Tag Archives: Mike Royko

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.



The Shocking Origins of America’s New First City.

Harold Platt gives shocking backstory to Chicago and Manchester in this massive and highly worthwhile book.

Harold Platt gives shocking backstory to Chicago and Manchester in this massive and highly worthwhile book.

Chicago has been in the national news constantly in recent weeks.

Between being Ground Zero for Barack Obama’s presidential transition, the home of arrested and defiant Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and, last month, the site of the nation’s highest-profile labor action at Republic Doors and WindowsCarl Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders has filled the nation’s airwaves and contributed significantly to the depletion of whatever remaining lumber exists on the planet.

Those interested in learning more about America’s New First City have plenty of writers from which to choose. 

From Upton Sinclair to Nelson Algren to Richard Wright to Mike Royko to the much loved and recently departed Louis “Studs”  Terkel to current masters like Aleksandar Hemon and my former teacher Alex Kotlowitz, Chicago has been a much-chronicled City on the Make, to lift from Algren’s essay by the same title.

Today, I’d like to offer another, less well-known contribution that sheds a lot of light on the city’s development as well as its continual capacity for reinvention: Loyola University History Professor Harold Platt’s Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago

Full disclosure: I have contacted Platt and shared my positive thoughts about his work over a breakfast with him and my father.  Platt and I have also discussed a project on which we might collaborate.

The work is meticulously researched and, once one gains some steam, enthralling reading.  The shock in Platt’s title refers to cities whose development augurs a new age for the country in which it is located.   He effectively compares and contrasts the impact of industrialization and various reform movements in England through looking at Manchester and in the United States by examining Chicago’s development.

The product of many years of research, Shock Cities contains a provocative argument about the role of elites in shaping political change, the significance of the physical environment in that process, and the potential for reform movements that vary according to each country’s democratic rhetoric and practice. 

Anyone who watched the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Region in 2005, for example, cannot help but wince while reading Platt’s descriptions of the plans generated and ignored repeatedly in mid-19th century Manchester to prevent similarly destructive flooding-destruction, of course, of which poor people bore the disproportionate load.  Platt’s description of how upper class members steered sewage systems to their neighborhoods and then advocated an ethos of cleanliness is similarly poignant.

The book is not all depressing, though.

The descriptions of the reform movements is uplifting.  Familiar characters like future Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams  appear, cutting her spurs fighting pollution and the ward bosses as well as establishing the settlement house movement with women like Florence Kelley and Julia Lathrop, who later had a public housing development named after her.

Platt also talks at length about the emerging field of public health, which took hold in Chicago toward the late nineteenth and early 20th century.

In addition, Chicago lovers will find plenty of juicy nuggets to chew.  To give just a few examples, a host of people who are now better known for having their names on streets and/or schools-beer brewer Michael Diversey, entreprenuer William Ogden, and attorney and horseback rider Paul Cornell immediately spring to mind-fill the book’s pages. 

To do this kind of research about a single city would be impressive enough for one book, but Platt’s ability to conceive and then successfully execute his comparative framework  is, well, shocking. 

So … the next time you need an escape from Blago, Burris and the Politics of Hope, consider settling into Shock Cities.  At 500 pages, it will undoubtedly take a while to wade through, but is more than worth the effort.