Book Review: Do It Anyway by Courtney E. Martin

Author: Courtney E. Martin
Title: Do it anyway : the next generation of activists
Publication Info: Boston : Beacon Press, c2010.


Martin (who I didn’t discover until after reading the book is an editor for one of my favorite blogs interviews and tells the stories of 8 people under the age of 35 who are contributing to their communities as activists.  Martin takes the approach that this generation has been told from generation that they need to “save the world” but are often criticized for being aloof and narcissistic.  Through these essays Martin shows that while they can’t “save the world” there are in fact many young people who are far from self-centered.

These include:

  • Rachel Corrie, a peace activist killed by a bulldozer as she attempted to prevent the Israelis  from destroying a Palestinian home.  Martin goes beyond the sensationalist headlines to tell the story of Corrie’s hopes for transformation through peace.
  • Raul Diaz, a  social worker who helps young men reenter society after prison sentence as part of his work with Homeboy Industries.  Diaz lives a life shattered by gang violence and persists despite the deaths of many friends and mentees.
  • Maricela Guzman is an activist for veterans and against the military culture that contributed to her being raped by an officer and failing to get the support she needed after the attack.  A highlight of this chapter is when Martin brings together Diaz and Guzman together to share common experiences of trauma and violence.
  • Emily Abt who found her voice as an activist through making documentary and dramatic films through Pureland Pictures.
  • Nia Martin-Robinson, an environmental justice advocate, who carries on her family’s activist tradition by fighting pollution’s inordinate damage on communities of poor and people of color (as well as giving a minority voice often shunned by the green movement).
  • Tyrone Boucher, who chose to establish a philanthropy to give away his trust fund and fight for social justice outside the confines of the capitalist system.
  • Rosario Dawson, an actress who dedicates much of her time away from the set to various charities and social causes.
  • Dena Simmons, a teacher who grew up in the Bronx and remains as an inspirational teacher to her middle school students.

These are all inspiring stories of people doing good in their communities tied together by their common respect for humanity, perseverance, and big dreams with strategic visions.  This is a good book to read if you want to read something positive about people in our world today.

Recommended books: Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and From the pews in the back : young women and Catholicism by Kate Dugan.

Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

Author: Steven Johnson
Title: Where good ideas come from : the natural history of innovation
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead, 2010.
ISBN: 9781594487712

Previously read by the same author: Emergence


I’m pleased I won a copy of this book by one of my favorite science writers through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  In engaging prose Johnson explores through historical examples and case studies how people come up with great ideas.  It’s not the lone genius with a light bulb popping up over their head.

Johnson discusses that innovation is possible within the adjacent possible when a number of factors come together to allow a new idea to work (on the shoulders of giants to speak).  Strong networks – whether they be cities, the Web, or universities – inevitably contribute to greater innovation the solitary inventor.  Ideas also come over time, the slow hunch, where something in the back of one’s mind only becomes a possibility after years of interactions and research.  Error and serendipity play their part as well.   Johnson also discusses the idea of expatation where something built for one purpose is borrowed for an entirely different function.  Platforms are also important for the development of further innovations.

In an interesting conclusion, Johnson makes the case against the accepted belief of free-market competition being the greatest source of innovation (although state-controlled command economies are not the solution either).  Instead Johnson calls for continued support of research universities where networks are formed and ideas shared.  I enjoyed this book and I think it helped me look at innovation in new ways.

Recommended books: Connections by James Burke, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order by Steven H. Strogatz, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath.

Book Review: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

Author: Rebecca Solnit
Title: Wanderlust : a history of walking
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2000.
ISBN: 0670882097


I like walking and a history of walking intrigued me.  It was not quite what I expected as Solnit takes a philosophical and metaphysical approach to the concept of walking.  The book includes ruminations on the biology of walking, pilgrimages, famed walkers like Peace Pilgrim, meditative walking, poets who walk (Wordsworth), walking clubs, hiking, climbing, walking in the city and the affects of sexual discrimination and racism on walkers, among many other topics.  The last chapter is an interesting contrast of Las Vegas, a notoriously unfriendly city to walkers, developing a pedestrian core.  Solnit insisted that her own story be part of the history by necessity, but I wish she hadn’t as she comes across as preachy and didactic.  Her voice appears throughout the text as one of nagging disapproval and it hampers my enjoyment of this book.

Favorite Passages:

“We talked about the more stately sense of time one has afoot and on public transit, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute,and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot.  Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other.  On foot evertything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors.  One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” – p.9

“The new treadmills have two-horsepower engines.  Once, a person might have hitched two horses to a carriage to go out into the world without walking; now she might plug in a two-horsepower  motor to walk without going out into the world. … So the treadmill requires far more economic and ecological interconnection that does taking a walk, but it makes far fewer experiential connections.” – p. 265

Recommended books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, Lights Out for the Territory by Iain Sinclair and Snowshoeing Through Sewers: Adventures in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia by Michael Aaron Rockland

Rating: **

Book Review: A City So Grand by Stephen Puleo

Author: Stephen Puleo
Title: A city so grand : the rise of an American metropolis, Boston 1850-1900
Publication Info: Boston : Beacon Press, 2010.
ISBN: 9780807050439

Previously read by the same author: Dark Tide


I looked forward to reading this book with great anticipation and was not disappointed.  With a certain amount of civic pride, I enjoyed this history of Boston’s many municipal accomplishments during the period 1850-1900.

Boston’s greatest hits of the half-century include:

  • Leadership in the abolition movement and opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law.
  • The Great Railroad Jubilee celebrating rail connections to Montreal & port improvements for ships to Europe as well.
  • Waves of immigration from Ireland and Italy and the perseverance of the new residents on the city.
  • The filling of Back Bay and development of a new upscale neighborhood.
  • Bostonians in the Civil War.
  • Emancipation and black regiments in the Civil War.
  • The National Peace Jubilee featuring a specially designed Great Coliseum in Copley Square and 1000-member choir and orchestra.
  • Expansion of Boston through immigration and annexation.
  • The Great Fire of 1872, recovery, and innovation of new fire prevention techniques.
  • The first subway in the United States going underground in 1897.

Other interesting tidbits I learned from this book include:

* At one time the Boston Archdiocese required English-only confessions in the Italian North End.

* On the day of Alexander Graham Bell’s burial all telephone service in the United States was suspended for one minute (I wonder what will happen when Tim Berners-Lee dies).

* Walter Dodd is the real-life Good Will Hunting going from janitor to physician experimenting with x-rays.

This is a great book for anyone who loves Boston and an uplifting history of what a community can accomplish through perseverance and direction.

Recommended books: Boston’s Back Bay: The Story of America’s Greatest Nineteenth-Century Landfill Project by William Newman, Change at Park Street Under;: The story of Boston’s subways by Brian J. Cudahy, Eminent Bostonians by Thomas H. O’Connor, A Game of Brawl: The Orioles, the Beaneaters, and the Battle for the 1897 Pennant by Bill Felber, Local Attachments: The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850 to 1920 by Alexander Von Hoffman.
Rating: ****