Monday, March 31, 2014

Patrick Allitt's "A Climate of Crisis"

Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. He was an undergraduate at Oxford in England, a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, and held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University. At Emory since 1988, he teaches courses on American intellectual, environmental, and religious history, on Victorian Britain, and on the Great Books.

Allitt applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Climate of Crisis explains the controversy over the trans-Alaska pipeline that divided Americans in the 1970s. The discovery of oil on the North Slope of Alaska in the late sixties had raised the prospect of the United States being less dependent on oil imports from politically volatile Middle East. But how could Alaskan oil be conveyed safely to the lower forty-eight states? Icebergs in the Arctic Ocean made it impossible for tanker ships to sail there.

A pipeline to the ice-free ports of southern Alaska was the favored solution. It would carry oil 800 miles, over two great mountain ranges, over major rivers like the Yukon, and across earthquake faults. A technically challenging project, dauntingly expensive, it also offended environmentalists who believed it would create a scar on the pristine landscape and interrupt caribou migration routes.

It might never have won political approval had it not been for the Yom Kippur War of 1973 between Israel and its neighbors. When the U.S. supported Israel, the oil-exporting Arab nations retaliated first by cutting off oil exports altogether and later by doubling their asking price. Alaskan oil suddenly seemed a lot more desirable, and the pipeline got a green light from both houses of Congress.

It was finished in 1977 and oil began to flow from the North Slope to Port Valdez, where it was loaded aboard tanker ships heading for refineries in Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay, Los Angeles, and San Diego. One of these ships, the Exxon Valdez, ran aground in 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound and the surrounding waters. The pipeline itself, by contrast, has had a largely trouble-free existence and is still going strong today.

The book is a history of the great environmental controversies of the last 65 years. It starts by recalling widespread popular fears about nuclear fallout in the 1950s, and moves on to consider population, pollution, environmental carcinogens, resource depletion, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, endangered species, contaminated waste sites, environmental racism, ecotourism, genetically modified foods, and global warming. In each case it shows how intelligent people disagreed about the gravity of the issues and about how best to respond to them.

The theme of the book is that these problems were real but manageable, and that once the nation dedicated itself to remedying them it was often successful. As a result of sensible environmental legislation, we live in a far less polluted environment than our parents and grandparents, enjoy better health and greater life expectancy. We need to continue to take environmental problems seriously but we do not need to fear a coming apocalypse, as some environmental writers have implied.
Learn more about A Climate of Crisis at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Conservatives.

Writers Read: Patrick Allitt.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Molly Caro May's "The Map of Enough"

Molly Caro May is a writer and teacher of place-based writing workshops. Her work has appeared in Salon, Feministing, Orion, Fourth Genre, among others. She lives in Bozeman, Montana.

May applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Map of Enough: One Woman's Search for Place, and reported the following:
This page is a culmination page, only three pages away from the end of Chapter Three. After three months of constructing the yurt, Chris and I are finally erecting it—in a below-freezing blizzard, with our dog Bru wrapped in a down jacket. Wind comes up. It blows our gear down. It blows us down. So we slide down the hill, hop in our Jeep and go driving to wait it out. When we return, the white landscape seems a different place than the one we arrived in during the summer. I reflect back on the woman I was then, the woman I am now, the woman I will be.
On our return, as we drove back up the snow-packed driveway, the white tugged me back to our first dark night on The Land about half a year ago. How distant the wild green grass seemed now, how distant that woman standing in the wild green grass seemed, like an old tattered photograph our great-great-grandchildren would find in a closet one day and know about, how more distant she would become even to the woman wondering about her now.
Once the yurt frame is up, the wind whips up again and we have to wait until the following morning to wrap it in canvas. We pause before descending back down the hill. I see it as an animated creature now. Where there had been nothing but trees and grass, there is now a structure, a focus, at least for us humans. The page ends with the word “never” which is wildly appropriate. Maps have guided much of my life and, in this moment, I realize that Montana had never come to me on a map, and yet, here I was.

“We stood and stared at a new presence—the brown skeleton against a white landscape. My younger self who planned to translate languages had never found Montana on a map, never…”
Visit Molly Caro May's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ryan K. Balot's "Courage in the Democratic Polis"

Ryan K. Balot is Professor of Political Science and Classics at the University of Toronto.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Courage in the Democratic Polis: Ideology and Critique in Classical Athens, and reported the following:
Courage in the Democratic Polis explores the ancient Athenians’ ideal of courage – an ideal that displaced heroic conceptions and emphasized the cognitive and democratic elements of courage. Page 99 explains the connection between isêgoria (“free and equal speech”) and courage. Isêgoria, I argue, “enabled the Athenians to think carefully about their expressions of courage, to see just what courage demanded in each situation, and to think beyond traditional norms and practices” (page 99). Athenian courage was characterized by thoughtfulness and informed by democratic deliberation. In these ways, it differed from courage as expressed among Athens’ non-democratic rivals, such as Sparta, Persia, and Macedon. The central idea that courage varied by regime type emerges clearly on page 99.

Page 99 also captures two other prominent themes. First, it describes the emotions that shaped Athenian courage, such as “eagerness” (prothumia) and an appropriate “sense of shame.” While virtually all theorists oppose courage to fear, most contemporary philosophers neglect the emotions that inform and motivate courage. Second, page 99 foreshadows my argument that the Athenian democrats prized courage as intrinsically good and meritorious – indeed, as partly constitutive of human flourishing – even while recognizing the natural superiority of justice and of practical wisdom.

Ancient Athenian discourse and practice challenge us, as democratic citizens, to rethink our own most basic ethical ideas and political aspirations. To see why, however, you will need to read through to page 408.
Learn more about Courage in the Democratic Polis at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ben Tarnoff's "The Bohemians"

Ben Tarnoff has written for the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Lapham’s Quarterly, and is the author of A Counterfeiter’s Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Early American Moneymakers.

Tarnoff applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Bohemians, a twenty-four-year old poet named Ina Coolbrith rides a streetcar to the end of the line. The last stop is North Beach, which in today’s San Francisco describes a stretch of strip clubs and bad Italian restaurants trafficked chiefly by tourists and perverts, but which in the San Francisco of 1865 described a tranquil stretch of actual beach overlooking the water. “How grand the Bay looks with its white waves dashing on the shore,” Coolbrith wrote, “and stern old Alcatraz yonder, standing like a tried and faithful sentinel keeping watch and ward over the hidden treasures of the deep.”

Alcatraz kept watch over more than the hidden treasures of the deep. In 1865, it was the site of a heavily fortified Union garrison, ready to repel a Confederate incursion that never arrived. The Civil War never came to California. The fighting was always far away. In the 1860s, San Francisco enjoyed a decade of peace and prosperity, luxuriating in its metropolitan grandeur, flexing its imperial muscle as the financial, commercial, and industrial powerhouse of the Far West. It also boasted a thriving literary scene to which Coolbrith belonged, along with Charles Warren Stoddard, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain. While the rest of the country was busy killing each other, these four writers would create a Bohemian moment that would invigorate the region, fascinate the country, and change the course of American literature.
View the trailer for The Bohemians, and visit Ben Tarnoff's website.

Writers Read: Ben Tarnoff.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Andrew Buchanan's "American Grand Strategy in the Mediterranean During World War II"

Andrew Buchanan is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Vermont. He received his PhD and MA in History from Rutgers University, and earned his BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford. Buchanan has taught American history, global history, and various military history courses. He has published articles on various aspects of the diplomatic, military, and cultural history of World War II in publications including the Journal of Contemporary History, Diplomacy and Statecraft, the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, and Global War Studies.

Buchanan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Grand Strategy in the Mediterranean during World War II, and reported the following:
Half of my page 99 is occupied by a picture—one of several throughout the book, many reproduced for the first time, that help to bring this work of political, military and economic history to life. In this case, it features a dinner hosted by President Roosevelt for the Sultan of Morocco during the Anglo-American conference at Casablanca in January 1943. The Sultan was not included in the conference, but Roosevelt took advantage of his visit to the country to offer the Moroccan leader what appeared to be promises of American support for his country’s independence. At best, however, the President’s words were ambiguous: while pledging U.S. support for eventual Moroccan independence, both Roosevelt and his advisers worked to assure French officials of their support for ongoing colonial rule. An exploration of this contradiction, which saw Washington’s verbal endorsement of national self-determination matched by its actual backing for European imperial power, runs throughout this volume.

My book does much more than simply discuss this vexed issue: it situates it within a broader narrative of American power into the Mediterranean during World War II. The United States, I argue, developed a consistent orientation towards this critical region. Anyone familiar with conventional narratives of the war will immediately recognize the uniqueness of this approach. America is generally presented as a reluctant participant in the wartime Mediterranean, inveigled into the region by the wily British, and keen to escape as soon as possible. But for a power only begrudgingly engaged in the Mediterranean, the United States did remarkably well. By 1945, the Mediterranean was an American lake, and the predominance of U.S. military power was matched by increasing political and economic influence. In examining this multifaceted reality, my book offers a radical revision to long-predominant narratives of the war in the Mediterranean.
Read more about American Grand Strategy in the Mediterranean during World War II at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 24, 2014

Tim Townsend's "Mission at Nuremberg"

Tim Townsend, formerly the religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, holds master's degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Yale Divinity School. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. In 2005, 2011, and 2013, he was named Religion Reporter of the Year by the Religion Newswriters Association, the highest honor on the "God beat" at American newspapers. He recently joined the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project as a senior writer and editor in Washington, D.C.

Townsend applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis, and reported the following:
In the summer of 1945, the Allies sent captured high-level Nazi officials to an interrogation center – a former hotel called The Palace – in the spa town of Mondorf-les-Bains in southeastern Luxembourg.

On page 99 of Mission at Nuremberg, we meet Colonel Burton Andrus, the commandant of the interrogation center, codenamed “Ashcan,” and get a description of Ashcan itself.

The former hotel, now stripped of anything luxurious, and equipped to stop suicides, held dozens of Hitler’s former lieutenants, including more than half the men who would, by fall, be standing trial in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity.
The war may have been over, but Andrus feared residual forces might try to free the Nazi leaders from Allied control, and he wasn’t satisfied with Ashcan’s defenses when he arrived. He requested floodlights, an airstrip, an electric alarm system for the outer fence, guns, and more guards, doctors, clerks, and typewriters. GIs carried out fine carpets and elegant furniture, replacing them with folding camp-beds and straw mattresses. Others removed chandeliers and replaced sixteen hundred of the hotel’s glass windowpanes with Pleixglas and iron bars.

“I was concerned about guards being bribed, snipers shooting at prisoners or gaining information, and suicide attempts,” Andrus later wrote. “I even feared murder within the enclosure; for deadly enemies were already, in some case, being confined together. Mondorf, no one had to tell me, was a powder-keg.”
On August 12, Andrus accompanied several of his Nazi charges to the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, where he would spend the next year as commandant of the prison there. He requested two U.S. Army chaplains to fulfill the Geneva Convention mandate that prisoners of war be provided with spiritual guidance if they wanted it.

Those two chaplains – a Lutheran minister named Henry Gerecke, and a Catholic priest named Sixtus O’Connor – and their experiences with the major Nazi war criminals on trial there are at the heart of the book.

The two chaplains spent more time with the architects of the Holocaust – Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Hans Frank…21 in all – than any other members of the U.S. military. They listened to their confessions, met with their families and eventually accompanied them to the gallows, all the while attempting to bring men who were considered monsters, back to the faith they knew as children.

Mission at Nuremberg examines the way in which religion combats evil and asks whether some men are beyond forgiveness and redemption.
Visit the Mission at Nuremberg website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Daniel E. Sutherland's "Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake"

Daniel E. Sutherland is Distinguished Professor of History, University of Arkansas. The recipient of more than fifty awards, honors, and grants, he is best known for his acclaimed series of books chronicling nineteenth-century America.

Sutherland applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake, and reported the following:
Bizarre as it sounds, the Page 99 formula does seem to work more often than not, and it is so for my biography of James McNeill Whistler. Page 99 of Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake describes the artist upon his return to London in 1867, after an absence of over a year in South America. The city had changed, as would his relationship with his mistress-muse, an Irish girl named Joanna Hiffernan. During Whistler’s absence, she had gone to Paris to model for a pair of scandalous (that is, nude) paintings by the French artist Gustave Courbet, perhaps, as well, to share Courbet’s bed. Her relationship with Whistler crumbled soon thereafter.

Page 99 is suggestive, too, in that, coming nearly a third of the way through the narrative, it shows Whistler at one of several crossroads in his life. Victorian London was about to become the preeminent city in Europe, having run second best to Paris for several decades. It would also be the city most closely associated with Whistler and his art. It is where he would create his famous “nocturnes,” paint the iconic portrait of his mother, and be honored as a great Master. Indeed, it was during his year in South America that he first experimented with the techniques that would produce those moody nocturnes and tie him thereafter to the “art’s for art’s sake” movement. Whistler had left London because he was frustrated with his progress as a painter and his failure to win popular approval for his work. He returned rejuvenated, with new ideas, and ready to seize the acclaim that had largely eluded him.
Learn more about Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: A Savage Conflict.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kate Côté Gillin's "Shrill Hurrahs"

Kate Côté Gillin holds a Ph.D. in American history from the College of William and Mary and works at the Hun School of Princeton. She was awarded the Caroline Ray Hovey 1967 Master Teachership and the Award for Teaching Excellence from the Madeira School in McLean, Virginia. She has also been honored with the Recognition for Teaching Excellence from the National Society of High School Scholars.

Gillin applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865--1900, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Shrill Hurrahs details the origins of the Ellenton Riot of 1876 and puts a woman by the name of Mrs. Alonzo Harley at the center of it. Mrs. Harley claimed to have fended off a home invasion by black intruders. When a mob of white men captured one of the alleged assailants, a man named Peter Williams, they brought him before her. Mrs. Harley positively identified him, at which point he was beaten and shot by the white mob, although accounts differ as to whether or not he survived. When blacks retaliated for Williams' capture, the most violent racial conflict of Reconstruction era South Carolina began.

Overall, page 99 captures much of what the book argues about the power of women and their deliberate use of it to influence the racial and gendered landscape of the post-war South. Women, black and white, came into their own following emancipation, and both engaged actively in the often violent negotiations of the Reconstruction, Redemption, and early Jim Crow periods. Although their goals varied, their participation--direct and indirect--was consistent and crucial to determining southern power structures.
Learn more about Shrill Hurrahs at the University of South Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Garrett Peck's "Capital Beer"

Garrett Peck is a literary journalist and independent historian.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his fifth and latest book, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C., and reported the following:
From page 99:
Beer Gardens

The German immigrants brought not only their love of lager, but also the sense of drinking conviviality, Gemütlichkeit, which manifested in summer and winter beer gardens. The beer garden was a distinctly German import that Americans embraced, one that was noticeably different from male-only saloon. Entire families – fathers, mothers, children – would go together to the beer garden. It was normal for children to drink a little beer from their parents’ glass. American discovered how pleasant it was to sit outdoors with friends and sip suds fresh from the tap.

The beer garden wasn’t always garden-like, but it did have big communal tables for people to gather and often featured live music. Germans have never been given to boisterous drinking. The beer garden was a family place, a place for pleasant conversation, not a dive for drunken college students.”
This was the start of a section from my book Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. that dealt with the beer garden culture that began in DC in the 1850s as an antidote to our sultry summers. A local history may seem esoteric and pertaining only to a particular market, but the fact is the drinking culture of Washington was largely repeated everywhere, especially once the Germans came to the United States and fundamentally altered our drinking habits - largely through lager beer. Before the Germans arrived, Americans drank whiskey and English-style ales, which are heavy and not the most pleasant to drink in summer. But lager? Oh lager. It’s an aged and mild and utterly quenchable beer. Imagine how tasty it seemed on the tongue in an era long before air conditioning. Lager was relief.

And to the broader point about what beer gardens meant for American society. They were refuges for families to gather together socially and to drink together. Although the Germans introduced beer gardens as an alternative to the saloon, Americans very quickly adopted the beer garden as their own: they are places of relaxation and wonder. Given that this was a familial social setting, the intention wasn’t to get drunk, but to use beer as a social lubricant. The temperance movement of course hated the beer gardens as much as they disliked the saloons. They eventually won with Prohibition, which drove drinking underground. Even though Prohibition ended in 1933 after its disastrous failure, I would argue that we’ve never fully gotten over it: alcohol still has some taboos, such as the question of underage drinking. Can you imagine today seeing a parent allowing their kid to take a sip of beer from their bottle? It happens all the time, but usually under the table, lest scornful eyes pass judgment.

American culture is a giant sponge. What the immigrant brings to our shores, we try on ourselves, and soon call it our own. You see this everyday in big and small ways, in our vocabulary (“I’m gonna pick up the kids from kindergarten, then take a siesta.”), to our drinking habits, to our food. How many times have you had pizza this month, or dropped in to your favorite Mexican restaurant, and washed it all down with a glass of beer or a margarita? We take the immigrant’s gift for granted.
Learn more about the book and author at Garrett Peck's website.

Garrett Peck's best books about Prohibition.

Writers Read: Garrett Peck (January 2010).

The Page 99 Test: The Prohibition Hangover.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 17, 2014

Edmund Levin's "A Child of Christian Blood"

Edmund Levin is a Writers Guild and Emmy award–winning writer/producer for Good Morning America. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Atlantic, and Slate, among other publications, and was included in The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology.

Levin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia The Beilis Blood Libel, and reported the following:
A Child of Christian Blood is a history of the Mendel Beilis case, which could be called the Russian version of the Dreyfus Affair. Beilis, a Jewish brick factory clerk, was put on trial in Kiev in 1913 on a charge of killing a Christian boy to drain his blood to bake Passover matzo – the notorious blood libel. (Kiev, of course, was then part of the Russian Empire.) The thirty-four day trial, forgotten now, was a worldwide sensation that drew to Beilis’s defense such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The state had no evidence against Beilis, other than perjured and bribed testimony.

The dark diva of the Beilis affair - a twisted character straight out of a Dostoevsky novel - was a woman named Vera Cheberyak. The head of a criminal gang, Cheberyak was the most likely suspect in the boy’s murder. Astoundingly, she ended up as a star witness for the prosecution.

Page 99 is a rather strikingly good choice as it reveals the depths of Vera Cheberyak’s sociopathic depravity. Vera, briefly in jail, gets a new cellmate, a woman named Anna who has just murdered her husband. Vera immediately sees in Anna a potential mark and quickly figures out a way to take everything she has.
As people often do when confronted by misfortune too immense to comprehend, Anna fixated on trivialities. The police had taken some things of hers and she was worried about what would happen to them. Cheberyak said she would help. She was sure she would be released soon, and she would take care of Anna’s affairs. On a scrap of paper, Cheberyak had Anna draw up a document in her own hand. Anna, who must have been in a radical state of mental distress, thought she was giving Cheberyak permission only to take her things from the police station for safekeeping. In fact, in signing the paper, Anna transferred to Cheberyak the right to dispose of all her worldly goods, such as they were.
The Russian state – determined to convict an innocent Jew at all costs - would be willing to make common cause with this criminal sociopath.
Visit Edmund Levin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Joan DeJean's "How Paris Became Paris"

Joan DeJean is Trustee Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of many books on French literature, history, and material culture, including The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began and The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. She lives in Philadelphia and, when in Paris, on the street where the number 4 bus began service on July 5, 1662.

DeJean applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City, and reported the following:
I decided to write How Paris Became Paris because I was so frustrated every time I heard someone say that Paris became a modern city only in the 19th century and only after Haussmann destroyed the medieval city still in place in 1850.

In fact, what we know and love about Paris today actually originated in the 17th century.

Take the example of the boulevard. When Haussmann chose the boulevard as the principal sign of urban modernity, he was simply copying a design invented in 1669.

Page 99 of my book opens when what I describe there as Paris’ “first large-scale planned reconstruction” was in full swing. In 1669, Louis XIV, the architect of Paris, and the city’s municipal government decided to tear down the fortifications that had shut the city off from the outside world for centuries. In their place, they built a gigantic thoroughfare and walkway, which they called “the boulevard.” This was the world’s first boulevard. It was 120 feet wide and had double rows of elm trees lining each side. As I say on page 99:

“Every parkway, every grand avenue in today’s major cities has its origin in that rampart of green for which they laid the groundwork in 1669.”

In this country alone, both the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia are modeled not on Haussman’s boulevards but on the original boulevard, the one designed in 1669. In How Paris Became Paris, I use 17th-century maps to illustrate the integration of the earliest boulevards and the first avenues such as the Champs-Elysées into the fabric of Paris. The resemblance with the way cities from Chicago to Philadelphia are laid out will, I hope, be evident.

Anyone interested in how that basic unit of urban space, the street, evolved and still functions today should enjoy page 99 in my book – and hopefully the rest of How Paris Became Paris as well.
Learn more about How Paris Became Paris at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 14, 2014

Jordan Branch's "The Cartographic State"

Jordan Branch is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Brown University. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley and in 2011–12 he was the Hayward R. Alker Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California. His articles have appeared in the European Journal of International Relations and in International Organization.

Branch applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Cartographic State: Maps, Territory, and the Origins of Sovereignty, and reported the following:
Although page 99 of The Cartographic State does not summarize the book’s argument or evidence, it succeeds at the “Page 99 Test” in a different way, by serving as a “hinge” for the book as a whole. Page 99 is the last in Chapter 4, which presents the book’s main argument: mapping in early modern Europe was a key element in the origins and consolidation of the sovereign state as we know it today.

This argument is preceded by chapters laying a theoretical and historical foundation. I first discuss international relations theory and explain why we need to identify the historical origins of states in order to understand international politics today. We lack an account for why states have the particularly territorial character they do -- defined by boundaries and threatened by the slightest territorial violation. In other historical periods, politics was rarely -- if ever -- defined in such starkly spatial terms. Second, I outline the history of cartography, particularly in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Through this history we see that many of the characteristics of maps that we take for granted as “normal” actually begin to appear in the fifteenth century. These characteristics -- such as the latitude-longitude grid, or the use of the printing press to mass-produce cartographic images -- were essential to the shift to territorial statehood that followed.

Starting with page 100, the remaining chapters expand the analysis of European mapping and provide additional evidence. First, I point out how the imposition of linear boundaries between political claims followed a process of “colonial reflection” -- certain practices imposed first in colonial competition in the Americas were only later employed within Europe. Then I present evidence of the shift to boundary-defined territorial statehood from the texts of early modern peace treaties. If we look at treaty wording rather than the specific details being negotiated, it becomes clear that there is a change in what rulers and officials were arguing over. I also examine the case of France, which was an early and influential example of maps and their effects. However, French history is often misread as having consolidated a “modern” form of territorial statehood long before the Revolution and its aftermath actually did so.

Finally, the book’s conclusion considers the implications of this historical case for the broader relationship between technological and political change, particularly in the context of today’s digital revolution in mapping. Maps are changing dramatically in production, distribution, and use, in ways that are moving cartography out of the hands of governments and into those of corporations like Google -- and even everyday users. While early modern mapmakers created the conditions needed for the assertion of strong state authority over delineated territory -- in other words, for the state as we know it -- the changes taking place today in mapping may end up undermining the very states that maps made possible.
Learn more about The Cartographic State at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 13, 2014

David J. Hand's "The Improbability Principle"

David J. Hand is an emeritus professor of mathematics and a senior research investigator at Imperial College London. He is the former president of the Royal Statistical Society and the chief scientific adviser to Winton Capital Management, one of Europe’s most successful algorithmic-trading hedge funds. He is the author of seven books, including The Information Generation: How Data Rules Our World and Statistics: A Very Short Introduction, and has published more than three hundred scientific papers. Hand lives in London, England.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my new book, The Improbability Principle, falls squarely in the middle of a chapter entitled The Law of Truly Large Numbers. This is one of the more accessible of the five fundamental laws of the improbability principle, so it’s a great place to start to describe what the book’s about.

This law says that, with enough opportunities, any outrageous thing is likely to happen. To get 20 heads in a row, just keep tossing that coin for long enough. Have enough dreams, and sooner or later you’re bound to dream about something which happens the next day. Deal enough poker hands, and a royal flush is pretty well certain to come up.

But page 99 takes the law a bit further. It applies the law to the question of whether the suspension of F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft flights was justified after one of them crashed in February 1996. The answer depends on how many aircraft were built and on how many crashed. (In case you are wondering, 712 and 161.)

The law of truly large numbers is pretty straightforward. But even it can have subtle aspects. One which is fairly well-known is the birthday problem. This asks how many people must be in a room for it to be more likely than not that some pair of them will have the same birthday. The answer, surprising if you have not thought carefully about what exactly the question asked, is just 23. The reason is that with 23 people there are 253 pairs - if not a “truly large” number, large enough relative to the 365 days in a year to make it more likely than not that at least one pair will have a common birthday.

The other laws of the improbability principle are the law of inevitability, the law of selection, the law of the probability lever, and the law of near enough. Together these laws make up the improbability principle, which says extremely improbable events are commonplace. Without going into the mathematics, but illustrating with many real-life rare events and extraordinary coincidences, the book shows how the principle works.
Visit the official The Improbability Principle website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Joel S. Migdal's "Shifting Sands"

Joel Migdal is the Robert F. Philip Professor of International Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, and has been writing about the Middle East and state-society relations worldwide for more than forty years. Among his books are The Palestinian People (with Baruch Kimmerling), Through the Lens of Israel, Strong Societies and Weak States, and State-in-Society.

Migdal applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East, and reported the following:
Turning to Page 99, I was pleased to find one of the most familiar photos of the last half century. It was of three beaming world leaders—Jimmy Carter flanked by the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, and the prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin. The picture captured the crowning moment of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, the brokering of the peace treaty between the two most powerful countries in the region, which had been at war for three decades. The treaty was significant not only at the Camp David photo shoot in 1979; it has withstood extraordinary pressures and crises and is still intact 35 years later.

The image of the three leaders is one of several iconic photos that mark America’s checkered participation in the everyday life of the region since 1945. The first is of FDR, ailing and only weeks away from his death, meeting near the Suez Canal with Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia. That photo marked the moment that the United States became a permanent player in the Middle East. Another is almost a mirror of the 1979 photograph: here Bill Clinton is with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Chairman Yasser Arafat, clasping hands on the White House lawn. This image marked the optimistic beginning of what turned out to be a stillborn peace process. (In this one, Clinton and Arafat are smiling broadly, but Rabin is nothing but dour.) Perhaps the last iconic photo is of George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln proclaiming “mission accomplished” in Iraq. The Middle East appears to have a way of twisting straightforward statements into irony.

Shifting Sands explores what lies behind these photos—America’s roller-coaster ride in the region, from that meeting with the Saudi king to the war in Iraq in the 2000s to the Obama administration’s attempts to deal with the brutal aftermath of the Arab Spring, Iran’s nuclear (and other) ambitions, and the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The book is an interpretation of U.S. efforts to apply a fixed strategy to a moving target, to a region whose dynamics have changed dramatically in the last 70 years.
Learn more about Shifting Sands at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thomas A. Foster's "Sex and the Founding Fathers"

Thomas A. Foster is an Associate Professor in the History Department at DePaul University. He is the author of Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America and the editor of three books, including Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America.

Foster applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past, and reported the following:
We’re all familiar with stories about the personal lives of the Founding Fathers – the idealized marriage of George and Martha Washington, the flirtations of Benjamin Franklin, the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. But for how long have those stories been common knowledge and why do they matter at all? Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past looks at how popular knowledge of the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers has changed over the course of the nation’s history and argues that those changes reflect each generations’ interest in personally connecting to that group of eighteenth-century elite white men. Given that understandings of sexuality change over time, contemporary ideals about the body, love, romance, sexual identity, etc. influence how Americans think about the personal lives of men and women and change the stories we tell. Each chapter focuses on an individual Founder. (The book features George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Gouverneur Morris.)
Page 99 of the book is very near the beginning of the chapter that focuses on printer, inventor, philosopher, statesman Benjamin Franklin. The page 99 test works in so far as this page captures some of the analysis of Franklin that is also representative of arguments throughout the book. Two example paragraphs from the page:
As this chapter shows, Franklin’s general eighteenth-century openness about the body and sexuality for centuries has divided many Americans, making them either uncomfortable with his views or thrilled by his apparent modernity. For some, Franklin’s sexually explicit writings have served to bolster the image of Franklin as modern, forward-thinking, and uniquely American. Yet for others, the ambiguity of his personal writings, the depiction of him as aged and not youthful, and the nature of his transgressions have allowed for a willful disengagement with the sordid specifics of his personal life.

It has never been a secret that Franklin transgressed norms of masculine sexuality in a host of ways, including fathering a child out of wedlock, writing ribald prose, and, according to many, in his widowhood having sexual relationships with women. And as we have seen in previous chapters, such details of intimate life have long figured in the public assessment of political figures. His public demonstration of his ease with amorousness made him the topic of talk in his lifetime and controversial in memory.
Each chapter begins with an examination of the stories that surrounded the Founders while they still lived. Page 99 does broach the subject of some of Franklin’s racier writing – including his “Advice on the Choice of a Mistress” which humorously argued that young men should choose older women as lovers. Franklin outlined eight reasons why, including they are more “knowledgeable” about sex, can’t get pregnant, and “they are so grateful!” What’s missing from page 99 that makes this a test with mixed results, is the sex – the intimate lives that get imagined by later generations.
Learn more about Sex and the Founding Fathers at the Temple University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 10, 2014

Steven Levingston's "Little Demon in the City of Light"

Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of The Washington Post. He also writes books and plays and does some book reviewing.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris, and reported the following:
On page 99 in Little Demon we bump up against Sigmund Freud as a young medical student strolling the streets of Paris in the 1880s, gathering his perceptions of the French. “I don’t think they know the meaning of shame or fear,” he wrote home. “The women no less than the men crowd around nudities as much as they do round corpses in the Morgue or ghastly posters in the streets announcing a new novel.” Though Freud was an odd, cocaine-dependent neurotic at the time, he captured the French sensibility and, in that single description, revealed a quality of the entire book. Little Demon sets out to tell not just a murder story but a tale that grows out of the very terrain of Paris in the Belle Epoque. The book shows the French much as Freud characterized them. Paris in the 1880s and 90s was a landscape of men in top hats and monocles, women in outrageous hats, and carefree strolls along the boulevards. To the outside world the city floated on a champagne bubble. “It is we,” declared a French journalist, “who have infected the world with gaiety, this brightness.” But Paris also was a troubled place. Since the Prussians humiliated France on the battlefield in 1870, the country slept fitfully, tossing and turning over a grim question: Was French glory a thing of the past? The indignity of defeat lingered. The scars were written on the drunks in the alleyways, the blank-eyed syphilitics in the insanity wards, and the anxious faces of the politicians. And Freud’s point about Parisian immodesty and decadence was well-taken. The French were connoisseurs of sex, and lovemaking was an art. Just listen to the famous author Alphonse Daudet exulting over the “glorious frenzy” of sex “with a woman who is naked, a woman one rolls on top of and covers with kisses: copulation as practiced by artists, men of passion, men who really love women.” It was enough to make Sigmund Freud blush.
Learn more about the book and author at Steven Levingston's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker's "Busted"

Wendy Ruderman has a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining the Philadelphia Daily News in 2007, she worked at several media outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY-TV and WHYY-FM, the Trenton Times, the Associated Press, and the Bergen Record.

Barbara Laker graduated from the University of Missouri Journalism School and worked for several newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She began working at the Philadelphia Daily News in 1993 and has been a general assignment reporter, an assistant city editor, and an investigative reporter.

Ruderman and Laker won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Laker applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, and reported the following:
Open, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, to page 99 and hopefully, you’ll feel as if you’re on an exhilarating ride into Philadelphia’s underbelly with Wendy and me.

In this part of the book, we’re beginning our search for women who say they were victimized by Officer Tom Tolstoy, a cop known as the “Boob Man,” because he had allegedly sexually assaulted and terrorized large-breasted women during drug raids.

Even cops outside Philly were familiar with Tolstoy’s nickname and told me about it. So we now knew that the cop with the breast fetish wasn’t urban myth. We just had no idea how many women he had allegedly assaulted – and whether we could find them.

On page 99, we meet Lady Gonzalez, a soft-spoken, almost demure woman who, during a drug raid, was cornered by a cop who lifted her shirt, fondled her breasts and pushed her jeans down to see the “crack of her ass.” She didn’t know the cop’s name. But she could describe him: a husky, barrel-bellied cop of average height. He led her into a small room off her kitchen. He shuffled his feet closer to hers. She tried to back up and there was nowhere to go.

Although Wendy and I knew the cop’s name we couldn’t use it yet. We didn’t have the goods. We believed and trusted Lady Gonzalez. She had told her husband and neighbors the very night the assault had happened. But we needed more.

The reader will wonder if we ever get the “goods” on this cop. And if so, how we get them.

Without names of other victims, addresses or dates, it would take unrelenting perseverance and using the kind of shoe-leather reporting that is at the heart of Busted.

So by page 99, we believe the reader will be hooked, already at one peak of a roller coaster and heading into another – with anticipation.

Welcome to the breathtaking, thrilling ride.
Learn more about Busted at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Stephen R. Palumbi & Anthony R. Palumbi's "The Extreme Life of the Sea"

Stephen R. Palumbi is Professor of Biology and Director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University. His film projects include the BBC series The Future Is Wild, the History channel's Life after People, and the Short Attention Span Science Theater. His books include The Death and Life of Monterey Bay and The Evolution Explosion. Anthony R. Palumbi, Stephen's son, is a science writer and novelist whose work has appeared in the Atlantic and other publications.

Anthony Palumbi applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Extreme Life of the Sea, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Each flight is only seconds long. Cruel gravity pulls her toward the water – and beneath is the rainbow form of the mahi mahi matching speeds. When she starts to lose altitude, she dips her tail and tags the sea for another burst of power. Up to a dozen times she might graze the surface and glide again. The death race flashes across the sea, covering the 50-meter length of an Olympic-sized pool in seconds. The mahi mahi tracks the flyer, keeping up with the slow curves of her evasive maneuvers. It’s eaten many flying fish, and every new dip of our heroine’s tail offers a fresh attack window. But a missed strike will let the flyer escape, and so the predator holds fast. Both fish are at their physical peaks racing toward the horizon. Only an abrupt splash in the distance tells you that one or the other has won.
Text consumes page 99’s lower half; a picture [inset, left] occupies the top, a 19th-century drawing of a mahi in pursuit of a flying fish. Our book has a good number of pictures, but hardly one per page! We’re lucky here. This is from our “Fastest” chapter, covering the ocean’s greatest athletes. At the base of the page, after the quoted passage constituting the end of our flying fish section, the next section (on the hydrodynamics of whales and dolphins) begins.

This might be my favorite vignette from the whole book. This isn’t smoke-blowing; I cited this very passage as my favorite in our “This Week in Science” interview! It’s got everything I believe makes this book special: evocative language, thrilling action sequences and a focus on character development. With regard to the first, we’ve deployed powerful imagery in the wording, but what may not come through is the meticulous research behind it. A huge amount of work went into making sure every last detail was both accurate and exciting. As for the action sequence: that’s always a great device for holding readers’ attention, but it became particularly important in the “Fastest” chapter. If you’re describing speed and strength, double down and make your words fast and powerful!

But the last element I mentioned is by far the most important. Our mantra during this project was always, “nobody cares about the story until they care about the characters.” To that end, the words “our heroine” aren’t used facetiously. The pages preceding the quoted passage build this little flying fish into quite the protagonist! She’s fast, strong, brave and decisive. We do our best to place the reader inside that flying fish’s little torpedo-shaped body - to make you identify with her, admire her and then root for her in a very real, visceral way. Of course it helps that the stakes are so high. This probably sounds odd, but I grew very attached to that flying fish while working on that section. It’s my favorite because she’s my favorite. I really hope she made it.
Learn more about The Extreme Life of the Sea at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Brian Jeffrey Maxson's "The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence"

Brian Jeffrey Maxson is Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies and an Assistant Professor of History at East Tennessee State University. His research focuses on the cultural and political history of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. His articles have appeared in Renaissance Studies and I Tatti Studies, among other journals. He has held fellowships from the Fulbright and Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Foundations and given invited lectures at the University of Oxford and the Ludwig Maximilians Universität in Munich.

Maxson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence, and reported the following:
“The archival documents related to the mission in 1477 also attest to the gift-giving function of the diplomat’s opening oration. The Florentine Signoria wrote to their diplomats and summarized the diplomats’ own description of their initial meeting.” Thus, page 99 of my book – The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence – focused on the donative function of humanist oratory in diplomatic rituals – donative in the sense that an eloquent oration served as a gift to a ruler with the expectation of reciprocity. Why was this an important observation to make?

Renaissance humanism was far different than the modern connotations associated with “humanism.” Rather than sharing a particular set of philosophical beliefs, Renaissance humanists were the founders of what today would be called the liberal arts – which, for the Renaissance humanists, comprised the study of history, poetry, grammar, rhetoric, and ethics. For over five hundred years these humanists made the successful argument that the humanities made up the most practical and marketable of the academic disciplines. Consequently, their curricula dominated western schools from around 1450 until the twentieth century. The educational success of the humanists overshadowed the enormous number of original writings also left by these figures, writings that have just begun to become accessible in languages other than Latin or to people outside the special collections of European libraries.

My book was concerned with the seeming paradox of the humanist program: a group, at first very small, of people became convinced that writing in a heavily stylized and often quite difficult style of Latin was the key to creating more ethical, more knowledgeable, and more competent rulers, citizens, and people. How could such a seemingly esoteric idea take on the truly transformative significance that humanism eventually had – in fact, there are still educational models that stress the same classical foundations that the humanists espoused in the 1400s. Page 99 of my book encapsulates part of my argument to answer that question. I argue that, unlike modern academics who must publish original scholarship in reputable places to survive in the academy, most Renaissance humanists were primarily concerned with applying their humanities-based, classically-informed education in spoken eloquence in ephemeral settings. Over the course of the Renaissance people began expecting orators to use at least a smattering of classical references in all kinds of speeches and to attempt to stylize the presentation along humanist models of good taste. In order to succeed in the political and social world people needed the ability to deliver humanist-styled orations and thus they themselves studied humanism and passed that learning onto their children. The change in expectations brought about by humanist oratory created a far more popular Italian Renaissance than has been recently assumed, built upon an intertwined foundation of learned interests, social rituals, political processes, power, and status.
Learn more about The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Rachel Weil's "A Plague of Informers"

Rachel Weil is professor of history at Cornell University. She lives in Seneca Falls, NY.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, A Plague of Informers: Conspiracy and Political Trust in William III's England, and reported the following:
You know people like William Carter. They say they are working for the public interest, but they define the public interest so that it is indistinguishable from their own.

William Carter was a freelance hunter of wool smugglers in the late 1600s. Exporting raw wool to France was popular way for folks on the South coast of England to make money, so Carter was often beaten up and reviled for his pains. Yet he kept at it, hoping to be rewarded for his anti-smuggling activity by grateful tradesmen or indeed the Parliament. I call Carter a "patriotic entrepreneur." Page 99 describes Carter's elaborate efforts to represent activities through which he hopes to profit as being in the public interest:
Through his frenzied round of pamphleteering, grassroots organizing, and parliamentary appearances, Carter created the “public” on whose behalf he could be seen to act. His pamphlets simultaneously identified a common interest among clothiers and merchants, and made their interests identical to the interests of the nation. Having defined that interest, Carter visibly lobbied for it. Moreover, he initiated letter writing campaigns and petitions drives that helped members of the trade see themselves as having a corporate interest. The campaigns then allowed Carter to appear to reflect sentiments that he in fact had helped to create.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And for a reason. Carter's patriotic entrepreneurship was enabled by the Revolution of 1688, the revolution (to which we in the US are ideological heirs) which established a liberal, constitutional polity justified precisely by its identification with the will and good of the public. Patriotic entrepreneurs and their close cousins, political informers, tied their own interests to that of the public. As such they brought into being the bonds between a state and its citizens upon which liberal regimes depend. And yet of course they were also aggressive persecutors of their neighbors and masters of spin. My book, which looks at the immediate aftermath 1688, and at how the new government was both dependent upon and potentially undermined by a raft of patriotic entrepreneurs and informers, brings out the darker side of liberal revolution, in ways that I hope the book will help us think about the present as well as the past.
Learn more about A Plague of Informers at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 3, 2014

Peter Stamatov's "The Origins of Global Humanitarianism"

Peter Stamatov is Associate Professor of Sociology at Yale University. He works in the areas of sociology of culture and religion, comparative-historical sociology, and the sociology of global and transnational processes. His current research focuses on the intersections of popular politics and religious organizations in early-modern and modern Europe, as well as in the context of imperial expansion overseas. In his earlier work he has addressed issues of ethnicity and nationalism, as well as the political implications of cultural production and consumption.

Stamatov applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Origins of Global Humanitarianism: Religion, Empires, and Advocacy, and reported the following:
The Origins of Global Humanitarianism is about the long, complex and often forgotten history of how our familiar contemporary forms of solidarity with distant others developed between the sixteenth and eighteenth century. It is a book written by an academic for academics. But it is also a book of stories: the stories of the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Capuchins, and Quakers who often against all odds stood up and fought for the rights of indigenous people and enslaved Africans in European colonies.

Some of the protagonists of these stories, like Bartolomé de las Casas and Anthony Benezet, are well-known. Some, to use George Eliot’s words from the book’s epigraph, “rest in unvisited tombs.” Have you ever heard of Francisco de Jaca and Épiphane de Moirans, the two Capuchins who crisscrossed Cuban plantations in 1681 calling on slave-owners to liberate their slaves or risk the eternal damnation of their souls? No? Check out page 83 then.

The reader will find none of these fascinating and often moving stories on page 99. The page catches me, instead, in the middle of discussing other writers' contribution to my topic. Academic books are expected to proclaim their distinctiveness. Otherwise why write them? In this context, giving space to other authors in your text can be as deceptive as any of the insincerities of The Good Soldier's narrator. You discuss these fellow writers only in order to highlight the unmistakable wrongness of their arguments as the contrastive background on which your own argument shines seductively at the reader.

So it happens that on page 99 I discuss the explanation of the origins of the modern antislavery movement by three fine historians who have taught me a lot: David Brion Davis, Seymour Drescher, and Christopher Brown. I'm not sure what the page reveals to the reader. To me it brings back memories of the struggle to write prose that captures the essence of these authors' theses, gives them well-deserved credit for their important contribution, yet points out the inconsistencies of their argument. All at the same time.

So, Gentle Reader, do not trust the 99 page test. If it were all in one specific numbered page, Bible dipping would not have been invented.
Learn more about The Origins of Global Humanitarianism at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Christopher Leonard's "The Meat Racket"

Christopher Leonard is the former national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press. His work has appeared in Fortune, Slate, and the New York Times. He is a fellow with The New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, DC. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he lives outside Washington, DC.

Leonard applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Meat Racket describes one of my favorite characters in the book: The attorney Jim Blair.

Jim Blair was the close confidante and adviser to Don Tyson, a business genius who built the largest meat company in the world. (Blair also happened to be close friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton). Blair worked with Don Tyson for decades and became the top lawyer for his company, Tyson Foods. But, as page 99 describes it: Blair “didn’t just handle lawsuits or regulatory matters. He was more like a well-trained attack dog, with a deep and creative understanding of U.S. law. Don Tyson kept him on a short leash.”

As page 99 begins, Blair is conducting a secret mission. He quietly buys up corporate debt owed by one of Don Tyson’s biggest rivals, and uses the debt as a lever to ultimately take over the rival company. It was just one of many acquisitions that fueled Tyson Foods explosive growth through the 1980s and 1990s.

Jim Blair’s story reveals two deeper themes of The Meat Racket.

The first is that the state of our current meat industry is not the result of some historical accident. It is the result of human agency. Today, just four companies control over 85 percent of the beef market and just three firms make almost half of our chicken (that’s compared to more than 36 that did so back in the 1970s). Some people describe this state of affairs in passive terms, as if it just “happened.”

The Meat Racket shows that today’s consolidation is the result of an audacious business strategy. Don Tyson and a few other CEOs with deep pockets saw a business opportunity, and they took it.

The second theme is that Tyson was able to do this because it was a new kind of business, a fact of which Jim Blair was keenly aware. Tyson was neither a farm nor a factory, but a combination of the two. It used this ambiguity to take advantage of every possible loophole in U.S. law. For example, Tyson took advantage of tax breaks meant for small farmers, saving more than $20 million a year by the mid-1980s.

By following the exploits of people like Jim Blair and Don Tyson, readers get a detailed look at how a handful of companies came to control our meat supply.
Visit Christopher Leonard's website.

--Marshal Zeringue