Category Archives: Book Review

Books and Bankruptcy: Detroit City Is the Place to Be

detroitMark Binelli, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Metropolitan Books: 2012.

Ten days ago, I finished reading Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be. Five days ago, Detroit declared bankruptcy. I would hardly call the series of events auspicious, but I have to admit to a sense of relief. Because of Binelli’s book, I understood.  Continue reading

On Ruin Porn

I recently discovered the photography of Camilo Jose Vergara, who has been documenting the transformation of American cities – especially those in decline – for decades. His work is not voyeuristic like “ruin porn.” It is contemplative and sincere. In the rust belt, he has focused on Gary, Chicago, and Detroit. His other work spans the country, and I especially enjoyed his photographs from Old New York. His website has a great interface and I highly recommend browsing through it.

Vergara’s work came to my attention while reading Mark Binelli’s 2012 book Detroit City is the Place to Be, which I plan to review here soon (in short: it’s excellent). Binelli treats the topic of ruin pornography while discussing the migration of artists, journalists, and everyday bohemians to depression-struck Detroit, where they derive inspiration and material from the ruins of the city. Hanging around Cleveland, I’m already familiar with the ruin porn trend. And during my travels around the state, I have found myself taking my own pictures of decline, like this series of photographs, three from a half-demolished acme plant in Toledo and another two from downtown Youngstown. When facing sights such as these, embodying an utterly oxymoronic grand destitution, it is hard to resist the compulsion to capture that contradiction. One crumbling building can speak simultaneously to past, present, and future.  Continue reading

Book Review and #Occupy: The Rich and the Rest of Us

The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West (Smiley Books, 2012).

Cornel West – public intellectual and activist, author of Race Matters, and Princeton University professor – teamed up with public broadcaster Tavis Smiley to write The Rich and the Rest of US, a by-product of the pair’s 18-city “Poverty Tour” raising awareness and encouraging advocacy about poverty in 21st century America. They address two recently-related phenomenon: the history and plight of poor people in America, and the “new poor” (previously middle class) victims of the Great Recession. Together, they comprise 150 million persistently poor and near poor Americans, amounting to nearly 50% of the country’s population. In this book, West and Smiley are issuing a call to action to address the increasing poverty in our midst before it permanently distorts our democracy, values, and economic future. Continue reading

Book Review: Someplace Like America

Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression by Dale Maharidge, photographs by Michael Williamson, with a foreword by Bruce Springsteen (University of California Press, 2011).

I am nervous at the keyboard. Can I do good by this epic with my amateur review? Or might I degrade it with a lesser form of writing? Alas, all I do know is that I cannot keep this book to myself. Dale Maharidge’s deeply sympathetic storytelling, interspersed with Michael Williamson’s penetrating photographs, is a gift to readers. But the getting to this product was neither beautiful nor profound – it started when the young reporters hopped a train in 1980 to ride the country with hobos. Continue reading

Book Review: Working

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel (Pantheon Books, 1974).

Studs Terkel opens Working with one of the most stirring sentences I have ever read: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body.” And although Terkel’s voice and narration are only present for the following 13 pages of the Introduction, giving way to 600 pages of the voices of others, the power of his intent resonates through to the back cover. Continue reading

Book Review: The Working Poor

The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler (Vintage, 2004).

In this thoroughly researched study of the “working poor,” or those with low wage jobs or intermittent under- and un- employment, Shipler uncovers the struggles of people just scraping by in America. The book is a comprehensive telling of the working poor on three counts: the narratives, the context, and the writing. Continue reading

Book Review: Welcome to Utopia

Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town by Karen Valby (Spiegel & Grau, 2010).

The immediate draw of Karen Valby’s book is the title. As it happens, Utopia is the name of the small Texas town that features as the setting of its residents’ narratives as told by Valby. A journalist seeking a story about an ‘untouched’ place, she settles in the town and, after some apparent neutrality and even resentment from many residents skeptical of her New York City sensibilities, she tells her tales. What Valby uncovers is a town that is neither untouched nor particularly different from most of America. Continue reading

Book Review: Working in the Shadows

Working in the Shadows: Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do by Gabriel Thompson (Nation Books, 2009).

In this feat of ‘immersion journalism’ writer Gabriel Thompson (check out his site) puts himself through back-breaking labor to relate the lives of workers across the country. For two months at a time he works as a lettuce farmer in Arizona, a poultry processor in rural Alabama, and a delivery boy in New York City. Disparate though those three stints may seem, they have much in common: they are physically exhausting and often dangerous jobs largely performed by migrant workers for little pay. The fruits of this labor are regularly consumed by the general population with little thought about the labor entailed. One of Thompson’s more powerful observations is that even with all the steps in the process between the cutting of a head of lettuce and our purchase of it at the grocery store, it is likely that the last hand that touched it before our own was that of the lettuce cutter. Continue reading