Book Reviews – non-fiction

History is often the account of great events and broad social movements. But, James Srodes, author of On Dupont Circle, has a slightly different approach to examining the genre: “Anyone who reads much history has to be struck by how there are so few really important people involved in any great event.” Thus Srodes examines the intertwining of the lives of thirteen significant individuals who came to Washington, DC, on the eve of World War I and stayed active in politics and government through World War II to seriously impact the world as it exists today.

Dupont Circle is a busy traffic circle at the confluence of Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues in Northwest Washington. In its central green space, folks have been known to sit and play chess while others have dealt in illegal substances. At the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, the neighborhood around Dupont Circle was the gathering spot for the thirteen characters who are the subject of this book: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Walter Lippmann, Felix Frankfurter, John Foster Dulles, Allen W. Dulles, Eleanor Lansing Dulles, William C. Bullitt, Sumner Welles, Philip Kerr, Lord Eustace Percy, and Hamilton Fish Armstrong.

These men and women who called themselves “Progressives” were educated at elite universities. They believed that they could apply rational thought and a scientific approach to resolve major social issues. Most importantly, the Progressives were dedicated to finding a way to end the threat of war. Srodes argues they believed “The increasing prospect of a major war between alliances of great powers spreading into a global conflict threatened the very existence of civilization.” Thus, their first efforts were directed in support of Woodrow Wilson and his fight to establish the League of Nations. The Progressives’ commitment to world peace was rewarded with the creation of the United Nations after World War II.

Srodes has penned an intimate peek inside the lives of these people as they struggled with the great issues of their day and with their ever-changing personal lives. These thirteen gathered in Washington at a boarding house just off of Dupont Circle known as the House of Truth. Here these talented and gifted young people drank, ate, and argued politics, history, and philosophy. They also engaged in romance and all the other idylls of the young, elite, and adventuresome.

In addition to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the extraordinary group Srodes examines includes Walter Lippmann, founding editor of the New Republic magazine; future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter; John Foster Dulles, future Secretary of State; and his brother, Allen Dulles, one of the founders of the CIA. Srodes’s On Dupont Circle is a well-researched and well-written compact history that turns distant historical figures into real people.

 Scorpions by Noah Feldman.  This is a history of four Supreme Court Justices appointed by FDR during the 1930’s.   Before they were appointed to the Supreme Court, they were all good friends but by the time they left the court due to death or poor health many of them had become bitter enemies.   These justices were Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, Robert Jackson & William O. Douglas.

This book not only explores their personal lives but how their views of the Constitution changed as they served on the Supreme Court.  Sometimes, they regretted decisions that they had made during World War 2.    Also it was interesting to read how the judges would talk to President  Roosevelt about cases facing the court.  Even more interesting is how political some of these judges were.  Some even having ambitions of running for President while serving on the court.    It is an interesting book to read about one of the most important branches of government.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllben. This is a non-fiction book written by Peter Wohllben who manages a forest in Germany.   It is amazing what he and scientists have discovered about trees.   In the forest, they can lives for hundreds of years.   They collaborate with other trees when dealing with predatory insects.   They protect each other during severe weather and they depend on a multitude of microscopic creatures to survive.   All of these elements are missing when trees are planted on streets in cities and helps explain why urban trees tend to have much shorter lives. It is a great book to read if you are interested in trees.

Blood and Faith by Matthew Carr. This is a history of the Spanish government 200 year effort to remove all Jews & Muslims who would not convert to Catholicism from Spain from around 1400 until 1600.   Afterthe capture of Granada in 1492, the Spanish promised to allow Jews & Muslims to practice their religion without interference but soon those promises were broken. The Jews were expelled and many moved to Greece and other Muslim countries.   The Muslims managed to linger for another century in parts of Spain but they faced the Inquisition, murder, torture all in the pursuit of religious uniformity.   These efforts crippled Spain economically for centuries since the Muslims and Jews were the hardest working people in Spain.