savvylit's review

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inspiring reflective sad slow-paced


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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emotional hopeful informative inspiring reflective sad medium-paced


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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