savvylit's review

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The concept behind this book is fascinating and so incredibly well-researched. Tracing first-hand accounts all the way from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rebecca Solnit shows that altruism and solidarity are the true default state of groups of survivors. Contrary to media-enforced narratives of chaos, violence, and looting, people will more often than not do anything that they can to help one another. Not only that, but the real post-disaster danger comes from bureaucratic mishandling or, as Solnit says, elite panic. Panic and red tape have proven themselves to be the real obstacles immediately after a disaster occurs. Take September 11th, for instance. Mayor Rudy Giuliani's office of emergency management had been housed at the World Trade Center. Thus, after the towers fell, there was no one to execute a safe rescue plan. Coworkers and neighbors united with firefighters to ensure that as many people as possible got out of the rubble safely.

Again, A Paradise Built in Hell is an incredibly well-written and thoroughly researched book. However, to its detriment, it is also incredibly dry and a very slow read. Solnit could have proved her excellent thesis in many fewer words and with examples from fewer disasters. The segments on the more recent disasters were the most engaging because Solnit traveled to those communities and actually met living survivors. The first two disasters, the 1906 earthquake and the Halifax explosion are thus not nearly as interesting to read about. They read like excerpts from an old textbook. While I understand that those disasters also prove Solnit's point, I think they could have been left out in favor of a more digestible length. Ultimately, it's unfortunate because I absolutely love this book's primary message of community solidarity. I wish everyone could know that post-disaster chaos is a myth. However, how do I recommend something that felt like such a serious slog?

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erica_palmisano's review against another edition

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Upends the popular conceptions of how people and institutions respond to disasters – both natural and human – and provides lots of details about five disasters from historians and social scientists to support its claims. While I generally appreciated the detail and thoughtfulness of the writing, I felt sometimes like the writing looped back on itself a bit more than I liked. I had to work to keep the argument's main points in mind while ever-expanding details threatened to make that difficult. Perhaps that was my issue – I was rushing to finish reading for a book club deadline. Still, a worthy read with lots to chew on. 

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sunjaybooks's review against another edition

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challenging reflective slow-paced


I organized a book club to read this, and here are some of the discussion questions:

Part 1 - A Millennial Good Fellowship 
1) What does this telling of the aftermath of the 1906 SF earthquake remind you of in your own life?
2) How is this telling of the aftermath of the earthquake unlike your experiences, either of COVID or of other disaster situations?
3) Solnit discusses a history of utopian projects and revolutions. How did you find that analysis?
4) What (or who) is left out of this history of utopia?
5) In this telling, there are two broadly distinctive responses to the earthquake. Some people responded by supporting their neighbors, and others (especially the military and government) saw people helping people as a threat. How does this resemble and differ from how people have responded to COVID?
6) "Looting". Thoughts? 
7) Solnit diagnoses a problem with how our understanding of the world is shaped by popular cultural narratives, particularly the "privatization of desire and imagination". What do you think of this diagnosis?
8) Solnit uses the example Dorothy Day to point to how the experience of communal care after a disaster can inspire change. Do we see similar seeds being planted in the wake of COVID? What might those look like?

Part 2 - Halifax to Hollywood
1. There are a few differences in the contexts of the Halifax explosion and the SF earthquake. Do any of these differences make the explosion more similar to the COVID crisis? More different? 
2. There's a discussion of Kropotkin and mutual aid. Have you experienced mutual aid by this definition during the pandemic? Have you experienced the more hierarchical charity?
4. During the pandemic, have you had moments of uncommon joy? What did those look like?
5. Solnit presents Charles E Fritz as claiming "Everyday life is already a disaster of sorts, one from which actual disaster liberates us." Does that resonate with your own experiences? How does your experience of the COVID pandemic reinforce or complicate his understanding? 
6. If you have religious faith or take part in regular spiritual disciplines, how has that shaped your response to COVID? If not, how have your values and philosophy shaped your response to COVID?

Part 3 - Carnival and Revolution
1. What are some parallels between how the PRI government in Mexico prepared for and responded to the earthquake and how governments in the US prepared for and responded to the COVID pandemic?
2. Where have you seen responses to COVID that have allowed you to see new possibilities? What do those look like?
3. What does civil society look like in your experience? How does it resemble and differ from the civil society described in Mexico after the earthquake? 
4. Solnit argues that Chicago's heat wave in 1995 was deadly mostly in neighborhoods without strong civil societies. How have things changed in the last 26 years? How has your neighborhood handled the pandemic?
5. Solnit cites a number of scholars as thinking of Carnival and other celebrations as 'planned disasters'. Does that help us understand any part of our pandemic experience?
6. What might 'the politics of prefiguration' look like in your life? In your community? 

Part 4 - The City Transfigured 
1. Do you remember 9/11? What do you remember it being like?
2. How can we understand the global implications of how the US responded to COVID? What responsibilities to we have? 
3. What is the role of art in the aftermath of disaster? How have you seen that in your experience of COVID?
4. What stories do we need to start telling about COVID that will help us build a healthier and more democratic future?

Part 5 - New Orleans
1. Did the description of what happened in New Orleans remind you of anything more recent or even happening currently?
2. What do we make of the white vigilantes going around murdering people?
3. Can we learn anything about the relationship between policing and military occupation from this? Is FEMA being part of the DHS related?
4. How does joy enter into your understanding and practice of mutual aid?
5. As we move out of the pandemic into a world less defined by quarantine, how do you see your community and organizations you're a part of adapting to a non-disaster environment? 

1. How do you create meaning for yourself? Has this book changed your perspective on that?
2. In light of climate change, what disasters do we expect to affect the cities we live in? How can we as individuals and as communities can prepare for these disasters? 
3. Are there any moments or discussions from the entire book that stuck with you?

Preface to the 2020 edition
1. Solnit lists a number of responses that people have taken to COVID that fit within the rest of the book. Are there any of those you want to take time to honor? Are there any responses that you would add?
2. How has climate change affected your understanding of what possible futures are ahead?
3. What do you make of Solnit's framing of the decision we have to make as a society?

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sapphire's review against another edition

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