Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Help

The Help by Katherine Stockett (The Berkeley Publishing Book, 2009)

I saw the very memorable movie made from this book in the theater when it came out several years ago. If you missed the movie, you should definitely read the book; I picked it up at a library book sale because I thought it was worth owning. It’s almost a meta-novel: a novel about a group of African-American housemaids writing a book about their experiences working for Southern white women in the early 1960’s. It’s hard for me to understand why young white women in their early twenties who could afford to hire maids to do their housework for them didn’t want to take care of their own children.  Instead they expected the maids (who often had children of their own who someone else watched while they worked) to babysit on top of doing housework. Many maids developed an emotional bond with the white children, only to be rejected and despised when the children grew up to be their employers. Some of the stories of callousness toward the lives of black people on the part of the whites are truly appalling, and undoubtedly had counterparts in real life. Certainly the rules about segregated bathrooms, schools, businesses, and every other part of everyday life that existed for decades in the American South are all too true. The Help is one of those classic pieces of literature that vividly documents the culture of a time and place, for students of later generations to study.

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Filed under Historical fiction, Social Science

The Transition Companion

The Transition Companion: making your community more resilient in uncertain times by Rob Hopkins (Chelsea Green, 2011).

This book by Rob Hopkins is the follow-up to the Transition Handbook that started the Transition Town movement. Transition Towns try to re-localize economies and make communities more resilient in the face of climate change and peak oil. Although it was published in the United States, and Hopkins is fully aware that this is now an international movement, very little effort was made to edit it for American audiences. He really should have found a collaborator to write an American version, because in its current format the book is nearly useless. It’s great that the Transition Town movement has been so warmly embraced by people in the United Kingdom, but their situation is so completely different from ours in the United States that most of his examples are irrelevant to us. Even if large numbers of Americans were on board with the idea of recreating a local economy (which they’re not), the descriptions of how people in various English towns and cities worked with their local “council” (whatever that is) to implement all sorts of fabulous programs and projects would be of limited usefulness to Americans who have completely different forms of local government. There are a few examples from Transition groups on the west coast of the United States, but no real analysis of how these groups overcame the high levels of resistance and lack of interest from both ordinary citizens and elected officials that we face in the United States.

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Filed under Environment, United Kingdom, Urban planning

The Very Hungry City

The Very Hungry City : urban energy efficiency and the economic fate of cities by Austin Troy (Yale University Press, 2012).

The premise of this book is that as the cost of energy goes up permanently (due to climate change and exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies), cities that use significantly more energy will lose economic competitiveness to better-designed, more energy efficient cities. Troy doesn’t explore the more radical possibility that the cost of energy could go up so much that cities would become economically isolated. However, he does make a pretty good case that energy efficiency (defined quite broadly to include water supply and public transit) is going to be a major factor in economic success of cities in the rest of this century. He provides some interesting historical background on how transit systems developed (or were not developed) in major metropolitan areas of the U.S., and the issues around suburban sprawl. Troy also offers some comparisons to urban planning approaches in Europe, particularly Sweden and Denmark, where he interviewed bicycle commuters and residents of impressive planned urban housing developments. Throughout the book Troy highlights ideas that reduce urban energy costs (tree planting, congestion pricing, LEED architecture) as examples of what the more successful cities are doing right.

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Filed under Engineering, Environment, Urban planning