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.
- 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.
- 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.