Jacob Riis’s book How The Other Half Lives, written in 1890, remains an outstanding example of the importance of investigative journalism and the continued vitality of the Fourth Estate.


Jacob Riis was among the earliest of what Theodore Roosevelt later termed ” muckraker”, “taking the rake to uncover the most unpleasant conditions in American society.”  In Riis’s case, the issue was the plight of thousands of immigrants living and working in horrid conditions in the New York City tenements of the late 19th century. How The Other Half Lives is not a historical novel but rather a work of non-fiction, well researched reporting, personally witnessed by the journalist.

Riis was himself an  immigrant, born in Denmark among a family of fifteen children. He apprenticed as a carpenter in Copenhagen but discouraged by job availability he immigrated to the United States in 1870 at age  21.  Having caught a brief glimpse of the squalid living conditions among immigrants in New York’s tenement district, he left for western Pennsylvania and found work there as a carpenter. Perceived as being taken advantage of by his employers, he returned to New York as a salesman of flat irons whereupon he saw an advertisement for a Long Island newspaper looking for an editor. Thus, with no experience as a writer, he began his career in journalism.  He later accepted a position as a reporter for The New York News Association where he began writing with assignments covering both the rich and the impoverished. Riss was aware of conditions among the extremely poor in New York from his previous brief stay in and around the notorious Five Points. However, his job at the NYNA, the New York Sun and later in a big step up to the New York Tribune , he found a pulpit from which to begin informing the public on How The Other Half Lives .  Riis turned his print platform into a personal crusade, attempting  to alleviate the bad living and working conditions of the poor by exposing their horrid circumstances to the people who could make a difference, the middle and upper class of the city and its political establishment. Riis was perfectly willing to hold both the upper class and politicians accountable for the exploitation of men, women and children in both employment and housing. The pages of his early articles for Scribner’s Magazine and later in the complete volume How The Other Half Lives  are so vivid that uninformed critics, in disbelief, termed the details of his reporting an exaggeration and sensationalism.

Surely this work is an early reformist look at income inequality but  Riis referred to this large percentage of the New York City population as a class  unto itself, literally without identity or voice, enslaved by landlords who exploited their fears. The same people were recruited as the machinery of piecework in the early garment and cigar making industry at wages below any standards of decency.  The tenement  districts in New York exploded with thousands of men, women and children crowded into one or two rooms often without ventilation, sanitation or running water. Riss estimated that at one fifth of the city’s population lived under these conditions.

There is a major difference between Riis’s reporting and sensationalism. Riis spent months in the tenements, which were factories by day and barely livable sleeping quarters by night.  His research was impeccable and he was among the very first reporters to incorporate photo journalism into his stories, utilizing the newly invented flash to photograph his subjects in their darkened rooms. His work was the beginning of photo journalism, adding documentation to the written word.  The photos and editorial content had dramatic impact with his readers  and ultimately gained the attention of New York’s newly elected Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt.  Riis became an advisor to Roosevelt, escorting him on nighttime  tours for the commissioner to see for himself how the poor were forced to live.  Many credit this educational relationship with Roosevelt as the beginning of the Progressive Movement, a hallmark of TR’s future  presidency.

After Roosevelt’s election he wrote this tribute to Riis. ” Recently a man, well  qualified to pass judgement, alluded to Mr. Jacob Riis as  ‘ the most useful citizen of New York.’  The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the  crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent  ever encountered by them in New York  City.”

How The Other Half Lives was first published as an article in Scribner’s  Magazine in 1889, but  while working for the New York Sun, Riis expanded the work into the book, complete with his photographs and published it a year later.  A much less famous work by Riis, Children of the Poor was published as a sequel in 1892. In it Riis wrote of children he had encountered while researching How The Other Half Lives.


Riis was not alone among a new breed of investigative {muckraker) journalists.  In 1872 Julius Chambers wrote an expose of institutional horrors in Bloomingdale Asylum  and in 1887 Nellie Bly wrote Ten Days in a Madhouse a story of patient abuse in Bellevue Hospital.   By the turn of the 20th century McClure’s Magazine had assembled a group of new muckrakers including Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker, exposing the Standard Oil Trusts and labor unrest in the coal mines and steel mills.

One wonders  how slowly  reform among the immigrants of New York’s tenements may have come without the reporting of Jacob Riis.  How The Other Half Lives  punctuates the importance of  investigative journalism in the fabric of a democracy. In the 20th Century we saw the results of the journalistic work of the Washington Post’s  Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their reporting of Watergate.  Currently we are witnessing excellent journalism in the New York Time’s recent series Invisible Child, the brilliant work of reporter Andrea Elliott and the ongoing reporting of Times business journalist Gretchen Morgenson,  together with her book Reckless Endangerment.  

In this readers view, Television, the 24-hour cable news cycle and the endless world of blogs have a long distance to travel before coming close to the credibility and impact  of the work of Jacob Riis and those following in his footsteps.  If you are a  student of New York, treat yourself to a journey back to the nineteenth century and read How The Other Half Lives.  It will make you want to keep buying a newspaper, print or digital!


With a prodigious use of allegory, Marcus Zusak has written an enthralling human story of ordinary people caught in the trauma of  Second World War Germany.  In each of the captivating pages of The Book Thief,  an ethos and optimism arises from the hearts of children, momentarily displacing the horrors of the war.


Zusak chose Death, The Grim Reaper, as the narrator of his story. The protagonist is  a young girl, Liesel Meminger, handed off  by her mother to German  foster parents after Liesel’s brother dies in her arms on the floor of an unheated rail car.  At her brother’s  burial Liesel recovers the only memory available, an abandoned copy of The Grave Diggers Handbook. Thus The Book Thief  is born. This is a story of words, an accordionist, fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, thievery, friendships, love and family and above all a relationship between a daughter and step-father.

The Book Thief is a portrait of how war and the Holocaust causes ordinary people and families  to reshape their lives to survive.  Meet Liesel’s step-father and mother Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her best friend and partner in book thievery Rudy and the Jew Max, hidden from  the Nazis for two years in the basement of the Hubermann home.   Zusak is such a marvelous story-teller that the journey is never predictable, even as death himself narrates the tale. The story is told so beautifully that the reader may consider clearing the time for the final 200 pages in one sitting.

A word from the Narrator: “I wanted to tell the book thief many things about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

I have not seen the motion picture but as stated many times before, a good rule of thumb is to always read the book first!

I highly recommend The Book Thief for readers of any age. Other books by  Markus Zusak are Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl and I Am the Messenger.



So much written in the Tom Clancy novels is prescient and his final book, Command Authority, written before his death in late 2013 , is no  exception.  The latest Jack Ryan novel written with fellow writer and researcher Mark Greaney is all about the future aims of Russia connected to the emergence of the Russian mob following the collapse of the USSR.  Who fills the vacuum and what are the aims of Clancy’s new villains?


Clancy casts a wide net in Command Authority including  Swiss bankers and secret organizations formed from the remnants of the old KGB.  There is government corporate takeovers with millions of unaccounted funds to trail to money laundering though numbered  Swiss accounts.  Topping the  greed list is the lust for power by the new elite in the Kremlin eager to reclaim lost Russian territory and international prestige. Of course there is abundant hardware in hand and in the air.

In the middle of all of the intrigue is President Jack Ryan, Jack Ryan Jr. and of course  important roles for John Clark, Ding Chavez, Dominic Caruso and Sam Driscoll. Clancy cleverly creates a flash back sub-plot to Jack Ryan Sr’s  former career at CIA in England which directly connects to the present day un coverings there by his son Jack Ryan Jr.   The stories intersect perfectly in typical Clancy fashion.

For Clancy fans, place me at the top of the list, it is sad contemplate the end off this wonderful series.  It has always been difficult to choose favorites because each resonates with its place in time.  Tom Clancy was brilliant in introducing his characters squarely in the middle of the action , always on the edge of reality.  I will miss wondering if the Clancy story unfolding in his novels will be on the front page of the morning paper.  In many cases Tom Clancy has come very close!

Enjoy Command Authority and reflect on the previous seventeen wonderful Tom Clancy adventures.

Nebraska-No, Not The Movie

When I finished reading Willa  Cather’s  novel One Of Ours it came as no surprise that in 1923 the novel was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Cather lived from 1873  to 1947.  She was born in West Virginia but grew up in Nebraska thus the wonderfully evocative setting for this novel.

At the turn of the 20th century the generation  that inherited the pioneering industry of Nebraska’s homesteaders found themselves prospering beyond the dreams of their forebears. Fortunes were made and the Wheeler family was among the most successful with hundreds of acres of wheat, corn and abundant range. Wheeler son Claude, by the time he was 21,images had attained everything imaginable, a wife, beautiful home and a future inheritance. However, within this young man there was an emptiness , a feeling of failure, a lack of romance and a predictability that would surely deny an unfulfilled destiny.

Cather’s beautiful writing flows through the seasons on the great plains in Technicolor but though it all evolves a restlessness within Claude that separates him from the ordinary. So the evolution of this young man unfolds , carrying him to France and then the trenches  of Verdun.

Of  course, there must be much of Cather herself in these pages remembering that she lived out her life in New York City, far from the fields of Nebraska where she grew up in this pre-war era. The gathering storm of the First World War was glorified by  Over There  and The Yanks Are  Coming and  Claude, the  boy from the plains, now a young man, heard in the call to war  a glimpse of his destiny and made his decision to enlist, to see what life in a larger world might offer. Your time will be well spent  joining Claude on his journey, one that many make in their lifetime.

Willa Cather wrote 12 novels, including One of  Ours.  Others of note are O Pioneers, My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather may be an author you have overlooked.  Find the time to enjoy her writing.