Sunday, December 19, 2010

Trickle Up Poverty, by Michael Savage

Michael Savage hates Barack Obama.  I mean, he despises him.  I'm not talking about hating Obama's policies--he hates those, too--but he really hates Obama, the man, everything he is, and everything he stands for.  If you've ever heard Savage's radio show, you'll already be aware of this animosity.  If you haven't, read a few pages of Trickle Up Poverty: Stopping Obama's Attack on Our Borders, Economy, and Security and any doubt will be removed.  Take these quotes, taken somewhat at random:
"The world Obama envisions is one in which the central government confiscates its citizens' money and transfers it to his political comrades."
"Nothing Obama does, not one single policy or legislative initiative, has anything to do with the will of the people or what might benefit the people."
"Barack Obama doesn't want you to succeed in your job or your small business.  He wants to see you on your knees before him."
The problem I have with this book, and with Savage's radio show, is not that he doesn't have a basis for everything he says.  To the contrary, the man has a Ph.D.!  Even though his degree's in another field, he thoroughly researches his subjects and coherently defends his arguments, and does so in a frequently entertaining way.  The problem is that he does so with vitriol, biting sarcasm, and a vicious sneer.  Even though I almost completely agree with everything Savage says, I am frustrated by his tone.

Yes, Obama can hardly help being a socialist, given his intellectual heritage.  Yes, he has long associated himself with unsavory characters who have corrupted him intellectually, spiritually, and politically.  His ideas and policies are destructive to American, to freedom, and to financial prosperity.  Savage describes and documents all of this, but he comes across as a blowhard because of his rhetoric.  I'm reminded of a sweaty, screaming, pulpit pounding preacher.  The gospel he preaches may be 100% theologically and biblically accurate, but I sure don't want to listen to him.

Even though his style and tone drove me nuts, there's plenty of good information here.  Like I said, I was nodding in agreement the whole time I read.   I'm with Savage: I can't wait until the cancer living in the White House is returned to private life.  If you're looking for more reasons to hate Obama, or justification for reasons to hate him, you'll find it here.  If you're looking for balanced, reasonable policy analysis of the Obama administration, well, you'd probably be better off looking elsewhere.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein

When I was a kid, I started reading Robert A. Heinlein's wonderful science fiction stories.  I don't know how much the themes of the books shaped me, but I know they helped me gain and maintain an interest in science and technology.  He's a great story-teller, certainly one of the best, sci-fi or otherwise.  His later books became much less appealing as he turned to a more adult audience.  (As I remember one relative saying, RAH became a dirty old man.)  Even though many of his novels are purportedly for young readers (teens, not little kids), their appeal holds at least for this middle-aged reader.  The first RAH book I read was Tunnel in the Sky, when I was probably 10 or 12.  Elliot is 11, so I thought I'd read it again and see if I still like it enough to pass it on.  I do!

n1833.jpgRod Walker will be graduating from high school soon, but first he has to pass the final exam in survival class.  On test day, he and his classmates will be deposited in an isolated area and will be expected to use the course's lessons and their limited equipment to survive, whatever the climate or surroundings.  They'll get to the mysterious destination via a planetary gates, a sort of portal through which on can simply walk from one place to another, whether across the continent or across the galaxy.  RAH does spend some time on the physics and discovery of the gates.  That's a real strength of his: even when he introduces seemingly fanciful technologies, he provides a scientific rational or foundation, making it almost believable.

The survival test starts out as expected, but when there's no gate at the appointed coordinates in the appointed time frame, Rod and his classmates realize they may be stuck for good, wherever in the universe they may be.  Like the English schoolboys in The Lord of the Flies, the kids have to figure out how to create a society together.  Rather than let themselves fall into chaos, the kids in The Tunnel in the Sky are determined to maintain civility--and civilization.  It was refreshing to see that when these older teenagers wanted to have sex and live together, they actually had the "mayor" perform a wedding.  And cursing was strictly prohibited, in order to retain decorum.

Once they got through the gate to the new planet, Tunnel became not so much sci-fi as classic teen survival literature like The Cay, Hatchet, or Lord of the Flies.  I love the message of the need for an ordered society, self-reliance and cooperation.  The kids' experiments in self-governance are instructive and present the question, how would we structure society if the slate was wiped clean and we were starting fresh on a new planet?

I was a bit surprised at the level of vocabulary and depth of the concepts in Tunnel in the Sky.  Either I was a smart kid or I understood it a lot less than I thought I did.  I'm going to pass this one along to Elliot and see what he thinks.  I hope he likes it as much as I did and do!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck

If you're like me, you get tired of hearing about new churches, or sometimes old churches trying to make themselves new, who say things like, "We're the church for people who don't like church," "We're a different kind of church," "This is not your grandmother's church," and such things, the implication being that churches are somehow bad, full of failed traditions and dead faith.  Even worse are those who "love Jesus but not the church," who are "spiritual but not religious," who "worship by enjoying nature" and consider fellowship at Starbucks to be a legitimate substitute for corporate worship.  Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have heard some of those same things.  DeYoung, a pastor in Michigan, and Kluck, a writer who attends DeYoung's church, take on some of these attitudes in a refreshing affirmation of church for people who like church, of church like your grandmother's church.

DeYoung and Kluck survey some of the recent literature that dimishes the role of church in the Christian life, discuss the demographic characteristics of "leavers," and provide some encouragement and inspiration in defense of churchgoing.  I have seen some of these books, many of which are written by leaders of the "emergent church."  (DeYoung and Kluck have also written a book called Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys who Should Be).)  Some titles are pretty self-explanatory, like They Like Jesus but Not the Church or When Christians Get it Wrong.  There are plenty of these, often written as a memoir of a 20-something or 30-something who has gone through some sort of crisis of faith. 

But I was surprised, as DeYoung was, by the anti-church writings of George Gallup and Leonard Sweet.  Both of these writers have been influential with their cultural, sociological analyses of church life and the role of religion in society.  But both have in recent years taken a turn for the worse.  According to DeYoung and Kluck, Gallup and Sweet are purveyors of the "Jesus on the golf course" and "Jesus at Starbucks" movement.  In their view, a good time enjoying creation and companionship on the golf course, or enjoying conversation and coffee at Starbucks, are legitimate expressions of church.  It's not that I, or DeYoung and Kluck, are against those things.  Of course relationships are crucial to the Christian life, and of course we can experience God in the beauty of nature (even the thoroughly manicured beauty of a golf course), but those experiences are not church.

One of the criticisms that church leavers hold against the contemporary American church is a disengagement from culture and the needs of the world.  Many churches have embraced social action in a positive way, but DeYoung and Kluck warn that churches often champion interests that are non-controversial rather than those with a biblical, evangelical mandate.  When churches oppose sex trafficking, work against world hunger, or build houses for the homeless, who would object to it?  "Let's make sure as Christians that our mission concerns go farther than those shared by Brangelina and the United Way."  The church isn't a social service agency, but the body of Christ on earth, with a very specific and unique gospel to proclaim.  Some miss the gospel; they want social action without atonement.

The younger generation, DeYoung and Kluck argue, is "prone to radicalism without follow through."  They see Bono and his ilk, setting that kind of activism up as the model.  The authors ask, "What's harder: to be an idolized rock star who travels around the world touting good causes and chiding governments for their lack of foreign aid, or to be a line worker at GM with four kids and a mortgage, who tithes to his church, sings in the praise team every week, serves on the school board, and supports a Christian relief agency and a few missionaries from his disposable income?  Even if one is not harder than the other, certainly one is more common.  And sadly, that is the one that is more despised."  It may be that the latter is more boring.  Punching a clock and paying a mortgage may not be too glamorous, even dull.  But boredom can also be an expression of and side effect of faithfulness, a "long obedience in the same direction."

DeYoung and Kluck are to be commended for defending the oft maligned institutional church.  The bottom line, for those who want the church to "do more" is to remember this truth: "The gospel is not about what we do for God.  It's a message about what God has done for us."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Common Lawyer, by Mark Gimenez

The Common Lawyer is another great legal thriller from D/FW's own Mark Gimenez.  I reviewed his The Perk back in June.  (I noted then that his books aren't too easy to find here; you can order from The Book Depository in the U.K., which ships to the U.S. for FREE!)  Gimenez scores another page turner with The Common Lawyer

Gimenez has been compared to John Grisham by reviewers.  The Common Lawyer, perhaps the most Grisham-like Gimenez offering yet, features a young, struggling lawyer getting an offer he can't refuse.  (Grisham lovers would say that sounds familiar.)  Andy Prescott is pretty content with his career.  Sure, he has a cramped office over a tattoo parlor, doesn't own a car, and makes barely enough money defending traffic tickets to support his mountain biking habit.  When a local billionaire drops by seeking Andy's services, his life takes a crazy turn.

Andy's first job for the billionaire, acting as his representative for some real estate development on Austin's south side, where Andy lives, sets up one of the interesting subplots of the novel.  A trendy neighborhood with easy access to downtown, south Austin has seen dramatic increases in property values, so that some of the long-time, low-income residents are priced out of the neighborhood.  Andy's client wants to build affordable housing in the neighborhood, to the chagrin of some residents.  Andy uses his contacts and good reputation in the community to attempt to convince the neighborhood to embrace the housing development. 

This part of the story highlights a feature of Gimenez's novels: an intimate knowledge of not only the geography but the culture and ethos of his settings.  I have little doubt that he spent a great deal of time in this neighborhood, getting to know the people and places and creating a believable, realisitic setting.  I'm not from Austin, but have been there a few times.  I could picture Andy riding around downtown, on the University of Texas campus, and the trails of the greenbelt on his mountain bike.  (I also got a kick out of Andy's shopping.  When looking for a gift for his mother, he browses the cool shops in his neighborhood.  He runs across a purse made from an armadillo, which he deems "weird, but cool."  When I was in college I had the audacity to buy one of those for my girlfriend, and, even better, she had the audacity to carry it!)  He then addresses social and cultural issues relevant to the people there, weaving an interesting social message through the story (without distracting from the plot).  I wouldn't be a bit surprised to visit Austin and see the very housing development Gimenez describes, or reading about a controversy over such a project in the Austin papers.

The overall plot also has a message, posing a difficult medical ethics question.  However, Gimenez brilliantly keeps the reader guessing as to the nature of the issue.  I hesitate to reveal too much, but Gimenez forces us to wonder, if I had a child with a terminal disease, and I were a billionaire, would I not do everything I could to cure him?  Would I do the unethical or illegal to treat him?  Again, without beating up an issue or forcing a position down the readers' throats, Gimenez uses the issue to drive a great story, while giving us a context to consider the ethical questions.

The Common Lawyer displays Gimenez's great pacing, multiple plots levels, and engaging characters.  Even with some dark elements, Gimenez keeps it light, with bumbling bad guys who could have stepped out of a Carl Hiaasen book, and Andy's free-wheeling approach to life and law that makes you want to hang out with him in his hip south Austin neighborhood.  I think you'll want to, too.  The Common Lawyer is a terrific read, keeping you guessing and accelerating like one of Andy's mountain bike rides toward an unexpetedly wild, thoroughly satisfying ending.  Highly recommended!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson

Several years ago, my sister was reading Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, and said I must read it.  Well, I finally got around to it, and she couldn't have been more right on her recommendation!  Mortenson's story inspires and challenges me, yet frustrates me at the same time.  He has become well-known for his work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, even earning a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.  Three Cups of Tea tells the story of his start and the obstacles he had to overcome.

Mortenson was a self-proclaimed climbing bum.  He worked as a nurse, but mostly worked to climb.  A friend asked him to come along as the medic on an expedition to K2, the worlds second tallest peak.  Due to a rescue of another climber, he did not get to summit, and then got lost on the way down the mountain.  He ended up in the village of Korphe, where he recovered, enjoyed the hospitality of the northern Pakistani villagers, and changed the course of his life.  As he got to know the people of Korphe, he observed the children sitting in a make-shift, open-air classroom, working on their lessons with no books, no paper, and no teacher.  He promised to return to the village to build a school for the kids.
For the next year, Mortenson lived in his car, worked extra hours at his nursing job, and saved everything he could for the school in Korphe.  He typed letters (Yes, typed!  He didn't know anything about computers at this point.) to every wealthy person he could think of.  He ended up returning to Korphe a year later in a truck loaded with materials to build the school.  They built a bridge, instead, which is a cool story in itself, but by doing so he gained credibility and momentum to come back and build the school and many more in the area.  To date, Mortenson has built dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, educating thousands of children, focusing especially on girls, who previously couldn't go to school at all.

Much of Three Cups of Tea reads like an adventure story, and what adventures he had!  Besides the sheer audacity of his mission, Mortenson was kidnapped and held captive by Taliban, caught in the crossfire between rival warlords, and was the subject of at least one fatwah.  But his reputation grew with every school.  The Taliban captured him, but only wanted him to build schools for their people!  Warlords rode for days to meet him and invite him to their villages.  He was loved and respected virtually everywhere he went (except by the CIA, who wanted him to reveal Osama bin Laden's hiding place.  He didn't know. . . .)

I said Three Cups of Tea inspired and frustrated me.  You can't help but be inspired by someone who does so much with so little.  Mortenson is not independently wealthy, was not well-connected, and did not have rich parents to get money from.  He had nothing when he committed to build a school for Korphe.  His single-minded, relentless commitment to education for these poor, rural people is impressive, especially when you realize he started not only with no money, but with no organizational or political support.  My frustration lies in the realization of how little I've done with my life, and how little passion and commitment I've brought to my endeavors.  Oftentimes when we read about people who do great things, their greatness springs from privilege or circumstance, and we can think, "Oh, of course he was great, or did great things!  Look what he had to start with."  But Mortenson (no slight to him is meant here) was an average guy with no resources, yet has accomplished much.  What a challenge to the rest of us regular folks!
The school at Korphe
One thing I would like to have seen explored in Three Cups of Tea is Mortenson's faith.  The child of missionaries, he was raised as a devout Christian.  Although he never states that he has rejected Christianity, he gives no indication that, as an adult, he is a follower of Jesus.  He does talk about taking on some religious affectations of the Muslims, such as joining them in daily prayer, but he seems to distance himself from the Muslim faith.  In a way, this works in his favor: there is no ulterior motive for his work.  He does not found schools as a means to gain a foothold in the culture from which he can proselytize.  His mission is to promote education solely for the sake of education.  I would just be interested to hear more about how his personal faith has shaped that mission through the years.

As a non-sectarian worker with the mission of educating children, he has been a force for peace in the region.  He started his work before 9/11, and, in the face of virulent anti-Americanism, has continued to be the face of America for Muslims in areas where he works.  How can they be anti-American?  They know and love "Dr. Greg," a fine American!  His presence there has done more for peace than treaties or troops or aid could ever do.

What a great story!  And it goes on.  He is actually promoting his new book, Stones into Schools, and will be in Dallas this weekend at an event for a fundraising dinner.  (details)  If you haven't heard his story before, pick up Three Cups of Tea.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Real Stars: In Today's America, Who are the True Heroes?, by Ben Stein

Who doesn't love Ben Stein.  He is, of course best known for his acting roles, like the unforgettable teacher in Ferris Beuler's Day off, Visine commercials, or his game show, "Win Ben Stein's Money."  Many don't know that he also holds a Yale law degree, worked as an economist in the department of commerce, and worked as a speech writer for Presidents Nixon and Ford.  For years I subscribed to The American Spectator, in which his regular column, "Ben Stein's Diary," was always the highlight. 

The Real Stars: In Today's America, Who are the True Heroes?, a collection of essays which remind me of the tone of his TAS columns, capture his optimism, his humor, his good nature, and his political and economic insights.  The title essay comes from a column he wrote for E! Online, in which he says our heroes should not be the "stars" who make 8 figure incomes reciting lines on film, but those men and women of the armed forces who leave the comforts of home, sacrifice families and careers, and lay down their lives in service to our country.  (Ironic, of course, that he writes this for a web site presumable dedicated to the rich and shallow of Hollywood.)

Many of these essays will make you laugh.  All will make you smile.  Some will make you cry.  I especially liked "My Father's Estate," in which he chronicles the legacy his father has left behind, very little of which can be stolen, I mean taxed, by the IRS.  His conversations with and anecdotes about famous and not-so-famous people are quite enjoyable to read.  One quibble I have with him, though, is his frequent harping about not being rich.  Granted, he's frequently hobnobbing with Hollywood moguls and other mega-rich folks, so maybe compared to them, he is a pauper.  But I would imagine that compared with most of America, he is quite wealthy.  That's a minor point, though.  He's so good-natured that he sees the very best in everyone.  Even though he says a $100,000,000 Hollywood starlet is not his hero, he doesn't take the step, which would be tempting to me, of pointing out her many character flaws.

This collection is a fun read.  If you've never read Stein's columns, you're in for a treat.  In fact, most of these are available, in one form or another, at his web site.  (But since he's broke, you should buy the book from him!)

Monday, October 25, 2010

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

If you're under the age of, say, 40 or 50, you have no first-hand memory of Jim Crow.  I know I don't.  Most of my life has been in what Michelle Alexander calls "the age of colorblindness."  There's plenty of racism in the world; I guess there always will be.  But our society is now officially colorblind.  We have seen black corporate leaders, sports and entertainment figures, professionals, teachers, police and fire personnel, elected officials, and, now, a U.S. president. Who can say our society has elements of racial control likened to Jim Crow?  Alexander makes a convincing case.

The bottom line is that the absurdly high percentage of African-American males who are in jail or have been convicted of felonies is not a result of that group's propensity for criminal activity but is a result of racist policies.  Just as slavery and Jim Crow excluded blacks from mainstream life, now mass incarceration, primarily as a result of the War on Drugs, has excluded them.  Even after they leave prison, ex-convicts try to reenter mainstream culture but are faced with restrictions on voting and running for office, exclusion by many trade associations and professional licensing, exclusion from public housing and other government benefits, rejection from many employers, and, of course, life-long social stigma.

The biggest culprit here is the War on Drugs.  Starting in the Reagan administration, law enforcement has vastly increased its focus on the enforcement of drug laws.  Ironically, at the time Reagan initiated the WoD, drug use was actually on the decline.  But, hey, we had to learn how to "Just say no."  The WoD introduced more and more incentives for law enforcement to arrest and prosecute drug users.  Besides federal monetary grants, local police were given access to military weaponry and tactics to use against their citizens.  SWAT raids against grandmas?  Check.  In addition, seizure rules gave police the ability to seize money, cars, houses, land, and anything else they deemed connected in any way to a drug crime.  Here's an idea: lets tie police department budgets and officers' salary bonuses to seized assets to give them an incentive to seize even more.  Done!

What does the WoD have to do with race?  Tons.  Where is it easier to find drug activity?  In a neighborhood where people live in crowded apartments and spend a lot of time outside, or in a neighborhood where people have large homes and fenced yards?  Who is more likely to have connections and money to get out of drug convictions, teenage children of suburban white professionals, or black high school kids in the inner city?  The fact is, white people use drugs at higher rates than black people, but arrests and convictions of black for drug crimes far outweigh those for whites.

Well, the drug laws themselves aren't racist--they're colorblind, like our enlightened society!  Wrong.  First, the easy one: sentencing for crack cocaine is 100 times harsher than for powder cocaine.  Even though whites use crack too, thanks to the Reagan-era anti-drug hysteria, crack is associated with blacks.  And laws are enforced and prosecuted with the discretion of police and prosecutors.  Alexander looks at data on traffic stops, pedestrian stops, and other "pretense" stops; blacks are stopped much more frequently for things like a burned out taillight as a pretense for a search, thus are found with drugs on random searches more frequently.  And to top it off, the courts have excluded the overwhelming evidence of racism from consideration.  So what if the vast majority of drug arrests are of black men; unless you have an officer on video screaming "I'm going to through your nigga a-- in jail" or some other blatantly racist rant, you have no case for racism.

Alexander presents a convincing case demonstrating the racism of our law enforcement system which has put the black man in a subservient position in society.  As a white man, it makes me furious to see the way society, which I tend to think of as pretty fair, treats blacks.  As the father of a black son, it makes me fear for his future.  There are times when Alexander seems to oversell the case, but she presents so much data that even her occasional emotional foray does not seem off the mark.  I will say that if I had heard Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton give a speech making these points, I would have written them off.  I can't stand those guys, con men and manipulators that they are.  But I can no longer ignore what they say as easily.

So what about those successful African-Americans?  Alexander says that's great to have these examples, but we should not forget the mass of black men, the millions stigmatized and excluded by the criminal justice system.  She acknowledges the difficulty in defending the civil rights of the criminal class, but we have to face the racism of the system.  She chastises the civil rights establishment for basically ignoring this issue.

I am with Alexander on the hypocrisy of the WoD.  Our past 3 presidents have acknowledged their experimentation with drugs.  If they had been held to the same standard as an inner-city black teenager, they each could probably have been convicted at some point, making them ineligible for public office.  But do any of them speak out in favor of easing drug criminalization?  Of course not.  (There's a time machine fantasy for you: I wish I could travel back in time to Obama's youth, arrest him during one of his drug trips, make sure he is convicted, maybe have him serve a little time, then our nation would never have to be afflicted with his poisonous policies!)

The New Jim Crow is a difficult book to read.  My blood was boiling at points.  If I were a younger man, I would be sending off applications to law school and applying for internships at some advocacy groups. If you've ever been skeptical of claims regarding racism in the criminal justice system, I challenge you to read this book.  If you ever thought the WoD was a good idea, read this book.  If you think it's a great idea to lock up such a large percentage of our population, read this book.  Alexander's right, a civil rights campaign calling for the defense of convicted drug users may not play as well as defending the rights of poor kids to have an equal education, but it is no less important.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Star Island, by Carl Hiaasen

There are a few authors whose new books I look forward to with great anticipation; Carl Hiaasen is one of them.  If you have never read his novels, you are missing a real treat.  A Miami Herald columnist, Hiassen revels in stories of the crazy side of life in South Florida.  Star Island is one of the crazier stories he's crafted, bringing in some of the characters we know and love, like Chemo, the bodyguard with the weed whacker attachment on his prosthetic arm, and Skink, the ex-governor with the missing eye, who lives off the land among the mangroves, and introduces us to the culture of celebrity surrounding the stars of Star Island.  (Star Island is a man-made island in Miami where the likes of P Diddy, Shaq, A-Rod, Gloria Estefan, and other stars live or have lived.)

Cherry Pye, a spoiled, talentless, yet wildly successful pop star, has taken a walk on the wild side.  Picture Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton, club hopping, bed hopping, drinking and drugging, and loving the attention from the paparazzi and the tabloids.  Cherry's life is like that; her parents and handlers struggle to keep her happy while keeping her alive and hoping to keep her on her feet for her upcoming tour.  Without Cherry's knowledge, they've hired an actress as a body double for Cherry.  If Cherry's in rehab, passed out, or sick, they bring out Ann to fill in for quick appearances.  When Ann disappears, Team Cherry goes into a frenzy and madness ensues.

Ann, rescued after a car accident by Skink, the crazy hermit and ex-governor, wants out of this crazy life, but on her terms.  After she's kidnapped by a tabloid photographer, she's wondering if Skink will come to her rescue.  Cherry's agent hires Chemo as body guard.  For a while, he replaces his weed whacker prosthesis with a cattle prod, which he uses on Cherry when she uses the word "like" as other than a verb.  He wonders if Cherry is worth protecting.

Hiaasen crafts his usual improbable, twisted plot with crazily interconnecting story lines, while developing characters who caricature real life.  The situational humor is laugh out loud funny, the characters are hilarious and unforgettable, and the cultural commentary will make you smile.  I don't know that I would say Star Island is as terrific as Skinny Dip or Sick Puppy, two of my favorites, but it's a good one.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton

At first, I loved this book.  The first couple of chapters brought to mind Leonard Read's classic essay, "I, Pencil."  If you haven't read this before, click here and read it now!  That great little story tells of the incredible complexity of the common pencil, created by the efforts of millions of people all over the world, not one of whom knows how to make a pencil.  In a similar way, Alain de Botton looks at some of the ordinary, everyday transactions of our daily economic lives and reveals the complex mechanisms behind them.

De Botton, a Swiss-born, London-based writer, starts at the port of London, where he catalogues some of the activity there.  Raw materials come from all over the world to be made into finished products.  Finished products come from all over the world to be distributed to consumers.  The ships arrive from exotic ports of call, but to the shipping agents, "their vessels' journeys have all the mundanity of a ride between stations on a Underground line."  The consumer is typically indifferent to the origins and travels of the goods he buys, but "a slight dampness at the bottom of a carton, or an obscure code printed along a computer cable, may hint at processes of manufacture and transport noble and more mysterious, more worthy of wonder and study, than the goods themselves."

De Botton describes the intricate workings at a logistics park, where much of the work takes place at night. "We lie in bed, . . . our mouths defencelessly agape, while a fleet of lorries is loaded up with the lion's share of the morning's semi-skimmed milk for northern England."  Other warehouses are full of produce, where "at any given moment, half the contents of the warehouse are seventy-two hours away from being inedible, a prospect which prompts continuous struggles against the challenges of mould and geography."  So tomatoes from Palermo end up on a table in northern Scotland in mere days, and strawberries from California are flown across the Arctic Circle to European grocery stores.  Because of the short lives of strawberries, "An improbable number of grown-ups have been forced to subordinate their sloth, to move pallets across sheds and wait in rumbling diesel lorries in traffic to bow to the exacting demands of soft plump fruit."

For me, a favorite feature is the photo essay which follows some tuna from the Maldives to a dinner table.  The author goes along with a commercial fishing crew, watches as they bring in their catch, to the processing plant, rides the plane with it to London, stalks the shoppers in the store, and follows the purchaser home to dinner.  (The photo essay is available at the photographer's web site, In another chapter, he visits a biscuit (cookie) factory, examining the marketing research and recipe experimentation that goes into producing a package of cookies.  The massive research and production effort for one little cookie is astounding.  Next time you have dinner, eat an Oreo, or buy some random product at the store, these chapters will make you stop and think about all that went into getting those items into your shopping cart.

Those chapters, which constitute about 1/3 of the book, fell into the "I love this book!" category.  De Botton's style makes what may seem mundane into fascinating reading.  The rest of the book is not bad, but didn't grab me the way the first part did.  While looking into various trades and professions, he brings them alive and provides some interesting insights for the outsider.  The Japanese team who travels to French Guiana to launch a satellite for their TV network, the painter who paints the same tree over and over again, the entrepreneurs who go to a conference to learn "How to Turn That Gem of an Idea Into Shed-Loads of Money," all point to the many ways people contribute to the life of work.  The sorrows?  Every now and then I sensed from de Bottom a bit of futility and meaninglessness in the working life, but overall, at least in my interpretation, he dwells more on the satisfaction and joy of a job done well.

Uneven though the latter part of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work may be, I thoroughly enjoyed de Botton's style.  He has helped shine a light on the world of consumer goods and of production and labor as a whole.  As I look around the room now, and as I think about the variety, complexity, and technology of the goods and services to available to me, our world seems smaller and more interconnected.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Enough, by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman

In this challenging book, these two veteran Wall Street Journal reporters ask, as the subtitle states, why the world's poorest starve in an age of plenty.  If you have studied the topic of poverty and food production, some of the content here may not be completely new to you, but much of their argument goes beyond what you may typically have heard.  Thurow and Kilman's WSJ reporting on famines in 2003 won them some recognition, even a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize.
Here's what I love most about this book: it pays tribute to Norman Borlaug, who passed away last year.  You don't know who that is?  Only a Nobel Peace Prize winner, one of my heroes, who is personally, almost single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of literally millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of people around the world.  He fathered the Green Revolution, back when "green" didn't indicate anti-market, eco-feel-goodism.  He developed various strains of wheat that increased yield and resisted disease.  I read an interview with him in Reason Magazine a few years ago and became enthralled with his story.

(By the way, I became frustrated while I was teaching that Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring, is so well-remembered by the environmentalists; she is lauded in children's textbooks, and has a number of children's books written about her, even though she is single-handedly responsible for the deaths of countless millions.  By leading the movement to ban DDT, she allowed malaria to spread unchecked, while supposedly saving some birds, although the environmental benefits of the DDT ban are questionable.  I think it's shameful.  I noticed no similar laudatory treatment of Borlaug, and thought about writing a children's book about him.  Now I see someone beat me to it!  Andy Andrews published The Boy Who Changed the World just last month.  I have yet to read it, but will certainly check it out.)

Thurow and Kilman continue the Borlaug story.  After winning the Nobel Prize in 1970, he went out of fashion until a Japanese business man and philanthropist drafted him to bring the Green Revolution to Africa.  In spite of some early successes, it did not take hold as well as it had in India.
Borlaug with Africans.  How many of them and their descendants owe their lives to him?
The reasons for the persistence of poverty are varied.  The culprit I often hear is corrupt governments.  Surely one does not have to look hard to find governments who use foreign aid to buy chalets in Europe, or who give out food aid based on tribal divisions, and who steal from and oppress their people.   But the problem of hunger is much greater than that.

Part of the reason agricultural development was stymied in Africa, despite Borlaug's efforts, is a complete lack of infrastructure.  When farmers had a bumper crop, the transportation, market structure, and commodities exchanges were not there to help them reap rewards, so they had no incentives to produce, to invest in equipment, fertilizer, or seeds.

The worst part of this story, I think, is the way U.S. agricultural aid disincentivises farmers.  Farmers in Africa work hard to produce a crop, and if they can get it to market at all, they are greeted by truckloads of American-grown grain, which is virtually free for the asking.  How will they make money off of their efforts?  But the United States, by law, cannot send money to these struggling nations for infrastructure, equipment, or other investment in their agricultural development.  Why?  Because the U.S. government wants to support its own farmers, buying their produce!  Now, I'm all for the success of American farmers, but so much of our farming industry is subsidized by the government for the supposedly noble cause of feeding the hungry around the world while making the problem worse that it makes me angry!  Well-meaning Christians and government officials may think they're helping the hungry, but by perpetuating the policy of subsidizing American farmers to produce crops to send overseas to hungry nations they are perpetuating the very problem they think they're solving.

Enough does tell some encouraging stories.  My favorite is about Dr. Joe Mamlin who, when treating AIDS patients in Kenya, realized that his efforts were futile if the patient has nothing to eat.  He began handing out food along with the medicine he dispensed, and eventually started a network of clinics with their own gardens in which they grow crops and raise chickens.  This dual emphasis of improved nutrition and medication has vastly improved the effectiveness of the clinics' work.  (Another side note pet peeve: I am glad Western Christians are increasingly taking action and showing compassion, helping people with AIDS.  I know many of the victims are truly victims, wives and children of wayward husbands who visit prostitutes while traveling or working away from home.  But why do these activists never, ever mention the fact that the epidemic can easily be contained if they only have sex with their wives?)

Thurow and Kilman end with some practical steps we, as individuals and as a nation, can take to move toward alleviating poverty.  In spite of their examples of heroic individuals and their actions, I mostly finished this book feeling frustrated and helpless in light of the vast power that our government, agricultural lobbies, and cultural forces, both here and abroad, have to maintain systems that perpetuate poverty.  I do hope that Thurow and Kilman's voices will be heard by people who can make a difference.  Too many people are starving among plenty.  Borlaug's intellectual heirs, Dr. Mamlin, and others who share Thurow and Kilman's views can make those numbers shrink, the sooner the better.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy

What a soap opera.  Yes, this is a classic, by one of Great Britains greatest British authors.  But it's still a soap opera, a love triangle with a tragic end.  It is beautifully written, with descriptive passages that bring the English countryside alive. 

I learned a couple of things.  I had never heard of a reddleman.  One of the main characters, Diggory Venn, marks flocks of sheep with reddle.  As a result of his trade, he is red from head to toe, thus making him a bit of a pariah, even though he makes decent money.  I never did figure out why they would want the sheep marked with reddle, though. . . .

Furze-cutting on the heath.

I guess I never really thought of what a heath is.  The story takes place in Egdon Heath, a fictional, rural area in Enlgand.  A heath is a lowland region with only small vegetation, shrubs and grasses.  It doesn't sound too pretty; the bleakness provides a fitting backdrop for the bleak story.  One part of the bleakness is the drudgery of cutting furze.  One character loses most of his sight, so he can't pursue his studies and open a school, so he cuts furze to generate some income.  I was listening to the audiobook and thought this must be "firs" but the usage didn't sound quite right.  Turns out it's furze, an evergreen shrub that grows on the heath and is used for cooking fuel.

Fans of Thomas Hardy and of 19th century British fiction will love Return of the Native.  Most modern readers will look elsewhere for their reading enjoyment.  This isn't a bad book, but it was a bit of chore to get through.  I didn't love it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Free Running: The Urban Landscape is Your Playground, by Sebastien Foucan

You may have seen Sebastien Foucan running around.  He's the one who does the impossible-looking leaping, jumping, climbing, and running in Casino Royale, a bunch of commercials, and (I missed this one) on tour with Madonna.  He's the founder of freerunning, and one of the founders of Parkour, which means "obstacle" in French.  Both of these sports? activities? lifestyles? involve running and jumping, climbing and balancing, tumbling and leaping around buildings, railings, ledges, whatever obstacles the urban landscape presents.  If you've never seen these guys in action, you should take a look; you'll swear they're using special effects.

I picked up this little book thinking Foucan might be the trail runner of the city, eschewing typical road running for something a bit more adventurous.  He is, and does, but the book doesn't speak too much about freerunning itself.  Rather, it's a collection of his thoughts, which amount to little more that self-esteem platitudes.  Not that they're bad, just a little trite.  Examples:

Enjoy what you are doing because it might be the last time you do it--and don't attach your happiness and success to a specific person or place, because you have to continue to exist and thrive even when these are gone.

If your motivation is wanting to win a trophy, or to beat someone, you aren't thinking about what's best for you and your body.

The world is your playground--enjoy it!  Remember: freerunning started as children playing, so think like a child and enjoy how you move.
As these quotes demonstrate, Foucan definitely shares a trail-runner-type mentality.  I would love to see him at a trail race, bounding over boulders, stumps, fallen trees.  I'm sure he's fit; I wonder how he'd do in a 50 miler or 100 miler.  I wish this book would have spoken more about training and fitness.  He clearly has gymnastic skills, climbing skills, and running skills, but has he been trained in gymanstics or track, or has he developed those skills only through freerunning?  I don't know.

If you've never seen him in action, check out these videos:
From Casino Royale.
Foucan chased by a chicken in a Nike commercial.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The God Seeker, by Sinclair Lewis

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like Sinclair Lewis is the greatest little-known American novelist.  Steinbeck, Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, all seem to more widely read and better known than Lewis, but Lewis is at least their equal.  In fact, I find Lewis to be more readable and to tell richer, more satisfying stories with enduring themes.  The Nobel committee agreed; they gave him their prize for literature in 1930, the first U.S. writer to receive the honor.  (In spite of the Nobel committee's tradition of assinine choices for the Peace Prize, the honorees for the Literature prize seem to be legitimately deserving.) 
The God Seeker, the last Lewis novel published before his death, returns to the state of his birth, Minnesota.  The story follows Aaron Gadd, through his debauched teen years, rebelling against his stern father, his conversion and decision to become a missionary, his adventures as a missionary and craftsman in pre-statehood Minnesota.  Among the strengths of the novel is the portrayal of this period in Minnesota's history.  Lewis weaves actual events and individuals through the story.  The interactions of the Catholic and Protestant missionaries, the various Indian tribes, the traders, and the pioneering farmers and townspeople alone make The God Seeker an interesting book from a historical perspective.

For the Christian reader, Aaron's struggles as a young, passionate, if a bit theologically confused, Christian on the mission field provide plenty of moments of personal reflection.  Additionally, The God Seeker raises serious questions about the nature of cross-cultural ministry.  Other than a couple of very short-term mission trips, I have not served on the mission field, but I know enough and have read enough to appreciate the depth and insight of the issues Lewis addresses here.

Converted at a gospel camp meeting headlined by revivalist Charles Finney, and swept up in a passion to serve, Aaron brashly commits to return to Minnesota with one of the preachers who serves as a missionary there.  In the days leading up to his departure, he devours the scriptures but struggles with his carnality.  After he meets Selene, who would later become his wife, he can't stop thinking about her: "I've been thinking more about Selene than about experimental religion.  I'm not good enough nor pure enough to go."  Anyone who's been a young man in love can relate to his struggle.  "Whenever he thought of Selene's lips, of her breast, he writhed with the effort to convert it to prayer for the elevation of her soul."  Oh, the turmoil!

His struggles continued in a different vein once he arrived in Minnesota.  He quickly began to observe the injustices he sees visited on the Indians.  At Fort Snelling, he observes that the fort reminds the Indians that the territory, which had long belonged to the Indians, was now the white man's.  The fort was there "in case the Indians got a notion that they might have a right to their own land, and treacherously try to drive out the whites who had taken it over on the constitutional grounds of being white."  Besides the white privilege of taking over the land, he also struggles with their right to convert the Indians to Christianity.  Mr. Hopkins, a missionary with unorthodox ideas, tells Aaron, "I believe that if an Indian has never had any chance whatever to hear the True Word and yet has always been God-hungry and unselfish, maybe he might be elect and go to Heaven!"  Aaron didn't know what to think of that, but "was again convinced--perhaps a quarter-convinced--that the white invaders had been only a blessing to the Indians.  Why, of course!  They were white, weren't they?"

He even comes to consider that the Indians may have a superior culture.  Selene's father, the fur trader Lanarck, challenges him.  "You substitute an unventilated chapel for the open woods which were the Dakotah's tabernacle and a dreary staff of paid text-parrots for the Indian grandparents whose delight it was, in the old days, to instruct children in the duties of tribal morality and in the delightful myths about their demigods."  And given the communal nature of much of the tribal culture, Aaron wonders if they aren't better Christians than Christians are, providing for one another in need and living together as brothers.

Ultimately, Aaron leaves the mission and makes a name for himself as a builder.  I'm not sure he ever reconciled his love and admiration for tribal culture with the perceived superiority of his culture and religion.  Aaron's personal struggles and adventures on the American frontier make The God Seeker  a great read.  Lewis's sense of humor, vivid characterizations, and incorporation of historical events and settings add up to a novel worth a second look and place Sinclair Lewis high on the list of great American writers.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Arguing with Idiots, by Glen Beck

I'm not a fan of Glenn Beck.  I've never seen his TV show and only ocassionally heard him on the radio.  That said, I like him; I found very little in Arguing with Idiots to disagree with.  I guess this book was designed to resemble the . . . for Dummies or Idiots Guide to . . . books, with the frequent sidebars, graphics, and "ADD moments."  It's a shame that those elements make it a bit annoying, and even insulting, to read, because there is some terrific content here.

Each of the twelve chapters takes a hot issue on which there is a wide range of disagreement in political and public life.  The content (as well as the extensive list of sources he cites) can lead the curious reader to a more serious discussion of the issues, but the body of the book leans toward the polemical.  In his defense of capitalism, critique of public education and unions, explanations of economics and the mortgage crisis, and other subjects, his listeners and others who are familiar with conservative and libertarian public policy will not necessarily find anything new here, but he puts it all together in an entertaining, simplified way.

This book is mostly for his fans.  People who think they disagree with him would certainly do well to hear him out and reflect on his arguments, but they won't.  I couldn't believe--actually, it wasn't surprising, just typical--the vitriol against him concerning his rally last weekend.  Sharpton and his other critics all but called him out as a bigot, denouncing him loudly, but I never heard anyone say, "I disagree with Beck on the following points," with an engagement of his ideas.

If you like Beck, you'll love this book.  If you don't, well, you might learn something.  Be careful, though;  he might just change your thinking!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is indisputably one of the great sci-fi writers of all time.  Not only are his novels 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama, and The Songs of Distant Earth classics, but he had a brilliant scientific mind.  Based on a paper he published in 1945, he is considered to have been the originator of the idea of using satellites in geosynchronous orbit for communications.  Talk about a world-changer.

Childhood's End is one of his early novels, and probably not one of his best, but it's certainly enjoyable.  The set up is familiar: an race of aliens parks their massive spaceships in the air above several of the world's largest cities.  They set themselves up as benevolent dictators, of a sort, sharing much of their advanced technology with humans, yet retaining a level of control.  Clarke draws similarities to colonialism, like England's colonial occupation of India. 

There are groups who resist the aliens' influence, but for the most part mankind enters a new era of peace and prosperity.  Hunger and war are eliminated, thanks to the new technology, and work is mostly voluntary.  No one has to work for basic needs; they just work at what they like.  Eventually we find that the aliens are in fact working for an even more advanced race which has their eyes on humanity, which is about to enter a new stage of evolution.
The story itself goes downhill toward the end, in my opinion.  To me, speculation about interactions with alien races, the impact of technology on daily life, and cultural and historical futures are more interesting to me than the sort of mystical, fantasy story this turns into.  Despite that, Childhood's End is worth a read.  And get this: the edition I read had a blurb from C.S. Lewis!  Any book with an endorsement from St. Jack is OK by me!

Here are a couple of passages that I thought were interesting or notable.  Here, one of the characters is complaining to his wife about the media consumption of humans:
There's nothing left ot struggle for, and there are too many distractions and entertainments.  Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels?  If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that's available at the turn of a switch!  No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges--absorbing but never creating.  Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? . . . It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!
I thought this was rather humorous because when this was first published, in 1953, no one could have predicted the explosion of entertainment options over the next 50 years.  Five hundred hours of radio and TV?  That's a drop in the bucket, even before you add satellite and cable.  Three hours a day?  That's on the low end of most people's scale.  Not even the man who came up with the idea to make it all possible could have imagined where his ideas would go!

On another note, Clarke spoke often of his atheism, but many of his books have religion as a theme.  He seeks some sort of mystical meaning of life or a higher power that is not quite God but god-like.  In Childhood's End, the arrival of the aliens drove the final nails in the coffin of religion, which was already dead because of the advances of scientific belief:
Before the guardians came, ". . . your scientists uncovered the secrets of the physical world and led you from the energy of steam ot the energy of the atom.  You had put supersitition behind you: science was the only real religion of mankind.  It was the gift of the westerm minority to the remainder of mankind, and it had destroyed all other faiths. . ..  Science, it was felt, could explain everything: there were no other forces which did not come within its scope, no events for which it could not ulimately account.  The origin of the universe might be forever unknown, but all that had happened since obeyed the laws of physics."
The reduction of religion to superstitions created by man to explain what he does not understand does not hold up when one takes a serious look at the claims of the Bible.  I feel sure that were I too debate Clarke on the existence of God of the salvific nature of belief in Jesus, he would have won; I'll admit his intellect is superior.  Unfortunately, having died a couple of years ago, he has now discovered the error of his ways.

Clarke's brilliance as a writer and storyteller are indisputable.  Few have been as visionary as he.  Even though this is not one of his "don't miss" novels, it's still a great read.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

As a general rule, I think it's a good idea, every now and then, to view the world from unfamiliar perspectives.  That's what I like about The Reluctant Fundamentalist: the opportunity to view American culture in general, and the aftermath of 9/11 particularly, through the eyes of a Pakistani living in the U.S. 

The book takes place at a cafe in Lahore.  Changez, a young Pakistani, sits down with an American, whom Changez suspects is miltary or an intelligence agent, and tells his story.  Changez grew up in Pakistan, but gets an opportunity to attend Princeton and lands a job at an exclusive Wall Street valuation firm.  He lives the American dream, finding success in a high-paying field, meeting a terrific American girl, on track for long-term success and wealth.

But everything is shattered on 9/11.  Although he had done well in the U.S., and had no real reason for animosity toward Americans, he felt a sense of elation and gloating when he saw the towers fall.  He got a sense of satisfaction that someone more like himself and his countrymen could strike such a blow to the world power.  In the aftermath, he feels like people perceive him differently, viewing him with suspicion. 

If I place myself in Changez's shoes, pretending, for instance, that I have gone to Germany to study and work, then Americans attack Germany in a terrorist attack, and Germany retailiates, I can appreciate his mixed feelings.  When the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, Changez takes it personally.  Even if the U.S was wronged, were we always in the right in our responses?  Viewing history since 9/11 through the eyes of a Pakistani hasn't turned me against the U.S., but it certainly does make me stop and think, and consider the world from another perspective.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink

You may have noticed I frequently will read a book after I've seen a movie or vice versa.  Frequently there's some disappointment one way or the other.  Rarely will you see a movie as faithfully drawn from a book as The Reader.  I watched the movie a few weeks ago (review here) and was sufficiently impressed as to want to read the book on which it was based.  I found that the tone and content of the book are quite well preserved in the movie version.  Rather than repeat my comments on the story from the movie review, I'll just mention a couple of things that jumped out at me.

Michael first met Hanna when he became ill walking home, when she aided him.  After a prolonged illness he returned to express his gratitude.  At that visit, he became enamored with her, and caught a glimpse of her changing clothes.  He became obsessed with her and fantasized about returning to visit her.  He doesn't explicitly quote Jesus' admonition that if you look with lust on a woman you have committed adultery, but he refers to it in a classic justification for premeditated sin.  When struggling with whether to visit Hanna again, he asks,
Did my moral upbringing somehow turn against itself?  If looking at someone with desire was as bad as satisfying the desire, if having an active fantasy was as bad as the act you were fantasizing--then why not the satisfaction and the act itself?  As the days went on, I discovered that I couldn't stop thinking sinful thoughts.  In which case I also wanted the sin itself.
Granted, lust and the act of adultery are both sins, but there is certainly a qualitative difference between imagining the act and actually doing it.  Still, many Christians can relate to his quandary.

In a later passage, as he observes Hanna's trial, he reflects on his generation's rejection of his parents' generation's moral authority.  Every generation has a sense of rebellion against their parents, but in their case, they see the manifest moral failure of the Germans during World War 2 and the years leading up to it. Whether they were active participants, passive approvers, or silent observers, Michael considers the atrocities of that era to reflect a lack of morality for all of their generation, so who can blame young people for wanting to distance themselves from the culture and mores of the previous generation?

As I mentioned in the movie review, the age gap between Michael and Hanna is unnerving, but is essential to the story.  If such a thing can be looked past, once you do look past it, The Reader is a terrific read and brings up questions of moral culpability and ethical decision making in very interesting ways.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Stars, Like Dust, by Isaac Asimov

A few weeks ago, I read Asimov's Pebble in the Sky.  The Stars, Like Dust, second in the Galactic Empire series, carries on in the same universe, but there's no story or character continuity, just the same historical events and political and social structures.  We continue to see Asimov's ground-breaking influences on the genre: warp travel, the pre-history of the galactic empire, and technological and cultural trends.

The cover of the first edition.

Even though The Stars, Like Dust was published a year after Pebble in the Sky, it takes place many years before.  The story follows Biron Farril, a young man who has been studying on Earth.  His father, a nobleman on the planet Widernos, has been killed as a suspect in the rebellion against the aptly named Tyranni.  The Tyranni rule a large sector of the galaxy with an iron fist.  Brion gets caught up as a suspect as well and falls in love along the way.

There's action, deception, betrayal, romance, adventure; it would make a fun movie.  This is probably not one of Asimov's best efforts.  It lacks the depth and complexity of the Foundation novels, and is not as compelling as the Robot novels.  But fans of rollicking space adventures will enjoy it, and certainly fans of Asimov will want to pick it up.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Money, Greed, and God, by Jay W. Richards

The discerning thinker should make a habit of reading books written from perspectives other than his own, with which he or she is sure to disagree, and which will challenge his thinking by presenting views contrary to those he holds dear.  For me, this is not that book.  For me, this is a book I wish I had written, with which I could find nary a word with which to disagree. 

Jay Richards is or has been affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, the Discovery Institute, and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, for whom I worked for 4 years.

Richards spends a chapter tearing apart each of these myths about capitalism:

1. The Nirvana Myth (contrasting capitalism iwth an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives)
2. The Piety Myth (focusing on our good intentions rather than on the unintended consequences of our actions)
3. The Zero-Sum Game Myth (believing that trade requires a winner and a loser)
4. The Materialist Myth (believing that wealth isn't created, it's simply transferred)
5. The Greed Myth (believing that the essence of capitalism is greed)
6. The Usury Myth (believing that working with money is inherently immoral or that charging interest on money is always exploitative)
7. The Artsy Myth (confusing aesthetic judgments with economic arguments)
8. The Freeze-Frame Myth (believing that things always stay the same--for example, assuming that population trends will continue indefinitely, or treating a current "natural resource" as if it will always be needed)

The basic point of Money, Greed, and God, as the subtitle ("Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem") suggests, is that capitalism, more so than collectivist or socialist solutions touted by many Christians, offers a structure which can foster prosperity and virtue, and, more importantly, is not by its nature in conflict with the Gospel and teachings of the Bible.

What he writes is controversial to some, and he does name names, but his tone is friendly, engaging and sympathetic.  I get the impression that when he debates people, even people with who he heartily disagrees, at the end of the debate he and his foe can be buddies.

Some might argue that Christians who defend capitalism have no regard for the poor.  Richards debunks that perspective while providing a thorough, readable defense of capitalism.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Everyone Has the Right to My Opinion, by Michael Ramirez

As William Bennett says in the introduction to Michael Ramirez's collection of editorial cartoons, "editorial cartoons stir controversy, spark debate and discussion, and move minds to think thoughts not thought before."  They can succinctly and clearly express a point that would take a lengthy essay to make.  The Pulitzer Prize committee has twice agreed that not only is Ramirez a fantastic artist, but he's a brilliant commentator as well.  I don't believe there is a better political cartoonist in the country.

This collection includes his Pulitzer collections from 1994 and from 2008, plus many more.  Each one calls to mind political events and figures and debates brilliantly.  I remember when I was a kid my dad had a book, a cartoon history of the United States, but I was too historically ignorant at the time to get the humor. The cartoons in Everyone Has the Right to My Opinion cover the last 15-20 years, well within my memory.

Ramirez is definitely a conservative, and conservatives will be nodding and laughing in agreement at almost every frame.  On a few occasions he does stray from the party line, notably his balanced treatment of the Middle East.  One of my favorites clearly illustrates a pet peeve of mine: the use of biofuels, driving up the price of food and taking up arable land.  The cartoon speaks for itself:
As one who talks with self-proclaimed investing experts on a regular basis in my professional capacity, I saw another favorite:
There are too many great ones to reproduce here.  His post-9/11 pieces are moving and well worth taking a look at.  Do a google search on his name, or watch for his work on the editorial page of the Investor's Business Daily.

One more thing: when I was attending the 1992 Republican National Convention at the Astrodome, I paused for a moment to watch Ramirez at work; he was sketching the convention platform.  It wasn't until years later that I saw his work somewhere and remembered that.  I wish I had taken a moment then to shake his talented hand.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

This 1959 coming of age story, John Knowles's first novel, is certainly a classic, still read by school kids and adults alike.  Set in the middle of World War 2, on the campus of an elite boy's school in New England.  Knowles attended Phillips Exeter; the novel's Devon School is clearly modeled after his alma mater.  The narrator, Gene, holds his roommate and best friend Phineas, or Finny, in high esteem.  Although Finny's not as good a student as Gene, he has a charisma that wins over his teachers and draws in his peers.  As Gene says, Phineas "almost always moved in groups the size of a hockey team" such was his magnetic attraction. 

Out of his mix of admiration and perhaps jealousy of Finny, Gene makes a poor decision that results in injury to Finny.  A split-second decision, an action thoughtlessly taken, had long-lasting impact.  Gene tries to atone for his actions, and remains a good friend.  Finny presents a model of forgiveness.  I'm not sure I could have been as forgiving, and I am quite confident I would have been wracked with guilt were I Gene.  I thought about stupid moves I've made.  I remember in junior high when I got angry with a friend at P.E. and kicked him hard in his groin.  He writhed in pain and recovered quickly, but what if I had done permanent damage?  What other stupid little acts have I done or had done to me that could have had lasting effects?  Knowles explores those consequences and the impact on Gene and Finny's relationship and their lives.  Again, Finny's ability to forgive and love Gene was remarkable.

In the background of their relationship and other events at school is World War 2, drawing these boys inevitably toward service in the armed forces.  The romanticism of war is shattered by their friend Leper's experiences, yet enlisting is almost expected.  In my lifetime, in which the draft exists only in history books and the ocassional policy debate, and during which wars seem to be fought on smaller scales and with smaller numbers, the inevitability of service has not been in my experience.  It's hard to imagine today that teenagers, especially teenagers in the prep school elite, would have the expectation of military service. 

Knowles's descriptive, almost poetic descriptive passages, and his spot-on portrayal of the mind of teenage young men combine to make A Separate Peace a real pleasure to read.  It deserves a spot on your reading list whether your high school days lie before you or are a dim memory.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Book Depository

In my last post, a review of Mark Gimenez's The Perk, I mentioned that his books aren't exactly easy to find.  I sent Mr. Gimenez an e-mail, and he recommended The Book Depository, a bookstore in the U.K.  Their prices are low, and they promise free shipping to anywhere.  I thought, why not, and went ahead and ordered 2 of Gimenez's books, Accused and The Common Lawyer.  I figured I was in no hurry.  But they arrived in one week!  I've ordered books from places in the U.S. that took longer than that!  So here's my recommendation: shop at The Book Depository!  I spot checked a few books; in some cases, their prices are lower than Amazon.  Plus, you can get a different cover and have a book with funny spellings like colour, centre, banque, and pyjamas.

AccusedThe Common Lawyer

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Perk, by Mark Gimenez

I first heard of Mark Gimenez when I read a review of his first book, The Color of Law, in Texas Monthly a few years ago.  Then I randomly met him, and he gave me a copy of his second novel, The Abduction.  I have no idea why this guy is not more well-known around here.  He lives in Bedford, and as best I can tell, his books are difficult to obtain in the U.S.  According to his web site, they sell pretty well in the English-speaking world outside the U.S., but he remains little-known here.  Of his 5 published novels, the Bedford Public Library only has 2, as does the Fort Worth Library.  I had to get The Perk through inter-library loan.

All that said, The Perk, like his other 2 novels I've read, was a terrific story.  He's been compared to John Grisham, and I like Grisham, but Grisham, I know Mark Gimenez, and you're no Mark Gimenez.  Grisham's novels are more like a really great bag of potato chips: you can't stop eating them, and they taste good, and you're disappointed when the bag's empty, but then you realize you haven't really eaten much of anything, and it all tasted pretty much the same.  Next time you see that bag of chips, you'll have some more, with the same result.  With The Perk, it's like you're eating a full-course meal.  Ocassionally you get a dish or a flavor you didn't expect, but it was all prepared by a master chef, delicious, well-planned, and satisfying.  You end up wishing the meal was not over, and looking forward to the next feast.

The Perk opens with a major Hollywood star picking up girls in his limo during an Austin film festival; the beautiful young girls clamoring for his attention are a perk of his fame.  He picks one looker from the crowd, fills her with liquor and drugs and has his way with her, after which she passes out and dies from an overdose.  Frightened for his future, he dumps her body by the road near her hometown of Fredericksburg.

Several years later, Beck Hardin, local football hero, returns to Fredericksburg after a long absence.  He graduated and went to Notre Dame on a football scholarship, stayed for law school and a high-flying career in corporate law.  Only after his wife's death from breast cancer does he decide to return to the father and the town and the state he had sworn never to return to.  At his father's urging, he runs for county judge in a special election and wins on a fluke (but a fluke that turns out to be significant for the plot).  And he agrees to help his old high school pal, now the local high school football coach, find his daughter's killer.

With that case in the background, and the statute of limitations running down, Beck takes on the docket of a small-town county court.  It turns out to be more complicated than he thought it would be.  He finds himself in the middle of an ongoing culture clash between the old-time Germans, Mexican immigrants, and newly arrived former urbanites.  Old boy networks, town traditions, and cultural conflicts make Beck's job quite a bit more interesting.  Gimenez touches on an almost dizzying array of issues: integreation of public schools, the professionalization of high school football, illegal immigration, changing rural economies, the afore-metioned loss of a spouse to breast cancer, drug use among rural teens, racism, justice, prejudice, family relationships, grief, and more.

I particularly like his jab at the goat farmers.  Fredericksburg, in LBJ country, benefitted from President Johnson's mohair subsidy.  So area goat farmers grew wealthy raising goats and receiving these agricultural subsidies.  When Clinton eliminated the subsidy, many goat farmers had to find another way to make a living.  When one of the goat farmers criticizes the Mexicans born taking welfare, J.B., Beck's straight-talking dad, points out that the local German goat farmers got rich taking government money.  The goat farmer didn't take that too well.

Aside from the running jab against the mohair subsidy, I have a feeling The Perk won't be a very popular read in Fredericksburg, especially among the German establishment.  Gimenez paints Fredericksburg as a town divided, ruled by the old German families, many of whom have intermarried to maintain land and power.  Public offices are passed from father to son, and cousins wed to keep land in the family.  The Mexican population is mostly illegals who work at the turkey plany.  I know fiction often calls for caricatures, and Gimenez does leave some outs ("most of the Germans aren't like that," sympathetic portrayals of Mexicans), but he still portrays the town as a facade of a small-town paradise with an dark, dirty underbelly.

Gimenez's characters are believable and relatable.  The Perk sucks the reader in not only to the richly complex plot but also into the back stories and personal lives of the characters.  He does have a tendency toward melodrama, but he uses the intertwining stories effectively and purposefully to move the plot along.  The resolution emphasizes a major theme: Beck is reminded repeatedly that the legal system is concerned with the law, not necesarily with justice.  Justice is done, for the most part, but Beck's experiences demontrate the limits of law in bringing about justice.

I hope Gimenez gets the exposure he deserves and starts selling more books in the U.S.  The Perk is a gripping read, highly enjoyable, just as his other 2 novels were.  Pick it up and enjoy a great story with memorable characters and a taste of Texas.  Just don't stay up 'til 3 a.m. reading it, like I did.

[One more thing: Gimenez's books are available through a store in England called The Book Depository.  They ship to the U.S. for free!]