Archives For Social Criticism

 

One of this week’s best new book releases is …
 

Vanishing New York:
How a Great City Lost Its Soul
Jeremiah Moss

Hardback: Dey Street Books, 2017
Buy Now:  [  Amazon ]  [ Kindle  ]
 
 
This is an insightful and provocative book on the future of cities by the creator of the Vanishing New York blog
 

Listen to a great interview that the author did with public radio station WNYC…

(If the embedded player below doesn’t work, CLICK HERE to listen…)
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Living into Focus - Arthur BoersThe Focused Life We Want

Living into Focus:

Choosing What Matters

in an Age of Distractions.

Arthur Boers

Paperback: Brazos Press, 2012.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Review by Maria Drews

There are times when I look back and cannot remember what I have been doing for the last hour. Jumping from one activity to the next, making something in the kitchen while cleaning up the living room, playing the Colbert Report on my laptop in the background and attempting to answer a few nagging emails on my phone before dinner is done. Instead of efficient multitasking, I end up with a half-cleaned living room, a poorly timed dinner, emails left to reply to before bed, and an episode of Colbert I barely listened to, even though I heard the whole thing.  I may be more easily distracted than I would like to admit. Funny thing is, although I long for a focused, full, good life, I’ll probably opt for the same distracted evening tomorrow night, too.

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A Review of

Bright Before Us: A Novel
Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Paperback:  Tin House, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Thomas Turner.

Spinning a tale of love lost in an age of detachment, individualism and postmodern angst, Katie Arnold-Ratliff has given us a stunning debut novel in Bright Before Us. From the first pages, when we are introduced to the cynical, wandering soul of the protagonist, Arnold-Ratliff begins to build a story that is haunting like a gothic novel but has the characteristics of a chic lit novel. Like Sufjan Stevens using auto-tune in an epic indie rock symphony or Quentin Tarantino using B-movie sensibilities in arthouse cinema, Arnold-Ratliff has used the now-clichéd Jane Austen approach to a love story and turned it on its head, breathing into it the raw humanity of love in a dark world, the moral ambiguity of Generation Y and the listlessness of a new generation of men.

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“How We Might Regain Worthwhile,
Cherished Places and Neighborhoods

A review of
Three new books related to
Interstate Transportation
And the Destruction of Places.

Review by Brent Aldrich.

Photo - Brent Aldrich - Click to Enlarge


The Big Roads:
The Untold Story
of the Engineers, Visionaries…

by Earl Swift
Hardback:
HMHarcourt, 2011
Buy now:
[ Amazon ]
[ Kindle ]
Railroaded:
The Transcontinentals and the Making
of Modern America
.
by Richard White.
Hardback:
Norton, 2011.
Buy now:
[ Amazon ]
[ Kindle ]
Railroad Stations:
The Buildings That Linked the Nation

David Naylor
Hardback:
Norton, 2011.
Buy now:
[ Amazon ]

THE BIG ROADS - SwiftThe first problem is by now a familiar one: the particularly American capacity for self-destruction of our cherished human and common realms in favor of the scale and privatization of the automobile, and its ensuing snare of roads, speed, and placeless suburbanized development.

The second problem – and I take this one personally – is that our 47,000 mile Interstate Highway System, the crowning legacy of the Auto Age, may be traced back to an Indianapolis cyclist.

—————

So especially with that second point in mind, and a few new books about American transportation history, a few reflections seem to be in order. To begin with, Earl Swift’s The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways begins with Carl Fisher, builder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, racing, repairing, selling… bicycles: riding one on a tightrope between downtown buildings, building another that was two stories tall, shoving another off of a highrise as a promotional gimmick – whoever dragged the wreckage to his shop received a free new bike. (I love this pre-1900 bike propaganda, and could make a case that it’s this lack of delightful bike culture in Indianapolis now that most discourages more bicyclists).

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A Brief Review of
In the Basement of The Ivory Tower:
Confessions of an Accidental Academic
.
Professor X.
Hardback: Viking Books, 2011.
Buy now:
[ Amazon – Hardback ]
[ Amazon – Kindle ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

I picked up In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by the mysterious Professor X because I’m a sucker for social criticism.  I had read the professor’s essay of the same title that was published in The Atlantic in 2008, and deeply appreciated the questions he asked there about whether college should be for everyone.  In the book, Professor X expounds upon the problem introduced in the essay, painting a rich Dickensian picture of the sad life of an adjunct professor, and he alludes to the complexity surrounding this problem.  However, he doesn’t offer much insight about it might begin to be resolved, and instead spends entirely too much time whining about his own situation.   Soon after the turn of the millennium, he and his wife bought a home that they, by his own admission, “really couldn’t afford.”  As the floor dropped out of the economy over the course of the decade, they found themselves struggling to keep up with the payments, which drove him to take on two adjunct professor positions (by day, he works at a modest government job) and also soured his marriage.  If Professor X was, say, a professor of business (or any other sort of professor other than an English one), this book would have been completely unreadable.  His writing style is compelling, even funny at times, but the overarching tone of the book’s bellyaching – about his house, his marriage, but most of all about his students and their lack of competency – grew old rather quickly.  Part of me wanted to dish out some “tough love,” Dr. Phil-style, telling the professor to simplify his life, sell the house, quit adjuncting, save his marriage and enjoy life.

Yes, I agree with the Professor that Western culture needs a significant amount of reform in the area of higher education, as well as in economic and societal expectations around higher education. However, the new book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower does not carry the conversation much beyond the questions posed in the original essay of the same name.  I think the original essay could have been expanded into a challenging book, however, Professor X’s new volume is unfortunately not that book.

 

“The Wealth of Embedded Urban Knowledge

A review of

The Trouble with City Planning:
What New Orleans Can Teach Us.

By Kristina Ford.

Review by Brent Aldrich.


THE TROUBLE WITH CITY PLANNING - Kristina FordThe Trouble with City Planning:
What New Orleans Can Teach Us.

Kristina Ford.
Hardback: Yale UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon – Hardback ]
[ Amazon – Kindle ]

In community development work and neighborhood meetings that I’ve been a part of, it’s sometimes baffling when a neighbor asks, “when will they (fill in the blank: fix these abandoned houses, build our light-rail line, build a Wal-Mart, whatever)?” Presumably this is the same they who are always saying things (they say…), and if they would just get to work instead, all would be right with the world. Of course, this is not how our city or any other works, but rather through dynamic daily interactions of neighbors, businesses, city officials, and planners. Furthermore, in a neighborhood such as ours in Indianapolis, neighbors have established regular practices of planning and working together for the good of the whole – so questions as to when they will do anything often suggests a level of disconnect on the part of the asker, as that they is usually us.

Part of the difficulty of parsing this idea about how cities work is the similar assumption that city plans are created and implemented far away from the average neighbor. The idea that city planners operate on a level above the concerns of residents, those on the ground, is entrenched is American cities, often in practice, as any student of Jane Jacobs can cite. Kristina Ford’s new book The Trouble with City Planning: What New Orleans Can Teach Us takes a comprehensive look at how exactly city planners work, and why their practices have become often inaccessible to anyone beyond planners themselves. For anyone invested in urban places, this book is a valuable resource.

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The Deep Wisdom of the Cross
and the People of God

A review of
Right Here, Right Now:
Everyday Mission for Everyday People
.
By Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Right Here, Right Now:
Everyday Mission for Everyday People
.
Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford.

Paperback: Baker Books, 2011.

Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

[ Read an Excerpt from this book… ]

RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW - Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford.What Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford have offered us in their new book Right Here, Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People is a sort of handbook for being part of a missional church.  Most of the books to date on “the missional church” require a fair amount of theological background, and as such, have been aimed primarily at church leaders (pastors, church planters, etc.)  This book, however, is not that sort of book.  Generally, as I read a book that I know I will be reviewing, I’m thinking about what I will say in the review, and the thought was running through my head as I was reading is that Right Here, Right Now was for both clergy and laity.  However, I arrived at Alan Hirsch’s final chapter in which he makes the passing comment that he rejects the clergy/laity distinction, and I realized that, of course, he was right, and it is better to speak of this book as being for all members of the church.  The book is structured to provide a good mix of basic missional church theology, which comes primarily in the form of Alan Hirsch’s introductory and concluding chapters which frame the book, and discussion of the practicalities of how this theology is embodied in church contexts – in the intervening chapters by Lance Ford.  Although a good deal of the book will be beneficial for churches in any setting, I should be clear up front that the chapters on praxis are targeted primarily at suburban readers (and maybe upper-/middle-class urban folks as well).

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An excerpt from

American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection.
Laurie Essig.
Hardback: Beacon Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Watch for a review soon in the ERB…

 

A Brief Reflection on
Slavoj  Žižek’s use of John Howard Yoder
In his New Book:

Living in the End Times.
Hardback: Verso Books, 2010.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]

By Chris Smith

[ Watch a video of Žižek talking about this new book… ]

This will not be a full review, as I am taking my time working through Slavoj Žižek’s new book Living in the End Times; I’m only about a third of the way through the book and savoring every word as I go.  However, since the book has been out for a few months, I thought that a reflection on Žižek’s brief reference to the work of John Howard Yoder in this new volume might fit well with the content of the current issue.   Before I get to Yoder, however, allow me first to summarize the project that Žižek is undertaking here.   Starting with the premise that global capitalism is in the last days before its collapse (a premise based on the evidence of ecological crisis, widening social and economic divides and the biogenetic revolution), Žižek makes a pointed and convincing case that humankind’s collective response to the reality of the imminent collapse of capitalism parallels the traditional five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, withdrawal and finally, acceptance.  His work here demonstrates as clearly as any of his previous works that he is – as I have argues before in these pages – one of the keenest critics of global capitalism, to whom the Church must lend an ear as we seek to discern the signs of the times.

Žižek uses Yoder to critique some of the “anger” response to the collapsing of capitalism, the (very) basic line of his argument is that such anger is rooted in despair, but he offers Yoder’s work as a counter-example of hope that a different non-capitalist form of society is possible:  i.e., the Church.  He offers a sympathetic reading of Yoder, saying:

Yoder did not reject Constantinianism on behalf of an ascetic withdrawal of believers from social life:  aware of the limitations of democracy, he understood “being Christian” as involving a non-reconciled political standpoint.  The primary responsibility of Christians is not to take over society and impose their convictions and values on people who do not share their faith, but to “be the church.”  By refusing to repay evil with evil, by living in peace and sharing goods, the church bears witness to the fact that there is an alternative to a society based on violence or the threat of violence (129).

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“The Gospel of the Land”

A review of
Consulting the Genius of the Place:
An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture
.
By Wes Jackson.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Consulting the Genius of the Place:
An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture
.
By Wes Jackson.

Hardback: Counterpoint, 2010.

Buy now: [ Amazon ]

CONSULTING THE GENIUS OF THE PLACE - Wes JacksonWes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been of the leading voices of the agrarian movement over the last four decades.  And yet, his books are relatively unknown.  This fate, however, is perhaps about to change, with the recent release of what is perhaps his finest work, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture.   The themes of place, biodiversity and the virtues of perennial plants that have abounded in Jackson’s previous books converge in Jackson’s thorough argument for a new approach to agriculture that is dictated not by market economies or agribusiness but rather by the land and ecology of a given place.  Jackson’s argument is fairly simple: humanity needs to learn to shift our agricultural efforts away from large-scale monoculture operations which contribute to the catastrophic effects of erosion and of the chemicals in the fertilizers and pesticides that such monocultures demand.  Instead, he argues, we should return to diverse plantings that include perennial crops and that fit with the land, climate and other ecological features of our particular places.  He says in the book’s preface:  “As our minds sweep over the past and back to the present, I want them to center on the natural ecosystems still with us as our primary teachers.  They are our source of hope.  Reduced in number and limited in scale, they still hold answers to countless questions we have not yet learned to ask” (xi).  The primary natural ecosystem, of course, that Jackson and others at The Land Institute have trained their focus – given their home base in Kansas – is that of the prairie.

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