Tuesday, June 26, 2012

This Week's Book: Island of Vice

More America.

June 17-23: Island of Vice by Richard Zacks

Non-Fiction (2012 - 368 pp.)

After so many classics, it's interesting to read a book that's truly brand new. It came out in March and I've owned it since then, finally having had the chance to read it now. The quick version of the background is that Richard Zacks, a New York City columnist, decided to write a book on a particularly tumultuous time in his city's history, when Theodore Roosevelt was Police Commissioner from 1895-1897. The closest comparison for a book like this is Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, another work of journalism that takes place in the same country and decade. It's odd thinking of a non-fiction book set in this time period as not being history but that works to its advantage, as well researched as Island of Vice is.

The descriptions are a little more vivid than the sources provide but the world Zacks portrays is very real. The characters are of course the basis for the story, with Roosevelt in front. The book is less than flattering toward his tenure as police commissioner, and I have not read any additional works on the subject to be able to support or refute the claims Zacks makes. I suspect he's a little on the harsh side. Then again, I was often more sympathetic with Andrew Parker and the German-Americans, albeit for different reasons. As someone who enjoys drinking beer on Sunday (can you say NFL?), 19th-century blue laws astound and befuddle me. Looking into which laws feel relevant and which laws need to be enforced more strictly is an interesting question for police boards everywhere. 

The most interesting aspects of Island of Vice are Roosevelt's dealings with his fellow police commissioners, famous policemen like "Big Bill" Devery and Chief Conlin, and outside figures like Henry Cabot Lodge. His thoughts in private and in public, or to one audience or another, demonstrate a lot about how Roosevelt saw his surroundings and how he had to project himself. Others' views of him are equally mixed. The Roosevelt/Pulitzer feud is especially interesting, with some of the comments made and comic printed being utterly hilarious.

The one limitation Island of Vice has is how concentrated it is. Focusing on such a short period of time means poring over every month, and often every day. The prologue and epilogue, along with the chapter on Roosevelt's brother Elliott, read faster and flowed better than the others simply because they could draw from a greater time span. At times the book felt like half a dozen consecutive chapters of reminding the reader that Teddy was against drunkenness, debauchery and gambling.

An interesting fact: although Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest president in American history at age forty-two - an event portended in Mark Hanna's protest to Roosevelt's being picked for vice-president in 1900 - he died a decade after leaving office, which is roughly average.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 8

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