Tag Archives: Common Ground

Alex Kotlowitz’s Non-Fiction Favorites, Part II


Here is the second installation of some of Alex Kotlowitz's non-fiction favorites.

Here is the second installation of some of Alex Kotlowitz's non-fiction favorites.


On Saturday I posted a list I had come across of some of Alex Kotlowitz’s favorite non-fiction books, circa 2003. 

Here are the rest of the books on the list, along with his short comments.  Again I will star the ones that I have read. 


 Turning Stones by Mark Parent The personal story of a former worker with a child abuse agency.


A Hole in the Heart of the World by Jonathan Kaufman Five tales of Jews in Eastern Europe after the second world war.


Death at an Early Age* by Jonathan Kozol  Kozol’s first book, an account of his year teaching in a Boston high school.


Homicide* by David Simon A year with a group of homicide detectives in Baltimore. (The TV show is loosely based on the book.) 


The Power Broker by Robert Caro The biography of Robert Moses, the mega-developer.

Parting the Waters* by Taylor Branch The best book out there on the civil rights movement; his second volume is due out next year. 

The Amateurs by David Halberstam A year with a group of rowers.
The Best and the Brightest* by David Halberstam The best book on the Vietnam war; about the architects of the war.

The Promised Land* by Nicholas Lemann About the mass migration of blacks from the south to the north; and, recounts the successes and failures of the War on Poverty.

Common Ground* by Anthony Lukas The bible for my generation of non-fiction writers; the story of the fight over bussing in Boston.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer Krakauer’s account of what happened on Everest. He was there on assignment from Outside Magazine.

The Perfect Storm* by Sebastian Junger About a fishing boat that goes down off the coast of Nova Scotia.

 Working by Studs Terkel This is the book that most defines Terkel. If you like this, look at his other oral histories. They’ll teach you a lot about listening.
Boss* by Mike Royko On the first Richard Daley. A fun read.

Which Side Are You On by Tom Geoghegan A personal essay on the state of the union movement.

The Teamsters by Steven Brill Written two decades ago, still relevant today. 

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans Written in the 1940s about rural poverty. Essential reading for anyone interested in non-fiction writing. When it was published it flopped. But when it was reissued in 1960, it became a classic.

In Cold Blood *by Truman Capote  About a murder in a small Kansas town. Nobody can write like Capote. 

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe About the original astronauts. 

The Broken Cord by Michael Dorris The personal account of the author’s adopted son; he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.

A Civil Action* by Jonathan Harr A lawyer takes on a big corporation which contaminated the water in a small Massachussetts town. Riveting. The author worked on this book for ten years.

 Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People by John Conroy Recounts three tales of torture, and how it is democratic societies can so easily turn their heads to such barbarity.

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson   A tale of a devestating turn-of-the-century hurricane, and the hubris of the nation’s then-most respected weather forecasters.



David Russell’s post about his favorite non-fiction books-others are welcome!


David Russell doesn't only travel to Ghana; he's also assembled his list of non-fiction favorites.

David Russell doesn't only travel to Ghana; he's also assembled his list of non-fiction favorites.


Dear friend, master teacher, hoopster, dedicated family man, world traveler, passionate reader and Black History Month quiz winner David Russell has come up with this response to yesterday’s post about Alex Kotlowitz’s favorite non-fiction books.  I have taken the editorial liberty of breaking Dave’s comment into paragraphs: 


“I want to give your question about favorite non-fiction books some thought. How can you decide? I think for me it’ll be the books that influenced me the most, that I’ve gone back to or have thought about the most after reading.


Right away Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren is there; I love the description of the ending of the year: she had not finished, she had just run out of time. That speaks so powerfully to me as a teacher; you always want to and need to do more.

Also Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground. I was a relative newcomer to Boston when it came out, and it gave me the deepened understanding of the recent history of the city that I craved. I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed to finish a book; I wished it could have just kept going and going.

Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind could perhaps be number one. I was so moved by the American odyssey presented in the book, but perhaps even more so by the reality that if it was hard and uncertain that Cedric make it, with his skills, determination, and help, how remote is the possibility for others? It is such an unimaginable distance that must be traversed.

All Souls, which lists the blogger in its credits (!), was gripping and gave voice to a story not at that point adequately presented. I loved its demonstration that family disfunction and violence do not have to be related to color (duh, but not enough established in the public mind).

The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom by Herbert Gutman was seminal for me in its proof of the resilience of the black family; the simple thesis that slavery made family life impossible and that this is what has caused 20th century difficulty is shown to be false.

Emotional Intelligence right away rang so true to me; yes, academic skills are important, but what really is most important for navigating the world?

In A Different Voice by Carol Gilligan I loved because it challenged the standard paradigm of how to view women’s valuing of relationships; it is not a lower stage of development–perhaps it is something of importance that males have been missing!

Taylor Branch’s trilogy America in the King Years was magnificent. I love that subtitle: “the King years.” Say what you may about King’s limitations, he was catalyst and moral warrior beyond compare.

All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence by Fox Butterfield I have gone back to a few times. It starts with Willie Bosket, violent black American criminal, and asks, where did this man come from? How is he connected to the history of this country? The answer is very deeply connected.

I’m going to think about this some more. Thanks for the suggestion. Of course I hope to get to more of the books on Kotlowitz’s list; I’ve read a few, but I’m sure they all are great!”  


Richard Kluger’s Ashes to Ashes


Richard Kluger's outrage pulsates throughout Ashes to Ashes.

Richard Kluger's outrage pulsates throughout Ashes to Ashes.

As surprising at it may seem, Richard Kluger’s ability to weave a dizzying array of characters, laws, lawsuits, scientific developments and historical events is not the most noteworthy aspect of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris.

It’s his outrage.

Kluger’s visceral distaste for the actions tobacco executives took to develop, aggressively and relentlessly market, and actively conceal the negative health consequences of, their product pulses throughout his 763-page tome.

The outrage surfaces in his selection of information, in comments that he drops in throughout the book, even until its final sentence.  When discussing the framework for a settlement with the tobacco companies that would forestall future litigation, Kluger writes:

“Such a rational and civilized remedy, though, is probably too much to hope for as slayer of an incubus that has defied all reason, thrived on greed and folly, and driven poor mortals to grasp onto it for succor in a fashion their Maker never designed their bodies to long endure.” 

I am no psychiatrist, and I cannot help but wonder if Kluger’s frustration with political inaction, the companies’ deliberate evasion of responsibility and continued expansion globally both propelled him to write the book and is part of tinges the work with an edge that at times seems bitter. 

While I applaud his passion, and agree with his analysis, the anti smoking perspective at times detracted from my pleasure in reading this remarkable work that deserved the lofty recognition it received and unquestionably put a large marker in the road for others like Allan Brandt to follow in his book, The Cigarette Century (Brandt opens the acknowledgments of his book by crediting Kluger and his work.). 

I recently wrote about The Cigarette Century-you can also see Brandt spar with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show-and previously had read Kluger’s Simple Justice, the story of the quarter-century long battle of Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and others in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to overturn the legal segregation that was authorized in Plessy v. Ferguson.  

Simple Justice ranks up with Common Ground as among my favorite non-fiction books of all time, so I brought very high expectations into my reading of Ashes to Ashes.

To a large degree, they were met.

Kluger opens the book with a description of the tobacco plant and its use throughout the world before starting to focus his attention on the American South, the region that has supplied the vast majority of tobacco to the rest of the nation. 

Characters like James Buchanan Duke, the president of American Tobacco Company, the giant that was eventually disbanded under antitrust legislation in 1911, fill the early pages.  

As the title suggests, Kluger also devotes extensive time to the gradual ascension and ultimate triumph of Philip Morris.  He writes at length about each of the companies’ top executives starting with the early to middle part of the century.  

Like Brandt, Kluger does not only focus on tobacco leaders’ duplicity, even though that is very well represented in both books.  Rather, Kluger’s disappointment in the medical establishment, in which many doctors smoked for years and researchers producing evidence of smoking’s harm were shunned, in politicians’ inaction and in the American Cancer Society’s timid actions are palpable. 

Kluger does write about unlikely sources of anti smoking activism, such as Reagan-era Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who was preceded years earlier by Julius Richmond, one of my father’s professional acquaintances.  Dad and I spoke yesterday how the seeming advance that happened during Richmond’s tenure of putting warning labels on cigarettes was then used by the industry for decades to thwart liability lawsuits. 

Kluger also features myth puncturing researchers and crusading lawyers like Mark Edell and Northeastern University’s Richard Daynard.

As his final sentence implies, Kluger does not hold the individuals who use and become addicted to the cigarettes as fully accountable for their actions.  While I understand his perspective, I do not completely agree with it. 

In the end, this is a story of the companies’, rather than the activists’, victory.   Published in 1996, two years before the landmark settlement with Attorneys Generals throughout the country, Ashes to Ashes is an impressive and highly worthwhile book, even if the tone at times can interfere just slightly with the reader’s pleasure. 

I will seek to contact Kluger, now in his 76th year, and find out his thoughts about the industry’s current state.

Best Boston Resources for John Myers and Liza Weinstein.


This is just one of the many attractive views in store for my friend John Myers and his wife Liza Weinstein, who move to Boston on Sunday.

This is just one of the many attractive views in store for my friend John Myers and his wife Liza Weinstein, who move to Boston on Sunday.


Buddy John Myers and his wife Liza Weinstein are moving to Boston.

It’s one of a series of major changes in their lives.

On Friday she received her doctoral degree in Sociology from the University of Chicago.

On Saturday they finish packing up and celebrating with both sets of parents.

And on Sunday they drive to Boston, where Liza will soon start working for Northeastern University. 

She also will have their first child in a few short months. 

John and Liza are both Michiganders who have never lived in Boston, so I’m putting together this list of Boston resources for them. 

Debate and amendment are welcome.

I. Best Boston Dictionary: The Boston Dictionary, by John Powers.  While just a tad dated-the book has an image of Michael Dukakis reading an article about Swedish land management technique under the term “furma govna”-this illustrated work is a perfect introduction to the much imitated Boston accent. 

II. Best Book about Boston Busing: Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas.  One of my all-time favorite books, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the story of three families during the decade that started with Dr. King’s assassinations, with individual chapters about Boston’s then-Mayor Kevin White, Boston Globe Editor Tom Winship, activist and mayoral candidate Louise Day Hicks, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, and Judge W. Arthur Garrity

III. Best Boston Memoir: All Souls, A Family Story From Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald.  Friend MacDonald brings it in this coming of age story that has vivid scenes of a community’s member going to funeral after funeral for its murdered youth, all the while saying that drugs and violence are the exclusive province of black neighborhoods.  The busing chapter is particularly memorable. 

IV. Best Boston Sports Memoir:  Drive: The Story of My Life, by Larry Bird.  The self-proclaimed “Hick from French Lick” restored Celtics glory in the 80s after an embarrassing downturn in the late 70s, leading the team to three titles and helping, along with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, the league reach unprecedented heights.  This straightforward book, written toward the end of his glorious care, tells the story of his hardscrabble youth.

V. Best Local Historian: Anthony Sammarco.  This well known local historian has published a series of beautiful books, many about specific Boston neighborhoods, that combine well-written text with attractive pictures that effectively convey the feel of each area.  

VI. Best Bookstore/Record Cafe: Rhythm and Muse.  Got to give the love to dear friend and former roommate David Doyle, who’s been operating in Jamaica Plain for more than a decade now.

VII. Best Medical Thriller Set in Boston: Coma, by Robin Cook.  Ultimately turned into a film by a pre-Jurassic Park Michael Crichton, this chilling novel of death in a hospital may not be the best choice for John and Liza as I imagine her pregnancy will require her to take quite a few hospital trips.

VIII. Best Children’s Book Set in Boston: Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey, and The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White.  It’s too hard to distinguish between these two classics, which are geared toward slightly different audiences.  Both are wonderful, though.

IX. Best Legal Book Set in the Boston Area:  A Civil Action, by Jonathan Harr.  This book takes place in Woburn, which is just outside Boston, and the story of the fast-driving Jan Schlichtmann’s efforts to hold polluter W.R. Grace to account makes for gripping reading in Harr’s capable hands.

X. Category and book determined by readers:  I’m leaving this one open for suggestions.

Bill Reynolds takes on 1978 Boston and the Red Sox/Yankees playoff.

Bill Reynolds brings back searing sports and race memories in this engrossing book.

Bill Reynolds brings back searing sports and race memories in this engrossing book.

It was a hurt that took a quarter century to undo.

I was 12 years old in Oxford, England when I heard the news that the New York Yankees had defeated my beloved Boston Red Sox, 5-4, in a one-game playoff on October 2, 1978 to win the American East divisional championship. 

Light hitting shortstop Bucky Dent had dealt the critical blow, hitting a three-run shot that had carried into the net above the Green Monster, controversial superstar Reggie Jackson had extended the lead and fireballing reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage had gotten Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski to pop up to third baseman Graig Nettles for the final out.

The collapse was complete.

Just three months earlier, my brothers and I had been exulting over the Sox’s 14-game lead over the Yankees and inevitable divisional victory.

Mom issued a cautionary note, telling us, in essence, that anything could happen.

Addicts of the volumes of statistics contained in Boston Globe  sports pages, we knew that Mom could talk with authority about poetry, but were notbout to hear her dire predictions.   Our mockery violated the rule that you should listen to your mother.

We also didn’t realize that Mom had some experience of her own. 

She had been just a little older than us when her childhood team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, had blown an almost identical lead in 1951 before losing the final frame of a three-game series when Bobby Thomson took Ralph Branca deep while Willie Mays waited on deck in a blow instantly known as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”

Unfortunately, Mom was right.

Award-winning sportswriter Bill Reynolds recreates the single-game playoff between the bitter American League rivals and delves into Boston’s tense racial scene at time in an engrossing book,  ’78: The Boston Red Sox,  A Historic Game, and a Divided City.

Reynolds opens the action with the games before the game, in which the much-loved Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant had pitched a complete game gem over the expansion Toronto Blue Jays while Rick Waits and the Cleveland Indians had triumphed over the Yankees.  The victory, Boston’s seventh in a row, completed its comeback from a 2 .5 game deficit in the final week and set up the playoff.

From there, Reynolds alternates between the playoff game’s progression, into which he intersperses descriptions of both team’s history, players, owners and managers, and Boston’s tense racial relations at the time.

Drawing heavily on the seminal work about busing in Boston,  J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground, as well as Michael Patrick’s MacDonald’s haunting memoir All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, Reynolds shows how Boston in the late 70s was very much a divided city in which the antibusing movement was losing steam after years of protest, but still had plenty of emotional supporters behind it like School Committe member Elvira “Pixie” Palladino

Reynolds takes the reader through the violence in South Boston in 1974, its continuation in Charlestown in 1975 and the uneasy truce that existed during the time the game was played.

To his credit, Reynolds links sports and race by writing about the Red Sox’s troubled racial history-late owner Thomas Yawkey was considered by many to be a racist and the Red Sox were the last team in all of baseball to integrate their squad-and the incomplete way the presence of black players like George ‘Boomer’ Scott, Tiant and 1978 MVP Jim Rice united the city. 

Reynolds also includes a shorter, less developed exploration of the waning years of what author Tom Wolfe called the ‘Me Decade’ and a paean to the 1970s Boston Globe sports writing team, which included local legends like Ray Fitzgerald, my childhood favorite, and also people who went onto national prominence like Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan and Leigh Montville

Of course, the game ended with Nettles squeezing the ball Yaz popped up and a 45-second silence that Reynolds describes beautifully.  Reynolds gives a brief postscript about the team’s deterioration the following year and redemption not arriving until 2004, when the Red Sox made history by overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees and sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first championship in 86 years. 

Reynolds’ book is a useful snapshot of a troubled time in an historic American city.  There are a few factual errors-Brown v. Board  of Education was a court case, not a piece of legislation, for example-he does not introduce much new material about race relations, and his description of the decadent 70s is a bit thin.  Still, for those members of Red Sox Nation who want a dose of tetrospective Memorial Day machocism, ’78 might just be the one for you.

What do you remember about the ’78 Red Sox?

Has Boston changed in any meaningful way?

Does Jim Rice deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?

Social Studies Methods Class, Reading Tips.

Common Ground tops the list of must-read books going forward for my Social Studies Methods students.

Common Ground tops the list of must-read books going forward for my Social Studies Methods students.

It’s the final day of our Social Studies Methods Class, and today I am sharing some of the books that can be useful in developing their content knowledge:

1. Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas.  This Pulitzer-Prize winning work tells the story of three families in Boston during the turbulent decade that began with Dr. King’s assassination, and it is very much an American story about race, class, history and neighborhoods.  A master work.

2. There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz.  Former Wall Street Journal reporter and my former professor Kotlowitz expanded stories he wrote about brothers growing up in the Henry Horner Homes on Chicago’s West Side.  The title comes from a quote by the boys’  mother.

3. The Burning Tigris, by Peter Balakian.  Acclaimed poet, memoirist and literature professor Balakian tells the story of the human rights movement in America that sprung up to protest the Armenian Genocide.

4.  The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer.  Journalist Shirer provides one of the definitive accounts of Hitler’s rise to power and move toward genocide.

5. The Redemptive Self, by Dan McAdams.  This book by Northwestern professor McAdams talks about the concept of generativity, or what people create with their lives.  It can provide a useful framework for how teachers can evaluate what they and their students have accomplished.

Ron Huberman’s Reading List

CTA President Ron Huberman is slated to become schools chief today; here are some reading suggestions for him.

CTA President Ron Huberman is slated to become schools chief today; here are some reading suggestions for him.

In a surprising move, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley apparently is going to appoint Chicago Transit Authority President Ron Huberman to head the Chicago Public Schools today.

The 37-year-old Huberman, who has no education experience, will replace U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Huberman clearly will not be lacking for things to do in the upcoming days, weeks and months. 

Still, in order to familiarize himself with the field in general, and with inner-city education in Chicago in particular, he might consider reading the following:

1. Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, by J. Anthony Lukas.  Set in Boston, this absolutely classic work traces the lives of three families-one Yankee, one Irish-American, and one black-during the decade that starts in 1968 with Dr. King’s assassination.  In addition to reading like a novel and emphasizing the importance of class, Common Ground has extensive sections on children’s education, the intersection of internal and external social forces, and the factors that promote or hinder achievement.

2. So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools, by Charles Payne.  This recently released book by acclaimed historian Payne provides a ‘guardedly optimistic’ if sobering look at urban school reform during the past 30 years. 

Payne’s central contention is that school reform efforts often do not address the lived realities of students in the hardest to impact schools, and thus have little chance of truly helping those students reach their potential. Heavy in references to the work of the Consortium on Chicago School Research and Chicago Reporter sister publication Catalyst-Chicago, the book is stronger on diagnosing than solving the problem, but is a useful orientation to school reform efforts in Chicago as they relate to the national landscape. 

3.Maggie’s American Dream: The Life and Times of  A Black Family, by James Comer.  Yale psychiatrist Comer has developed a highly successful method of collective adult involvement in students’ lives to boost achievement and build community.  In this book, he tells the story of his mother Maggie, who helped inspire and form his vision.

4. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, by Jonathan Kozol.  This 2005 book returns to the subject of education, which Kozol first tackled 40 years ago in his National Book Award-winning Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, and offers a bleak assessment of the state of education nationally 50 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

5. Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing People’s Minds, by Howard Gardner.  The MacArthur Award-winning Gardner pioneered and developed the concept of multiple intelligences.  In this book he writes about how business leaders, politicians and advocates can go about changing public consensus. 

Gardner discusses seven levers to change and six realms in which they occur (Two are classrooms and diverse groups like a city or nation).   Although a bit vague on specifics, the book could be useful for Huberman to consider both in terms of his work within the schools and the public perception of him as having dubious qualifications for his job.