Book Reviews
The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork though Time and Place, Hikmet Sidney Loe, 2017
We’ve long said and believed that the Spiral Jetty is a point of embarkation, not a terminus. It is a reason to go somewhere you would otherwise likely not, even putting the smelly, hot/cold, dry, remote northern arm of the Great Salt Lake on the top of many bucket lists. This book uses Spiral Jetty to spiral outwards to embrace its physical and cultural context, and is the published evidence that the Spiral Jetty is not just an artwork, but a fulcrum, between here and there, history and the future. It’s the center point for a contemporary perspective that embraces the primacy of place in an anthropic world, and among the first anchors cast into the sea of space establishing a continental American antipodinal point. If Spiral Jetty is the center of the New World, then this is that world’s first atlas.
Two Cabins, by James Benning, edited by Julie Ault, 2011
Several years ago, over several years, the filmmaker James Benning made two cabins on his mountain property in the southern Sierras, one modeled after Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, and the other after Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana (now at the Newseum, in Washington DC). Both these characters were radical American individualists, whose methods and legacy differ dramatically, but who were also similar, in a way, like a circular spectrum that meets again at opposite ends. The two cabins contain artwork and writings Benning has collected over the years, including some original work by Kaczynski, making a kind of museum/shrine/grotto of independent American idealist cabin extremism. It’s on private property, and hard to see, as a hermit’s cabin should be, but just knowing it’s there is enough, a kind of conceptual land art monument. The book about it is a work of art too.
Mapping America: Exploring the Continent, Tom Howells and Duncan McCorquodale, editors, 2010
Nice big book of 120 maps of the USA, produced over the past 500 years, including by early explorers, demographic thematic mappers, and contemporary artists. Jasper Johns may have his USA flag paintings, but these maps, with all their interesting details, show how the common ground of the nation can be understood in so many different ways, and all of them, to the same extent, true.
Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment, Dennis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hays, 2015
The megafauna that has had the largest impact on the landscape of the USA is cows (following humans, of course). By no fault of their own, either, since we brought them here and manage their existence. Though they were useful for food and materials once, a long time ago, now, clearly, there are alternatives that are much more efficient. We all know that, and this book enumerates all the reasons convincingly yet again, but the industry of course is entrenched, in the economy and culture. If cows were to revolt, though they may not outnumber us, they do collectively outweigh us, hugely.
Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, Ronald Rael, 2017
A great anthology of incidents, forms and vectors, along this most hyperbolic of spaces. Finally the US/Mexico border wall is getting the attention it deserves. The only problem with this book is that it’s not long enough—we need to cover the whole border with books about it. Maybe then we will finally understand that our borders are where our nation’s character is stratigraphically exposed, revealing hidden layers, like a roadcut, sliced through the meat of continuously connected and inhabited terrain.
The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World, Sally Denton, 2016
It’s been 20 years since the previous tell-all book on Bechtel came out, Friends in High Places, The Bechtel Story: The Most Secret Corporation and How It Engineered the World, a book which led to a restructuring of Bechtel’s internal thinking about its outward appearance, if nothing else. So it’s high time for another. Privately-held Bechtel may be the reigning member of the club of companies that hold the smoking guns of post WWII American imperialism, and remind us that business itself can be a consensual conspiracy.
Overview, Benjamin Grant, 2016
This is a large format photo book of images that were not taken by a human, but rather cropped and assembled from internet satellite-mapping views—provided by DigitalGlobe, the satellite imaging company that supplies imagery to Google and others. The author/cropper, Benjamin Grant, has been posting daily satellite images on Instagram since 2013, as his Daily Overview project. The sites he depicts seem to be chosen for their visual drama, and some might slough this off as more mere global “Google Earth porn,” but he backs each image up with just enough of a caption to extend them beyond simple formal qualities, to some kind of ground truth, and divides the book into nine “land-use-y” categories. The contextual shift of making a printed coffee table “photo” book of non-human internet images, selected by an “author,” and credited to a company’s machines (DigitalGlobe), is kind of interesting, and shows how the human role in photography is dissolving further into curation. 
In the Aura of a Hole: Exploring Sites of Material Extraction, A. Laurie Palmer, 2014
Laurie Palmer, artist/reporter/interpreter/creative researcher, trudges and tours through the American land of extraction, narrowing in by focusing on 18 elements from the periodic table (in order from lightest to heaviest: Helium, Carbon, Sodium, Aluminum, Silicon, Phosphorous, Sulfur, Chlorine, Potassium, Calcium, Iron, Copper, Silver, Iodine, Gold, Mercury, Lead, Uranium), which happen to be mined, in one way or another, from the ground. She visits places where these materials are extracted or processed, and tells the tale of what she encounters, in a very first-personal kind of way, drawing in cultural, political, and phenomenological notions from all over the place. Really looking forward to her coverage of the remaining 100 elements!
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan, 2017
A detailed and engaging story about the poor old Great Lakes, the largest collection of liquid fresh water on the planet, under siege from so many foreign organisms. Before canals and locks and seaways were constructed, the lakes were isolated from the rest of the world. Water flowed out, but not in. Currents, rapids, waterfalls—especially Niagara Falls—stopped waterborne biological mixing with the outside world. Starting with the Erie Canal and ending with the St. Lawrence Seaway, the falls were bypassed, and ocean-going vessels now come in to the interior, step by step, rising from sea level to 600 feet above it. They have brought in an onslaught of organisms, including eels and mussels that have taken over and caused surreal and extreme forms of population control. And that’s not the half of it. A great book, and an even better story, still raging.
Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself-While the Rest of Us Die, by Garrett M. Graff, 2017
Detailed overview of the federal government’s disaster preparedness and continuity plans, naming people, programs, and places all over the place, left over over the course of the Cold War. Technologies for things like post-nuclear war communication systems for the president’s doomsday plane have gone through considerable evolutions, leading to some scientific advancements and interesting infrastructural relics, as well as things like the secret bunker for Congress at the Greenbrier resort, exposed in the early 1990s. Much of this system though, including the two primary government underground government evacuation and command centers, Mount Weather and Raven Rock, have been significantly upgraded and enlarged after 9-11. While the federal government prepares for the worst, we are still free, at least, to hope for the best.  
Many Norths: Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory, Lola Sheppard and Mason White, 2017
A kind of atlas to constructed forms and infrastructures in the modern Canadian arctic, covering mining, communications, travel, housing, and much more. Written by architects who went through Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (a source of many interesting things) with support from the Graham Foundation, design help from Bruce Mau, published by Actar, it avoids the excessive use of  brilliantly creative graphics that sometimes overwhelms rather than elucidates in tomes of this sort. What’s not to love?
5th Avenue: A Cultural Biography, edited by Constance Hockaday, 2016
A freeform book of photos of a freeform place that’s still there, in some form, if not free—the 5th Avenue peninsula, in Oakland, California. This little neighborhood cul-de-sac of sheds and boats tucked into the port of Oakland’s estuary, south of Jack London Square, is one of the oldest continuously operating scrappy industrial creative self-selecting unintentional communities in the Bay Area. It’s out of this asphalt swamp, this fertile crack in the urban fabric, that the CLUI first opened for business in 1994.