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Book Report: Even Rough Rider Teddy couldn't tame NYC

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Back in the 1950s adolescents looking for exciting reading about the facts of life, etc., turned to a series of books by muckraking journalists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer.

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Books like "Manhattan Confidential," "Chicago Confidential" and even "Midwest Confidential," which exposed all sorts of sin in the nearby Twin Cities and notorious streets like Washington Avenue.

These books couldn't hold a candle to a new scholarly book called "Island of Vice," by Richard Zacks (Doubleday, $27.95).

Zacks, a New Yorker, spent years researching this very readable tale of how Teddy Roosevelt took the job as New York's police commissioner and went about the task of cleaning up the city.

You remember Teddy, the can-do guy, who charged up San Juan Hill, who went roughing it out in the Dakotas, who liked to spar with prize fighters and who carried a big stick once he became president.

One would think it wouldn't be too difficult for such a man to clean up one city.

One should think again.

New York was America's biggest city and probably its most corrupt back in the gay nineties. Back then 40,000 prostitutes plied their trade in the cities three prostitution districts.

Gambling was rampant, booze was sold illegally on Sundays and all night long everywhere.

Zacks begins by documenting the challenges Roosevelt faced -- how a Reverend Parkhurst had riled up the decent citizenry to demand reform, to depart from the almost unbelievable degradation and corruption made possible by the fat cats who ran Tammany Hall, the city's Democratic machine.

Item: A highly placed New York artisan was known as the "Prince of Plasterers" who charged the city $130,000 for two hours of plastering work on city hall.

Item: Prostitutes could be had for as little as 75 cents and for as much as the sky's the limit in the fancier houses.

Item: In the Jewish quarter, home to most of the city's synagogues was also home to 242 saloons and 50 brothels all in a nine square block

area. One such brothel was eight doors from the police station house.

Item: Beat policemen were known to own yachts and country estates.

Zacks tells this all with good humor and great scene setting abilities, including the Reverend Parkhurst going on an investigating junket to various brothels and being embarrassed and outraged as he learned how the other half (three quarters?) lived.

And Roosevelt? Tammany proved too much for him and he simply gave up after two years.

As someone who lives near Elmwood and has read endless accounts of UFO sightings in or near the little town, known for its landing pad and UFO Days, I was happy to receive "Alien Investigation," by Kelly Milner Halls (Millbrook, $20.95).

Halls lives in Spokane, Wash., and writes children's books about various phenomena, and whether they are real or made up.

Her new book is subtitled: "Searching for the Truth About UFOs and Aliens."

It's eerily illustrated by Rick C. Spears and recounts Halls' interviews with UFO experts and people who claim to have seen UFOs and uncovers various hoaxes perpetrated on a curious public.

It's an even handed attempt to introduce young people to the controversies that have fascinated folks here and abroad. Curiously, there's not a mention of Elmwood, Wisconsin, where even law officers have sworn they saw UFOs in the course of performing their everyday duties.

Halls makes no claims for or against the sightings, leaving it up to her young readers to come to their own conclusions.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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