book reviews, comics, faith, history, nature, parenting, politics, science

Selected Book Reviews, October – December 2016

This batch of book reviews round out last year’s reading.  I got behind in writing them for reasons that I can’t even recall, but it nagged at me that I hadn’t finished them.  These will probably be the last set of book reviews I do in this format.  In the future, I may do a deep dive into a particularly insightful or powerful book.  Or I may do a roundup of a few books on one topic.  I’m not entirely sure yet. But I’m not planning on doing monthly reviews anymore.  However, I think I’ll still make a list of the best books I read in a given year to recommend.  Speaking of which, I’ll put up a year in review of the best books I read in 2016 shortly.

  • Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics by Jonathan Dudley is a careful critique of evangelicalism by someone who grew up in that world.  It reads as a succinct summary of some of my own changes in thinking on these topics.  Dudley’s book can be summarized well with two quotes.  First, his thesis: “Evangelicalism has defined itself by weakly supported boundary markers, which are justified by a flawed understanding of biblical interpretation and maintained by suppressing those who disagree” (24).  The four boundary markers dealt with in the book are abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, and evolution.  Basically the hot button topics in the culture wars.  If one takes the wrong view on any of these issues, one cannot be in the evangelical club anymore.  The second quote concerns the justification from the Bible part of the thesis: “Biases and prior beliefs are not something that get in the way of interpretation, something that must be brushed aside; rather, biases and prior beliefs are behind every interpretation” (108-9).  Everyone approaches the Bible with prior beliefs and biases.  Even the straightforward plain interpretation that we think is objective is certainly a matter of the lens we use when we read.  An easy example from the book is that Christians were not all that concerned when Darwin first published his theory of evolution in 1859.  It wasn’t until decades later that fundamentalists and evangelicals felt that they had to reject evolution and believe in a young earth.  Christians approached the same text with different prior beliefs at different points in time and came to vastly different conclusions.  Besides this major point about interpretation, Dudley also wants to make a point about the Christian use of science.  He notes how Christian pro-lifers claim that science shows that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception (an argument Dudley doesn’t accept).  But when it comes to other matters of science, such as the widespread scientific evidence for evolution or global warming, evangelical Christians often find themselves dismissing science.  Evangelicals only like science when it seemingly agrees with their political beliefs.  Dudley grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home to several evangelical colleges and publishing houses.  He attended Calvin College, then studied religion at seminary, and then began medical school, while finishing this book.  I don’t have the same educational path, but I can relate to his intellectual and faith journey and some of his conclusions.  I would definitely recommend this book.

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  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power by Ryan North and Erica Henderson is an incredibly fun comic book.  It’s light-hearted and funny.  I find it hard to decide which I like more, the writing or the artwork.  North has fun with Doreen Green and her supporting cast of friends and squirrels, as well as the villains, but he gives them all a lot of heart and personality.  Henderson does a great job balancing cartoony action and characters, but never exploits or sexualizes the characters, a problem all too rampant in comics.  Doreen looks like the college student she is, not an unrealistic supermodel in a swimsuit trying to fight crime.  She’s someone I’d want to be friends with if I had a friend who could talk to squirrels.  She eats nuts and kicks butts.  Even if you think you don’t like superhero comics, you might like this one.  I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson is an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  Through the story of Ida Mae we learn how tenuous was the position of sharecroppers in Mississippi, how hard the work was picking cotton and how little they got paid, if at all.  So much depended on the whims of the white landowners.  After Ida Mae’s husband’s cousin Joe Lee, who lived a few shacks down from them, was falsely accused of stealing turkeys and subsequently half beaten to death, Ida Mae and her family packed up and left for Milwaukee, ending up on the South Side of Chicago before long.  There they face housing discrimination; all the black families moving in are forced into strict geographical boundaries, and any time they try to move into a new neighborhood, the white neighbors first try to fight their arrival, and if that failed then they all moved out.  If you want to know why cities are like they are, this book is illuminating.  Even the world famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson faced housing discrimination when she bought a house in a nice neighborhood.  She received death threats in the middle of the night before she moved in, and after she did, bullets shattered some of her windows.  Police had to keep guard around her house for nearly a year to prevent violence.  No one was immune from discrimination.  Despite the hardships in the North, Ida Mae experienced some measure of true freedom.  She was able to vote for the first time.  The family was eventually able to buy a house, but soon after they did, the whites in the neighborhood took flight.  The two other individuals the book focuses on, Dr. Robert Foster and George Starling, provide more glimpses into life in the Jim Crow South and how they tried to make a better life in L.A. and New York, respectively.  Dr. Foster left a life in rural Louisiana where the highest he could have risen was to a country doctor making house calls to black families with no admitting privileges at the local hospital.  He wanted fame and fortune and a good life.  George Starling picked fruit in the groves of Florida, chafing at the unfair labor practices, before he headed North.  He worked for the railroad on a line that traveled up and down the east coast, so he got to see the changes from North to South for decades.  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.
  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert is a short and excellent primer on climate change (I read it in a day).  The book is based on a series of articles Kolbert wrote for The New Yorker magazine, where she is a staff writer, in order “to convey, as vividly as possible, the reality of global warming” (2).  By traveling to locations across the globe, Kolbert tells how things are changing: glaciers are shrinking, permafrost is melting, oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, animal migrations are shifting towards the warming poles, and plants are earlier than usual.  A small island community in Alaska has to move because of the rising ocean level.  While telling the stories of various changes worldwide, Kolbert also explains the science to a lay audience without getting too technical.  The only downside to this well written little book is that it is already a bit out of date.  It was published in 2006, but since then we have had still warmer years, and the trend continues upward.  Despite that one drawback, I would highly recommend it. [Note: there is a newer revised and expanded edition, so forget what I said.  Read that one instead.]
  • The Everyday Parenting Toolkit by Alan E. Kazdin with Carlo Rotella is a very helpful book for parents.  Kazdin draws on the available social science on children’s behavior and his experience working at the Yale Parenting Center to give useful guidelines for how to change problematic behavior in kids.  The key is the focus on behavior.  Parents, me included, want our kids to be kind and generous, resilient and motivated, and not selfish jerks.  But how do these qualities get cultivated?  It starts with behavior.  Kazdin explains his ABC method, which is backed up by research and with examples of how it works.  He describes his techniques as tools in the toolbox.  They are adaptable depending on the situation; some will be used more than others.  The first thing to think about when considering children’s behavior is the Antecedent of the behavior.  How can parents set up the situation for the behavior they wish to see?  The goal is to make the choice for the child as likely as possible.  Asking in a calm voice one time helps.  Giving a choice also helps.  Children like to have at least a small measure of autonomy.  The next consideration is the Behavior itself.  Sometimes this is clear like when I want my kids to clear their places by putting their dishes into the sink after a meal or brush their teeth before bed.  But often I want them to stop an irritating or dangerous behavior.  It’s not very effective to merely say don’t do that.  What kids need is positive reinforcement for the behavior I do want to see.  In order to make that happen, I have to think of the positive opposite of undesirable behavior.  This isn’t always easy to do, but it’s crucial.  So for example, my 3 year old throws screaming tantrums sometimes.  I can’t change the fact that he gets upset by things, but I do want him to deal with his upset feelings with a different strategy than by screaming.  So I will praise him for any approximation that gets us closer to the desired behavior.  This is called shaping the behavior.  If he never has done the desired behavior, then we can practice a simulation so he can try to do it when he does actually get upset.  The third part is the area of Consequences, which is where a lot of people want to start.  For Kazdin, consequences are positive reinforcement for the desired behavior.  Mostly this means praise from parents that is immediate, effusive, and specific, with some sort of affection added.  Sometimes other methods can help, too, like a point chart, but praise from parents is the best reinforcer.  Kazdin has a lot more to explain and tons of examples (as well as another book for the tough cases of especially defiant children), but this is the outline.  Some of it is definitely counter-intuitive.  But I can see that barking at my children to stop doing something rarely works and it often escalates.  When I’ve been able to implement the Kazdin ABCs I’ve had much more success in changing unwanted behavior.  I’d really recommend this to any and all parents.
  • My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor is a revealing and instructive memoir from one of our Supreme Court Justices.  She details her life with precision and insight up until her appointment as a District Court judge in 1992; the rest of her life and career will presumably have to wait until her retirement.  I was especially interested in finding out more about her life because my kids attend a Spanish immersion elementary school named after her.  There are many interesting details to her early life growing up poor in a housing project in the Bronx.  Her alcoholic father died when she was young, so she and her brother had to assume a lot of responsibility in their household with only their mother to raise them.  Especially humanizing is her diagnosis of type 1 diabetes at age seven that she has had to manage for the rest of her life.  That diagnosis led her to give up dreams of growing up and becoming a detective and instead focus on training to be a lawyer.  She knew from an early age what she wanted to do in life.  One of the overriding themes of her memoir is that of empathy.  In a pivotal passage, Sotomayor explains how she understood the importance of empathy through two events and by reading Lord of the Flies.  In the classic book, a group of boys have to fend for themselves on an island by themselves.  Their survival is precarious, and they must work together in order to make it through.  Sotomayor notices the same precariousness in her own life.  She notices a police officer extorting a street fruit vendor for two bags of fruit.  She also witnesses her own aunt making prank calls to random women, pretending that she was having affairs with their husbands.  Putting it all together, she declares, “I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view” (123).  Her story continues as she details how hard she worked to make it through Princeton and Yale Law School, despite “limits of class and cultural background” (171).  It’s an inspiring book, and she doesn’t refrain from talking about mistakes she has made such as her brief marriage to her high school sweetheart.  This is a memoir I’d recommend reading.
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book reviews, comics, faith, literature, politics, psychology

Book Reviews, May 2016

In May I read two great books on serious questions about America today that I would recommend heartily, one on what it means to be gay and Christian in America, and the other on poverty and the crisis of affordable housing in this country.  There are two reviews for comic books, too, but only one of them is worth your time.

  • Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu is a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  He would then tell his own thoughts, but it was clear who thought what.  He even managed to do this when talking to Fred Phelps, the late pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, in a tense conversation (the book was published in 2013, a year before Phelps’s death).  Chu also spends time with those who have lost faith because of the way the church treated them, and with people in ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, and with gay Christians trying to remain celibate, and with those who have reconciled their sexuality with their faith.  He talks to some who are well known like Ted Haggard, the disgraced pastor, Jennifer Knapp, the one-time star in Contemporary Christian Music, and Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network.  But he mostly talks with everyday ordinary people who are trying to figure out their faith and sexuality.  A recurring element throughout the book is the ongoing story of a young man who is struggling to come out to his conservative family.  It all adds up to a very powerful book.  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.

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  • Ocean/Orbiter: The Deluxe Edition, written by Warren Ellis with art by Chris Sprouse and Colleen Doran, is a collection of two stories about human space flight.  Though unrelated, both stories are science fiction about technologies beyond what we currently have.  In Ocean, a global research team attempts to figure out what is below the ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, before a technology corporation (a thinly veiled Microsoft stand in; their operating system is called Doors instead of Windows).  The answer threatens the fate of humanity.  The second story involves a space shuttle that disappeared for ten years and then suddenly returns to Earth modified by unknown forces.  Again, the answers to what happened to the shuttle affect the fate of humanity.  The concepts behind both stories are interesting to a point, but they were very idea focused and not invested nearly as much in character.  I don’t regret reading the book, but I don’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone unless they’re craving mysterious space adventure light reading.

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  • The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts by Paul Pope is a grab bag of early formative comics by an extremely talented artist.  Pope’s art is full of action and expressive characters both heavily influenced by Japanese manga.  The art is not a rip-off, though, but a blend of styles that becomes something new and uniquely his.  The title story fits nicely in the crime genre, but with a bit of a supernatural twist.  Rival gangs such as the Paid-in-Spades and the Do Nothings compete in the city, but individuals in the One Tricks gang each have a special ability to control others with their speech (much like Kilgrave in Jessica Jones).  The protagonist of the story is Tubby, a member of the One Tricks, and his girlfriend Vim.  They plan a heist of their own gang’s stash so they can get out of the city, but naturally it all goes wrong as these things tend to do.  The other stories in the collection range from poems put into comics to a short story about an eating contest to a pair of wordless stories about chance encounters.  A particular standout is a short piece about a young woman waiting for her artist boyfriend to pick her up after work late at night.  He says he’ll be right there, but then gets caught up in his work again and arrives later than he said, leading to her having to fend off sexual violence from strangers while she waits and waits.  It does a good job of perspective taking since most everything else in the collection is about young males and their viewpoint.  Overall, it’s a good read for those who like crime fiction or good art.
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond is an essential book.  Please, please, read it (Read an excerpt here).  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  We meet Arleen and her two boys Jori and Jafaris (all the names have been changed) who get evicted at Christmas time after spending money on a funeral for Arleen’s sister instead of rent.  We meet Scott, a nurse who lost his license after he suffered a back injury and got hooked on painkillers and can’t keep up with rent because of his addiction.  We meet Lamar, a man with no legs, who tried to make up for back rent by helping paint the upstairs apartment, all to no avail after the house burned down later.  Their stories are gripping and heartbreaking.  And we meet their landlords Tobin and Sherrena, the former the owner of a rundown trailer park and the latter an enterprising owner of many dilapidated yet lucrative properties in the city leading her to proclaim that “the ‘hood is good.”  For the most part, their stories are presented in a straightforward manner based on first hand observations and recordings Desmond took while spending time with the people.  Occasionally he would add a beautiful description that made it more novelistic: “[she would] sit on a windowsill and light a cigarette, its smoke coming alive in the breeze like a raging spirit that had only seconds to live” (289).  When appropriate during the narratives, Desmond explains aspects of the housing crisis in cities like Milwaukee, but he leaves most of the research, his own and others’, in the 60 pages of endnotes (which are worth reading, too).  For example, “For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties” (75), and that over a period of two years, half of renters in Milwaukee “experienced a serious and lasting housing problem” (76).  Problems with housing ripple outwards, too, leading to health and psychological problems.  For instance, if the tenants at a property called 911 too frequently (3 times per month) the police could cite the landlord for a nuisance violation.  Landlords would likely evict renters who called 911 too much, thus leading to an incentive for renters not to call, which is of course a problem if there are genuine reasons like domestic abuse to get police involved.  Milwaukee recently changed the nuisance law to make an exception for abuse, but the incentives not to call remain for most situations.  So many poor people live in substandard housing in bad situations, but then they don’t even receive the help that they are entitled to because the programs are underfunded.  Sixty seven percent of poor people who rent received absolutely nothing from the federal government for housing assistance in 2013. It’s shameful.  At the end, Desmond offers two solutions that could begin to ameliorate the sad state of affairs in housing.  The first is to guarantee legal representation for those in eviction court, just like is done for criminal defendants.  Without a proper defense, most renters lose in court against their landlords, if they even show up to court at all.  But more fundamentally, housing should be a basic right for everyone.  One way to accomplish this would be to give everyone under a certain income a universal housing voucher that guarantees that no more than 30% of their income goes towards housing costs.  Such a program would not be cheap, but is certainly achievable if it were made a priority.  For example, the cost of the mortgage interest deduction to the federal government alone would be able to pay for the program.  For a country that calls itself a Christian nation, our priorities are certainly skewed.  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.
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