Evicted by Matthew Desmond

“The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and the middle class were intertwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not. Where were the rich people who wielded enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities—who were rich precisely because they did so? Why, I wondered, have we documented how the poor make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing?


9780553447439Eviction exposes the cataclysmic effect of unstable housing as Desmond follows the lives of eight families facing eviction and substandard living conditions in Milwaukee. By embedding himself in a trailer park on the South side and a rooming house on the North side, Desmond learns about how housing policies often punish victims of domestic violence, why the presence of children nearly triples the likelihood of a tenant receiving an eviction judgment, and how government housing subsidies ultimately line the pockets of upper class Americans while access to affordable housing remains unattainable for many.

My biggest issue with this book is Desmond’s descriptions of his subjects, which sometimes felt like caricatures of real people. Nevertheless, his in-depth investigation presents a more holistic understanding of the relationship between landlords and tenants and how exploitative policies contribute to persistent economic and social devastation in poor communities, disproportionately so for black and Hispanic Americans.

This is an important read that highlights why it’s crucial for people to keep researching in a more nuanced way. We need to listen to individuals in order to empathize with peoples’ lived realities, as well as recognize that housing problems are not just about the poor. Evicted helps us begin to understand the complexities that link every one of us in a flawed economic system.




Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge


While working in international development, I found myself questioning whether foreign aid does more harm than good. I could list out ways that it failed to provide lasting solutions and effected unintended negative consequences, but I could never quite respond to the “then what do we do instead?” question that I often got from people. Rather than continuing on the path of misguided development efforts (creating energy and resource-intensive systems that emphasize economic growth at any cost), do we instead turn a blind eye to the problems largely created by Western imperialism? In Ancient Futures, Norberg-Hodge talks about the destructive forces of development and provides an alternative vision for what she calls “counterdevelopment”.

The author first came to Ladakh in 1975, back when there was barely any Western influence in this ancient society. She became fluent in the local language, immersed herself in the community over many years, and witnessed the dramatic changes that occurred as globalization infiltrated the Tibetan plateau. Norberg-Hodge sheds light on some of the many admirable qualities embodied in the Ladakhi communities—self-reliance, social harmony, and ecological balance, all of which seemed to be rooted in the limitations of their environment and a spiritual awareness of the “profound interconnectedness of all phenomena”. As tourism, industrial agriculture, and other commercial forces have created a dependence on the global economy, the Ladakhis’ connection to place and community have been impaired, repeating a pattern of social and ecological collapse that is occurring all around the world at an increasing rate.

Instead of exporting a model of an unsustainable lifestyle, counterdevelopment focuses on resisting the consumerist monoculture by re-localizing economies and actively encouraging ecological and cultural diversity.

“Once, I tried to explain the concept of stress to some villagers. ‘You mean you get angry because you have to work?’ was the response. Every day I saw people from two cultures, a world apart, looking at each other and seeing superficial, one-dimensional images. Tourists see people carrying loads on their backs and walking long distances over high mountain passes and say, ‘How terrible; what a life of drudgery.’ They forget that they have traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars for the pleasure of walking through the same mountain with heavy backpacks. They also forget how much their bodies suffer from lack of use at home. During working hours they get no exercise, so they spend their free time trying to make up for it. Some will even drive to a health club—across a polluted city in rush hours—to sit in a basement, pedaling a bicycle that does not go anywhere. And they actually pay for the privilege.”


1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann


Charles C. Mann’s 1491 re-tells the history of the Americas as it has been revealed over the last several decades of advanced research. Starting by correcting the massively underestimated pre-Columbian population figures, Mann then shifts focus to the next logical question—what were all those millions of people up to before small pox and Columbus arrived? The last section of the book discusses the ancient ecology of the Americas and why its collapse inevitably followed the destruction of Indian societies.

Each chapter is full of boots-on-the-ground research efforts, the high drama of the academic world, and myth debunking evidence.  Mann’s level of detail is complete with appendices on topics such as loaded words and the technical details of the ancient Mesoamerican calendar. Throughout the book, Mann equivocates about politically charged disagreements regarding native communities and more importantly, insists on something long denied the American indigenous—the dignity of agency in their own history.

1491 is important because it points out why the Americas was not, in reality, a New World simply because it was new to Europeans in the 15th century. Many modern environmentalists who advocate for restoring land to a “pristine, wild” state of the past fail to acknowledge an entire continent of diverse ecosystems that were highly managed and integrated with native communities before those societies were decimated. This book is proof of the monumental gaps in our understanding of the world as well as the underestimated legacy of the people who were exploited to make a privileged Western society possible.


“Understanding that nature is not normative does not mean that anything goes. The fears come from the mistaken identification of wildness with the forest itself. Instead the landscape is an arena for the interaction of natural and social forces, a kind of display, and one that like all displays is not fully under the control of its authors.”


Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

women who run with the wolves

Women Who Run with the Wolves is a collection of myths and stories venerating the Wild Woman–the powerful, instinctive nature that lives within every woman. Collected over a lifetime from around the world, and especially from the author’s Latina and Eastern European ancestors, the stories teach us that the Wild Woman brings vitality, good instincts, and creative fire to the female soul. Through the characters and archetypal symbolism, Estes teaches women how to nourish the Wild Woman in order to avoid falling victim to an over-civilized culture and other predators both external to and within our own psyches.

 In contrast to the watered down, Christianized fairy tales of modern times, these stories are dark and messy. Each one, combined with commentary, reveals insight into topics such as romantic relationships rooted in soul-craving, seeing through illusion, finding people we belong to, embracing the Life/Death/Life cycle, and how to live in a way that honors the untamed criatura within each of us.

I hope that all of the women I love will read this one for the spiritual healing it can bring at any stage of their post-adolescent life. I suspect that different chapters will speak to women at different points in their journey, and I plan to read it multiple times!


“The balanced valuing of emotion is certainly an act of self-respect. Even raw and messy emotions can be understood as a form of light, crackling and bursting with energy. We can use the light of rage in a positive way, in order to see into places we cannot usually see.”


The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs


This book is an activist’s ode to the ineffable nature of cities–places full of a regenerative vitality that we often diminish in our attempts to organize them via conventional city planning. Rather than molding cities in to a utopic image of what we think cities should look like, Jacobs’ key focus is how to revitalize American cities based on simple principles that promote diversity of uses, people, and structures over time and space.

Encompassing everything from safety, to economics, to unslumming neighborhoods, to traffic control, Jacobs’ four conditions for vitality are a strategy that I like to think of as a holistic healing method for all of the interrelated elements of a city. She dives deep into often ignored details like the role of informal surveillance of sidewalks, e.g. storekeepers, people running errands, the old guy always sitting on his stoop, homeless individuals (or the “leisurely indigent” as she calls them). Each section is detailed and concise, and Jacobs always relates the individual concepts back to the larger end goal of vitality and diversity.

Jacobs’ writing is full of a scathing wit that I often observe among writers going against the academic grain, and her arguments are logical—founded in common sense and observation. The book was originally published in 1962, and yet the concepts still ring true today. The same problems and failures attributed to orthodox city planning could be applied to any number of other fields—the financial system, human health, agriculture, and more. As with any dynamic organism, Jacobs argues that we can nourish a city and provide a positive environment while also acknowledging our incomplete understanding of its complexity. While this book made me feel disappointed by our lack of progress in creating healthy cities, it also provides a way forward and a genuinely optimistic outlook for the future of American cities.

“Conventional planning approaches to slums and slum dwellers are thoroughly paternalistic. The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.”

jane jacobs

The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

fukuoka “The human being was a happy creature, but he created a hard world and now struggles trying to break out of it.”

Fukuoka’s iconic book about natural farming explains how his simple principles of working the land depend on our ability to cast aside the human will and ego. By observing and cooperating with the natural patterns of nature, he has found a way to produce an abundance of rice, winter grains, citrus, and wild vegetables on land that becomes more fertile with each year.

His journey begins at the age of 25, when the simple thought occurs to him that humans know nothing at all. As he follows this concept to its logical conclusion (maybe he doesn’t even exist at all!), he abandons a way of life centered on human knowledge, choosing instead to fully embrace the incomprehensibility of nature. The four principles of his farming are simple: 1) no plowing 2) no chemical fertilizers or prepared compost 3) no weeding by tillage or herbicide and 4) no dependence on chemicals. His methods are based on decades of observations of complex, naturally occurring systems. In short, he aims to do as little as possible to interfere with these systems.

While the language of the book is simple, the philosophy is a bit mind-bending. Ironically, Fukuoko encourages readers to not try to intellectualize it. In the end, Fukuoka’s most poignant point is that we can choose to live within a different societal construct from the one that has caused so much destruction to the earth, body, and spirit. He explores details such as the role of a spider within his rice fields and the synergistic effects of a specific acacia tree, while also linking these specific examples to a holistic concept of ecological health. Fukuoka’s life and his impact on those who have visited his farm are a breath of fresh air to those of us who have read too many books about the many ways we are depleting the earth.



I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

angelouMaya Angelou’s memoir begins in Stamps, Arkansas during the 1930’s. In this rural community, raised by her grandmother and crippled uncle, she learns from a young age what it means to be a tough woman as she and her family endure the humiliations of racism and prejudice. When her estranged father unexpectedly returns for Maya and her brother, they are introduced to an entirely new cast of family members and misadventures as they transition to life in urban northern cities.

This biography reads like a heartbreaking poem. With a seamless narrative style, Angelou depicts the petty struggles of adolescence alongside the traumatizing injustices of being a young black girl. She recounts her experiences in the refined voice of her adult self while capturing the innocence of her younger version. I loved reading Angelou’s story, and by the last page I was overwhelmed with awe at the woman she becomes.


“It seemed terribly unfair to have a toothache and a headache and have to bear at the same time the heavy burden of blackness.”

 “Horatio Alger was the greatest writer in the world. His heroes were always good, always won, and were always boys. I could have developed the first two virtues, but becoming a boy was sure to be difficult, if not impossible.”






War Dogs by Rebecca Frankel

war dogs

I enjoyed reading this one so much that I was genuinely disappointed when I unexpectedly reached the end of it on my Kindle. Frankel explores the world of military war dogs (MWDs) and their handlers in what is definitely the least depressing book about war that I’ve read. Despite the chilling anecdotes of explosive-detection missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, my lasting impression of War Dogs is one of admiration and moments of unexpected joy. The book captures the way that an emotional and professional relationship between MWDs and his fellow soldiers combines with an unparalleled physical ability to make these dogs such a powerful force. The only thing that could have made this book better for a nerd like me is more details on the physiology of a dog’s nose and the failed attempts by humans to replicate its expertise with technology.

“Mariana could see the force of the bullet as it hit Bronco…He was covered in blood but sitting all the same, waiting for his handler as if it had been the plan to rally at this safe spot all along… Bronco slumped to the ground, sprawled over on his side. Mariana’s heart stopped. He stared hard into the dog’s eyes, and then a terrible kind of relief washed over Mariana as he realized Bronco hadn’t just bled out in front of him. Instead, he had rolled over to offer his belly up for a scratch. Mariana exhaled, marveling at the strength of his dog.”

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson


The title is fairly self-explanatory…Tyson fits astrophysics into a short read that is accurate but comprehensible, funny, and poetic. It’s like a bed time story for nerds, starting with the first infinitesimally small moments when the universe started to expand and ending with Tyson’s personal manifesto on what the cosmological perspective means to him. Besides giving readers a basic grasp on universal principles and a rundown of key developments in the field of astrophysics, Tyson teaches us that knowledge of the still mysterious cosmos should make us feel BIG and not insignificant. It should give us peace of mind and a profound sense of appreciation, if only we can suppress our giant human egos.


Sapiens by Yuvah Noah Harari


Sapiens is an origin story of our world, starting with the multiple upright species over 2 million years ago and leading up to the point just before humans engineer their own evolution into something else entirely. Unlike most traditional history books, it not only includes major shifts in political, economic, agricultural, and spiritual trends, but also dives into what that meant for people at the micro (psychological and biological) level and how those human experiences compare across the span of 70,000 years. Some of his arguments I disagreed with, particularly his take on modern violence, but overall I enjoyed the content. It reminds me of a more intellectual rendition of one of my favorite books, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.



“Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal.”

“Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others.”

“A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption.”

“So perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions.”