A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit: A Lakeview Branch Book Club Review

This is the Lakeview Book Club Review of A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit.

In spite of the seasonal craziness, daily pressures and weeks of heavy rain, five of us came to discuss A Paradise Build in Hell by Rebecca Solnit!
We just launched in and barely took a breath talking about parts that really impressed us. By the time we looked up we had gone over our time! We all agreed that we REALLY liked this book. The only criticism is that it had so much detail and analysis that it slowed the reading down so that the reader had to really think about the concepts. Another member thought that the detail and the analysis was the best part. Not everyone finished this title, but they might finish it. Several of the group tabbed passages that were excellently written and inspiring, with many, many post-it papers!
As a little background, Rebecca Solnit, born in 1961 and lives in San Francisco. She has written on many subjects, including the environment, politics, place and art. She is an editor of Harper's Magazine. A native of Novato, and a victim of family violence.  She did not finish high school. She received a G.E.D., went to junior college, studied in Paris and received her journalism degree form U.C. in Berkeley in 1984. She has been an independent writer since 1988.
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, began as an essay in Harper's Magazine that was published the day that Katrina hit the coast and was inspired by the Loma Prieta earthquake, "when everyday life ground to a halt and people looked around and hunkered down."
One member brought in a book about Katrina she was reading, called 1 Dead in the Attic by Chris Rose and recommended it for further reading that supports Sonit's concepts. 
Some of the topics we discussed in random order were:
The media doesn't report the truth. It is sensationalist and ultimately destructive. One member said that years ago she stopped watching regular tv news and reading newspapers, because they are so slanted with an agenda and so sensational in their approach that it was upsetting. She gets her news from "alternative" news, foreign news programs, which seem more balanced. Conventional media seems to try to stir up the emotions rather than reporting what happened. One example was the tv showing over and over a young black man robbing a store. Once is enough. Over and over is inciting prejudice.
We thought that what is happening now regarding the peaceful marches to call attention to the number of young blacks being killed by police, showed the outpouring of concern from people in all walks of life and from all backgrounds. The social change that Solnit described coming from spontaneous movements that arise over catastrophes is actually happening now!
We talked of the enforcement of "order" from the top down is where the problems really arose. People over the centuries all over the world have spontaneously stopped whatever they were doing to help people in need during a crisis. When government tried to take over to support "elite panic," (the fear of those with power and possessions), that is when the problems happened. Her description of the mayhem during the 1906 earthquake, where troops shot and killed citizens trying to dig people out from under collapsed buildings, where troops killed people retrieving their own belongings from their own homes, where troops looted and robbed stores themselves, and finally set more fires trying to make fire breaks, caused more chaos than the quietly spontaneous efforts of citizens to help each other.
She gave examples from disasters in history that were truly inspiring, from the revolutions in France and Spain brought on by drought, financial debt in France and for Spain an earthquake. Parts that stood out for us were when people helped each other escape from the 911 towers in the pitch black stairwells by putting their hands on the shoulder of the person in front of them and calmly leading each other down. In the Halifax explosion a telegrapher stayed and continued to broadcast about the disaster knowing that he would soon be consumed by the fire, people after the Mexican earthquake who organized for the basic fairness of being able to stay in their homes and how a small restaurant owner and wrestler in costume, became the persona of justice, eventually sparking a people's revolution that changed the government of Mexico. We discussed the government corruption after the Nicaraguan earthquake that led to their revolution and the beginnings of real democracy.
We talked of the recent Napa earthquake in which a woman of 79, who had always been independent, lost everything and how people have spontaneously come together to help her be independent once again.
We discussed how our society isolates people. We thought people really want to be part of a community. Some members of our group donate time and know of others who donate time to food kitchens. One story told of recent immigrants to Toronto, who were professionals in their country of origin, have been temporarily reduced to going to a soup kitchen or to a food bank for help, because there are no jobs for them. Emphasis was not judging people in need. In other circumstances it can be we who need help. We noted that hobbies can bring a sense of community where people give of their time and expertise without requiring anything in return.
We were inspired by the work of Dorothy Day, who's work was directly inspired by the community activism and spontaneous organization for help after the 1906 earthquake.
World War I came up as insanity enforced from the top down. We briefly mentioned All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub. Both books showed how disaster comes from the top down and in the Silent Night history, the reader learns of the spontaneous efforts at peace and love that came in the form of singing, giving gifts and even playing soccer between the enemy sides. People want to connect. They want to belong to each other.
We talked about how people are taught to objectify others, therefore, making them non-human, and thereby, giving the excuse that they are expendable! We cited the high school experiment  by Jane Elliott, the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise which showed how very fast people can be trained to turn on each other.
We thought that even though competition for place or resources can turn deadly and is visceral, we can see that altruism also is visceral. In the book Dark Nature: A natural history of evil  by zoologist, Lyall Watson, examples were given showing natural altruism in animals as well as people. People are good!
Another amazing example of people rising up to help was the flotilla of ships that showed up at the edge of Battery Pak in lower Manhattan to take people to New Jersey after the towers fell. The number of boats and people was greater than the famous rescue of stranded soldiers at Dunkirk in World War II. Amazing!
We thought people need to learn compassion. People in hard times don't deserve to be there! ...and not just people! Animals were stranded after Katrina! Sometimes there was more compassion for the animals than the people. We noted the example of prisoners locked in, some drowning. They were abandoned without food or water for six days!
We were heartened by the need to have a sense of place. Some families had lived in New Orleans for many generations and have moved back. We thought that FEMA failed in New Orleans and that the time between the hurricane and any help for the city was partly a function of racism as much as poor planning. One of our members spoke of a friend who survived and moved back into a FEMA home and had to deal with the formaldehyde leaking from the walls of the trailer.
One of our group mentioned that a good program to watch is Spike Lee's When the Levee's Broke. You can find it on YouTube and there are many, many copies in OPL.
Over and over, in this book , we saw that individuals and groups rose to help in a truly meaningful way in disasters of all kinds, whereas governments stood in the way or actively added to the problems caused by the disaster. The impromptu solutions to the disasters' effects, often have led to social movements which have brought long term progressive changes!  We thought that this book gave us an entirely new perspective on the future. With the real concerns of global warming and mutant viruses coming in the near future (or present), we very well may likely find ourselves in a disaster. We can be assured that our neighbors, even if we don't know them now, will join us in helping others or even help us. We will plan to be prepared, but will also have confidence that good things will come from the bad! Some of us thought this was a life changing concept! 
We were all glad we read this book! OPL has many of Rebecca Solnit's other books. You might want to look into those!


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