Quick Review: Egan’s books The Invisible Circus, Look at Me, A Visit From the Goon Squad

After reading several positive reviews of Jennifer Egan’s newest book, I decided to read her earlier work. Here are my thoughts after reading three of her first four novels:

1. One of the more consistent themes is tying together the past with the present and future, both in the personal stories of the characters as well as broader social forces that are always swirling around and threatening to sweep them along. For example, one of the main characters in Look at Me is trying to connect the past of Rockford, Illinois to a vision of the future. He is convinced that the decline of this Rust Belt city will illuminate important paths forward. Or, the characters in The Invisible Circus are trying to figure out what their actions as teenagers mean for their barely-formed adult lives.

2. All of the characters are flawed – sometimes by their own actions and other times through their family – and they are searching for answers. Rarely do they find them. Dreams are remembered yet lost as the characters can’t quite figure out how they got to this point of adult existence. Relationships burst with intensity and then fade. Success is fleeting. A Visit From the Goon Squad does a lot with this: even as the story lines come together to suggest that our future lives may not be very desirable, we are shown intriguing yet short glimpses of characters and relationships spanning several decades.

3. Across the three books, there are a number of settings ranging from San Francisco to Rockford to New York City to European locations big and small. The communities are present but also not present. They come and go in broad strokes. To illustrate, New York City is featured and the characters stagger around and big landmarks and ideas are mentioned but there is little tangible connection to places. Perhaps this is how people truly do live their lives these days as they focus on their private selves.

4. Much of the time I was reading these three books, I could not shake the idea that these works are heavily influenced by Tom Wolfe. The characters are caught between the cosmos and their day-to-day concerns. The language is loose and evocative. There seem to be larger messages and commentary about societal change though perhaps the clearest message is that modern individuals have no idea of how to figure any of this out.

All in all, I found the stories engaging and thought-provoking. However, they also had an ephemeral quality. Do they provide some deep insights into who we are today and where we are headed? Or, are they a cleverly-constructed yet ultimately common story of human frailty? It may take some time for me to answer these queries in my own mind even as literary critics seem to think Egan is asking the right questions.

 

Quick Review: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

I recently read both White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. These two books address the same topic – the white lower class in America – yet have several notable differences. Here is my quick review:

  1. The topic may be the same but the method and genre are quite different. Isenberg covers 400+ years of history while Vance tells the story of his own life. This difference in genre matters: Isenberg has a lot to cover and has difficulty providing details at points. The early history of poor white settlers is particularly interesting as convicts and lower-class residents of England were sent to the colonies. At the same time, there is little depth for the most recent decades and the narrative tends to solely follow presidential politics. On the other hand, Vance is writing a memoir. While he hints at broader trends, occasionally speaks for all hillbillies, and cites some academic studies, he primarily focuses on his own journey in a geographic area including southeastern Ohio, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. Together, these two books provide an outsider and insider perspective.
  2. Their political approaches differ. Isenberg provides some of this in the introduction as well as in the most recent history as she does not think the Republican party has much to offer working-class whites. In contrast, Vance does not think government is the answer to improving the lives of hillbillies and consistently affirms their agency and need to make good choices. Vance’s book is blurbed by prominent conservatives and he leans toward Republican or libertarian approaches. It would be interesting to consider the alternative approaches: an academic history that promotes a conservative approach and a memoir that pushes a liberal perspective.
  3. What they attribute the causes of the poor white or hillbilly life varies and hints at the complexity of this issue. Isenberg shows that the need for cheap labor has always been at the root of American social and economic life. Poor whites have been treated poorly from the beginning of the country. In particular, Isenberg highlights the interaction between poor white labor and slavery which foments resentment between blacks and poor whites even though both were exploited for centuries. On the flip side, Vance focuses more on the passing down of values within families and communities. In other words, hillbillies become hillbillies because this is the life they know and experience from their families and neighbors. Breaking this cycle is very difficult, even for someone who spends four years in the Marines and graduates from Yale Law School.

Even with (or even because of) these differences, I would recommend reading these two books together. There are clearly patterns in American history regarding poor whites (Isenberg) even as individual stories can differ with the influence of notable family members and contexts (Vance). While we do not have to go so far as Vance does in suggesting these problems cannot be solved, these two approaches do display the complexity of the situation. Those looking for a quick political fix in terms of helping Democrats appeal to poor whites again or looking for people to find family values and pull themselves up by their bootstraps will likely to be disappointed. This is a long-standing issue rooted in centuries of oppression and it still brings about much personal pain.

Quick Review: One Big Home

A documentary involving McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard I blogged about earlierOne Big Home – has now been released. Here are some thoughts I had after reviewing the film:

  1. This is an engaging story. The promotional material says it was filmed over 12 years yet the time goes quickly as it puts together interviews, public meeting footage, and striking images of both natural and man-made settings from Martha’s Vineyard.
  2. The documentary does a nice job representing multiple points of view. While the filmmaker clearly dislikes these trophy homes – though there is a point where his public activism regarding the issue wavers after the birth of his first child – the film presents local workers, ranging from carpenters to architects to builders, and residents defending property rights and expressing concern about a community imposing regulations on construction.
  3. The filmmaker’s personal story also enriches the film. As he and his soon to be wife learn they are expecting a child, they see a need for more space and a more permanent home. They employ an architect and end up constructing a home around 2,500-3,000 square feet (depending on whether the lofts are used). The film displays some of his own personal quandaries regarding how much space they really need and whether it is worth it to have upgrades in the home. This leads to a basic question: when Americans do feel they need more space, how much space should they be able to acquire?
  4. If there are two parts of the film that could use a little expansion or more explanation, here is what I would vote for.
    1. At the end, the community debates a cap on the square footage for new homes. This is an important part of the entire process yet it goes by pretty quickly in the documentary. It feels like an epilogue when there is a lot of process that might be interesting to show. Ultimately, how exactly did the public conversation develop to lead to an overwhelming majority in the end? What were some of the successful and less successful steps in putting this cap in place?
    2. We see a lot about Chilmark but hear very little about the rest of Martha’s Vineyard. How does this small community interact with the other doings on the island? From the footage, this part of the island is more rural but there are likely some interesting comparisons to be made.

This is a well put together documentary that asks questions facing many American communities: what should be done regarding the construction of large homes? The future of many American communities and the residents affected therein will be affected by these choices.

What is the punishment for building a 30,000 square foot home without permission?

A developer in Los Angeles is facing some consequences for building a large home:

Hadid and the city attorney’s office met in private Thursday morning, after which Hadid’s attorneys said their client is close to a guilty plea for violating the city building code by building a 30,000-square-foot spec home at 901 Strada Vecchia, the Courier reported.

The real estate mogul — best known from appearances on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and as the father of supermodel Gigi Hadid — will still face a mix of public service and fines, as well as a potential ban from building in L.A., according to the Courier.

Hadid’s attorneys argue that if sentencing could be delayed, he could bring the property into compliance so any potential criminal conviction would be erased…

The real estate mogul was charged in late 2015 with building a spec mansion without a permit, illegally using land, and failing to comply with orders from the L.A. Department of Building and Safety to halt construction. Angry neighbors called the project “starship enterprise.”

I’m not sure what you would do to someone who constructs such a home. Jail them?

I know the burden is on the owner here but I wonder why the city didn’t step in at some point during the process. Most locales have people checking permits and codes along the way. And if the home was so large and attracting the attention of neighbors, why wasn’t this stopped?

Finally, the headline for this story calls this home a McMansion. The architecture may lend itself to this; the included picture suggests the exterior is designed to impress and the neighbors certainly had an interesting moniker for the home. Yet, it is a home with 30,000 square feet. It would be one thing to quickly construct a 3,000 square foot home but 30,000 square feet is on a whole level up.

Quick Review: Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb

I recently read anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Here are some thoughts about the study:

  1. I was drawn to this because even though a majority of Americans live in suburbs, there is a lack of in-depth studies of their experiences and social lives. I realize it is not a sexy topic – everyone thinks they know everything about suburbs – but there are plenty of interesting topics to pursue.
  2. The book is a little unusual in that it seems to be published a good amount of time after the research was done. Heiman undertook the research for her dissertation but the book was not published until 2015. This is not necessarily bad as time can give a researcher an opportunity to truly think about what they have found. At the same time, Heiman interprets some of her findings in light of the housing bubble and economic crisis of the late 2000s even though her research was from an earlier period.
  3. The best part of the analysis in my opinion was the chapter on a battle in the local school district. The New Jersey residents were part of a district that included a number of communities and when the district had to decide how to spread resources and which schools students should attend, the communities fought each other. In particular, the wealthier parts of the district generally did not want their children to have to attend the other schools which either had populations of lower-class or minority residents. Another chapter looked at how a community negotiated a request from a homeowner to place a gate across his driveway, a move interpreted by his neighbors and local leaders as an exclusionary effort. At other points, Heiman noted how residents reacted when she mentioned that she was living in a more affordable but less well regarded nearby suburb. More broadly, the analysis was better when it pointed out inter-suburban differences and how suburbanites negotiated their various statuses.
  4. The overall argument was that these suburbanites are trapped in a destabilizing neoliberal system. While this argument makes sense, I’m not sure it is too much different than critiques of suburbia dating back to the mid-1950s. Some of the same themes are present: conformity, squabbles over local class differences rather than looking at the larger social and economic system, anxiety, an emphasis on children, etc. While there are not enough studies of suburbs, we also need new approaches and arguments. And, there is still a basic question for studies of suburbs to consider: if life is so problematic in suburbs, why do many Americans still seek them out? If they are not dupes and have agency, what are viable alternatives to sprawling suburbs that offer what many Americans say they want?
  5. One topic I would have enjoyed reading more about: experiences inside housing. There is a chapter that takes an unconventional approach to this topic through examining the portions of homes with new carpet that is intended to impress visitors (and that children must not walk on with shoes).

In the end, I’m not sure this text would make my short list of excellent ethnographies of suburban life. At the same time, it has some strong moments and I could imagine using the chapter on school districts in courses.

Quick Review: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

Joining the subjects of crime and architecture, A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is an interesting if not repetitive read. Some thoughts about a book that would intrigue many general readers:

  1. Manaugh’s main argument is that criminals – burglars in particular – see buildings and cities in very different ways compared to architects. While architects assume people will use the correct entrances and the rest of the building as it is intended, burglars are always looking for unique ways in and out of buildings which leads to going through walls, roofs, and floors. Additionally, the locations of buildings can significantly affect burglary – such as the banks right next to highway on and off ramps in the Los Angeles area. In other words, these criminals are hackers of the built landscape.
  2. Manaugh talks to a number of law enforcement people and records some interesting insights. The best people he talks to are from Los Angeles as he travels with the helicopter crews and tries to see the city from above as well as spot criminal activity from this vantage points.
  3. Oddly, Manaugh doesn’t spend much time talking to architects. Do they think they should pay more attention to possible criminal behavior? Do they need to change how they think about buildings? He does talk to one creator of safe rooms.
  4. Overall, Manaugh seems a bit in awe of the burglars who can see the landscape in the ways that no one else can. He basically admits this at the beginning of the last chapter – he likes heist films – and admits at a few points that the vast majority of burglaries are connected to drugs.

This is an interesting read and those who like examples of daring criminals – such as those bank robbers who build tunnels under bank vaults, emerge from the floor, and escape through water tunnels on 4x4s – will find plenty to like. Yet, Manaugh doesn’t go far enough to connecting of how architects and city planners should respond or even if they should – perhaps this is just collateral damage of living in American cities today.

Quick Review: Evicted

I recently read Matthew Desmond’s much discussed work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Here are my thoughts on the ethnographic work.

  1. The book is certainly readable as he tells the stories of a number of tenants and landlords in the Milwaukee area. The plight of the tenants is striking and the landlords are also an interesting group (particularly Sherrena who wanted to tell her story). Of course, such readability may not impress some sociologists who prefer more scientific prose (and who complain about the work of Venkatesh or Goffman) but this should reach a broader public. The narratives have some summary data and causal explanations sprinkled in but the emphasis is on the stories.
  2. One of the more impressive features of this work is the quantitative data that it also draws on. This information is buried in the footnotes but Desmond also developed several quantitative datasets that helped (1) suggest his stories are not unusual and (2) provide the broader patterns for an issue that is not studied much in sociology.
  3. The biggest takeaway for me: the number of evictions that take place on a regular basis.
  4. The subject area – evictions – certainly needs more attention. I’ve read my share of work on affordable housing in the last decade but rarely did I see this issue mentioned. As Desmond notes, big cities have a sizable population of people who consistently have to move around due to evictions. Even if there were more housing units – and big cities are often tens of thousands of units short of affordable units – evictions make it difficult to establish roots and settle kids into schools. The final chapter – where Desmond discusses the broader issue and possible solutions – leads off nicely with this idea of a good physical home as the centerpiece of a thriving society.
  5. That said, how common is this issue in suburban areas? As poverty moves to the suburbs as do increasing numbers of minorities, I would expect that evictions are not limited just to larger cities.
  6. One area that gets less attention in this ethnography that may also prove worthwhile to explore further is the legal apparatus. Desmond follows one of the eviction squads and provides some insights into the court process but it would be interesting to hear more from judges (who from the book seem to work against the tenants – though they may just be following the law) as well as local officials (how do public officials respond to these situations).
  7. A second area is thinking about the intersections of race and class. Desmond hints at the influence of race: comparing the experiences of blacks on the North Side of Milwaukee versus whites on the South Side, comments from black and white tenants about the possibilities for living in the other’s neighborhoods, briefly discussing the race of landlords. However, there is a lot more here to unpack, especially given Desmond’s other work on race. Take the two main landlords in the book: one is white, the other black. The first has a more stand-offish approach (working through intermediaries) while the second is more directly involved with tenants. Both are in it for the money and seem to be doing well. How much does their race matter?

An enjoyable read and a work I could imagine using with undergraduates who often have little to no experience with housing issues. I look forward to looking at Desmond’s journal articles that also build on this ethnographic and quantitative data.