award-winning author Tiya Miles has tackled a variety of tough, intriguing subjects in books like Wild Girls and All That She Carried. She felt stymied, however, as she approached the life of the legendary Harriett Tubman. As one friend told her, “No one could catch her then. It’s going to be hard to catch her now.” 

And yet that is exactly what Miles so beautifully achieves in Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People. One of the biggest hurdles Miles faced was Tubman’s illiteracy, which meant her life experiences were all documented by others—“typically white, middle-class, antislavery women who recorded her speech and told her story.” Despite the roadblock of such “swamped sources,” often “submerged in the perspectives and biases of others,” Miles applauds a number of existing traditional biographies. As she explains, her goal was not to replicate these, but rather to explore Tubman’s eco-spiritual worldview. 

In her trademark deeply researched, thoughtful and exquisite prose, Miles successfully avoids popular depictions of Tubman as a superwoman “prepackaged in a box of stock stories and folksy sayings” among other “abolitionist avengers.” Instead, she places her firmly within the realm of Black female faith culture, noting that she was “one of a kind—singularly special and part of a cultural collective.” To illuminate Tubman’s spiritual purview, Miles delves into several memoirs written or dictated by Black women evangelists of Tubman’s time, writing that their relationships with the divine mandated “challenging entrenched social systems of racial and gender subjugation at the risk of [their] own safety, health, and social acceptance”

Calling her “arguably the most famous Black woman ecologist in U.S. history,” Miles also brings to life the haunting sights, sounds and dark, bewildering moments that Tubman experienced as she led herself and others to safety through the night wilderness. Tubman studied the plants, animals and stars as a matter of necessity for survival, believing that these god-given guides were proof of the need for spiritual and political liberation. 

Often, when Tubman told her story to biographers, she touched the writer, as if “by laying her hand on this person, her feelings may be transmitted.” With Night Flyer, Tiya Miles seems to transmit the weight of her subject’s hand and heart.

With the exquisite Night Flyer, Tiya Miles looks at Harriet Tubman from an entirely new perspective: her spirituality.

When the farm-to-table concept became widely popular 15 years ago, Nicola Twilley “got stuck on the conjunction. What about the to?” Her deeply researched and highly engaging second book, Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves, invites the reader on a quest to understand “what happen[s] between the farms and the tables.”

Twilley—co-author of Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine, regular contributor to The New Yorker and co-host of the award-winning Gastropod podcast—spent a decade tracing the history and contemplating the future of artificial cold. In Frostbite, she considers how we got where we are today: enjoying whatever food we want when we want it, but with unintended consequences for our health and environment.

Twilley notes that “Artificial, or mechanical, cooling . . . wasn’t achieved until the mid-1700s, it wasn’t commercialized until the late 1800s, and it wasn’t domesticated until the 1920s.” Now, the “cold chain” is so ingrained in our way of life that we take it for granted. From hard science to fascinating history, major machinery to quirky theories, Frostbite explores seemingly every aspect of our refrigeration-dependent existence as the author visits banana-ripening rooms in New York City and cheese caves in Missouri; travels to China to learn about its booming pork industry; has coffee in California with “the world’s first and only refrigerator dating expert” and much more.

While refrigeration reduced dependence on salt as a preservative, Twilley notes, it reduced consumption of fermented foods and “everyday exposure to microbes,” too, thus increasing gut inflammation. It has also increased food waste, released toxic substances into the environment and altered our connection to the natural world. She contends that “refrigeration was implemented, for the most part, in order to optimize markets rather than human and environmental health.”

What’s a concerned refrigerator-user to do? After all, the appliance is “an underappreciated engineering marvel . . . a reliable, relatively simple box that, without fuss or fanfare, harnesses the powers of nature to supernatural effect, performing the daily miracle of delaying matter’s inevitable decomposition and death.” Frostbite, a decidedly interesting and insightful book by an impressively intrepid reporter, offers compelling food for thought about the role of cold in our lives, for better or worse, now and in the future.

Interesting, insightful and impressively intrepid, Frostbite offers compelling food for thought about the role of cold in our lives.
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Women run everywhere: up mountains, on the beach, along city roads and country paths. They run for their health, to compete, for the joy of feeling lungs, heart and legs work in harmony. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a world where women don’t run. But in Better Faster Farther: How Running Changed Everything We Know About Women, sportswriter and essayist Maggie Mertens reveals that the history of women’s running was never smooth. Instead, it was like a hurdle race, but one where the obstacles became taller and harder over time.

As Mertens reports, nearly everything conspired against women who wanted to run. It took generations of stubborn, passionate athletes simply to get to the starting line. Mertens opens the book describing the erroneous reportage on 1928’s first Olympic women’s 800-meter race, which claimed that the competitors dropped like flies at the finish line. Male-dominated sports associations barred competitions for women. Doctors declared that running would cause irreparable damage to their reproductive organs. 

If a woman wanted to run, she was deemed either dangerously masculine, seriously misguided or mentally ill. Better Faster Father profiles dozens of athletes who faced these charges. Before Bobbi Gibb snuck into the 1966 Boston Marathon and became the first woman runner to complete it, her parents had sent her to a psychiatrist to “cure” her of her passion for running. When runners like Mary Decker and Mary Cain developed osteoporosis, sports scientists blamed feminine frailty, rather than ill-informed coaches who made their protégés starve themselves.

Women ran marathons and broke track records, but, as Mertens details, new barriers kept being erected, supposedly to protect women’s opportunities, including denying participation of trans and intersex athletes. Transgender women were and are targeted, even though their performance on the track is comparable to cisgender women competitors, and the “advantage” of testosterone remains unproven. Genetic testing, invasive physical exams and testosterone tests were and are performed on women deemed too fast, too muscular, too competitive to be female. 

And yet, women run. Like Jasmin Paris, who holds the world record for the Spine Race, a grueling 268-mile ultramarathon up and down the Pennine mountains. And Paula Radcliffe, who controversially kept training up until the day she gave birth—and won the 2007 New York City Marathon nine months later. Every woman you see jogging in the park or sprinting at a track meet. All prove that women can, indeed, run. 

For centuries, women were discouraged from running. Better Faster Farther chronicles how and why they ran anyway.
STARRED REVIEW

Cool off this summer with 5 splashy books

These books starring bodies of water include Morgan Talty’s latest and everything you never needed to know about sea turtles.
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These books starring bodies of water include Morgan Talty’s latest and everything you never needed to know about sea turtles.
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The difficult task of establishing a government for the United States required the development of a stable national economy that could deal effectively with a huge debt and other critical concerns. William Hogeland chronicles the twists and turns of the early years of the new republic in his drama-filled and insightful The Hamilton Scheme: An Epic Tale of Money and Power in the American Founding. The nation’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, welcomed the challenge and had an approach he thought could not only save the country from catastrophe but also move it to become an imperial power. Hamilton’s plan, however, favored the elite, and failed to benefit the broader population that sacrificed much in the war. A scheme, Hogeland notes, “can mean simply a plan or design. But it can also mean a secret plan or design for nefarious ends.”

Hogeland writes of Hamilton’s biggest boosters and adversaries. Readers will not be surprised to see George Washington, who was “first and foremost a politically well-connected businessman,” among Hamilton’s supporters. On the other hand, the “flamboyant war profiteer” Robert Morris may be new to many readers. Coining the term “money connection,” Morris believed that the key to national greatness was “a consolidation of wealth and government.” His influence on the young treasury secretary was so strong that Hogeland contends that “without him the United States probably wouldn’t exist.”

Among those who disagreed with Hamilton was Albert Gallatin, “a brilliant, abstemious Genevan émigré” and treasury secretary to Jefferson and Madison who “[wore] himself down to the nub in the fetid summers of barely built Washington, D.C., trying to discover the antidote to Hamiltonianism.” Another was Herman Husband, an idealist, abolitionist and objector to the conquest of Indigenous North Americans’ land who was “so highly regarded by ordinary people in the remote western regions where he lived that he was . . . ranked by Hamilton as a danger above all others.” These finely drawn characters bring The Hamilton Scheme to life and show the divisions in postwar economic philosophy that are still at play today.

The Hamilton Scheme covers a lot of ground, sometimes at too fast a pace. However, it should be of special interest to readers who want to know about the beginnings of America’s economic history.

Drama-filled and insightful, The Hamilton Scheme chronicles the beginnings of America’s economic history.
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It should come as no surprise that a book about the legendary Mississippi River covers centuries of history, tons of mud, hundreds of levees and a rogues’ gallery of characters. Boyce Upholt turns it all into an absorbing tale in The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi.

When Upholt took on a writing assignment about a paddler and tourist guide in 2015, he had no experience with the Mississippi. In the following years, he would go on to catch rides in oyster boats, tour the delta with a parish councilman and absorb the worries of the president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

Of course, many before Upholt were also drawn to the river. Spanish explorers are credited with “discovering” the river on a mission to plunder the riches of Indigenous people—a historical narrative Upholt calls “that tired idea that a white man can discover something that has already been used as a watery highway for thousands of years.” Enslaved and free Black people and generations of restless migrating white settlers found their way to the territory alongside the river. Mark Twain and his iconic character, Huck Finn, lured cramped, disillusioned city dwellers to the wild river’s endless spaces. Flatboats gave way to steamboats, and railroads hauled people to the river’s banks in droves. Property battles, poverty, greed, murders and graft ensued.

The Army Corps of Engineers built the longest levee in the world along the lower Mississippi—the second largest human-made structure on Earth, only after the Great Wall of China. Local and federal commissions, boards and agencies would attend to the political wants and economic needs of those invested in the river (especially the powerful and wealthy) ever since. Climate change heightens the river’s many challenges. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina “woke the world,” Upholt writes, as it “ripped through the marshland and put much of New Orleans underwater.” But the life of the river goes on. Mud is dredged here and moved there. Industrial pollutants irrevocably change ecosystems. Engineers continue to construct, deconstruct, rearrange, recreate, divert and revert the waterway. Our attempts to control the wild Mississippi are an endless pursuit.

Upholt manages to wrestle a staggering amount of details into a narrative that is at times a challenge to read. But thanks to his concise yet lively writing style, The Great River is worth the effort. It compellingly pays homage to a waterway worthy of its moniker.

Boyce Upholt wrangles the geological, political and cultural history of the wild Mississippi River in a compelling, lively narrative.
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Adam Higginbotham’s international bestseller, Midnight in Chernobyl, chronicled the disastrous 1986 nuclear reactor explosion in Ukraine that was caused by a Soviet program plagued with a toxic combination of unrealistic timelines and dangerous cost cutting. His new book, Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space, describes a surprisingly similar catastrophe that very same year, this time at the hands of NASA: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven people aboard. Hefty, compelling and propulsive, Challenger overflows with revelatory details.

Reading this book is like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. One can’t help but hear a drumbeat of dread while getting to know the astronauts—Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith—and their families. Details will stay with readers long after they close the book: McAuliffe’s appearance on The Tonight Show, her husband’s increasing anxiety at launch time, the horror and disbelief of the families as they watch their loved ones die, the grim details of the recovery efforts and the attempts of professionals both to warn against the mission and to bring to light why it failed.

Among the latter is engineer Roger Boisjoly, who, over a year before the explosion, wrote a memo voicing fears to senior management, stating, “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action . . . we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch facilities.” Unbelievably, in the hours just before the mission commenced, Boisjoly and a team of 13 other engineers unanimously advised against the launch, yet their concerns were not even voiced up the command chain. After the explosion, physicist Richard Feynman sought to bring clarity to the commission tasked with investigating the tragedy. The scientist noted that “the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”

Higginbotham excels at delineating not only the science, technology and history of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, but also the bureaucratic snafus and mismanagement that led to the catastrophe, including economic pressures and a nonstop race to get people into space. As with Midnight in Chernobyl, Challenger proves Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, demonstrating an unflinching ability to pierce through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.

Challenger proves Adam Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, piercing through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.

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