Monday, October 28, 2013


Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
© 2013 Raza Aslan
337 pages

Reza Aslan’s Zealot searches for the historical Jesus and finds him as a religious revolutionary, one who anticipated the imminent demise of the Roman Empire. No gentle Jesus meek and mild, nor Buddha-like figure whose notion of the kingdom of God was a metaphor for enlightened living, Jesus was a man of his times – a working-class carpenter who saw no distinction between the oppressive Romans and the corrupt class of priests in the legalistic Temple who were their lackeys. Preaching about the end of days in an province of the region frequently wracked by would-be messiahs inciting rebellion, Jesus of Nazareth was promptly executed in the style reserved for ‘bandits’,  crucified publicly as an example  of what happened to those who defied Rome.  The city of Jerusalem, and the Temple, joined him in destruction decades later, in a war in which the Christians took no part, seeing in the Romans’ rage evidence that the End had finally begun – and shortly thereafter,  the Gospels were written, and increasingly in such a way as to hide Jesus’ original message. But the historical facts that can be beaten out of the gospel accounts, writes Aslan, and they reveal him to be a passionate foe of the then-status quo, and one taken seriously as a secular, not a spiritual, threat. Aslan doesn't delve into what role if any the historical Jesus was to play in the end of things, but his aggressive forecasting certainly brought his own: in an state in which casting the Emperor's horoscope was treason, predicting his imminent fall was sure to make Rome irritated. What sets Aslan's account part from many other works is its style; though versed in theology and textual criticism (Aslan was a Muslim convert to Christianity,  and reverted while becoming a biblical scholar), this is no academic work. Aslan writes like a novelist, in which Jesus and his disciples are the reader's intimates and the events of their lives are happening now, in the present tense. I suspect this is why it's so popular, for Aslan is less a lecturer and more a storyteller.

Aslan's conclusion is similar to Bart Ehrman's, who in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium concluded that Jesus was one of many powerfully charismatic Jewish teachers forecasting the end of the world tomorrow, though in Aslan's view he was seen as a threat to personally ignite the power keg that was first-century Judea. Zealot is worth reading if for no other reason than to appreciate how much anxious energy rippled through the world of the gospels. No static background for nice stories about good Samaritans and healing the lame: first-century Jerusalem was a literal battleground -- between warring sects, the sects and the authorities, and between the authorities.  On the whole, it's quite riveting. but I'm uncertain about the scholarship. I'm sympathetic to his view because I've read one similar to it, but one better established (again, Ehrman), but the book is dotted with odd translations and sweeping statements like "the gospels were never meant to accurately portray Jesus' life'.   To be sure, the Gospels are loaded with shall we say, extra-historical content, but that doesn't mean they're the equivalent of stories about George Washington cutting down cherry trees.  The novel-like aspects of the book fascinated me, but were also bothersome upon retrospect; I suppose I'm a bit of a snob in that I think serious, academic work has to be just a little bit staid.

Ultimately,  Aslan's claims are noteworthy, but ought to be considered carefully.

This week at the library: Jesus, bikes, and Greeks

In recent weeks I've finished up an unplanned series of readings on first-century Judeo-Christianity.  Shortly after checking out The Origin of Satan for some historical research, two seperate people happened to reccommend Misquoting Jesus and Zealot at the same time, meaning my head is just swimming with facts on the destruction of the temple. Comments for Zealot will follow tonight.

Outside of those, I read Bruce Thorton's Greek Ways, which defends the primacy of Greek contributions to western civilization. His basis is that while many cultures had similar ideas to the Greeks -- a semblance of science, the beginnings of democracy, and so on -- none of them developed as fully or magnificiently as they did in Greece. Further, while the Greeks were seriously flawed, their limitations were those of the human race, while their triumphs were culture-specific. He draws extensively on Greek poetry and prose to put their ideas and behaviors into historical context, and to argue that ideals of western civilization, like political liberty and religious skepticism, were first expressed in their fullest form in Greek minds.  Being hopelessly biased toward the Greeks,  I don't trust myself to do a proper review, but I was impressed by his research.

Additionally, I read through Just the Two of Us, a travel memoir by Melissa Norton, who with her husband  cycled across North America, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I enjoyed it well enough, but it wasn't a standout for me, at least not when compared to Hey, Mom, Can I Ride My Bike Across America?  I'd been told that Just the Two of Us contained a lot of information on bike mechanics, but my source must have been thinking of another book altogether;  this is a travel diary, and rather complete at that, with the inclusion of mileage logs. (David Lamb's Over the Hills was bike-info heavy, because it had to be; aside from a dog chasing him, nothing happened on his journey. Compare that to John Siegel-Boettner's trip with middle-schoolers, where they were chased not by dogs, but by tornados!

Yesterday I finished Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir of a baby-boomer childhood. I'd say it's one of Bryson's funniest pieces, but they run together in one long string of belly laughs. More comments on it may follow later.

This week I am attempting to finish, or at least make some progress in, Lewis Mumford's The City in History. After that I have The Consumers' Republic and The Last Humans, and I'm intending on reading a bit more fiction as the year is winding down. I'll probably be resuming Sharpe's series; I believe I left the good rifleman perched at the edge of the Pyrenees, poised to invade France and send Napoleon packing.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Origin of Satan

The Origin of Satan: How Christianity Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics
© 1996 Elaine Pagels
240 pages

Although Christianity sprang from Judaism, the two religions have sharply different conceptions of Satan. Christians view him as the prince of evil, the enemy of all that is good and holy. Jews, however, see him as a faithful servant of God: the Almighty's quality-control agent who tests the faithful's integrity by opposing them. We can plainly see that there were once Jews who held a view similar to the Christians: Jesus, his disciples, and followers like Paul saw Satan as a wretched foe. How was Satan transformed from servant to foe of God? The root lies in the influence of Apocalyptic dualism, but Elaine Pagels sees Satan's descent into evil as inspired by the desire of some Jews and the Christians to literally demonize their opponents. In elaborating upon this she delivers a fascinating partial history of late-Temple Judaism and early Christianity as one transformed into another, and Satan fell from light into darkness.

It began with the Greeks, those venerable fathers of western civilization who seduced the Jews with their philosophy, gymnasiums, and three orders of pillars. While the Jews had fallen under the control of various powers before -- the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Persians before Alexander and his generals bought Hellenic culture and rule to Palestine -- never before had the people of Moses been so open to assimilation.  They began avoiding circumcision and nibbling on pork, to the horror of traditionalists. The increasingly-Hellenized Jews, in rejecting their cultures' norms and embracing those of the Greeks, were seen as even worse than old-time idolaters: they were race-traitors, and the direct agents of Satan.

Historically, Satan's role was to oppose the chosen people, either to force them to prove their worth, or to hinder them from really making a mess of things.As the Jewish people became increasingly divided  between their own ways and the Greek, his resistance gained an edge, and stories emerged in which his motives were changed. Satan was increasingly believed to oppose the Jews not for the greater good, but to spite God. Pagels details the various narratives that were co-opted or created to establish his going into business as CEO of Evil, Inc. The story of Babylon's fall -- its description as Venus/Lucifer,  Star of the Morning, attempting to surpass God/the Sun's glory and being crushed -- is turned into the story of a rebellious angel. Satan's origin also appears in texts not accepted by the Christians, wherein he and other angels are introduce to Adam and Eve and told to worship them. Upon refusal, they were exiled.  The common thread in these origin tales and another is that of disobedience, and since the Hellenized Jews were no longer obeying the rules  regarding pork and circumcision, they were Of the Devil.   The early Christ-followers later turned the table on the traditionalists by accusing them of not obeying God through his messiah/incarnation,, and thus being agents of Satan if not demon possessed. This same belief was targeted against pagans who would not convert, as well as against Christians who had slightly different views on issues from the fundamental to the seemingly esoteric.  The book ends with a hopeful plea that disagreeing with someone need not mean accusing them of being worse than Hitler.

The Origin of Satan is an interesting book, though not very true to its title. Pagels never mentions the influence of dualism and apocalypticism altogether, with the effect that she addresses Satan's flowering as the prince of darkness, not the origins, the seed, of his evil. On the other hand, Origin covers the tension between the Jews in this period of cultural conflict quite well, and the strength of the book is its history of Judeo-Christianity in transition, with Satan's own transformation being used as the lens. On the whole, Pagels has thus produced a fascinating work, but if you were really interested in the history of Satan, it's not quite comprehensive.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Misquoting Jesus

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
© 2005 Bart Ehrman
256 pages

Contrary to popular belief, the King James Bible did not fall out of the sky, a gift from a loving deity to his people below. In Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman delves into the human side of the Christian New Testament, introducing lay readers to textual analysis and demonstrating how scribes and theologians in the early centuries of the church tweaked verses while copying them, either to correct mistakes as they saw them or to stress a theological point.  Ehrman writes not to attack the New Testament’s credibility, but rather to make readers aware that the text they cherish has a life and history of its own.  Understanding that history means gleaning new insight into early Christianities as well, for even after one theological view won out over another, the evidence of battle lays in subtle alterations. Some are subtle indeed: changing a single brushstroke in one word (changing an O into a Φ ) could assert Jesus as God made manifest. Others are more obvious, like Jesus’ “anger” at a leper being converted into ‘compassion’ for him, even though later in the same story he harshly rebukes said leper and his inserted  compassion seems out of place.  Ehrman almost avoids arguing for any sweeping changes; the broadest alteration of text he observes is that Paul seems to contract himself about the role of women in the church within the same book (1st Corinthians), indicating that a later follower might have put words into his patron’s mouth.   Only the strictest literalist would be made uneasy by  Ehrman’s revelations.  For the rest of us,  Misquoting Jesus is a fascinating work that makes one appreciate how much passion has been poured even into making copies of texts,

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Bicycle: the History

Bicycle: The History
© 2006 David Herlihy
480 pages

Where did the bicycle come from? Bicycle: the History tells the story in exacting detail, beginning in the 19th century. An age of progress  and scientific triumph, wherein everyday life was constantly being revolutionized by inventions, it set many people to work finding a way to improve personal transportation. Surely we could do better than moving our feet back and forth -- so primitive! Why not do that on a set of wheels, instead? The first bike-like things were conceived as mere aides to running, driven by their riders striking the ground with their feet.  It took decades before pedals, brakes, comfortable seats, and the like were added to those first frames to make what we could recognize as a bike. In the intervening half-century, inventors pursued other avenues, coming up with bizarrely huge machines driven forward by people turning cranks with their hands, or the amusing high-wheeled bicycles, which required a ladder and the 19th century equivalent of an oxygen mask to cope with the thinner air.  Most of the improvements made to these early bikes, or velocipedes, created faddish vehicles that became national obsessions that lasted for a year or so before suddenly fading away into oblivion. The high-wheels had more staying power, but eventually they were humbled by simple improvements made to the original idea -- and lo, the  Safety Bicycle.  Alas for it, it had scarcely come onto the scene before the motorized, horseless carriage also came sputtering and coughing onto the road, and the 20th century belonged more to the automobile than the humble bicycle. This was especially true in the United States, but not quite as much in Europe or in China, where space and poverty (respectively) limited motoring's expansion.  Bicycle is  most thorough, at least in covering the 19th century: at times it offers a year by year account of the velociopeding fads, at times verging on plodding when it fixates on patent battles. Though sometimes technical, Bicycle also covers the human aspect in full, demonstrating how bicycle usage changed patterns of dress and social mores, and began working the general culture. The text is also replete with scores of historical photographs, many gorgeous, which liven up any dry spots. Though it could have used more information on the 20th century, on the whole this is an impressively thorough history.

Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, Jeff Mapes

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures

Star Trek Enterprise, Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures
© 2013 Christopher L Bennett
356 pages

 The Romulan War is over, and with it, Michael Martin’s authorship of the Enterprise Relaunch.  The newest Enterprise novel, Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures, is penned by reader favorite Christopher L. Bennett,  whose previous novels are steeped in scientific enterprise. A Choice of Futures is grounded in politics, with a bit of crime and a scientific thread woven in to great effect: though initially minor, it features prominently in the novel's conclusion and allows Bennett to fly the flag of Star Trek optimism by asserting that the Federation's success is stemmed in its pursuit of knowledge, diplomacy, and peace -- not empire and force. That can't be taken for granted with this fledgling Federation; its predecessor, the Coalition of Planets, collapsed, and the tensions which kept it which like lingering animosity between the Vulcans and Andorians are still present. Managing the multitude of problems inherent in creating a government which consists of planets occupied by widely-varying species, languages and cultures, amid a conspiracy by Shadowy Criminal Forces engineering problems, could break or harden such an idealistic polity. All that provides enormous tension to keep a reader riveted, and that's before character drama comes into play, like Trip Tucker’s continuing involvement with Section 31 and Malcolm Reed’s  coming-of-age as he takes command of his own ship.  Trip's line is in fact that only hindrance to readers new to the series or Trek literature in general. Otherwise, A Choice of Futures is a clean slate for the series, and its future looks bright if this first work by Mr. Bennett is any indication. He deftly combines mystery, action, fresh treatments of older characters, and a little science into a fairly exciting read. Its chief flaw is the cover, which is about as exciting as steamed beets.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Fear Index

The Fear Index
© 2009 Robert Harris
304 pages

Dr. Alexander Hoffman is a brilliant physicist-turned-financier who may be losing his mind.  It’s not as if the software he designed to manage investments in stocks, securities, and the like isn't still successful; it’s turned him into one of the wealthiest men in town, and in Geneva, Switzerland, that’s saying something. It’s just that strange things keep happening, like a book arriving in the post which he apparently bought, using a bank account he had no idea existed, and the fellow trying to eat him.  A near-fatal break-in and a series of inexplicable incidents  unsettle the doctor, on the verge of making a business deal that would catapult him into Scrooge McDuck-like wealth.  To make matters worse, the software he designed is acting increasingly erratic; it’s always had a mind of its own (it originated, after all, from Hoffman’s research into autonomous machine reasoning, or AI), but lately it’s been acting absolutely mental. Billions and billions of dollars are at stake: this is no time for the man of the hour and his ultimate computer to start  setting things on fire. The Fear Index is the tale of Hoffman’s  and the global economy’s dive into madness. Harris' gifts for writing thrillers, usually in historical settings with The Ghost excepting,, translate well to this interesting mix of science fiction and business. The reader is kept as baffled and increasingly alarmed at what's happening to the doctor,  and Harris cleverly ties the novel's events to real-world financial happenings, making this historical fiction of a sort.  He also provides a twist ending that doesn't spoil all the fun, one which leaves readers pondering at what monster has been awakened even as the storyline's problems are resolved.  It's not as stellar as his other works, limited in part by the odd mix of genres, but it's still a fine psycho-adventure.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Box

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
© 2006 Marc Levinson
376 pages

It’s not every day an invention completely revolutionizes its industry, let alone the world. And yet that’s what the shipping container, a mere  box, did. Within a few years’ time, it rose from one ambitious entrepreneur’s scheme for expediting freight shipments into the global standards, one which completely replaced methods of shipping which had endured for thousands of years. Gone were the huge numbers of longshoremen required to pack and unpack hundreds of pallets per ship, and the 'inventory shrinkage' that accompanied it. Within a decade of its introduction, mighty ports like London and New York had been completely humbled, outmoded by containerization – a technology which offered seamlessly integrated freight distribution across sea, rail, and road, but at a price of wholescale adoption of it and the new equipment produced to carry it. The Box details shipping containers’ genesis, their rise in use, and the effects of their adoption, like greater concentration of shipping interests into a few big lines and increased government involvement in the service – both results of the amount of resources needed to earn  greater profit-by-volume.  The account is sometimes dry (there’s a considerable section on the problems of finding just the right corner fittings for the Box), but enlivened by some of its personalities – especially Malcolm McLean, the truck driver who introduced containers in the United States because it allowed him to bypass his competitors. An unruly risk-taker, McLean appears throughout the volume, which almost chronicles his taking over world trade: every time containers made prodigious advances, like becoming the American standard or moving into international routes, he was there. (The fact that the entire volume of traffic between the United States and Britain could be handled by five container ships should give modern readers an idea of how containerization allowed a few large lines to begin dominating the industry. Container ship lines are truly the 'big box' stores of the seas.)  To  begin appreciating how  world-unifying globalized trade began, look no further than The Box.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The New Faithful

The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy
© 2002 Colleen Caroll
320 pages

 Every action produces its reaction, and to Colleen Carroll decades of religious liberalism have born their fruit in the form of young people flocking back to conservative religious traditions, complete with smells and bells. One of the new faithful herself,  Caroll’s own views mingle with those of the Generation Xers she interviews:.  Raised in broken families, they are resacralizing marriage; burned out by one night stands and shallow relationships, they are embracing chastity;  frustrated by Pontius Pilate’s question, ‘what is truth’, they are sneering at relativism and declaring: the truth is whatever the Bible says.  The Youth Faithful mixes anecdotes and statistics, and despite being part of her subject matter, Carroll tries valiantly to be objective: some conducted interviews are with theologians and intellectuals critical of this trend ,and see it  merely as a reflection of the age-old defiance of the reigning generation by the young.

But what if that's not the only motive? Even considering that the now-historic trend commented on here (this book is nearly twelve years old) may be being reversed (considering the surge  of people reporting as Nonreligious),what if these young people have motives which can open our eyes to the fact that society-as-usual isn't providing something they want or need? No one here offers a real reason for  re-adopting old dogmas, beyond deferring to St. Augustine or C.S. Lewis, but the prevailing idea that all of reality is subjective is no doubt frustrating. Even if you believe it, who wants to? It rails against every instinct: something must be true.  Part of this conservative morality seems linked to the resurgence of the religious right in general in the 1980s, rather than being connected to a return to Orthodoxy.  The historic appeal of orthodoxy is touched on --- there's a sense of security in associating with long-established traditions --   as is the sense of order and peace that comes from daily rituals.  More importantly are the practical reasons for the reversal: Generation X grew up after a series of profound, society-changing movements had started to take effect. They grew up in an era of skyrocketing divorces and sexual license. They were the children whose homes fell apart, whose adolescent peers' lives were ruined by the rise of STDs and early pregnancy.  They are the generation who first experienced these effects, and they are rallying against the cause of them - "liberalism", used generically . More than anything, the people interviewed in this book are yearning for stability -- stability in beliefs, in practice. They want a faith that can be counted on to guide them through the hard times. It's worth pointing out, though Carroll doesn't, that her 'young adults' are not so young: while there are college students here, many more are thirty-somethings with young families, and thus a heightened appreciation for morality and security are not too surprising.  It's a lot easier to want to set the world on fire with change when you don't have children of your own who can be burned.

The Young Faithful is a thought-provoking book, if grating by the end as a result of the casual use of 'liberal' as an attack word, which damages the general sense of professionalism conveyed by Carroll's writing.  It is out of place in a more serious work like this.  Considering that current religious growth is in fact in 'conservative' branches of Christianity like Catholicism, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Pentecostals, and the like, as opposed to the more liberal mainline denominations,  The Youth Faithful remains of interest despite its increasing datedness, if not wholly appealing.

Crunchy Cons, Rob Dreher. Dreher is a Gen-Xer who left the Baptists for Eastern Orthodoxy.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Taft 2012

Taft 2012
© 2012 Jason Heller
246 pages

In another world, William Howard Taft vanished from history after his presidential term. Rather than going on to become a Supreme Court Justice, he simply -- disappeared. He became the world's most famous missing man, at least until 99 years, whereupon he sprang up from the muddy  ground of the White House lawn, interrupting a press conference given by President Obama before being dutifully shot down by the Secret Service. Fortunately, when you weigh close to 400 pounds, you carry your own kind of bullet-slowing protection. Thus begins Taft 2012, a lightening-quick work of political satire which sees a stodgy lawyer from another era become an objection of obsession to a nation distressed by its disunity and eager to believe in anyone who can rise above the fray. Taft's contempt for partisan or dirty politics makes him a man of the hour, a man whose broad shoulders bear the weight of a nation's hopes and fears -- from liberals who want someone who will really take it to Big Business, to conservatives who want someone who knows how to balance a budget. Taft 2012 combines the easy entertainment of temporal displacement (see Taft stare at biracial couples in astonishment, scarf down a Twinkie, be seduced by Wii Golf, complain about modern music, etc) with more serious cultural observations (television is alienating) and a political campaign centered on food and education. The author mixes a conventional narrative with excerpts from the world he's created -- news articles and twitter conversations about Taft, press releases from the Draft Taft element of the Taft Party -- and the like. There are also pieces from an in-universe history of the Taft presidency, which draw allusions from history to the actions in the story. Within a matter of months, the Rip Van Winkle-like Taft goes from a national curiosity to a serious write-in candidate for the presidency. This is aided by the fact that a great-granddaughter of his, one Ms. Rachel Taft, is a popular independent legislator in her own right -- but there's more sinister workings afoot, and Taft truly comes into his own by novel's end rather than being the man everyone pins their hopes on. This is fast, funny, and sometimes pointed. Most Americans will enjoy it

Crabgrass Frontier

Crabgrass Frontier:  The Suburbanization of the United States
© 1985 Kenneth Jackson
432 pages

For thousands of years, people lived in either the country or the city, but with the coming of the industrial revolution that changed, and especially in America.   Seemingly as soon as they were able, the wealthy and later the middle class abandoned the cities in favor of neighborhoods set in the country, first commuting into the city and then commuting to other areas outside it once jobs followed the wealth out of town. Why was the traditional urban form abandoned for the suburbs to the degree that it was in the United States, and not in Europe? In Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson chronicles urban flight and the making of the 'burbs,  establishing that Americans have an historic cultural distaste for cities,  inherited through England,  and have been trying to have the best of both worlds, city and country, at least since the end of the 18th century.  Wealth and technology first allowed a prosperous minority to establish separate country residences, and later government policy made ex-urban living the easiest choice to make, resulting in it becoming the cultural norm. Jackon begins detached and eventually waxes passionate as the suburbs' success prove to be at the expense of the cities, but he's never caustic.

The Revolutionary War was scarcely over before suburbs appeared on the American scene; even before horsecars, trolley lines, and the automobile, wealthy citizens of New York established their residences on the Brooklyn Heights nearby, and commuted by ferry.  While the borders of cities have historically been slums, home to necessary but despised industries like leather tanneries, in the United States cities came to be ringed by affluence.  Reasons for the wealthy leaving were varied, but a desire to get away from the city's "problems" -- the noise of industry and the presence of common working folk -- ranked high. The simplest explanation, however, is that they could. The United States had more land than it knew what to do with. At first, living outside the city and commuting to it to work was the domain of the very wealthy, but the arrival of railroads allowed moderately wealthy persons to join in.  The trolley and the introduction of balloon-frame homebuilding made suburban living affordable for more people, and saw a manifold increase in the number of these communities. This was not the beginning of sprawl, however: even as they multiplied,  suburban communities remained distinct, walkable places.

It was the automobile which allowed suburbia to truly transform the urban landscape, extending the ease of complete mobility to the entire middle class. At the same time, government policies promoted suburban expansion, directly and indirectly, by promoting home ownership through subsidized loans and highways. Having lost the wealthy and middle classes, their tax base, cities deteriorated further, prompting even more flight. At the same time, home loan and insurance policies favored the suburbs heavily, stifling attempts by those in the city to improve or protect their buildings. These policies were at times openly racist, denying coverage or loans to whole blocks if a Jewish or black family were to move in.

Motivated by a cultural preference for country homes over city living, enabled by the widespread availability of open land --and technological innovations like the rail line and automobile which used that land as a broad canvas to draw an entirely new kind of urban landscape - and further encouraged by government support, the Americans thus became suburbanized.  The work, which Jackson introduces as an extended essay, ends with a reflection on where the suburbs are taking the American people. Built on cheap land, connected by cheap transport, and occupied by cheap buildings,  Jackson believes contemporary sprawl to be not worth much in comparison to the city, and points to trends in the 1980s which might signal a turning point.

Thirty years after the fact, we know that sprawl recovered from those hiccoughs, only for its tide to slow and reverse in the later years of the 21st century's opening decade,  influenced by the financial crisis and the new normal of  high gasoline prices.  The Millennial generation has displayed a sharp preference for city living over the burbs, and car ownership is on the decline. As Americans begin to rebuild their cities and the civilization which they foster, this look back at what caused their disintegration will prove most helpful. This comprehensive history of suburbia not only establishes why American suburbs are so different from those from across the world, but delves into the full range of factors that led to their creation: cultural, technological, economic, and political.  Those wanting to understand the development of suburbia will find it a worthy guide,  especially for its less strident tone as compared to an author like Jim Kunstler.

The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler
Suburban Nation, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck
Asphalt Nation,  Jane Holtz Keay

Uncommon Carriers

Uncommon Carriers
© 2006 John McPhee
256 pages

Uncommon Carriers invites readers to spend a day in the life of a truck drivers, ocean-going cargo ship and riverbound freight tugboat pilots, train engineers, UPS aviators, and -- just for good measure -- pleasure-canoers sailing the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  Aside from the odd inclusion of his retracing Henry David Thoreau's oar-beats, the work is part human interest and part-inside look into the transportation service that keeps the world of goods going round. Some sections are more useful to the latter end than others; his chapter on cargo ship pilots takes place at a training school off the coast of France, and communicates the difficulty of moving across something that has a mind of its own, but nothing about the business of commercial freight.  The chapters on river freight and UPS  more conducive to understanding the ins and outs of the industry.  What Uncommon Carriers offers besides that is the personal aspect of these jobs. McPhee's research is all first-hand: he shares the lives of the men who do these jobs, befriending some and enduring the teasing of others. He's especially fond of the truck driver who carries a chemistry book to help him wash his rig, judges truck stops on whether they carry his beloved Wall Street Journal, and who moonlights as a wordsmith. The account is peppered with many lively characters like him. On whole, this was quite an interesting peek into a world we depend on so much.

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes On Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food On Your Plate. Rose George