Monday, April 28, 2008

Spring Book List

Some folks clean out their basements, attics and closets in spring. I clean out the nasty belfry behind my eyes.

Spring is a time for renewal. For me, it's a time to refresh intellectual passions. Here are a few things I'm reading to enliven and inform my view of the world, dust off preconceptions and get me started on new ideas on winding roads.

Want to know what was behind subprime lending? Check out the award-winning piece "The High Price of Home Ownership." It was researched, reported and published by the Chicago Reporter (, a newsletter put out by the Community Renewal Foundation. The Reporter is powerful organ of investigative reporting.

The piece they ran on subprime mortgages not only showed that Chicago was the capital of subprime, two major brand-name lenders were among the leading underwriters of these loans. Minorities were marketed to in an effort to sell loans that not only made brokers and bankers rich, they carried interest rates 3 percent points higher than conventional loans. Were blacks and Latinos targeted in a racist scheme to gouge the poor? In some cases, upper-middle-class African Americans were sold these loans. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is investigating.

Don't like the way the American economy is going with the dominance of shifty financial service outfits that peddle things like subprime loans? Then check out Kevin Phillips's "Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (Viking Press). A fiscal conservative and NPR commentator, Phillips dissects what the debt merchants on Wall Street have done to the American economy and it's not a pretty picture. I was surprised to see two quotes from yours truly on what a fraud the government's Consumer Price Index is in tracking inflation (it's a sham). Read it to learn why the growth of financial companies that produce nothing but debt is imperiling the American way of life.

I relish digging into the classics to round out my steady diet of current nonfiction. One classic on architecture is John Ruskin's "The Stones of Venice." Ruskin, the great critic of the 19th Century, went to the city of canals to discover something new about architecture. The essay "The Nature of Gothic" was so influential it led to the gothic revival movement that's still in evidence in many McMansions. Ruskin found something sacred in his Venetian buildings and it's always worth re-reading.

It's always a pleasure to discover short books that are gems of thinking. Jim Cullen's "The American Dream" starts out with the Puritans and ends up with the Great Gatsby. It's a mini-history of an idea we're still grappling with -- and need to redefine.

When I was in the Museum of Natural History in New York recently, I picked up a seemingly glossy coffee table book entitled "Water: The Drop of Life." I thought it might be a companion book to the water exhibit currently at the museum, but I was delightfully mistaken. It's a series of vignettes about water problems around the world and what communities are doing to solve them. Anyone concerned about the world's most precious resource should read this book by Peter Swanson. For a more in-depth portrait of American water shortages, read Robert Glennon's "Water Follies."

On the subject of urban planning, two New Urbanist books continue to provide ideas: "Suburban Nation" by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and "The Wealth of Cities" by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. Both lay out ideas for what cities and suburbs need to be if they are to become sustainable. I interviewed all three recently for my upcoming book on housing "The Fractured American Dream."

For those who love early American history, Joseph Ellis's "American Creation" is a special treat. Through Ellis's eyes -- the author of the classic "American Sphinx" -- we learn how frail the early republic was. It could have collapsed dozens of times. Ellis presents a snapshot of all of the major players from Washington to Madison (who had a much bigger role than I previously thought).

If you are desirous of an optimistic view in these waning months of the failed Bush regime, drop by your bookstore's newsstand to land a copy of the spring issue of "Yes!" magazine. No, this isn't a fanzine of the 70s art-rock group. It's subtitle is "building a just and sustainable world." It's chocked full of good ideas that could be antidotes to our energy gluttony, global warming and resource depletion. Among the helpful pieces are "13 Best Ideas in Clean Energy (Plus a Few Duds)," "How Your Family Can Get Carbon Free in 10 Years," and "The Secret Life of Plug-In Cars." It's really practical advice and provides some hope as we deal with an election season that never quits, two relentless wars, dopey media nonsense and the Cubs torturing us for another year.

Oh well, it could be worse. You could just stop reading and play with your iPod and iPhone and let the neo-cons run the world come November.

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