Richard Zacks, Island of Vice

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of Richard Zacks’s Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. The book is fun, though it has some limitations, as I tried to make clear:

Some of Zacks’s most entertaining passages chronicle Roosevelt’s after-midnight prowls along city streets, searching, often alongside a reporter for one of the city’s many dailies, for cops sleeping or drinking on the job. He would nearly pick a fight with those he found, then gleefully inform them just who they were arguing with and demand they appear at police headquarters early the next morning. Such episodes are retold with zest, and the book is unfailingly entertaining. Drawing upon courtroom and committee room minutes, as well as newspaper reports and his subjects’ voluminous correspondence, Zacks has crafted a popular narrative history of a pretty high order.

It enters a crowded field. There are not only many lengthy biographies of T.R., like the one by Edmund Morris, whose third and final volume, Colonel Roosevelt, arrived in late 2010, but also a steady flow of narrower studies, such as Hot Time in the Old Town (2010), about Roosevelt and the summer 1896 heat wave, or Honor in the Dust (2012), on Roosevelt’s place in American imperial expansion. Island of Vice dovetails with perennially popular studies of Gilded Age excess and crime, such as Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City (2007). It’s easy to see how such a book was published, sitting as it does at a busy intersection on the map of publishers’ desires: the Roosevelts, New York City, sex, and crime.

What broader developments Zacks hopes to explain, or what lessons he wishes readers to draw, are somewhat harder to discern.

To read the rest of the review, click here. New York magazine ran a feature on the book devised with Zacks’s help. This nugget of service journalism asks the all-important question, “Do You Live in a Former Brothel?”

Simon Kuper’s Soccer Men

In a recent interview with the New York Times, journalist Simon Kuper, coauthor of the acclaimed 2009 book Soccernomics, claims that he thinks “people are almost as interesting as numbers.” His new collection of soccer profiles, titled Soccer Men, gave me a chance to test that claim; having done so, I think the emphasis in his statement should be placed on the word almost. To read my review of the book, head to “Kuper’s admiring portraits of an earlier generation of great talkers—from Johann Cruijff to Lothar Matthaüs to Jorge Valdano—reveal that his irritation with today’s players is due as much to broader developments in the game as it is to their individual traits.”

On Bruce Hainley

My appreciation of the Los Angeles–based art critic Bruce Hainley has appeared at the Los Angeles Review of Books. The publication of a slim collection of Hainley’s writing occasioned the essay. It is the fifth installment of Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s experimental periodical Pep Talk. Here’s an excerpt of my piece:

I became aware of Bruce Hainley’s writing on art a little more than a decade ago, while I was in college. Amid the monotony of a magazine’s review section, coming across his description of an exhibition by Ingrid Calame at Karyn Lovegrove’s Los Angeles gallery was like encountering a snake in a field. The review’s venom was poisonous and worked quickly: “The gimmick behind the project … was flimsy enough to begin with, and by now it’s just fatuous.” On the explanation of her onomatopoeic titles: “Yeah, right.” I was in Boston, hundreds of miles from an art-world center and frustrated by persistent critical obfuscation. The clarity of Hainley’s indictment was thrilling.

Thereafter, on the lookout for this Los Angeles critic’s byline, I learned quickly that the takedown was not his principal trade. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that in ensuing years I got to know Hainley a little; but more on this later.) Hainley’s occasional lashings are needles meant to puncture consensus, to deflate an overinflated reputation, and their rarity adds to their power. The majority of his reviews and essays instead grapple with the work of complex and often misunderstood artists, whether young or established. In the tradition of the great poet-critics whose work he relishes, Hainley’s mind follows his eyes. As he noted a decade ago, “I am a promiscuous looker. I will look at anything.”

To read the rest, click here. To cut out the middleman and read Hainley’s writing, I suggest browsing the archives of Artforum and Frieze magazines, where he has published a large number of reviews and essays over the past fifteen years.

H.W. Brands, American Colossus

Published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2010. To see this review in context (subscriber-only), please click here.

Because we are still recovering from the most spectacular breakdown of corporate capitalism since the Great Depression, any study of that system’s rise to economic preeminence in America is inherently timely. What transformed our country from a land of yeoman farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans into the home of multinational corporations capitalized at hundreds of millions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of workers? Was the American system of free enterprise foreordained? If not, what alternatives once existed, and who championed them? Historians can follow many paths in search of answers to these questions. Alfred Chandler, in his classic business history The Visible Hand (1977), focuses upon innovations in corporate structure and strategies. Sven Beckert, in The Monied Metropolis (2001), and Thomas Kessner, in Capital City (2003), reconstruct the bustling world of late-nineteenth-century New York, engine room of the capitalist transformation. Now H.W. Brands, a prolific chronicler of the American past, turns to the era of astonishing economic and social change these historians have examined. He brings to the task his gifts as a biographer (of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and both Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and as a popular historian (of the California gold rush and the Cold War). But while his briskly paced, accessible book features the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Pierpont Morgan, American Colossus is not a fine-grained history of the business revolution they wrought or its effects on American workers. It is instead a broad survey of the period that uses “the triumph of capitalism” as a loose interpretive framework.

Brands is a reliable, even-handed guide. He strings together scores of engaging set pieces that draw liberally from first-hand accounts of society’s upheavals. These include not only famous chroniclers like Henry Adams and Booker T. Washington but also more obscure figures like Gertrude Thomas, an Augusta woman whose family had to give up its slaves not long after General Sherman marched through Georgia, and Mary Antin, a Russian Jew who emigrated to Boston two decades later. Many of Brands’s tales, from the expansion of the nation’s railroad network and the strikes of 1877 to the populist revolts of the 1890s and Morgan’s two “bailouts” of a faltering U.S. financial system, stick close to his central focus: how in “accomplishing its revolution, capitalism threatened to eclipse American democracy.” (Politicians, as indicated by Brands’s portraits of Boss Tweed in New York, Congressman bribed by proponents of the Central Pacific railroad, and William McKinley in the White House, certainly helped.) Other vignettes, while required of a textbook survey of the era, seem less fundamental here, especially a chapter on the legal battles of the Jim Crow South and lengthy descriptions of actual battles fought between Indian tribes and an ever-expanding white populace. But while some threads are only partly woven into his narrative, Brands has a gift for explanation, and he describes even tricky economic subjects like bimetallism and protectionist tariffs lucidly.

Students of this period of American history may be frustrated by Brands’s book, which is neither a sharply defined reinterpretation nor a thorough synthesis of up-to-date scholarship. Such readers may profit more from Jackson Lears’s Rebirth of a Nation (2009) or Heather Cox Richardson’s West from Appomattox (2007). But as an introduction to the giddy corporate expansion and alarming financial panics of the age, as well as the demographic shifts and social tumult that accompanied them, American Colossus succeeds with panache.

David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading

Published on on October 29, 2010. To see the review in context, click here.

Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin would readily admit that what, how, and why one reads inevitably change over time. What concerns him is that the act of reading is itself now being changed by the times. The quiet space we require for reading “seems increasingly elusive in our over-networked society,” he writes, “where … it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know.” I have suffered from a form of this allergy to deep engagement and its corollary need for “information”; for the better part of the past decade I mostly engaged with books indirectly, distractedly, through journalistic reviews of the kind Ulin writes so capably. If I counted up the words I read about, say, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, I probably could have (and should have) read the book itself. But I digress and perhaps overshare—other symptoms, Ulin suggests, of the age.

The Lost Art of Reading expands upon an essay Ulin published last year, and though pocket-size and only 150 pages, the book attempts to weave together several narrative threads. It is a personal essay recounting the author’s longstanding literary enthusiasms (Joan Didion, Alexander Trocchi) and his experiences as the father of a teenage son. It is a journalistic summary of recent commentary on e-readers and the neuroscience and psychiatry of attention. And though Ulin recognizes that “literature doesn’t, can’t, have the [cultural] influence it once did,” the book is also what its title advertises: a paean to the intimacy and attention demanded of book readers, and the sense of empathy that develops from engaging with books. The first two threads at times feel like filler, especially when Ulin draws liberally from still-current titles like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Eva Hoffman’s Time, and David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Yet, as one might expect of so dedicated a reader, the final argument is cogent. Particularly strong is his elucidation of the political fallout of our “distracted time.” Using the momentousness of the 2008 presidential election as a “frame” (one of his favorite terms), Ulin channels and deploys Didion’s 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” to speak clearly of a “comprehensive dissolution, in which the very idea of a common ground, or common narrative, has been rendered obsolete.”

Books like The Lost Art of Reading, however, face a fundamental challenge. It’s one thing to explain what is good or bad about a particular novel or nonfiction title, as Ulin does week in and week out for the Los Angeles Times. But the transactions between author and reader he attempts to describe here are so unique that descriptions of them are necessarily vague. Ulin ends up saying: “This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers: a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase.” And: The process of reading “is (or should be) porous, an interweaving rather than a dissemination, a blending, not an imposition, of sensibilities.” Well, yes, but such statements rely heavily upon just the kind of empathy and engagement he praises. The self-selecting audience of The Lost Art of Reading—or, for that matter, any hymn by Alberto Manguel—can make concrete such abstractions by reflecting upon its own experiences with literature. Books like this remind readers why they do that now-idiosyncratic thing they do. Turning browsers into dedicated readers, to say nothing of figuring out how to counter the distractions of the times, seems an altogether more complicated task.

Mitch Epstein, American Power

Published on on December 14, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. To see additional images from the series, click here. To read more about the project, click here and here to read interviews with Epstein and here to read an article published in the New York Times last October.

Earlier this decade, prompted by a lawsuit his father was facing, photographer Mitch Epstein returned to his western Massachusetts hometown. Holyoke had become an unfamiliar landscape in the years since he had left as a young man, so he decided to document the changed circumstances of his parents’ lives. The resultant photographs and video installations in the series “Family Business” can be understood as an attempt to render visual the tectonic social and economic shifts the United States has undergone since midcentury.Epstein_cover American Power, Epstein’s new book, attempts something similar, but on a much broader scale. He began with a straightforward if ambitious premise—to depict our nation’s varied energy infrastructure—but quickly expanded his remit to include several notions of power that course through American society as invisibly as does electricity through the national grid. Cooling towers and reactors factor in many of the images, yet each kind of power—not only literal, but also political, economic, and the power of nature—impacts upon the others. All are scrutinized in the dozens of color photographs Epstein took in twenty-five states over the last six years. He has suggested that this book is a “testament to and investigation of the Bush-Cheney era,” but rather than revel in anger or anguish, the measured, elegantly composed photographs admit complex readings. What results is a picture of America both enormously blessed and seemingly jeopardizing its own well-being.

I came away with a renewed awareness of our society’s class divisions, which are a subtext that gives the book a plangent tone. Half of the people who appear in these photos are seen defending the interests of energy corporations or enjoying their status as reckless consumers in a land of material abundance. Epstein has crafted a lovely full-length portrait of a young woman, automatic rifle slung over her shoulder, working at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Mississippi, as well as an unaffected image of logo-plastered father-and-son dirt bikers in Midland, Texas. Yet the other half suffers unduly from being disempowered. Witness the residents of Raymond City and Poca, West Virginia, whose lives play out beneath the white smoke rising from the Amos Coal Power Plant, or those who are baptized in or fish from California and Florida waters potentially fouled by the conspicuous power plants hovering in the distance. Fences predominate in the book’s many unpopulated images, testament not only to the partition between the powerful and the weak, but also to the difficulties Epstein faced in trying to uncover this submerged current. Other photographers working in this vein, including Alex Maclean, Michael Light, and Emmet Gowin, often shoot their pictures from the air. Epstein, however, stays resolutely on the ground. It mustn’t have been easy to portray a sense of a nation and its relationship to power in transition, but it was worth the effort.

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007
Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007
Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004
Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Timothy Egan, The Big Burn

Published in Bookforum, December/January 2010. To see the review in context, click here. To hear the author discuss the book on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” click here.

Stewardship of the land remains as contentious an issue today as it was one hundred years ago, when Theodore Roosevelt laid out his vision for conservation and ran into opposition from corporate lumber and mining interests. In The Big Burn, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan tells the story of Roosevelt’s prophetic vision for America’s landscape and the debates he gleefully exacerbated. The book focuses, with cinematic flair, on the August 1910 forest fire that ravaged three million acres in the northern Rockies, while providing an opportune challenge to the newborn US Forest Service.

Egan_Big_Burn_coverUnlike The Wilderness Warrior, Douglas Brinkley’s nearly thousand-page chronicle of Roosevelt’s conservation consciousness that was published last summer, Egan’s portrait moves swiftly. It emphasizes the president’s relationship with Gifford Pinchot, an enormously wealthy friend and adviser who bankrolled the Yale School of Forestry after studying the practice in France. On walks through Washington’s Rock Creek Park and during swims in the Potomac, the duo would reminisce about formative years spent in the American West and the restorative capacity of the region’s soaring mountains, dense forests, broad plains, and crystalline rivers. Building on the ideas of naturalist pioneers like John Muir, they vowed to shield millions of acres from irresponsible forms of clear-cutting, strip-mining, and other harmful development. Past presidents had rarely thought about such issues, much less acted on them. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Pinchot the first chief of the Forest Service, and Pinchot immediately assigned graduates from the initial forestry class at Yale—who would come to be known as “Little GPs”—to begin surveying swaths of Idaho, Montana, and neighboring states. It wasn’t easy: Gilded Age robber barons hoping to profit from the West’s natural resources had stooges in Washington, among them Idaho senator Weldon B. Heyburn, who scrapped with Pinchot in congressional hearings and strangled the Forest Service’s budget.

Political obstacles left the rangers poorly paid and underequipped, and they were no match for conditions in the summer of 1910. Extremely dry weather, regular lightning storms, and the sparks thrown off by trains rushing along newly constructed tracks ignited thousands of little blazes. On the evening of August 20, a strong wind called a palouser descended from the mountains and unified the smoldering patches into a firestorm of hurricane force: “What had been nearly three thousand small fires throughout a three-state region of the northern Rockies had grown to a single large burn.” Egan’s patient reconstruction of the devastating fire, drawn from Forest Service archives, journalistic accounts, diaries, and letters, is the heart of the book. Cutting back and forth across the region—one wishes the book contained more maps—Egan tracks the efforts to save remote outposts like Wallace, Idaho, undertaken by little-known rangers like Ed Pulaski, Elers Koch, and Joe Halm. Working with a motley assortment of townsmen, laborers imported from across the West, and even prisoners—and shielding themselves against flames that looked like “an airborne stream”—the rangers dug fire lines and set backfires while helping thousands of terrified residents flee to safety.

After several days, the fires diminished. Eighty-five people were dead. The devastation, Egan implies, provoked Roosevelt into open confrontation over the necessity and purpose of the Forest Service with President Taft, his handpicked successor, who increasingly seemed an impediment to the cause of conservation despite pre-election promises to further Roosevelt’s vision. The final section of Egan’s book tracks the legacy of the “big burn,” highlighting the triumphs (increased Forest Service budgets, increased respect) and setbacks (continued logging, a later Forest Service chief who drifted into corporate arms) that attended Pinchot’s protection campaign well into the presidency of another Roosevelt—Franklin Delano. Did the burn “save America”? Based on the evidence Egan presents, a case can be made that, however important his politicking on behalf of his rangers, Pinchot’s belief that fire should always be contained was harmful to his cause in the long run. Egan’s impressive account makes clear that Pinchot and Roosevelt cared deeply for the land—a concern they shared with the rangers who heroically faced down towering walls of flame.

NB: Amazon is pushing the book; to see photographs from its pages, read an excerpt and an interview with Egan, and buy the hardcover for just $14, click here.

Charlotte Klonk, Spaces of Experience

Published in Frieze 127 (November-December 2009). To see the review in context (website registration required), click here.

Charlotte Klonk
Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000
Yale University Press, 2009 ($75)

Thirty years ago, artist and writer Brian O’Doherty revealed some of the political and economic implications of the ‘white cube’. It is, we now acknowledge, anything but a neutral container. While O’Doherty’s polemic holds up well, it doesn’t address at length how such design features as coloured walls, wainscotting and decorative furnishings were slowly excised from the typical gallery environment. Art historian Charlotte Klonk’s limited but engaging study Spaces of Experience traces just this history. Ranging idiosyncratically across the last two centuries, she examines the influence of colour theorists, psychologists, businessmen and artists on the design decisions undertaken by museum directors in Europe and the USA. Klonk shows how changing theories of perception and individuality, as well as evolving attitudes toward gallery visitors, were at the centre of some surprisingly intense debates about how to present art.

Klonk_Spaces_of_ExperienceThe gallery designs of the 19th century were shaped primarily by scientific theories: Goethe’s discussion of colour had museum directors calibrating their walls to match the dominant hues in their painting collections; later, in the 1890s, Wilhelm Wundt’s stimulation experiments prompted a scramble to eliminate ‘sameness’ in gallery architecture. Such scientific considerations were intertwined with social and political questions. Were spectators to be treated as a liberal body politic that could learn, in galleries, the art of citizenship? Or were they individuals seeking intimate, emotionally charged encounters with masterpieces?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the latter view came to dominate, leading to rapid changes in display strategies: art works were given more breathing room; period details and furniture were removed; patterned papers and colour were banished from the walls. This story, as Klonk tells it, is almost exclusively German, populated by figures such as the gallery directors Wilhelm von Bode, who was inspired by collectors’ homes, and Ludwig Justi, who hung canvases extremely low down and (radically!) in a single row.

But with the ascent of a Weimar ‘culture of pure exteriority’, in which functionalist shop window displays contributed to the spectacle of the street, the main tenets of gallery display changed once again. Klonk’s book excels in tracing this evacuation of distinctiveness, though it also takes on a polemical tone. It is clear that she admires Bauhaus-era designs for ‘collective experience’, such as those by Herbert Bayer, Friedrich Kiesler, El Lissitzky and others. It is equally obvious that she laments how quickly they were neutered and co-opted, especially by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and his corporate-minded board members at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Somewhat perfunctory discussions of Documenta, artists’ installations and recent ‘starchitect’-designed museums bring Klonk’s history up to the present. But she believes, rightly I think, that such developments ‘represented no deviation from entrenched modes of viewing, no challenge to individual contemplation, and certainly no departure from the idea of the spectator as consumer’ made popular in mid-20th-century New York. Despite this, Klonk is not despondent; it is precisely by unearthing earlier models that emphasized the gallery as ‘a space of public interaction and communication’ that we may finally be able to reconstitute it as a space in which to explore ‘issues relating to human social interaction’. Spaces of Experience is a useful first step in this recovery effort.

Review of Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters

My brief review of Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters (Yale) appears in the fall issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Click here (and scroll down) to read it. “[Goldberger] is suitably temperate while discussing the balance of ‘aesthetic ambition’ and ‘social purpose,’ exterior form and interior space, architecture’s effects on our emotions and on our intellect, the importance of place and time, and the architect’s responsibility to both the design he is crafting and the context it will enter.” Though Goldberger’s book arrived in stores a few weeks ago, I’ve yet to find much other review coverage, a fact that may be due in part to the preponderance of discussion concerning Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, which is published in the same series. I’ll update this post with links to any coverage I come across. In the meantime, Goldberger’s personal website offers a fairly extensive archive of his writings on architecture from the past decade.

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell

Published in the September 2009 issue of the Brooklyn Rail as “Community Centering.” To see this review in context, click here.

Rebecca Solnit agrees with one aspect of commonplace thinking about disasters: once a hurricane’s winds subside, an earthquake’s upheavals abate, or an explosion’s concussive force dissipates, the trouble is far from over. But the premise of Solnit’s forceful new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, is that nearly everything else we are told about the aftermath of such events is wrong. Conventional wisdom suggests that the veneer of civilization is so thin as to be nearly translucent, and that at moments of desperation we regress to a Hobbesian state in which self-interest predominates to the point of violence. We expect looters to cart off large-screen televisions from the local Best Buy. We assume survivors will hoard water, food, and clothing. In such situations, we believe, compassion extends only as far as one’s family, or perhaps to one’s immediate neighbors. To counter this potential anarchy the full weight of institutional law and order must be brought to bear upon the devastated area—not only cops must patrol the streets but so, too, must the National Guard. And the recovery efforts must be managed by large organizations experienced in such relief work, whether governmental (FEMA) or non-profit (The Red Cross). Or so the story goes.

sholis-webSolnit, however, contends that in the wake of disaster, altruism, purposefulness, and a sense of commonality bind people together. She was inspired in part by her experience of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, in which the ruptured earth created a parallel breach in normal priorities that led to a strange elation among the city’s residents. Everyday worries ceased to matter, if only temporarily. As she described it elsewhere, “the long-term perspective from which so much dissatisfaction and desire comes was shaken too: life, meaning, value were close to home, in the present.” In subsequently researching the 1906 earthquake (and fires) that wiped out much of the same town, the 1917 explosion of a French cargo ship carrying munitions through the narrows of Halifax Harbor, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, Solnit has uncovered a deep vein of benevolence, unselfish charity, and equanimity, all characteristics that contribute to what William James called the “civic temper.” There is Anna Amelia Holshouser, who set up a soup kitchen in Golden Gate Park three days after the 1906 quake and eventually served food to thousands of strangers. There is Vincent Coleman, a Halifax train dispatcher who lost his life rushing back to a telegraph office to warn incoming trains not to proceed. There are the hundreds of people who volunteered to escort through New York City nervous Arab American women and children in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

In the process of presenting this evidence, Solnit marshals a vast array of related topics and figures. As her previous books demonstrate, ranging widely is her modus operandi. Savage Dreams (which Solnit published in 1994) yokes together the mid-nineteenth-century war against American Indians and the mid-20th century nuclear tests that decimated acres of the same western states. Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001) expounds upon the many meanings of bipedal movement. The prize-winning River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003) spins outward from the photographer’s late-nineteenth-century technical achievements to mind-opening ruminations on the characteristics of modernity. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) offers a series of autobiographical essays that examine the possibilities inherent in uncertainty—and in the process touch on Renaissance painting, country music, and early American captivity narratives. So it isn’t surprising that while explicating the aftermaths of her five chosen disasters in this book, Solnit also discusses Hollywood horror movies, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival, a Buddhist community’s reaction to recent wildfires, and the Diggers, a short-lived group of agrarian communists in seventeenth-century England. As with her earlier works, Solnit’s elegant and direct prose bridges the spans her mind fearlessly leaps across.

One can’t quite describe A Paradise Built in Hell as revisionist history, because for decades academics have observed and commented upon the generosity, friendliness, and attachment that characterize communities beset by tragedies. It is one of Solnit’s achievements, however, to set an intellectual history of disaster sociology—from early avatars like Samuel H. Prince and Charles Fritz to still-practicing scholars like Kai Erikson, E. L. Quarantelli, and Kathleen Tierney—in the context of anarchist and communitarian writings that theorize or call for this magnanimous spirit as a way of life. Many commentators marveled at the decline of partisan bickering in the first few weeks after September 11. Fewer critics have, like Solnit, openly lamented that the space for civil discourse created by such horrible events is so quickly abandoned for the status quo. This book not only excavates the memory of five “extraordinary communities,” it places them in the context of those who aimed to make the extraordinary ordinary.

In this regard, Solnit’s study can be viewed as a successor to Hope in the Dark, her slim 2004 open letter to an activist community disappointed by its inability to halt the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. That book “tells stories of [activist] victories and possibilities because the defeats and disasters are more than adequately documented,” and offers spirited, wide-ranging reflections on the ways in which the masses foster change and wield power. Solnit is an activist aware of the forces raged against such communal assertions of power, and the sections of A Paradise Built in Hell dedicated to the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina show clearly that the attempt to solidify the social gains of a “disaster utopia” is always a political struggle. For every concerned citizen who distributes supplies during the critical moments just after disaster strikes, there is an appointed official who swoops in to displace this spontaneous charity and enact institutionally sanctioned rules. For every person who finds a bridge to dry land after the levees in New Orleans break, there are Gretna sheriff’s deputies to block African American victims from that route to safety. Solnit dissects how such administrative inflexibility and “elite panic” hinders rather than helps recovery efforts.

Only in Mexico City does Solnit find long-term gains in the wake of its disaster. There the rapacity of corporate leaders asserting their property rights (with governmental forces as handmaidens) caused the working classes to band together to enact significant housing reform and to create unions in the textile industry. How were such changes made possible? “Revolution has a different legacy here,” Solnit suggests, “and the idea of radical change a different currency. It is as though they had an ability to recognize that disaster utopia, name it, connect it to other experiences, and make something of it. In other places, the unnamed qualities of a richer civic life and deeper ties often slip away for lack of a language and framework to prize them. It remains an orphan experience, unconnected and ultimately lost.”