Thursday, July 26, 2012

Love & Respect, by Emmerson Eggerichs

I don't know about you, but I can always use some help being a better husband.  Emerson Eggerichs's book Love and Respect: The Love He She Most Desires, The Respect He Desperately Needs can be a great resource for many couples.  However, while the principles he addresses are certainly universal and solid, the application probably does not apply to many marriages.  Marriages are as different and varied as we are.  I've found that books on marriage often fail to connect by universalizing what helps some couples, trying to apply to all couples.

Eggerichs bases his teaching on Ephesians 5:33: "Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband."  He says that Paul intentionally did not say the wife must love her husband and that a husband must respect his wife because those come naturally to men and women.  I'm not sure about that assumption.  I may be mistaken, but it seems like the book is weighed much more heavily toward the wife respecting the husband side of that equation. 

I wouldn't mind going to one of Eggerichs's Love and Respect marriage conferences.  Any book or conference like this that triggers your thinking about marriage roles and being a better spouse has value, whatever quibbles I have with the presentation.

The best line from the book was from a story he told about a couple they counseled.  The couple was in a "crazy cycle" and the wife had refused to have sex with her husband for some time.  She was speaking with her mom, whose long, happy marriage the daughter admired.  Mom's advice: Stop denying sex! Why not do something that takes so little time and makes him so happy?  She wins the mother-in-law of the year award!

So my feeling is mixed on this book.  It definitely has some helpful sections, but, depending on your personality and the personality of your marriage, it may not hit home with you.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Junior, by Ray Donley

You just have to love a book that the author had so much fun writing.  Ray Donley, an Austin lawyer, surely didn't set out to write a literary masterpiece or even a mainstream best-seller.  As his bio says, "Ray decided to write a novel so he could just make stuff up. He researched, as lawyers do, and determined that what the world needed was a novel that combined his interests in the Bible, sports, cosmic cause and effect, silly religiosity, and movies where things get blown up."   So Donley's perceived need has been fulfilled in his debut novel, Junior, which he clearly had a good time writing.

Junior opens with Junior on the run, the chief suspect after an explosion takes the lives of Senior (his dad), the President and Vice President, and most of the cabinet and top congressional leaders, as well as many other bystanders.  Junior was nowhere near the explosion, but is at the top of the list of suspects.  Junior is the journal of Junior on the run.  Besides telling the story of his life as a fugitive, we learn about Senior, who is, of course, Junior's dad.  Senior, a fabulously successful and popular businessman, demonstrated the good that can be done by someone with nearly unlimited funds and lots of friends.  Among his successes:
  • saving the Jewish people and providing the nation of Israel with a new homeland mere weeks before Jerusalem is destroyed by an atomic bomb.
  • finding a cure for AIDS and providing cities of refuge for homosexuals.
  • solving the problem of pedophilia in the U.S. Catholic Church and saving the Vatican from bankruptcy.
  • eliminating the problem of excessive cell phone fees by monopolizing the industry.
  • solved overcrowding in prisons, gang violence in American cities, and got U.S. troops out of the middle east (yes, those things are all interlinked in Senior's world).
  • was instrumental in Mexico's becoming a U.S. state and in deposing the Mexican drug cartels.
As you might guess in each of these cases, Senior made lots of friends--but also accumulated a few enemies, some of whom might want to blow him up.  Junior, aided by his Mossad friends and a few others, travels the world, narrowly avoiding getting blown up or killed on numerous occasions, and tells the story of Senior and who might want to have killed him.

Along the way, as you might suspect, Donley has plenty to say about American life, politics, and culture.  There are few amusing insights as he projects his idealism onto Senior's accomplishments.  One of Junior's ongoing struggles is with his life as it fits with God's will.  Even though he is rising to prominence, even on the run, and some try to convince him that he's an important figure, he doubts that he matters much. The "God's will argument . . . presumes that I am important enough for God to rearrange history for.  And I am not. . . . The 'God's will' argument is often summarized by folks as 'everything happens for a reason.'  I am no so sure that is true.  It seems to me that sometimes, things just happen. . . . We are just not that important."  Later, during a stay at a convent, he relays his position on the will of God to one of the nuns.  "'I am just not convinced the higher power is organizing the world for my benefit.'  Sister Flannery smiled, as if she believed she had won the argument, and continued, 'You are right, Junior.  He is not arranging things for your benefit. He is arranging things for His purpose.'"  Wise words, indeed.

Another passage I think worth repeating also takes place at the convent, which is a home for children with disabilities.  I liked this passage enough that I will quote it at length.  Junior is again chatting with Sister Flannery.
"So what inspired you to work with handicapped children, Sister?"
"What did you call them?"
"The children."
"This is the twenty-first century, Junior.  Sensible people consider that term to be inappropriate.  Try again."
"Makes them sound inferior."
"They are perfectly able, within the limits God has given them."
"Developmentally impaired?"
"Impaired is worse than disabled.  And if you say the 'r' word, I will punch you in the shoulder.  Hard."
. . .
"I give up.  What do you call the children, Sister?"
"I call each of them by their given name."
"That's cheating.  You know what I mean."
"These children are God's Elect.  He has chosen them."
. . .
"So you are saying God chose these kids to be different? . . . But why would God choose these children to have problems?  Why would God choose to make a child deaf or blind from birth?"
"I don't know, Junior.  I am not God.  I do not know his reasoning."
"Well, Sister, I'm guessing that these kids, and their parents, may not be all that fired up about being chosen in this fashion."
"You need to get over yourself, Junior. . . . We are all important to God.  Even if we are not happy about our station in life.  God has a purpose for these kids, Junior." . . . And then she punched me in the shoulder anyway.  Hard.
I don't normally include such lengthy quotes in my reviews, but I really like the sensitivity and humor with which Donley approaches this subject.  It makes me wonder if his life has been touch by disability.

There is much to like about Junior and Junior.  It's fun to read, but, at bottom, I got a little bored with Junior's plight.  Three years on the road is a long time, and the story began to drag at times.  Plus, during the course of the story, we learn that Junior has become a revered folk hero, yet I never was convinced as to why he was esteemed so highly.  So a fun, silly road story, with some good-humored commentary, and a few flashes of brilliance, combined for a flawed, but fun, diversion.

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

Thursday, July 19, 2012

An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

Ever since the days of the "Wild and Crazy Guy" and "King Tut," I have loved Steve Martin.  His acting career has continued to be great and diverse.  Less well-known is his writing career.  An Object of Beauty is his third novel, after Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company.  The bad news is, I don't think it's as good as the first two; the good news is, it's not bad, especially if you're a Steve Martin fan.

Lacey Yeager takes her newly minted art degree to New York and thrives in the heart of the art world.  She moves easily between the wealthy investors and older works, and the younger artists and their edgier works.  Starting at the bottom rung, cleaning up minor paintings at an auction house, she moves up quickly due to her good looks, art savvy, and grey morality.  I can't help but think Lacey is the product of Martin's middle-aged (or dirty old man) mind.  She's head-turning gorgeous, she knows it, and she has an unquenchable libido.  Getting her in bed is no great feat. Of course, she leaves a trail of men who got her into bed, but couldn't hold on to her heart.

While tracing Lacey's exploits in art and love, Martin fills the novel with a guide to the world of expensive art.  (I know that's probably a gauche way to describe it, but I'm still not convinced that great art and expensive art are one in the same.)  Much like Tom Wolfe, Martin has the eye of a reporter, giving the reader a tour of the galleries and auction houses of New York and a guide to the people who make their money and spend their money there.  At times I thought he looked at this world approvingly, joining art patrons' disdain for those who would say, "They paid $4 million for THAT!"  At other times, I thought he would join the scoffers, who can't believe the high prices people pay for a painting, or the inane non-art that passes off as art.

An Object of Beauty was an enjoyable read.  Martin's descriptions and characterizations are terrific, and his portrayal of the art world is engaging and, presumably, informative.  But the story, well, it sometimes seemed like it was building toward something better, but never really delivered.  I could take it or leave it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Left Behind in Rosedale, by Scott Cummings

After reading accounts of neighborhood transition in Tanner Colby's new book Some of My Best Friends are Black, I got curious about the racial history of neighborhoods in my own area.  My suburban neighborhood made a transition from a sand pit to new houses shortly before we moved here, so there's no history here--yet.  But a few years ago I taught school (for a short, miserable time) at a middle school in east Fort Worth.  We actually looked at houses in that neighborhood before we settled on our current home.  So I'm a little bit familiar with neighborhoods in east Fort Worth.

I was delighted to find sociologist's Scott Cummings's insightful study of the changes in Polytechnic Heights and surrounding neighborhoods of east Fort Worth, Left Behind in Rosedale: Race Relations and the Collapse of Community Institutions.  He traces the transition from farmland, to solid mostly white working class to middle class community, to (briefly) black middle class, to black under class.  In the process the economic and social fabric of the community was left in tatters.  Those "left behind," primarily elderly whites, were victimized and lived secluded in their fortress-like homes.

The story of Poly, or Rosedale, as Cummings calls it, has been repeated in communities around the country.  (I don't really get why he uses so many pseudonyms for places.  I guess his goal is for this to be a sociological study and not a history, so names are changed of geographic locations, but he makes it clear that this is east Fort Worth.  I was able to figure out what and where he was talking about, but his name changing only makes things confusing.)  After a generation or so of community building, the racial makeup of Poly began to change.  As soon as some black families moved in, racism and racial fears led many whites, the ones who could afford it, to leave.  School busing made it worse; white families fled to the burgeoning suburbs or enrolled their kids in private schools.  Blockbusting drove property values down further, more and more houses were renter-occupied rather than owner-occupied, businesses closed, churches moved out, community organizations suffered.

By the late 1970s the neighborhood was solidly, overwhelmingly black.  A series of rapes confirmed in people's minds that life in Poly had hit bottom.  The rapists' (there turned out to be several) primary target was the elderly white women who stayed in the neighborhood, either because they could not afford to leave or because of their attachment to their homes, where some had lived for half a century.  Some of the rapists explicitly told their victims that their actions were inspired by the television show Roots; they wanted revenge for the way white people treated slaves.  A few years later, a gang of young men serially terrorized white, elderly Poly residents, robbing them, tearing up their homes, and killing some.

After these attacks which terrorized the neighborhood and left several dead, "it was obvious to everyone that the social conditions producing the violence had not been addressed or mediated by the criminal justice system.  The root causes of hatred and violence in the community remained untouched by the crime prevention efforts of the police.  The high levels of psychological and economic deprivation compelling black teenagers to murder and rape remained embedded within the institutional structure of neighborhood life."  One lawyer, who represented many defendants from the neighborhood, said that "the crimes perpetrated by his clients were caused by a combination of drugs, alcohol, and simple economic deprivation."  [Emphasis added in both quotes.]  I'm not comfortable with the idea the poverty compels kids to ransack elderly neighbors' houses, rape them, and stab them to death.  I don't think the cause of these crimes can be so easily written off.  To be sure, there were and maybe still are difficult circumstances in Poly, but I am confident that we can find kids who did not turn to crime and families who, in spite of their poverty, did not terrorize their neighbors.

If their is a weakness to Cummings's work, I think this is it: relying on accounts from the elderly white Poly residents, and focusing on these two high-profile crime waves (the rapes in the 1970s and the "wilding" in the 1980s), the reader is left with a rather one-sided perspective.  I wish we could have heard more from black community leaders.  If someone with a predisposition toward racism, and a sense that blacks just bring crime when they move in, reads this, their suspicions would be confirmed.

Reading Left Behind in Rosedale stirred up the feelings I had when I was teaching, when, as a white teacher in half-black, half-Hispanic middle school in east Fort Worth, I was subjected to disrespect, taunts, and physical and verbal threats.  I do not need to use much imagination to see some of my former students falling into the patterns of "wilding" and intimidating neighbors that Cummings describes.  While some of my experiences could simply be blamed on typical teenage behavior, much was implicitly and, often, explicitly racist.  And it wasn't just directed toward me as a teacher; in my short time there, at least four white kids were pulled from the school by their parents because of the racist bullying the kids experienced.

Cummings wraps up the book well, pointing out that while certain social changes in Poly would have been inevitable, the overall decline can be attributed in large part to destructive federal policies.  He is no fan of Charles Murray, but he does acknowledge the impact that dependency on government has on the beneficiaries of social programs.  When housing is provided at little or no cost, heavily subsidized by supposedly well-meaning government programs, a sense of ownership never develops.  Further, welfare dependency erodes any sense of private property, to the point of destroying respect for the property of others.

In an even larger sense, federal housing programs exacerbated Poly's problems.  When segregationist housing policies were eliminated, black families could live wherever they could afford to live, so many middle class blacks moved out of declining neighborhoods.  The newer suburban communities resisted public housing and subsidized housing, so that became concentrated in poor, minority neighborhoods.  Thus the black community was dispersed and poor blacks became concentrated in places like Poly, compounding their problems.

I appreciated Cummings's work, yet despair of the future Poly and other ghettoized neighborhoods.  The neighborhood revitalization efforts he describes, and the millions of dollars of government and foundation money that went into those efforts, had very little effect.  Without serious economic development in Poly and an accompanying rebuilding of community institutions, patterns of poverty and crime will continue.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Make Me Like Jesus, by Michael Phillips

Sometimes the small books with the simplest messages pack the greatest punch.  Michael Phillips's Make Me Like Jesus: The Courage to Pray Dangerously definitely wallops the reader good.  This little book is the anti- Prayer of Jabez, the anti- Your Best Life Now.  Phillips bemoans evangelical's "obsession to pray for increased blessings from God's hand . . . to pray in the power of the flesh for temporal blessing rather than in the spirit of Christ for godliness of character."  Phillips argues that the one thing we should pray for, to agree with God, with what he most wants for our lives, is "that we become sons and daughters of God who are conformed to the image of Christ."  To be like Jesus is the highest goal and should be our heart's desire.

Following Christ's example, we should seek God's will and submit to it prayerfully.  We should abide in him, living selflessly.  We should seek our joy in him.  None of this is easy; Phillips makes it clear from the start that this prayer and the lifestyle it could--and should--lead to is not for the spiritually immature or half-hearted follower of Jesus.  This is a challenging little book, and will challenge you to ask yourself if you really want to pray that prayer: "Father . . . make me like Jesus."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Year Zero, by Rob Reid

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Rob Reid is flattering Douglas Adams greatly.  As the publicity for Year Zero indicates, Reid's first book is very much in the tradition of Adams's incomparable Hitchhiker's Guide books.  That said, the students of great artists can very often be great themselves.

Nick Carter, our everyman earthling, practices law in a firm that specializes in intellectual property.  He is visited by aliens who come for his assistance.  As it turns out, aliens have been listening to our broadcasts since Year Zero, the year in which the theme song for Welcome Back, Kotter was discovered.  As it further turns out, no other species in the universe has the musical abilities of Earth, and the rest of the universe has an insatiable appetite for our music.  The aliens have conscientiously determined that they owe Earth for royalties, as virtually every living thing in the universe has every song ever written on Earth on their mp3-like players.  Plus, huge crowds come to see performers lip-sync Earth music (which has been a boon for humanoid species, who can more closely emulate their human idols).  Alas, Nick and his new alien friends have to compete with a faction who would rather see Earth destroyed (or, more accurately, destroy itself) than have deal with the financial debt to humanity.

Reid fills this romp through the galaxy with crazy characters and zany circumstances, while poking pop culture in the eye and mocking silly bureaucracies.  As you would guess from the theme of the book, as well as from Reid's background as a pioneer in the world of online music, he has plenty to say about file sharing, piracy, and music on the web.   Fans of Douglas Adams will definitely see shades of Adams in Reid's writing.  Yet Reid does have his own voice.  He's not Adams, but could turn into a worthy successor.  I would certainly love to read more Reid!

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

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Some of My Best Friends are Black, by Tanner Colby

Like many white liberals, Tanner Colby joined in with African Americans around the country, celebrating the election of "pretty much the awesomest guy to run for president in my lifetime, Barack Obama."  However, as he looked around the room and around his life, he realized that he didn't have any black friends.  This was the case with almost all of the white people he talked to.  So he set out to write this book, exploring race in his own background and in American life.  As he looked at the changing legal landscape, he realized that while under Jim Crow, the color line was kept in place with "terrorism, fear, and deliberate, purposeful discrimination," today life is "engineered in such a way that the problems of race rarely intrude on you personally. . . . You can be white and enjoy the same isolation and exclusivity without having to do anything."
For Colby, like many late 20th-century Americans, the story of race starts with forced integration of schools and the busing that made integration possible.  He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, which Martin Luther King, Jr., called the most segregated city in America.  All over the South, school districts resisted integration.  Breakaway school districts in white parts of town arose, as did, later, a huge number of private schools.  White flight from school districts and from city cores let to even more segregation, making busing and forced integration more expensive and less practical, and, most tragically, led to the closing of many majority black high schools that had enjoyed success with black administrators, black teachers, and black students.

And the dream of integration?  Colby's experience was repeated all over: the black kids sat in their own section of the cafeteria, were often relegated to remedial classes, felt unwelcome in clubs and sports, and, with very few exceptions, did not mix socially with white students.  One of his former classmates, reflecting on their otherwise academically strong high school, commented, "if your parents were concerned about giving you an education, they would educate about the fact that there are black people who can read and write."

While the government could impose racial integration on public schools, they are more limited in the imposition of integration in housing.  As a case study, Colby examines neighborhood patterns in Kansas City, Missouri.  Building on the fears and suspicions of whites, real estate developers began to create planned communities with a new innovation.  In addition to large lots, winding streets, parks, and other amenities, developers introduced racial covenants, which prevented blacks from buying property in whole neighborhoods.

On the other side of town, seedier developers practiced block busting, in which the developer would move a black family onto the block, then, after a while, go to the neighbors to instill fear that the blacks are taking over.  He could scare them into selling at a low price, then resell the property to more blacks.  Most disturbing is that federal housing policy made block busting much more profitable and contributed to the decline of neighborhoods.  (I know, it's shocking--government policy intruding in the market and resulting in destructive unintended consequences!)

Turning to the workplace, Colby examines race in the world of advertising, where Colby got his professional start.  Reviewing the history of affirmative action (which was imposed by the Republican everyone loves to hate, Nixon), Colby concludes that "it wasn't designed to fail, but it wasn't exactly designed to succeed, either. . . . It was riot insurance.  It was to provide a financial incentive for blacks to stay in their own communities and out of the suburbs."

Finally, Colby returns to his childhood home of LaFayette, Louisiana, where he lived before moving to Birmingham.  We've all heard MLK's famous line about 11 o'clock Sunday morning being the most segregated hour of the week.  Colby writes, "As much as we talk about the importance of 'diversity' in our schools and workplaces, the notion of integrating the church is the last thing anyone, black or white, seems to be willing to put on the table."  The Catholic Church in southern Louisiana (where most everyone is Catholic) had been integrated for generations, yet the rise of Jim Crow let to segregation, leading to the unusual situation of having overlapping Catholic parishes where church affiliation was determined by skin color.  Even in the smallest towns, two Catholic churches would exist, sometimes even sharing a parking lot.

Colby writes that he "saw black people at white churches, and I saw white people at black churches, but what I never saw . . . was a black and white church" except at St Charles Borromeo in Grand Coteau.  As he tells the story, it was a long, painful 40 year struggle, but eventually the white and black churches became one.  This is a great story and a reminder that it can happen.  Our family has longed to find a truly integrated church, but we haven't.  As we have visited black churches, we had the experience Colby describes, a warm welcome as visitors, "but that's exactly what you are when you're here: a visitor.  As friendly as people are, the longer you sin in that pew--and at a black church you will sit there for a long time--the more you come to realize that this isn't meant for you.  Because it isn't.  It's the social, economic, political, and cultural hub of a separate black America.  It's churchness cannot be divorced from it's blackness."  (I would have been interested in Colby's experiences in Pentecostal churches. Ever since Azusa Street in the early 20th century, Pentecostal congregations have been, in many cases, very well integrated.)

This last statement points to a theme that Colby follows throughout the book.  The struggle for integration does not mean that black people want to be culturally integrated into white America.  They want to right to choose where to go to school, but should not have to give up historically black schools. They should have the right to buy a house wherever they like, but might still choose to live in majority black neighborhoods.  They should not be prohibited from obtaining jobs in any field.  And they should be welcome in white or integrated congregations, but may choose to attend black churches.  As Colby puts it, the fight for integration "was about the right to sit at the lunch counter and be served, not about the right to sit at the lunch counter and have a root beer with Susie and Biff."

I got over Colby's confession of Obama worship pretty quickly and thoroughly enjoyed his book.  His personal take on issues of race, coupled with solid background material and plenty of other first-hand accounts make this a terrifically readable and challenging book.  Are we better off as a nation than we were when we were kids?  Undoubtedly.  Are there still racial divides running through our schools, neighborhoods, and churches?  Yes, but maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Historically black colleges, black neighborhoods, black service and social clubs and black churches can foster growth and positive identity in ways that token integration can't.  But the fact remains, in spite of the progress we've made, that for many Americans "it's easier to vote for a black man than to sit and have a beer with one."

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

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

They Eat Puppies, Don't They?: A Novel, by Christopher Buckley

I don't know that there's anyone writing political satire today as funny as Christopher Buckley.  As in some of his prior novels, in They Eat Puppies, Don't They? Buckley takes on the the world of Washington lobbyists.  In this case, Bird, lobbyist for a huge defense contractor, is tasked with drumming up anti-China sentiment.  He recruits Angel Templeton, a (super hot) super-hawk at the Institute for Continuing Conflict, who is more than willing to foment a bit of strife between superpowers.  Together they bring the U.S. and China to the brink of war, much to the delight of Bird's employer.

When you read Buckley, you sincerely hope that Washington isn't so full of hapless leaders, cynical lobbyists, and selfishly motivated bureaucrats.  But then you read the Washington Post and realize, well, Buckley's not that far off. . . .  Buckley's story telling is laugh-out-loud funny and scarily accurate.  The story itself peters out about 2/3 of the way through and fizzles at the end, but it's definitely worth a read.