Rigorous, personalized argument for the continued relevance of an old idea.



Ambitious jeremiad about the contrarian past and present-day tendency for idealistic outsiders to gather in flawed utopias.

“I grew up taking for granted that utopian visions were possible,” writes Shirk in this sprawling synthesis of memoir and social history. The book, she explains, coalesced as a different project to develop a DIY artistic commune was thwarted by both personal and social frustrations. Shirk yearned for an alternative to late-stage capitalism’s oppressive effects, which past “shared-purse” communal efforts offered. “The way toward lower overhead, toward less reliance on wage-earning, is it seems through collectivity,” she writes. Simultaneously, her long-term relationship was in decline, partly due to caretaking of her partner’s ailing father, leading her to consider alternatives to such difficult domestic arrangements. She began to unpack how communities have been created in response to these issues, starting with the historical narrative: “I had been dimly aware for some time that I was writing about American utopian communities.” Shirk delves into the twisting paths of such groups in the 19th century as well as the 1960s, but she also considers contemporary grassroots examples of communal living, ranging from the historically rooted Bruderhof and Camphill movements to Philadelphia’s Simple Houses to newer attempts centered around indie culture in the Catskills. The author does not ignore the privilege involved in such contemporary movements, noting of her own youthful efforts, “Our mission was absent of any real ethical content. Looked at another way, we were just a bunch of privileged assholes in Brooklyn in the early twenty-first century.” Shirk writes deftly and in depth. She is well-attuned to her topic’s threads of historical and spiritual complexity as well as her own feelings about relationships, sexuality, and community. Some readers may find that her interweaving of personal tensions with contemporary and historical narratives, and social definitions of heaven, occasionally leads to a disjointed narrative, but it’s a story worth contemplating.

Rigorous, personalized argument for the continued relevance of an old idea.

Pub Date: March 15, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-64009-330-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Jan. 17, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2022

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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