A Review of “The Space Between”

Cover of the The Space Between by Eric JacobsenIt’s funny…or perhaps sad….how the academic sorts of reading that I pushed through in grad school is now attractive to me as reading in my spare time. I suppose that, by the time I was reaching the end of my master’s program, I was sort of just realizing my true passions. Around that time is when I became fascinated by theological examinations of culture. I’ve also always been attracted to more urban lifestyles, so a theological examination of urbanism….or, more precisely, new urbanism…was bound to pique my interest.

The Space Between, while a dense read and obviously an academic text, is engaging from every angle. Jacobsen begins with detailed examinations and explanations of the disciplines of city planning, urbanism, and new urbanism, taking the reader into an exploration of how sidewalks fall into the design of a city, how sight-lines should terminate on an urban horizon (particularly fascinating if you have any background in theatre), and other minutiae of the process of laying out an urban environment that will bring enjoyment to most readers simply by exposing them to the knowledge of a field of which most of us know nothing. Then, with a firm understanding in place, we dive into the theological examination of urban spaces.

A foundational premise of Jacobsen’s work is that public spaces are intended for use, but are activated by use. He is intentional about defining his subject as the “built environment,” separate from the natural environment but existing alongside. This is the environment with which we engage and that is more than just buildings and streets and shops, but includes the in-between places…alleyways, the spaces between buildings, and parking lots…all of which have an effect on our lives. Interestingly, as I read this, I remembered several foundational events in my life that took place against the backdrop of parking lots.

Another of the author’s primary assertions is that the industrialized transition from a pedestrian society to an automobile society de-humanized our interactions. Streets no longer accounted for walking after the industrial revolution, but were built to accommodate automobiles, instead. This pushed our interactions out, away from homes that we previously could walk by as we traversed our environment and potentially interact with neighbors, yet now we are all walled off in our vehicles, not only limited in our interactions with one another, but tending to view each other as less than human as we are encased by steel.

Zoning laws (something that the author is firmly against) then moved homes and businesses apart, disadvantaging many because a vehicle is now required to do even the most mundane of tasks in many places in our country. Public transit is generally not a priority. A by-product of this, the author describes, is the “safe haven” philosophy, a relatively recent evolution in Western thought. In this philosophy, we view our homes as safe havens within which we can isolate ourselves from interaction with the world. The practical upshot of this is that Christian influence in our communities and the public sphere (or, at least, meaningful Christian influence) has diminished. We no longer have to engage with our neighborhoods, and often don’t. Our children don’t learn how to do so as a result.

The way to effect change in the polis, Jacobsen argues, is to engage the neighborhoods in which we live. When problems arise, engaging with other and working them out, instead of immediately calling the police, for example. I can’t help but think, as well, that this reduces the need for excessive law enforcement in our communities, and just may, were it to become a common practice, divert us away from our march toward a police state, as well.

Jacobsen goes on to describe a church liturgical interface with the built environment, which I won’t outline here as it is lengthy, but it is compelling.

For all of the author’s excellent points, he is absolutist in his framing of his theological engagement from the standpoint that human dignity is only affirmed and protected when in a well-functioning urban environment. I find this to be strikingly short-sighted, as it ignores a large portion of our country that lives in rural environments. In these rural environments, not having an automobile (a state in which Jacobsen implies is closer to Godliness….I don’t entirely disagree, but…) is not an option. There is a sense that the author views rural environments as somehow lesser, which, for all of his thought-provoking points, is a perception that we can scarcely afford given today’s culture wars.

Still, The Space Between will change the way you view your engagement with your neighborhoods, working space, and others around you for the better. If your academic interests lean at all in this direction, or if this sounds at all interesting to you, then this is certainly a worthwhile read.

A Review of “World Without Mind”

Cover image of "World Without Mind", taken from audiobookMuch as the author does in the beginning of World Without Mind, which is interestingly split between being opinion and being investigative journalism, I’ll admit my own pre-conceptions going in. Namely, I don’t require any convincing that Amazon and Facebook are evil, and, given my recent suspicions, I would require little to nudge my opinion of Google over the same line. So, of course, this book quickly slid to the top of my to-read list given the description.

The author, too, admits his bias at the beginning of the work. He was an editor for the New Republic who was displaced when the magazine was purchased by a Silicon Valley investor who had come from Facebook and, so we are told, sold the magazine’s soul of liberal tradition in the interest of clicks. To Foer’s credit, he admits the lens of frustration through which he writes early. I think that he underestimates the level at which it colors his work.

This book is curious, equal parts history, op-ed, and social theory. He has done his research on the foundations of Google, Facebook and Amazon, and he doesn’t mince words in condemning their questionable practices. My hesitation was in the missing sources in his work, but I read this an audiobook, which doesn’t really lend itself to referencing footnotes or endnotes as a format. So, I honestly don’t know if these are present or not. If not, then the journalistic integrity is obviously called into question.

What becomes at times odd, however, is Foer’s digression into what I can only describe as conspiracy theory. He paints a dystopian undercurrent to our present, theorizing how Facebook and Google conspire to be the sole entities to possess all of the data of our personal lives, using it to manipulate us into thinking and feeling how they want us to think and feel, and to purchase what they want us to purchase. I don’t think that he’s entirely wrong. His condemnation of the algorithm in particular, however, paints more of an image of an eccentric professor ranting against an evil that only he can see more than it does a serious journalist giving us facts in order to inform our choices.

His denunciation of Amazon is more focused on corrupt business practices than the other giants in his crosshairs. Again, I miss sources, but the history he outlines of Bezos’ empire is a damning portrait of a power-hungry business intent upon devouring any competitor in order to become the only source from which we can ever purchase anything.

Foer also spends some time speaking of the fate of the writer and the de-valuation of intellectual property in the Internet age. His feeling is that the dorm-room philosophy of tech giants is to abolish all individual credit to any writer as part of the process of implementing the hive mind. For all of his valuable points as to how writers are continually not paid their worth, and to how print journalism in general is overwhelmed by less intellectual forms of media, this smacks of paranoia and the curmudgeonly punches of one done wrong.

World Without Mind is thought-provoking for all of its shortcomings. While the concluding call to action falls flat, I do find myself examining the trust that I place in Google in particular (my own condemnation of Facebook and Amazon were solidified long ago), and I have found myself beginning to change some of the choices that I have made in how I engage these services.

Anyone who uses social media and e-commerce without questioning would be served at some level by this book. My concern is that Foer is unable to detach from his personal bias sufficiently to present an argument in a compelling enough way to sway the opinion of the majority of readers. I can’t help but feel that there’s a darker truth under the surface of our daily interactions with the Internet that Foer is sensing and the rest of us are downplaying. Hopefully that is my own conspiratorial imagination at work.

A Review of “Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism”

I stumbled onto this book quite by accident, but it had a lot going for it fairly immediately. While I had not read Miller’s work on Daredevil, I, like most any other comics fan, had read (and come away with strong feelings about) his Batman retcon The Dark Knight Returns. That said, Daredevil has always been a favorite character of mine…indeed, the first comic that I ever seriously collected, although after Miller’s run…and so seeing what Miller had done with this character fascinated me.

I’ll preface everything else here by saying that, if this book grabs your attention at all (and you’ve likely stopped reading by now if it doesn’t), then you really should read the source material before reading Young’s analysis. I took the time to do so and it won’t take long….about five collected volumes of graphic novels, none difficult reads, an you’ll be up to date. Doing so gave me a great appreciation for Miller’s work in and of itself. I didn’t really appreciate just how influential his writing was on the character, nor how much of his influence shows up in the recent Netflix series. I particularly enjoyed Miller’s forward in one of these collections, in which he discusses that Daredevil had always fascinated him because, given his history, he should have been a villain, yet chose to be a hero.

Miller’s re-telling of Daredevil’s origin certainly takes a rocky road to get there, but I tend to agree.

This isn’t so much about Miller’s writing, though, as Young’s analysis of Miller’s writing. Young describes Daredevil here as the most Christian of superheroes, which piqued my theological interest. The rationale for this statement is that Daredevil’s focus is always on compassion  for the victim, rather than justice or revenge on the criminal. Within the confines that Daredevil inherently struggles by adhering to the rule of law while still acting as a vigilante, this is a fascinating take. Young also feels that the current Netflix series isn’t truthful to Daredevil as a character because it seems to focus him on seeking revenge. Again, insightful perspectives and criticisms.

There’s an interlude in the middle of the book that attempts to ground the the author’s thesis theologically, but it’s strange. The writing style becomes oddly introspective. That said, the writing style throughout the book is very conversational, and I found myself often wanting it to be more academic given the subject matter. The issue is that the writing is conversational to a fault, including foul language at times, and that detracts from the seriousness of the analysis. I get the motivation to make the topic more accessible to a wider number of readers…this is sort of a comics apologetic in places…but the book suffers for this choice overall.

Perhaps the best part of this book is that Young writes as much as historian as he does literary critic, giving a detailed look into how the comics industry functioned at the time that Miller began working on Daredevil. This was certainly informative for me…as much as I’ve always loved the medium, I had no clue as to these inner workings. We also learn how influential Miller was on the industry and how artists are treated therein, especially within Marvel Comics, which was an entertaining account.

I enjoyed Young outlining Miller’s work on making Bullseye a villain to be taken (very) seriously, as well as his creation of Elektra, whom, as any Daredevil fan knows, is integral to Matt Murdock’s story. Young also gives an insightful analysis of the artwork decisions on Miller’s run, and the intent conveyed in those panels, which I found intriguing.

In the end, the author lands where most critics have with Miller’s perceived artistic and social digression in recent years, but does so while still respecting his contributions both to the character of Daredevil and to the medium of comics in general. If you’re a comics fan, and certainly if you’re as much a fan of Daredevil as I am, then this book is a must-read.

A Review of “Ethel and Ernest”

I found Ethel and Ernest waiting for me one evening on my nightstand. This is the home of my “to-read stack,” or at least the non-digital incarnations in my to-read list. This small volume had been laid to the side…not inserting itself onto the top of the stack, but rather existing as a suggestion off to the right. Initially thinking this was a book for our daughter’s reading lessons, I passed it by. Then Karen told me that she had checked it out from our library, and that I really should read it.

Opening its pages and discovering it to be a graphic novel intrigued me, so I allowed it to skip ahead of others on the list and read it next. I am unbelievably glad that I did.

Ethel and Ernest is an artist’s recollection of his parents…the story of their lives told as he remembers and has pieced it together. One reviewer called it a “love story,” and that phrase resonates as I have found myself thinking about the book…unpacking it, journaling through its impact on my life, an impact disproportionate to its small size.

We initially encounter Ethel and Ernest as they meet and fall in love in 1920’s London. We watch them work through their relationship as the world goes to war, the horrors of what was faced as they sent their son away to the country to be safe, the stories we’ve all read in history books taking on a completely new depth when we witness how it played out in the lives of this ordinary couple. We watch them become lost in the pace of industrial and technological change, loving the new conveniences (she cannot believe how fast the washing machine gets their clothes clean) while grappling with the enormity of how their lives are altered by them. I adore the scene in which they buy a car and go riding down the street, in disbelief that they could afford such luxury.

We walk through their remembering their early romance later in life, watch them struggle with the alienation from their son (the author of the book) as they struggle to adapt to the things that he just accepts.

I feel as though I know Ethel and Ernest now, like I’ve met them. I feel like I know how they tried their best as life rushed by, how they found ways to cope with their profound political disagreements. Perhaps this is inevitable with such a work, whether it’s Brigg’s intention or not, but I can’t help but see my own parents here. They still sit in the same house in which I grew up, and I can picture them waiting for their son to visit or call, uncertain at times of how to adapt to a world that is merciless in the speed with which it changes.

I can hear Brigg’s sorrow at his frustration with them. I can feel my own love for my daughter as I watch  Earnest’s affection for his son. In short, I see that I have so much connecting me…all of us…with Ethel and Ernest, because their lives were ordinary, albeit lived in extraordinary times. Any of us can, and likely will, live through very similar struggles and triumphs.

I think that is why I fought back tears over Earnest’s loneliness in the end.

Brigg’s remorse over his broken relationship with his parents is never explicitly stated, but is an unmistakeable through-line, palpably felt in the jagged speech bubbles and the stark lines of his drawings of himself,  making the reader painfully aware of his disproportionate responses. Ethel, always seeing their family as proper and never “common,” persists in offering him a comb whenever they see each other, which we see as adorable but which was a source of much friction in their relationship. I think that she just wanted to take care of him in a manner of which she was deprived by the war. Later, he accepts the comb, no longer feeling judged, some peace made before the end, before Ethel and Ernest pass away alone and in the cruelest of circumstances after giving their life together everything.

I see so much of not only my parents in them, but also of Karen and I. I wonder how our daughters will remember our lives when we are gone.

In the end, we find the author and his wife looking at the house which Ethel and Ernest bought together. He states with some wonder that they lived in the same house for 40 years and never moved. That home becomes a metaphor for Ethel and Ernest’s devotion to each other. The horrors that they witnessed, the turmoil through which they lived, made them stronger, more resilient in their commitment to their marriage and to their son. They stayed together until the end in a way that I hope to, and were stronger for it.

This achievement alone, if it can be replicated, can be called a successful life.

This little graphic novel carries so much weight. I am not the same as before I read it. I do not treat my relationships the same, I do not view our world the same. Neither, I suspect, will you. I am so glad that Briggs has given us the chance to become acquainted with Ethel and Ernest.

I encourage you to take the opportunity.

A Review of “Jennifer Government”

Jennifer GovernmentI had marked another of Barry’s novels to read some time ago and never gotten around to it, and the premise of this book was even more compelling. I’m generally a fan of dystopian science fiction, though, so this was almost guaranteed to be an enjoyable read. Still Jennifer Government provides a compelling…and extremely timely…story.

The setting is a near future in which America has overtaken a number of other countries and thus spread the dominance of a handful of major corporations through most of the world. Taxes in American countries are no more, and an impotent government that relies on fundraising struggles to police the law against corporate forces, such as the ubiquitous NRA, which have the freedom to do whatever they like in pursuit of profit, including murder. In this future, people are born with no last names. Their identity is entirely associated with the corporation for which they work, and they take on the company’s name as their last name upon employment. Children take on the last name of the corporation sponsoring the school which they attend. Being un-employed, or self-employed, leaves one with no name, no identity. One’s life is entirely dependent upon being consumed by a corporation.

I should point out that, while dystopian, this is a comedy, and Barry’s dry wit is present throughout the story. Characters, such as Billy NRA, find themselves in outright hysterical situations that leave the reader laughing while unable to escape the nagging through-line woven into the setting of every scene.

Not that the through-line is at all subtle. And, as comedic are the scenarios in which our characters find themselves, the development and internal lives of the characters are often flat, and certainly secondary to the story. The point of this novel isn’t the characters, nor is it so much the plot, but rather the world which is its setting, and, while this sounds as though it would be completely dysfunctional and without any chance of working, it keeps the reader turning the pages with a surprising amount of engagement.

Barry’s writing style is quick, overly abrupt in places, and this is one of the most prominent criticisms that I’ve read in other reviews. As this is the first of his work that I’ve read, I can’t speak to whether or not this is his writing style, but it seems as though it’s a device in itself to place the reader into this comically frightening world.

Many would discard this novel as an anti-capitalist diatribe, but doing so misses something deeper going on here. The future in which Barry places his reader is one in which there is no room for thinking against conventional wisdom. Critical thought has been over-run by marketing. Taking time to think, or to live or care for one’s loved ones, means that one is not being productive in one’s employment. Propaganda rules, and different ways of thinking are not tolerated. In its absolute freedom, society has paradoxically given up its soul.

This is a light and quick read, but one that will continue stay present in your mind, and in your perception, in troubling ways long after you’ve finished laughing your way through its pages. Considering the climate in which we live, the setting of this novel, which becomes its own character in many ways, is a warning not only of what is to come, but of what has already arrived. While a bit heavy-handed at times, this is still a worthwhile read for anyone who would like to have their thoughts provoked.

Jennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars