Click here to find any book!



Table of Contents | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

A Trial by Jury
D. Graham Burnett
Alfred A. Knopf
187 pp.


On August 1, 1998, a gay man named Randolf Cuffee was murdered in his small Manhattan apartment. He had been stabbed more than twenty times, mostly on the spine and base of the head. The fatal strike, though, was a single stab wound in the chest.

Initially, police suspected it was a particularly vicious, anonymous case of gay bashing. But a routine check of area hospitals turned up someone else altogether: a slim, quiet, twenty-one-year-old man had a cut on his hand that was so bad it nearly severed his pinky finger, and his story didn't add up. The young man, Monte Milcray, initially told police that he had been attacked by five white men (Milcray, like Cuffee, was black), and he'd received the hand wound some time during what he claimed was a twenty-five-block-long pursuit.

An examination of Milcray's clothes and personal effects revealed they were covered in both his and Cuffee's blood, and under police questioning, Milcray changed his story. This time, he said he'd met a long-haired woman on the street and arranged to meet her at her apartment later that night. After arriving, though, he discovered that his date was, in fact, a man (Cuffee, of course), and when he tried to leave, Cuffee forced him to the floor and attempted to rape him. In self-defense, Milcray drew a knife and stabbed Cuffee repeatedly before fleeing the apartment.

In the course of Milcray's murder trial, prosecutors produced witnesses who claimed that Milcray frequented transvestite gatherings and was even a long-time lover of Cuffee, thereby undermining Milcray's claim that he had been innocently duped into a rendezvous with a man (how, precisely, the six-foot-tall, two-hundred-pound Cuffee could fool Milcray is another issue). Throughout the trial, the points where Milcray's story was true and the points where it was false were pointedly muddied. But D. Graham Burnett doesn't withhold the final verdict from his readers for long in Trial by Jury. Thirteen pages into his text, he tells us that on February 19, 2000, the jury for which Burnett acted as foreman declared Milcray not guilty on all charges. But producing a courtroom thriller isn't what Burnett is interested in. While he does a splendid job building tension around both the murder and the trial, Burnett, who is an historian of science and a professor at Princeton University, is decidedly more interested in the trial process itself, with particular focus on the jury.

To that end, he spends the last one hundred pages of this short book describing the machinations of the jury's four-day-long deliberation process--the conflicts between jurors, the interminable sequestration, the unpredictability of both the physical and mental health among the jurors, etc. Central questions arise. When is a jury legitimately hung? How, precisely, can a jury nullify established law when a stern, inflexible judge controls the courtroom with seemingly absolute power? And how, exactly, can one simply step away from the process altogether? On that last question, Burnett offers a darkly comical answer:


She [a fellow juror] asked me directly if there was anything, anything at all, that I could think of that would get her out of the whole mess. I thought for a moment and said, "If you attacked me, right now, or assaulted one of the other jurors, or possibly one of the guards, that would probably do it--provided it was a good, hard, sustained attack."

She looked at me skeptically for a moment, then blankly. I thought it possible she would make a lunge, and I tensed slightly. The idea of going to the floor with her, in a fury of hair and nails, was not altogether unappealing--it had been several long and stiff days.

She walked away.


Burnett is a precise, careful writer, and his voice (a blend of comic, liberal-tinged cynicism and a heartfelt, irony-free sense of civic and ethical duty) is perfectly pitched for his subject. A Trial by Jury's examination of the jury process should rightly give readers (and perspective jurors) pause, and it's riveting reading on a variety of levels. But there's something reassuring about it as well. For all their differences, the jurors (the majority, at least) approached their task with the appropriate sense of sober intensity. And Burnett's notion that the state's immense power must be balanced by an improbably high burden of proof for the state to earn a guilty conviction seems dead-on target, whether or not you agree with the jury's decision in the Milcray trial.

--Woody Arbunkle

Back to Archived Short Takes

Eyewitness to Wall Street: Four Hundred Years of Dreamers, Schemers, Busts, and Booms
David Colbert (Editor)
Broadway Books
780 pp.


It's hard not to enjoy a book about money. Americans are endlessly fascinated by it and its occasional byproduct, power. So a collection of first-hand accounts about Wall Street's famous and infamous moments has got to be a natural, right?

In Eyewitness to Wall Street: 400 Years of Dreamers, Schemers, Busts, and Booms, David Colbert follows the same method he used in two earlier books (Eyewitness to America and Eyewitness to the American West), drawing his selections from newspapers accounts as well as books, letters and journals, and he certainly serves up a stunning buffet of Wall Street dishes. The problem is that, in some cases, taking just one quick bite of an entrée before it's whisked away is more frustrating than satisfying. Sure, another course is being served immediately, but sometimes you want to linger. While covering the high notes in Wall Street's history, most of the selections barely approach five pages, and some don't even make two.

But there are some great stories here. Glances at the legendary Warren Buffett, Ivan Boesky, and my personal hero, Benjamin Graham, seem specifically chosen for their impact, and they rank high on the "great story to retell at a dinner party" scale. Not a lot of books on business, let alone finance, can make that claim. Accounts that may have slipped through the cracks of the casual history buff's knowledge like the unresolved anarchist bombing of the J.P. Morgan Bank in 1920 have an unfortunate and eerie current relevance.

I was a disappointed that Eyewitness to Wall Street, which is obviously aimed at a general audience, didn't have more simple explanations of how financial markets work or at least some definitions of the background terminology. It has been my experience that the majority of people, despite (or perhaps because of) advanced levels of education in other fields, have a cursory or almost nonexistent understanding of the financial markets. This leaves them nodding their heads politely if blankly when terms like arbitrage, short, futures and bonds come up. I don't expect an author to subject laypersons to a chapter-long diatribe on the Theory of the Firm or a tedious dissertation on the Federal Reserve's definition of the money supply. But some simple background information could convert slightly befuddled readers into informed, engaged readers.

It's difficult to compete with the herd of popular books on finance already out there. Charles Mackay covered market mania in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and despite having been published in 1841, it's still the most riveting account of the fever that periodically sweeps the land. For dishing the dirt, it's hard to beat 1980's perennial favorites like Liar's Poker and Barbarians at the Gate. Colbert finds himself stuck between a measured, scholarly approach, covering all the bases, and the seductive appeal of more breathless tabloid journalism. It's a tough road to walk, but Paul Johnson pulled it off in Modern Times, which was both absorbing and informative.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed Eyewitness to Wall Street. It is thoroughly researched, and the way Colbert offers his stories in short, easily digestible chunks makes it a great bedtime reading book. And although it lacks an overall theme, it more than makes up for it with its engaging immediacy. But like every investor who has just plunked down his money on a new book, I was hoping for a bigger payoff in the end.

--William Shinault, IV

Back to Archived Short Takes

R.W.B. Lewis
Lipper / Penguin
205 pp.



The highpoints of Dante Alighieri's life should be remembered by most readers who haven't forgotten everything they learned in World Lit 101: he was a 14th century Florentine poet who wrote The Divine Comedy in Italian (that's right: not Latin) while in exile, and he spent his life so obsessed with a girl he first saw at the age of nine that if they were alive today, she--Beatrice--might call the cops and report him as a stalker.

Of course, that's not the way Dante would have us describe his life-long devotion to Beatrice, nor is it the sort of description offered by R.W.B. Lewis in his resoundingly intelligent entry in the Penguin Lives series, Dante. As Lewis, whose biography of Edith Wharton won him a Pulitzer Prize, says, "In the Dantean scheme...Beatrice is Divine Wisdom, which alone can disclose the truths of salvation and the life eternal."

But don't pick up Lewis's biography expecting to read a book-long analysis of Dante and Beatrice's chaste relationship. Lewis doesn't devote nearly as many pages to Beatrice herself as our limited memories of Dante would suggest. For Dante--and even the Comedy--Beatrice might have played a central role, but Lewis is far too level-headed and academically disciplined a biographer to allow romantic flights to cloud his august purpose. Indeed, he expends as many pages in the first half of his short biography on the historical minutiae that led to Dante's exile in 1302 at the age of thirty-seven as he does on Beatrice herself, about whom we know comparatively little. (Given how little Dante actually said to Beatrice, whom he studiously admired from afar, it's hard to see how much more you could actually make of their interactions, even if Beatrice's biographical record were more complete.)

Regardless of how poetry lovers may feel about his priorities, Lewis is clearly right to favor the historical elements of Dante's life in these first hundred pages. Dante was a politically engaged figure (the Comedy itself is a splendid blend of the universal and the local), and while he was doggedly educating himself with the classics and writing poetry in his youth, he was also resoundingly a Florentine. "Dante associated himself with his native city," Lewis writes, "to a degree incomprehensible in modern times. Florence was not merely his birthplace; it was the very context of his being." Indeed, as Lewis argues, on one level, the Comedy "is an expression of his passionate feelings about Florence, his rage against the conspirators who had him driven out, his longing to return." Some readers may find the historical elements of the first half of Dante to be a bit dry, but Lewis's work there is assured and scholarly, and it stands up well as a short presentation on the political / historical context in which Dante operated.

The second half of Dante is another animal altogether. Here, having taken us to the point where Dante begins his nineteen years of exile, Lewis slips on his literary critic's hat and does wonderful work explicating the Comedy--no easy task, given its complexity and the relatively short space available in this slim volume. Lewis doesn't neglect Dante as an historical figure in these exile years, though; for Dante, history and poetry are too closely entwined to separate them so neatly. As Dante wrote in De Vulgari Eloquentia, "Of all who in this world are deserving of compassion, the most to be pitied are those who, languishing in exile, never see their country again, save in dreams."

While he is coolly level-headed about Dante's obsession with Beatrice, Lewis closes his biography with a moving section on Dante's literary impact on the world at large. "[I]t has become increasingly evident with the passage of years that Dante is the universal presence in literature around the globe, to a degree matched only by Shakespeare." The Penguin Lives series is a gratifyingly wide-ranging, intelligent undertaking, and for its authority and precision, Lewis's Dante is among its most consistently satisfying offerings.

--Charlie Onion

Back to Archived Short Takes

The Coldest March
Susan Solomon
Yale University Press
416 pp.



It has been nearly ninety years since Robert Falcon Scott--along with the two other surviving members of his Polar expedition party, Edward Wilson and Henry "Birdie" Bowers--perished in a small tent on the vast, frozen plain of Antarctica's Ross Barrier. Bested by Norwegian Roald Amundsen in the bid to be first at the South Pole, the three died on the return journey, only eleven miles shy of a storage depot of food and supplies that might well have saved their lives.

In the decades since, Scott's legend has been by turns hailed and assailed, some calling him a great adventurer and man of science felled by misfortune, others deriding him as a near incompetent blinded by fatally romantic notions of the moral value of human endurance, who led his companions to unnecessary and avoidable death.

In either case, perhaps the greatest irony is that the legend of his death has forever since dwarfed the story of Amundsen's success. In the end, it's the loser in that race to the Pole that everyone remembers.

Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth was an exhaustive and engrossing effort to redress that historical imbalance, lauding the meticulous planning of every detail that won Amundsen and his men the Pole and then returned them hale and hearty to proclaim their victory. Huntford's book also stands as the leading proponent of what Susan Solomon, in The Coldest March, her new examination of the Scott story, calls the "Scott the bumbler" theory, and in many respects Solomon's book seems to be aimed square at countering Huntford's position. (Click here to read WAG's review of The Last Place on Earth.)

What gives Solomon's book particular merit in the growing number of recent Polar books, however, is that Solomon brings a new element of scientific detail to the story. Solomon is a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and she led the National Ozone Expedition in Antarctica to study the growing Antarctic ozone hole. She knows Antarctica's unfathomable cold and its unpredictable weather. She marshals a wide range of scientific and historical details both from the Scott expedition's own records and from more recent research to paint a more nuanced picture of Scott and the factors that led to the death of all members of his Polar party.

It is clear that Solomon thinks Scott deserves considerable credit for what he and his party accomplished, and indeed when evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the Scott expedition from the cozy comforts of an armchair, one does well to keep in mind the astonishing courage and fortitude of men willing, even eager, to plunge into a desolate, trackless unknown raked by howling blizzards, where midwinter temperatures can drop into the minus-70s, for the sake of an almost entirely symbolic quest.

Scott's Polar party trudged and skied more than nine hundred miles to the pole, and almost all the way back, hauling hundreds of pounds of equipment and supplies behind them on wooden sledges. Arguably, Scott's prejudice in favor of the grueling and exhausting manhauling was his greatest error (Amundsen used dogs, to great success), for the simple reason that a man who couldn't walk--whether from injury, illness or frostbite--was a dead man. Solomon suggests the possibility that at the end, eleven miles from that life-saving depot, it was Scott, his foot so severely frostbitten that he had written "amputation is the least I can hope for now," who was the one who couldn't walk, and that his companions nobly refused to abandon him there, and thus shared his fate.

More importantly, however, Solomon argues that the most significant element contributing to the fateful end of the Polar party was an unexpectedly and unpredictably bitter cold--temperatures plunging as low as below ­40 degrees Fahrenheit, during the final days of marching on the Ross Ice Barrier, where Scott had expected to encounter warmer temperatures. Their clothes were ragged, their bodies wasted, their fur sleeping bags nightmarish encasements of ice offering little in the way of comfort or welcoming sleep, and the snow surface on which they dragged their sledge had, at these low temperatures, a consistency more like sand than ice, so that each mile was arduously won.

Solomon is balanced in her approach to Scott. Where the evidence she has compiled suggests his shortcomings, she is candid in analyzing them, and thus she cannot altogether vindicate the man to his critics. She shows us a man dedicated to scientific principles of careful measurement and evaluation--but prey to fateful errors of judgement. Amundsen built wide margins of safety into his plans and scrupulously oversaw essential details in the outfitting of his Polar expedition. Scott cut things close in too many ways, and the one critical thing he didn't seem to plan for was the unexpected. In a harsh and unforgiving climate, he pinned his party's success on things going smoothly according to the expected. Under the circumstances, the truly amazing thing isn't that he and his companions died, but that they came so close to surviving.

For those endlessly fascinated by tales of Polar exploration (this reader being one of them), Solomon's book offers an interesting new examination of the Scott expedition, and it even questions some long-standing details of the Scott story, such as the theory that the Polar party was suffering from scurvy at the end, and that it was a days-long blizzard that pinned the three surviving explorers in the tent until their deaths.

The odd element in the book is the series of chapter openers in which we follow the thoughts, experiences and mishaps of a hypothetical individual known only as "the visitor," at the modern-day McMurdo and South Pole research stations. If a contemporary perspective was necessary, I would argue that Solomon's own experiences would be more engaging than the exploits of this fictional no-name. Still, Solomon's book has added new depth to the mystery and romance of one of the last great feats of exploration, and putting aside the questions and criticisms surrounding the leader, it only furthers our respect for the truly stalwart and courageous men who followed him down to the bottom of the Earth.

--Caroline Kettlewell

Back to Archived Short Takes Click here to find any title!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Archived Short Takes

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2001
riverrun enterprises, inc.