Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Address Book – a book review

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deidra Mask (published by Macmillan) is a story-filled and thought provoking book in the vein of Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, and Henry Petroski. Mask puts the very familiar road signs, house numbers, street names, city planning, etc., not just under the magnifying glass, but under the microscope. I was constantly surprised at ‘why things are the way they are and how they got that way’. (I was also surprise just how vulgar some street names are, once you hear their backstory and origins.) Wow.

There are many highlights in the book. But one of the most impressive is how Mask’s ability to connect dots and reveal how relevant history and decisions made generations ago affect our neighborhoods and political decisions today.

The cover of The Address Book was designed by Jonathan Bush.

The Address Book addresses far flung topics, political issues, race relations, and biology, illustrating how our sense of place ties into our brain’s memories of places and the development of the hippocampus or relating tales of how streets got their names, it all seems relevant to us today.

There’s a balance to be struck in addressing, which seems kind of weird to say. But if one has an address then they can vote, participate in local events, have medicines delivered. It is an identity. It is empowering. And being given an address is invaluable to many people struggling in slums and the poorest areas of the planet.

At the same time, once you have an address, some feel dehumanized and that they’re “just a number”. Plus, now the government can track you. They can show up on your doorstep if they don’t like what you’re saying or doing. It’s also a good way for them to reinforce their rule. Some of the stories of dictators changing street names every time power changes hands to “literally put words in your mouth”, so you have to say Hitler Avenue or something like that. Lots of mind games at the street level have been played over the centuries.

Throughout the book there are fascinating tid-bits and stories showing the impact of addressing systems, such as how Mozart got his mail, the millions of dollars some in New York City will pay to have a specific address, the story behind the founding of Philadelphia, and how Washington D.C. got it’s street names. So many interesting talk about stories in this book.

Deidra Mask

Mask does a great job relating her story as she explores and digs deeper. The Address Book isn’t some stale history book. There are people doing things now and these things matter as they can bake in systemic problems or promote growth and unity.

I was very surprised and pleased to learn just how many ‘new ways to address locations’ are under development. Lots of new tech and ways of thinking about our societies and Mask touches on some of the movements briefly, like what3words, and helps highlight the pros and cons.

Which brings me to the highest praise I can give a book. While The Address Book did not feel designed to ‘plant a flag’ or ‘rally the troops’ (it’s a much more fair and balanced book than that), it was a tipping point for me to get involved.

During the first third of the book you’ll read about the Missing Maps group. Think Wikipedia, but for giving addresses to those who need them most and providing accurate maps to health care workers and humanitarian organizations. It’s amazing what a bunch of random folks sitting around with laptops can do. So I signed up! I haven’t attended a mapping party (they’re all over Europe/Britain), but I’ve done a few stints of tracing in Open Street Maps. Pretty cool.

I found The Address Book to be a fast read and while there were a few areas I would’ve enjoyed diving deeper on, the book doesn’t blow anything out of proportion. Which I very much appreciate. It’s full of cultural geographers, historians, epidemiologists, and first hand interviews plus the author’s own experience and thoughts.

This book was sent to me as an advanced galley (with no expectation of review). But I really enjoyed it and I give The Address Book 5 out 5 stars and have been recommending this book to just about everyone. It’s a well done and informative read about something so many of us are privileged enough to take for granted.

Book Review: White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Hari Kunzru’s newest novel White Tears follows a couple privileged hipster college-educated white boys as they try to chase down, record and sell authentic black music from the dawn of the blues era. But what starts out as a snarky take on cultural appropriation and the current music scene in the U.S., ends up taking a dark turn down into the pits of American segregationist history.

For all of the beauty and fresh authentic sounds the American blues brings us, we forget why it’s called the “blues”. The stories, horrors and ghosts that gave birth to all the haunting words and rhythms were real. And it was bad.

Kunzru’s story zips back and forth through time, pulling on threads and connecting dots between the pain that birthed the blues, music laws, the 1960’s music industry and the “only vinyl will do” trends of the current decade.

I enjoyed the beginning of the book and the writing is solid. I wasn’t expecting the honest-to-goodness ghost story that crept up to help drive home the point of cultural appropriation and entitlement, but I have an appreciation for why and how Kunzru did this. Sometimes we just don’t know what we’re messing with and should just leave it alone.

It’s good to stop while reading this book and think about how the ideas are playing out “for real” in the story. It’s easy to forget the sting of all those ideas and themes, once the story starts chugging along and characters start dying and disappearing mysteriously.

I have to admit I’m a sucker for a well done all-type book cover and White Tears does look good (it’s another great one by the modern dust jacket master Peter Mendelsund) face out. Overall, I give White Tears a 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Want Not

Jonathan Miles’ novel Want Not came out 4 years ago, and it seems  even more relevant in 2017. It is my book club’s pick this November and I’m anxiously waiting our next meeting. If everyone read it, I expect there to be no lull in the conversation. It’s really good. And it’s good in that non-thriller sort of way. Which makes it really, really good.

It’s a patient book, drawing out three story lines that all circle this notion of over consumption and waste in America. Watching how the waste and excess of things our culture creates affects families, lovers, businesses, and society as whole, is truly thought provoking.

The story bounces back and forth between homeless folks intentionally “living off the land” of New York City, picking through the trash bins, a professor of linguistics having to get rid of all the things left behind from his divorce while dealing with his ailing father and the owner of a credit card debt collection agency, living in a McMansion neighborhood of a few houses, because the rest haven’t been developed.

One of the more interesting parts linguistic professor’s story is his project of having to write the warning signs for a nuclear dump. It’s to be an underground dump full of excess and spent nuclear materials that remain lethal for 10,000 years. So it’s trash that can kill.

But what language do you write the warning in? Very few languages last more than a few thousand years, what will they be speaking in 10,000 years? He and his cohorts debate symbols, colors, art, language and hieroglyphics. With that comes the realization that most of what archeologists dig up is just trash from thousands of years ago.

Jonathon Miles is probably best known for Dear American Airlines. That book was good and made me chuckle. But Want Not was better in a couple of ways. Want Not made me laugh out loud as well as really think about what society is doing to this planet and each other as we over produce a bunch of junk. It’s rare to find a book that makes you laugh while thinking big thoughts.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it to folks who want to meet some really quirky characters dealing with some thought provoking issues. I’m betting it’s going to be a great book club pick for us.

Have you read Want Not?

Book Review: A Great Bookstore in Action

A Great Bookstore in Action is a slim 32-page volume printed in 1939. It’s a record of a speech given by Adolph Kroch (here is a detail rich obituary), who was a very successful Chicago-based bookseller, active in the 20’s and 30’s.

In just these few pages, Kroch comes across as a like minded soul that I’d love to have had coffee with. The book starts up with his recounting how he got started in book selling and ends with his sharing ideas of how to fix all that was broken with the bookselling industry.

I have to admit that it was fun to read his thoughts, from my 2017 armchair, and have the luxury of looking back to see what all has changed and, sadly, what things have not.

Appreciating the value of a good book while realizing the amazing event that takes place when a thoughtful bookseller connects the right book with the right reader, informs every page. Even today, this idea of a local community bookstore being able to guide its surrounding neighbors to worthwhile books is a lofty service.

He was an advocate for professionally training booksellers and publishers in some way. Thankfully we have much of that covered these days between what’s offered at the Denver Institute and all the classes the ABA have.

Kroch rightly saw the implications of good books over the cheap fluff that some publishers and sellers were pushing. He was very concerned about successful authors that were able to write a book a year. He was not happy about the growing number of books publishers were cranking out each year either. But even that what not a new concern in 1939. Here’s a poem he shared from the 1600’s:

Can you imagine what he’d think of the industry today?

He also offered up a few sentences about the trend in the reading public to pull away from books and look to the growing movie scene and music for entertainment. Imagine how flustered he’d be today with every prospective reader having the entire internet in their pocket.

This book certainly isn’t a “must read” for folks, but it’s a wonderful peek at what the book industry was like in the 1930’s in the United States.

I’m giving the book 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it to anyone interested in the history of bookstores.