Archives For *Reviewed Elsewhere*


Haven’t done one of these columns for awhile…

Here are three recent reviews of note…

Barbara Melosh reviews two books on stuff for The Christian Century:

Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee
Paperback: Mariner, 2011.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Objects of our Affections.
Uncovering My Family’s Past, One Chair,
Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time

Lisa Tracy
Hardback: Bantam, 2011.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

We have become a nation of rich fools. Although the average house size has nearly doubled since 1970, self-storage units, once nearly nonexistent, are a booming business, comprising more than 45,000 facilities with 2 billion square feet of space, most of it full. As cheap goods become more available and our living spaces get bigger, we spend more and more time managing our possessions. “We may own the things in our homes,” Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee observe, “but they own us as well.” Or as the sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson, put it a century and a half ago, “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

[ Read the full review … ]

Continue Reading…

Elsewhere [Vol. 3, #45]

December 10, 2010 — Leave a comment


Relevant Magazine’s Top 10 Books of 2010

[ We were honored to include a brief review here of Diana Balmori’s
A LANDSCAPE MANIFESTO.  Watch for our full review in two weeks… ]

Most publications, when they promise you a year-end Top 10 list, give you just 10 books. But here at RELEVANT, we’d like to think you’ve come to expect a bit more. We asked our friends over at the Burnside Writers Collective to help us compile the following list, which includes, um, 11 of the year’s best books, as well as four worthy honorable mentions. These are the books that thrilled, transported, challenged and inspired us. The books that broke our hearts and made us see the world in fresh ways. It was, all-in-all, a great year to be a book lover. Which is why we needed all 15 slots to accommodate our Top 10 list. Here they are, in no particular order:

Andy Whitman Reflects eloquently (as always)
on the 30th Anniversary of John Lennon’s Death

John Lennon died thirty years ago today. Howard Cosell broke into the Monday Night Football broadcast to announce Lennon’s assassination, and I broke in to my sleeping roommates’ bedrooms to tell them, and we all sat up for most of the night, watching on TV as the crowd which formed spontaneously around the Dakota Hotel sang “Give Peace a Chance.” We talked quietly among ourselves. Mostly I felt sick.

Read the full essay:


Scot McKnight Picks his Favorite
Books of the Year

Here are the 2010 nominations for Books of the Year at the Jesus Creed blog. The awards are given early this year so folks can use this list for Christmas presents. My favorite Christmas present is a book, but I have to admit my family quit buying books for me for Christmas years ago. (So I sneak one under the shelf “To Scot from Scot.”)

I decided to choose one top Book of the Year, and had a number to choose from but this year’s book was very clear:

Read the full post:

The Best of the Year from

A special Christmas review of noteworthy books, movies and music.

Theology and spirituality, selected by David Heim and Richard A. Kauffman

History and current events, selected by David Heim and Richard A. Kauffman

Fiction, selected by Amy Frykholm and Janet Potter

Poetry, selected by Brett Foster

Read the full post:

[ One of our Best Books of 2009

In an age of unprecedented urban settlement, we think of cities as the epicenters of global environmental ruin. Yet in Green Metropolis, David Owen proposes that cities offer our best hope for making the world greener. For the first time in history, over 50 percent of the world’s population dwells in urban areas. If we want to make our increasingly urban world a greener one, we don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch. Indeed, to do so would mean ecologically disastrous waste. Treading more softly requires that we find ways to green the cities we already live in. Urgently needed is a model ecotopia, and Owen claims that our model should be … New York City.

Read the full review:

Read our review of this book:

Green Metropolis:
Why Living Smaller, Living Closer,
and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability
David Owen.
Hardback: Riverhead, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Elsewhere [Vol. 3, #43]

November 27, 2010 — Leave a comment


“Racism, Art, and the Darkness of Truth”
Artist Barry Moser

Among his over three hundred works of art, Barry Moser has often pushed the envelope of expectation to portray unorthodox perspectives and uncomfortable subject matter. He is also the first artist to create a complete individually illustrated Bible since Gustave Doré’s La Sainte Bible of 1865.

Read the full interview:

Poet Charles Simic on the Formative
Aspects of Dinner Table Conversation

Back in the early 1970s, when I was teaching in California, I had a colleague named Bob Williams who taught fiction writing and was famous for beginning each semester with a lecture on the art of cooking. He’d tell his students, for example, how to prepare a dish of sausages, onions, and peppers—elaborately describing how to chose the right frying pan, olive oil, and sausages, explaining next how they ought to be cooked till browned and then removed from the pan—so that the sliced onions, garlic and peppers, and whatever fresh herbs could be introduced in their own proper order—until he had the entire class salivating. The point, of course, was not just to stimulate their appetites, but to show them the degree of love and devotion to the smallest detail required to turn this simple Italian dish, often poorly made, into a culinary masterpiece.

Read the full essay:

NY TIMES interviews Jonathan Safran Foer
About his Unique New Book TREE OF CODES

The jackets of Jonathan Safran Foer’s books (“Everything Is Illuminated,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “Eating Animals”), designed by John Gray, helped set off a revival in hand-lettering. Graphic-design quirks have also figured in each of Foer’s narratives.

But his latest book, “Tree of Codes,” takes the integration of writing and design to a new level. As Visual Editions, the London-based publisher, describes it, the book is as much a “sculptural object” as it is a work of fiction: “Jonathan Safran Foer has taken his favorite book, ‘The Street of Crocodiles’ by Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, and used it as a canvas, cutting into and out of the pages, to arrive at an original new story.”

The result is a text of cutout pages, with text peeking through windows as the tale unfolds. Foer discussed the making of this book in a recent interview.

Read the interview:

Jonathan Safran Foer
Paperback: Visual Editions, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]


Rodney Clapp Reviews Rick Bass’s Novel

Who, in a world now so thoroughly constituted as a consumer culture, is not susceptible to the allures of fame? As Rick Bass’s new novel palpably demonstrates, certainly not Maxine Brown. Maxine was (and remains) the oldest of the three siblings that made up the Brown Family, a country music singing group successful in the late 1950s and early ’60s. The Browns pumped out a burst of hits that included “The Three Bells,” “I Take the Chance,” and “Money,” and for awhile kept pace with the brightly blazing production of a close friend of the family, one Elvis Presley.

Bass’ novelization of the Browns’ experiences is not a chronologically ordered, exhaustive retelling of their lives and career as a singing group. Instead, he gives us a series of set pieces that poignantly show the Browns (especially Maxine) in the ascent from poverty in the Arkansas woods to Nashville stardom, and then their abrupt retreat back into comparative obscurity. The book is also a fictional meditation on fame and its cruel vagaries.

Read the full review:

Rick Bass.
Hardback:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  ,2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

The NY TIMES review of
AMERICAN GRACE:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us
by Robert Putnam and David Campbell.

At first glance, the authors of “American Grace” would seem to suffer from very bad timing. Between the completion of their manuscript and its publication, the dispute over the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan erupted, followed by the ­Koran-burning controversy, and somewhere along the way a New York cabdriver was stabbed, apparently for being a Muslim. All this gives a quaint air to their declaration, in the book’s first chapter, that “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” And it seems to render moot one of their main goals: to illuminate the source of this inter­faith ­tolerance.

Actually, though, the story told in this book, by the social scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, is urgently relevant to the recent surge in interfaith tension.

True, America’s tradition of peaceful religious coexistence is largely about harmony among Christian denominations, and so doesn’t speak directly to the question of Islam’s place in America. But it’s also true that there was a time when many American Protestants viewed Roman Catholics no more charitably than a certain Pentecostal preacher in Florida views Muslims. In the 19th century, a Massachusetts convent was destroyed by anti-Catholic rioters, and civil unrest in Philadelphia — set off by rumors that Catholics wanted to rid the public schools of Bibles — led to some two dozen deaths and the destruction of two churches.

Read the full review:

How Religion Divides and Unites Us
By Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell.
Hardback: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]


An Excerpt from COMMON PRAYER:
By Shane Claiborne, Enuma Okoro
and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

To Be Relased in November…

Shane Claiborne, Enuma Okoro
and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.
Hardcover: Zondervan, 2010.
PRE-ORDER: [ Amazon ]

Excellent Review of the Television Show
THE WIRE (and related books) in

The most intriguing phrase Simon has used regarding The Wire is to say that it is about “the death of work.” By this he means not just the loss of jobs, though there certainly is that, but the loss of integrity within our systems of work, the “juking of stats,” the speaking of truth to power having been replaced with speaking what is most self-serving and pleasing to the higher-ups. In a poker game with the mayor, one folds on a flush to allow the mayor to win. (As opposed to the freelance stickup man Omar, who, beholden to no one, shows up at at a kingpin’s poker night with two pistols and the Dennis Lehane line “I believe these four 5s beat your full house.”) Police departments manipulate their stats for the politicians; schools do the same; newspapers fake stories with their eye on prizes and stockholders. Moreover, in the world of The Wire almost everyone who tries to buck the system and do right is punished, often severely and grotesquely and heartbreakingly. Accommodation is survival at the most basic level, although it is also lethal to the soul.

Ideas are no good without stories. Stories are no good without characters. In drama, characters are no good without actors. If the integrity of The Wire derives from the integrity of its creators, its power lies, in an old-fashioned way, in the brilliant acting of a varied and charismatic cast. Not to diminish the quality of the writing or the careful cinematography, but little of Simon’s agenda would convince without the series’s acting: this is how the humanity of various people is given its indelible life. The Wire‘s producers claim it contains the most diverse cast ever on television, and it is hard to doubt it.

Read the full review:

The Wire: Truth Be Told
by Rafael Alvarez,
with an introduction by David Simon
Paperback: Grove, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Orion Magazine Review of
The Common Man: Poems
by Maurice Manning

IN KENTUCKY, the muse might be an older boy who says, “Take ye a slash / o’ this—hit’ll make yore sticker peck out?—“; or the muse might be the moonshine the boy hands over. Either way, Maurice Manning’s The Common Man  begins with a hint of the illicit and a shot of whiskey. Such an initiation forecasts the diction, desire, and occasional delinquency that course through Manning’s fourth collection, which amasses to an oral history of the landscape and community that the poet has consistently and creatively plumbed. Manning’s earlier collections each coalesce around a specific figure: an imagined adolescent (Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions); Daniel Boone (A Companion for Owls); a breathless shepherd (Bucolics).

Read the full review:

The Common Man
by Maurice Manning
Hardback: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]


James K.A. Smith Summarizes and Critiques
James Davison Hunter’s TO CHANGE THE WORLD

Many of us are more indebted to James Davison Hunter than we might realize. His 1991 book, Culture Wars, has been a lens through which many have understood the dynamics of American politics, even if they have never read it. An astute and influential observer of American culture, particularly the role of (and transformation of) religion in the public sphere, Hunter is a sociologist without the usual allergy to normative language. And while he’s never taken sides in the culture wars (indeed, despite the way it is cited by both friends and detractors, Culture Wars was pointing out the futility of conducting such battles), Hunter has not shied away from prescription rooted in description and analysis. Thus, his later book The Death of Character unapologetically laments the loss of a unified moral ethos in American culture that undercuts the possibility of true character formation. Although Hunter’s writing can sometimes tend toward the curmudgeonly end of the jeremiad spectrum, he’s nonetheless an important cultural critic.

His latest offering is a logical trajectory from this earlier work. To Change the World is explicitly addressed to Christians in the United States and is his most unabashedly prescriptive and theological work to date. It is also one of the most important works on Christianity and culture since Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Until Justice and Peace Embrace. One could hope that To Change the World might finally displace the lazy hegemony of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, even if I think Hunter’s book might have a couple of similar faults.

Read the full piece:

To Change the World:
The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.

James Davison Hunter.
Hardback: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Lauren Winner reviews Ernesto Cardenal’s

In the 1960s and 1970s, Catholic priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal lived and worked among the campesinos of Solentiname, a 36-island archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. On Sundays, the community gathered for worship. In lieu of a sermon, Cardenal led the men and women in a conversation about the gospel passage. Cardenal recorded many of those conversations and published them as The Gospel in Solentiname. In a 1998 essay, Timothy Gorringe points to these dialogues as a good example of a more widespread phenomenon: “Cardenal’s Bible studies are the products of a community,” writes Gorringe, “which believes that Jesus is the incarnate, risen and ascended Lord, who encounters us both in the Eucharist and in the struggle for justice. Whilst recognizing that everything is political, the members of the community do not think politics is everything.”

Read the full piece:

The Gospel in Solentiname.
Ernesto Cardenal
Paperback (Reissue Edition): Orbis Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]


An Essay by Alan Jacobs on Book Culture
Written for (not surprisingly… ) BOOKS AND CULTURE

It wasn’t until after I read Ted Striphas’ book The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control that I realized that its title and subtitle are somewhat at odds with each other. As I began reading, it was the title that governed my expectations: coined by Jay David Bolter, the phrase “late age of print” is meant to be analogous to the Marxist concept of “late capitalism.” “Late” in this case suggests a highly developed, sophisticated set of structures that are beginning to fall into decadence—structures that have lost their essential motive energy and are living off capital generated long ago. With these thoughts in mind, I was expecting and hoping that Striphas would provide a kind of critical ethnography, and perhaps a diagnosis, of print culture in the past hundred years or so.

But no: the book really isn’t about print culture at all; it is rather, as the subtitle more reliably informs us, about book culture.

Read the full essay:

Greg Boyd Reviews Scott Boren’s new book

After 18 years of pastoring a rather large American church, I would have to say that the second hardest challenge our leadership team has faced as we have labored to make disciples of weekend church attenders is getting people to commit to sharing life with others in a small group context. The hardest challenge, however, has been to get small groups to view themselves as distinctly kingdom communities who come together not simply to hang out or engage in an occasional Bible study, but to carry out the mission God has given us.

My friend Scott Boren, who is also the “Connecting Pastor” at Woodland Hills Church, has just published a book on this topic called Missional Small Groups: Becoming a Community That Makes a Difference in the World (Baker). Scott artfully places his assessment of the challenges facing small groups as well as his proposed solutions to these challenges in a narrative framework.

Read the full review:

Missional Small Groups:
Becoming a Community That Makes a Difference in the World
Scott Boren.
Paperback: Baker Books, 2010.
Buy now:  [ ]


The NY Review of Books Reviews
Although Of Course  You End Up Becoming Yourself:
A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace

“What I would love to do is a profile of one of you guys who’s doin’ a profile of me,” David Foster Wallace told the journalist David Lipsky in 1996 during a series of conversations now collected as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. “It would be a way,” Wallace continued, “for me to get some of the control back”:

You can’t tell outright lies that I’ll then deny to the fact checker. But…you’re gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want. And that to me is extremely disturbing…. I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that’s coming across.

As Lipsky tells us in his introduction, he loved Wallace’s idea of profiling the profilers:

It would have been one of the deluxe internal surveys he specialized in—the unedited camera, the feed before the director in the van starts making cuts and choices…. That’s what this book would like to be. It’s the one way of writing about him I don’t think David would have hated.

Read the full review:

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself:
A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.
Paperback: Broadway Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

A Review of Taming the Beloved Beast:
How Medical Technology Costs Are
Destroying Our Health Care System

Daniel Callahan’s Taming the Beloved Beast: How Medical Technology Costs are Destroying Our Health Care System is both more and less than the title implies. More, in that it is a blunt, thought-provoking view of medical culture that raises difficult but essential questions about our values and public policy. Less, in that it lacks depth and nuance in its treatment of technology, limiting its utility in evaluating short-term policy issues. It is a particularly interesting read in this time of acrimonious health reform debate.

Callahan’s main focus is not technology per se but rather the evolution and prospects of the U.S. health care system as a whole. The challenge is formidable because the starting point is “a messy system, one ill-designed for reform because of the accretion of assorted interest groups with different agendas and vested interests, an ideologically divided public, and a steady stream of new and expensive technologies added to those already in place.”

Read the full review:

Taming the Beloved Beast:
How Medical Technology Costs Are Destroying
Our Health Care System
Daniel Callahan.
Hardcover: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Lauren Winner reviews
Allegra Goodman’s new novel THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR

Having tackled the ethics and mores of the lab in Intuition, Allegra Goodman turns to the ethics and mores of the late-90s bubble in what I think is her best novel yet, The Cookbook Collector. I say her best novel yet in part because, often, it takes me a while to start caring about Goodman characters; here they had me from the first chapter.

Read the full review:

The Cookbook Collector: A Novel.
Allegra Goodman.
Hardback: The Dial Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]


Brett Foster Reviews a New Book
of Illustrations for THE DIVINE COMEDY

This thin, handsome collection, featuring Michael Mazur’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, alongside Robert Pinsky’s translated passages on facing pages, promises to appeal to various readerships. Those unfamiliar with Dante can gain a terrific first impression of his medieval epic poem and its treatment of the afterlife from these selections (no lengthy text or intimidating notes in sight). On the other hand, longtime lovers of the Commedia will find here cherished lines brought to new life in Pinsky’s renderings, but most refreshing will be the “embedded” perspectives of Mazur’s illustrations. We never see the character Dante or his guide Virgil themselves, as if pilgrims posing on a stage, but experience Mazur’s alluring visions of their supernatural settings as if looking over the characters’ shoulders, or through their own eyes.

As Pinsky recounts in a preface to this volume, Mazur (whom the art world lost recently) had been an avid reader of Dante in Italian for decades, and he supplied monotype images for Pinsky’s popular edition of Inferno in the mid-1990s. Praising Mazur’s images for inspiring and guiding his own translation efforts, Pinsky describes his collaborator’s works as “themselves acts of translation, embodying certain vital principles.” Pinsky explains the suitability of the monotype form for Inferno—not only in its somber, black-and-white effects, but also in how a print is squeezed through the press. The final products, incorporating the “unique, unpredictable results of pressure,” are moving reflections of the pit in Dante’s narrative, its inhabitants enduring the unrelenting pressures of sin.

Read the full review:

I’ll Tell What I Saw:
Select Translations and Illustrations from the Divine Comedy
Michael Mazur
Paperback: Sarabande Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Powells Books Reviews
Morning Haiku by Sonia Sanchez

Sonia Sanchez’s latest book resonates as boldly as a jazz ensemble; clear and poignant, it is intransigent in her subject matter. Her impassioned reflections come in the loose form of the American haiku, in groups of two to twenty-one haiku at a time. Primarily ekphrastic, her poems react to and commend the work and activism of African American singers, artists, authors, sculptors, painters, celebrities, and political and social activists, to whom many of the poems are dedicated. Sanchez presents a deeply personal, affected history and promulgation of her race, yet does so in each poem with a fresh breath and new song.

The collection begins with a preface, a “Haikuography.” Most emphasized is the “haiku nature” that resides beneath our rushing lives, the simplest (and nevertheless complex) essence of our existence. Sanchez proclaims that haiku “offer no solutions”; indeed, there are times when no solutions exist, as in “Sister Haiku (for Pat)”:

Read the full review:

Morning Haiku.
Sonia Sanchez.
Hardback: Beacon Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]