Saturday, October 21, 2017

Modern Masters, by Steve Huyton

If you enjoy modern residential architecture, you will love Steve Huyton's book Modern Masters: Contemporary Architecture from Around the World.  I love these houses.  They rate over the top on the "cool" factor, are very photogenic, and stretch the perception of what a home should look like.

Focusing on a handful of design firms from around the world, Huyton gives a paragraph or so of description before the displays of interior and exterior shots.  The predominant theme, as you might expect, is boxy and angular, concrete and glass.  Some of the houses are really fabulous looking. 

But this book leaves so many questions unanswered.

1. How much do these dwellings cost?  Well, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.  He doesn't discuss price at all, but I'm confident that the price per square foot is well above any house of traditional design.

2. Where do you put your stuff?  With all the open floor plans and floor-to-ceiling windows that take up whole walls, where are the closets?  I'm sure they are somewhere.  But you can't tell from these pictures.

3. Speaking of floor-to-ceiling windows, many of them have no evident window coverings.  How can anyone get some privacy in one of these houses?  What if you want to sleep in a little?

3.a.  And what about the utility bills? Ugh.

3.b.  And what about keeping those windows clean?  Double ugh.

4. Many of these houses have flat roofs.  Are they tar and gravel like my old elementary school or the local strip mall, which has to have that stinky mess reapplied frequently? 

Clearly, these are not houses for people who are concerned about their utility bills or the cost of upkeep and maintenance.  In some ways, the rich are just like you and me.  (They have to have a place to hang their clothes, even if it's not in these pictures.)  But in many ways, they are different.  After all, I'm certain that next time I buy or build a house, this won't be said about me: "The client requested a contemporary dwelling that would also showcase his car." 

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, October 20, 2017

When Grit Isn't Enough, by Linda F. Nathan

Dr. Linda Nathan, founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy high school, has seen her students, many of whom are minorities from poor households, come through her excellent high school with great dreams for college and career.  She would tell her incoming students that "all of you will continue on to either college or a career."  In When Grit Isn't Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise she tells her students' stories and expresses her frustrations with the presumptions and failures of the American system of higher education.

In spite of the movement toward increasing college accessibility and additional college funding, college remains out of grasp for many poorer American students.  She writes that "elite colleges and flagship colleges enroll more students from the top 1 percent of the income bracket than the bottom half of the income distribution."  Even when enrollment opens up to poor students and scholarships are offered, they often don't have the additional financial assistance, family knowledge and support, or freedom of lifestyle to complete a degree.  The book is full of tough, sad anecdotes of promising students who were not able to finish college for these reasons.

One of the attitudes that many educators hold toward student success, especially among minorities and poor students, is that student success depends on grit.  It's true that grit is a necessary ingredient for student success.  But Nathan argues that "the grit approach . . . has taken on an importance for out of proportion to the many other traits that may be just as critical for student development and success."  She says that "the benefits of grit and lockstep learning may have been overinterpreted, and traits such as curiosity and creativity given short shrift." 

The implication of emphasizing grit is that if a student does not succeed, it's because he or she didn't display enough grit.  But, as Nathan points out, "if we ignore race, poverty, and social class we continue to create false promises for too many young people."  There are "political or social or socioeconomic systems that work against students."

While demographics often work for against a student's success, obviously, I'm reluctant to embrace Nathan's criticisms of grit, of highly disciplined and structured schools, and demanding course work.  These elements may not be sufficient to guarantee success, but I would argue that they are necessary.  I appreciate Nathan's emphasis on alternatives to college.  She provides examples of vocational high school programs in which students not only gain valuable skills but also have opportunities to work in actual jobs and internships which can not only make them employable but can direct them to college tracks where they can cultivate their passions and skills.

Nathan has some great insight into preparing kids for their post-high-school lives, whether that means college or something else.  College for all sounds great, but "we have not, as a nation, committed to the career part in the mantra 'college and career for all.'"  Without diminishing the value of college, Nathan calls for more attention to be paid to alternatives.  The future of our students, particularly those who come from poor households, depends on it.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Like many readers, my first exposure to Ted Chiang was through the movie The Arrival, which is based on "Story of Your Life."  This short story, along with seven others, are found in Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others.  As is the case with almost any collection of short stories, this collection is uneven.  I got the feeling that some of them were experimental pieces where he took a germ of an idea and tried to build a story around it but it never really sprouted into a complete work of fiction.  A few are strong stand-along pieces.

"Story of Your Life" was a bit of a let down after I saw the movie.  I know, I know, movies and stories are separate works and exist independently.  I saw the movie first, was disappointed, then read the story, and was even more disappointed.  Alas.  "Tower of Babylon" was a treat, as it sort of told the story of the biblical Tower of Babel.  "Understand" was an interesting attempt to explore the implications of artificially inducing tremendous mental powers on an individual.  "Liking What You See: A Documentary" is written as a series of interview responses about calliagnosia, a neurological treatment that blocks neural pathways by which we judge people's ugliness or beauty.  I enjoyed both the story-telling technique and the thoughtful reflection of this piece.

Stories of Your Life and Others shows Chiang as a writer whose big ideas are not easily contained in a mere story.  Readers who enjoy a good story will ultimately be disappointed in Chiang's writing, but readers who don't care so much about minor details like plot and character development will delight in Chiang's ideas.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Trap Line, by Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano

In Carl Hiaasen's early days of writing fiction, he partnered with Bill Montalbano to write three gritty crime novels.  The second, Trap Line, exposes the underbelly of life in Key West, where fishermen and drug runners take to the seas to make a living.  When Breeze Albury refuses to help some smugglers, they get their revenge by cutting his trap lines, ruining his business.  Trying to make up his losses, he ends up in league with local criminals, who lead him into a different sort of trap.  Running from the corrupt local law enforcement and hiding out from the criminal gangs, he plots his devious revenge.

Trap Line is a shadow of the more entertaining series of books he writes later on.  As in most of Hiaasen's books, everyday folks get mixed up with bumbling criminals, but Trap Line lacks most of the humor and absurdity of his later fiction.  Ultimately that means this is quite a bit less enjoyable.  There are no heroes here, only varying degrees of badness getting revenge on badness.

All that said, Hiaasen's colorful characterizations and sense of Florida culture, along with the interconnected plot lines, set him apart from typical crime writers.  Hiaasen fans might want to pick up Trap Line for some historical perspective on his work, but it will make them long for Skink and the fun of Hiaasen's later fiction.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Capital Gaines, by Chip Gaines

Chip Gaines and his lovely wife and partner Joanna have won the hearts of America with their hit TV show Fixer Upper.  Before they became an HGTV sensation, they dabbled in a variety of businesses.  Chip's new book, Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff tells the story of his business successes (as well as a few failures) and spreads some of the wisdom of his ways.

If you've seen Fixer Upper, you've seen the teamwork between Chip and Joanna.  This is a theme throughout the book.  Even while they were dating, Joanna had his back and was there to help him out of a jam (or two or three).  He writes, "Jo and I have always believed that it is us against the world. . . . We know that in all the world there is this one singular human who will be on our team every time."  As they made business decisions and took huge risks, it was always a collaborative effort.  Of course, as he told an employee, "People are always asking us who's in charge, and the answer is, when Jo is gone, I'm the boss."

Another theme is taking risks and working hard.  Chip's career has been marked by big risks and lots of hard work.  He assures us that "if you do the hard work and never quit--and pick yourself up when things go sideways--good things will be waiting on the other side."  Speaking of having a winning mentality, he compares life and business to a tennis match.  You will lose some games and win others, but "with a winner mentality, there's a positive waiting for you no matter the outcome."  In the end, "winning and losing isn't an event; it's a mind-set."

Capital Gaines is full of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially if they are already admirers of the Gaineses.  While Fixer Upper took the Gaines's businesses to new heights, I have no doubt that they would have continued to be successful even without the exposure the show brought.  Chip and Joanna make a great team, a true partnership in life and business.  Capital Gaines captures the fun-loving, hard-working, slightly crazy Chip that we see on the TV show, while also passing along some memorable nuggets of wisdom for business and life.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Revival, edited by John Avant, Malcolm McDow, and Alvin Reid

During my last semester on campus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminar in Fort Worth, I attended a chapel service in which students lined up at the microphones confessing sin.  I thought it was rather strange, hearing these fellow students airing their dirty laundry in public, but that service deeply impacted many students and faculty.  I left campus shortly after, happy to leave the contentious atmosphere that had come to dominate with the firing of the president the year before, and never got the full story of this brief but intense time of revival.

Out of curiosity I picked up the 1996 book Revival! The Story of the Current Awakening in Brownwood, Ft. Worth, Wheaton, and Beyond.  Edited by John Avant, Southwestern professor Malcolm McDow, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Alvin Reid, Revival! is primarily a compilation of journal entries and recollections of several people who were at the center of this revival movement. 

John Avant was pastor at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church in Brownwood, Texas, when a revival broke out, marked by confession, salvations, and intense worship and prayer.  Soon students from Howard Payne University in Brownwood began traveling to Southwestern Seminary, Wheaton, and dozens and dozens of other college and seminary campuses testifying about what God was doing in Texas.  In most cases, similar revivals broke out on those campuses and spread to other churches and schools as students carried the news onward.

Revival! gathers together Avant's journals, journals of some of the key students, and messages they gave at other schools.  As you might expect, there is a lot of crossover and repetition as the story is told from different perspectives.  Also included are reflective chapters from Southwestern professors Roy Fish and Dan Crawford, who offer insights on cultivating and maintaining revival.  Finally, Henry Blackaby, whose study Experiencing God provided the kindling for revival fire, contributes a closing chapter.

Movements like this are so unpredictable and spontaneous, but, as Avant and the authors point out, there are conditions that can lead to a revival movement.  I was encouraged by their stories and convicted of my need to walk more closely with God and confess my sin.  I still think the public confession of sin as described here and as I witnessed in chapel is questionable, yet it was the trigger for some life-changing experiences.  I would be curious to hear from some of these students two decades later, reflecting on the long-term impact this powerful but brief revival movement had on their lives.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Superman and the Miserable, Rotten, No Fun, Really Bad Day, by Dave Croatto, illustrated by Tom Richmond

Remember Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?  The folks at Mad Magizine do, and have created a clever parody: Superman and the Miserable, Rotten, No Fun, Really Bad Day.  Superman is having a rough time.  Kids on the bus were comparing superheroes, and despite Superman's input, they still thought Batman or the Flash might be cooler.  Then when he had to leave to save the city from Doomsday, he left his lunch on the bus.  He was late to work, and got stuck covering the flower show instead of the president's visit.  And at the Justice League headquarters he had monitor duty while Batman and Wonder Woman were honored by the city.

Even if you don't know Alexander, you will get a kick out of poor Superman's misadventures.  Dave Croatto's writing, with illustrations by Tom Richmond, captures Superman's misery.  Even superheroes don't always have things go their way.  As his Ma reminds him, "some days are like that," even in the Fortress of Solitude.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!