This has been a busy summer, full of travel, family changes, work, and good food! During the past three months, I’ve also had a chance to read a few books – a couple just okay, one interesting, and one terrific. So here’s a short summary, from mediocre to recommended.
The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us, by Alison Lurie. I picked up this 2014 book – with its promise to highlight how buildings speak to us in ways simple and complex, formal and informal – with great anticipation. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, I expected great – or at least good – writing that would pull me along. Unfortunately, I found it a simplistic and rather bland work that I had trouble finishing. This is a topic that holds a great deal of promise. Unfortunately, Lurie’s work doesn’t deliver.
The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship by Henry Petroski. I bought this quirky work in Seattle while on my cross-country trip with Claire in 2014. However, I only picked it up to read this year. Petroski, who has written a best-seller on The Pencil, has been called the poet laureate of engineering. With The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors, Petroski explores the craftsmanship and decision-making that goes into a Maine retreat he has purchased with his wife, photographer Catherine Petroski. There were times when I thought the detail was a bit too much, but hey – being the son of an engineer – I understand the love of detail that comes with the engineering brain. This is a nice little book for those who care about how buildings are constructed, and for those who love picking things apart.
The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey D. Sachs. When economist Jeffrey Sachs writes, “We are a technology-rich, advertising-fed, knowledge-poor society,” I wanted to stand up and cheer. The first half of this book outlines – in clear and compelling fashion – what ails America today. “Corporatocracy” is his favorite word, as he notes again and again – in compelling fashion – how corporate abuse of our political system has led to deeper cynicism in the American public. Unfortunately, the prescriptions – as laid out by Sachs in the last half of the book – are less compelling and often don’t account for the difficulties that would have to be overcome to be enacted. There is a “this is what we have to do” tone to Sachs’ work that – while serious – comes across as naive. There really isn’t a guide for how to pull together to enact necessary reforms – and that may not be the purpose of the book. But I feel that it would have more impact if Sachs addressed those challenges.
House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest by Craig Childs. When I was hiking in Southeast Utah with colleagues from work, I asked Amy Cole of our Denver office to recommend a good book that would help put what I had seen in context. She immediately directed me to Craig Childs and House of Rain – and am I glad she did.
Childs – described as a naturalist and adventurer – is at heart a natural-born story-teller. In this page-turner of a book, he takes the reader through his travels from Chaco Canyon north to Chimney Rock and Mesa Verde, and then through Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa, Monument Valley…and on and on until he ends up along the Sierra Madre in Northern Mexico. The purpose of this extended walk? To find out what happened to the Ancestral Puebloans who – according to long-held belief – simply “disappeared” from this landscape in the thirteenth century after building incredible dwellings and cities exemplified by Chaco and Mesa Verde.
Childs walks many of these landscapes and – calling on new scholarship and his own strong powers of observation – makes a case that these people did not disappear, but moved South – all the way into Northern Mexico – in a structured and planned migration. He leads the reader on a journey that ends with “the story the Spanish conquistadors” told a hundred years before the Mayflower…a story of endless indigenous settlements, adobe pueblos, well-planned streets, elaborate markets. In other words, a land widely populated with a highly ordered civilization. Until recently, the story of the Jesuit missionaries, who entered the area in the seventeenth century and found a sparsely populated landscape leading them to dismiss the conquistadors’ claims, held sway. But Childs makes a compelling case that European plagues accomplished what the conquistadors could not in wiping out a population that may have been as high as 90,000 living below the west slope of the northern Sierra Madre.
While standing on the Colorado/Utah border – about one-third of the way through the book – Childs gives the reader thoughts on what is to come.
The logic is simple. If the Anasazi left, they had to go somewhere. Their civilization did not end here, as is so often believed. Gone from the Four Corners by the end of the thirteenth century, they took many paths away from this place. A diaspora spread into the rest of the Southwest along ancient migratory routes and lanes of trade. The Anasazi moved on like a spectacular road show, carrying with the foundations of their culture: signature T shapes, dazzling pottery, lofty architecture, and a penchant for corn. They did not disappear. In fact, a larger future lay before them, and they left a trail to follow to get there….
Childs is compelling because he treats the Ancestral Puebloans as the real people they are, and he gives their story the dignity it deserves.
More to come…