Book review: Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Evicted is a non-fiction, ethnographic look at housing in Wisconsin for  low income families.  The author followed several families as they navigated different housing situations.

The main argument of the book is that we need more affordable housing.  Desmond makes the argument that housing should be a right to which all Americans are entitled.  The general rule of thumb is that less than 30% of total net income should be spent on housing.  However, many people, not just low-income families, spend more than 30% of their income on housing (according to Bloomberg) because the cost of housing has outpaced income.  Amongst lower income families, the percentage spent on housing is generally much higher.

The book was well-written and presented what I thought was a fair accounting of both sides of the housing problem.  On the one hand, people faced eviction due to circumstances outside of their control such as losing a job, unexpected expenses such as a death in the family, illness, etc.  On the other hand, there are times when they were evicted due to their poor judgment and behavior (drug use, arguments/fights, not discussing or trying to work out a payment plan with the landlord, etc.).  Compounding their problem was their inaccessibility to decent housing, including: searching for housing on foot (no access to the Internet or a car to search for housing or not knowing how use the Internet to search for housing), landlords who are prejudiced about renting to minorities, landlords who refuse to rent to families with children, and limited income.

I had to stop reading this book for a while because I got so upset by it.  I was upset at the cycles of eviction for the people in this book.  I was angry at the landlords who wouldn’t fix their properties so that basic needs such as running water or plumbing were met.  I was angry at some of the poor decisions that were made (struggling to provide food and pay rent, yet having money for pot, cigarettes, and sometimes drugs).  I was angry at the number of companies that cut back on expenses by hiring people part-time so that they don’t have to cover benefits.  Most of all, the children’s situation upset me.  Not only didn’t they have time to make friends, they fell farther and farther behind in their education as they were moved around.

At the end of the book, the author presented some possible solutions to the housing problem.  The solution that was presented in the best light was using universal housing vouchers.  He described how universal housing vouchers had been used in other countries successfully.

Don’t skip the epilogue and the section called “about this project.”

Disclaimer: Thanks, Santa, for giving me this book for Christmas.  🙂

book review: The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction

The View from the Cheap Seats is a collection of speeches, book introductions, etc., by Neil Gaiman.  As you may already know, I have pretty much read everything I can get my hands on by Neil Gaiman, even some of his Sandman graphic novels and children’s books, all of which I have yet to review (Odd and the Frost Giants was a good one, but I wasn’t too thrilled with Fortunately the Milk).

I have a confession to make.  I usually skip the introductions to books – mostly because they’re boring, but also because I would like to form my own opinions and ideas about a book before reading what others have to say about it.  If I really enjoyed the book, sometimes I go back to read the introduction, but most of the time, I never read them.  I wasn’t expecting to like this book when I found out that it included many book introductions, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Neil Gaiman has some pretty interesting things to say about books, reading, authors, music, people, and life in general.  The parts that I found most interesting were his views on reading (he believes there is no such thing as a “good” type of book to read – a good book is pretty much any book that you enjoy or get something out of) and his personal stories of his interactions with different authors.  He’s had quite a life.  His narratives are well written, but they have a casual style to them as well.  You can imagine having a cup of coffee or tea with him and chatting about the things he’s written about.  You can see the bits of sarcasm, some outright fantastic tales, and his passion for storytelling come out in his works of nonfiction.  It’s a personal style of writing that I find appealing.

Be warned that if you read this book, you’re going to end up having a list of probably 30+ books that you will want to read.  He talks about books that have influenced his writing (he is a voracious reader) and is so sincere in his praise that it is hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm.  There are some that many readers will have heard such as books by Stephen King and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams, but there were many I had never heard of.  (FYI, I bought Votan and Other Novels and am reading it now.)

If you ever need a book recommendation, this is the book to consult.

book review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success is, just as the title says, a nonfiction book about success.  More specifically, it’s about how success happens.  The author’s main points are: (1) talent and/or intelligence only matter up to a certain point; (2) if you have the minimal amount of talent/intelligence needed, practicing for at least 10,000 hours will lead to mastery; (3) many of the success stories we hear about (Bill Gates was one example he brought up) are not due to the individual’s talent or intelligence but due to lucky circumstances that the individual took advantage of.

In the Bill Gates example, the author talked about how Bill was living in a well-to-do suburb when he was growing up and this suburb happened to have a PTO that made a computer and network connection available.  Bill was able to take advantage of this when most schools didn’t even have computers.  When he went to college, while other students were limited to a certain number of hours being online, he happened to meet someone who helped him get around the time limit.  Thus, he could spend as much time on the computer as he wanted while other students didn’t have the same advantage to hone their programming skills.  Yes, he was interested in and was good at computers, but he also happened to have a number of advantages that others didn’t.  If Bill Gates had been born in the 1970s, for example, he probably wouldn’t have had the success that he did because the computer revolution would have been over by the time he was old enough to learn programming.  Bill Gates was just one example.  The author provided many other examples of “successful” people who were lucky to be born at the right time, into the right family, in the right place.

The author discussed intelligence and talent and how it plays into success, too.  On one hand, a certain amount of intelligence and talent is necessary.  Bill Gates almost certainly wouldn’t have obtained his success level if his IQ had been 70.  Having said that, the author talked about a study that was done addressing intelligence.  A researcher (I can’t remember the name now) decided to hand pick children who had very high IQs and follow them to see how their careers would turn out.  The researcher expected that there would be more Nobel laureates and more generally successful people in this group than in the general population.  Surprisingly, the group of children with high IQs had the same success rates as the general population.

There was one example specifically discussed of someone whose IQ was so high that his scores aren’t even accurate because he got so many answers correct.  This person, however, was not successful in the traditional sense.  He makes a modest income and is married, but hasn’t won any awards and certainly isn’t well-off financially.  A closer look at this person’s life revealed that he had a troubled upbringing.  His parents were poor and not very educated.  This person was accepted to college on a scholarship, but lost the scholarship because he was late with something (sorry, I can’t remember if he didn’t respond to the scholarship in time or if he was late to class numerous times due to car troubles).  He asked the Dean to allow him to keep the scholarship, but was refused.  The author pointed out that this person’s birth circumstances gave him a disadvantage compared to some born into educated, middle- to upper-class families because those in middle- to upper-class families are often encouraged to challenge authority or to question adults.  Those in poorer families tend to see authority figures as figures not to be questioned.  They don’t learn how to talk to these figures, and aren’t able to justify their circumstances properly.  Had this person explained his extenuating circumstances to the Dean, he probably would have been able to keep the scholarship and finish college.  As it turned out, he dropped out of college and never did get a degree.

I liked reading the case studies in this book.  In the United States, we would like to think that, with hard work, you can do anything.  This, of course, isn’t true.  It was interesting to learn about the research behind the arguments.  I checked out some of the references in the book to learn more about some of the studies.

book review: Street of Eternal Happiness

Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz is a nonfiction book that provides a look at the lives of different Chinese residents along a street called the “Street of Eternal Happiness.”  Rob Schmitz tells the stories of these residents with caring humor.  He depicts their lives honestly – how the different generations view the current politics in China as well as the problems each generation has had to face.  At times, the book is an anthropological study and at times it appears whimsical in the story telling.

At first, the stories are heartbreaking, but when you encounter the tough stories, there’s always another story of survival.  For example, the book starts off describing a man who attempted to commit suicide as a teenager by slitting his wrists while he is sleeping next to his grandmother.  Obviously, the man failed and ended up moving on with his wife since the author met him as an adult.

It describes the corruption and the cover ups that happen in China’s “system.”  The Chinese sink or swim depending on how well they are able to maneuver the “system.”

The book itself, with the numerous stories, was interesting to read and gave a good look at what is going on in China today.  The part that interested me was how different people defined success.  Some people defined it financially.  Some defined success based on their children’s lives.  Others defined it as having enough money to pursue more philosophical ideals of enlightenment.

Obviously, China is very different from the United States culturally.  This book depicted those differences, but also showed that people the world over struggle to find their place.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary e-book from Penguin through their First to Read program in exchange for my honest review.

Book review: The Bee-Friendly Garden

I was excited to read this book because I have been doing a lot of reading about the disappearance of bees and how it affects our food supply.  The Bee-Friendly Garden started out well with an overview of what the problem was with bees and why we need to pay attention to the problem.

Most of the book consists of recommendations for what to plant to attract bees, especially native bees.  The only problem is that the layout isn’t very clear so you don’t really know which plants should be grown in which regions.  Sometimes the text explained that such-and-such plant would grow better in the Southwest or in sandy soil, etc.  It didn’t really give specifics, though.  Most other gardening books give you specifics such as temperature/climate to plant, tips on when to plant, recommendations for soil content, etc.

The most important ideas from the book are that native bees are better pollinators than honey bees so we should try to help attract native bees.  Native bees like native plants best.  The most helpful parts of the book were the links that were provided to a website so that you could contact the people in your specific area.  See http://www.fws.gov/invasives/what-you-can-do.html#native-plants for more information.  There is also a section in the back of the book that I found helpful.  it listed regions in the U.S. and bee-friendly plants for that region.

I liked that this book brought up an important topic, but I was disappointed in the book itself.  Most of the stuff that is presented (what type of plants attract bees) can be found on the internet.  There wasn’t much in the book about how to care for those plants or other gardening tips.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review from Blogging for Books

book review: Obedience to Authority

Obedience to Authority is not a new book, but it was recently brought to my attention by the movie, The Experimenter.  The Experimenter is about the author, Stanley Milgram, and his work on social psychology.  The movie focused more on his life, but I was more interested in the experiments and wanted to find out more so I bought the book.

The whole idea to his experiments begins with the Nuremberg trials.  Milgram head Eichmann and others claim that they were following orders.  Most people didn’t buy that argument because we, while not born with a moral compass, learn morality from our caregivers, from society, etc.  There was an article written (sorry, I can’t remember the author’s name now, but Milgram mentions it in his book) at around that time, supporting Nazis’ claims of obeying orders.  At the time, people lambasted the author.  Milgram wanted to test the idea to see how much merit was in the argument.

His experiments are basically thus: subjects were told that they were being recruited to do a memory experiment.  There are 3 people involved – the experimenter, a teacher, and a learner.  First, the experimenter meets with two people and has them draw papers to see who will be a teacher and who will be a learner.  The drawing is rigged because the “learner” is part of the experiment.  The “naive subject,” as Milgram calls it, always gets to be the teacher because both slips of paper say “teacher.”  The experimenter takes both of them to a different room, straps the learner in and has the naive subject receive a low level shock so that the teacher knows what it feels like.  The learner is instructed to learn word pairs.  The teacher is then taken back to the original room, told to read ordered pairs options and for every pair that the learner answers incorrectly, to give the learner a shock, with increasingly stronger shocks for each incorrect answer.  If the teacher starts to object, the experimenter is told to follow a script with things along the line of (not verbatim), “continue please,” “you must continue,” “the experiment requires that you continue,” etc.  The shocks are labeled with voltage levels as well as with descriptions – “slight shock” to “XXX” at the max 450 volts.  Milgram is really testing how far the teachers are willing to go.

His results were shocking (pun intended).  His first experiments were on Yale students and he found that over 60% of them were willing to go all the way up to 450 volts, even though they knew that such a shock was painful and dangerous.  He then tested males from the general population.  Again, he found that over 60% were willing to go all the way up to the 450 volts.  He tested women and again got about the same results.  He also did many variations of the experiments, having the learner complain of a heart problem before the experiment started, having the teacher forcefully place the learner’s hand on the shock plate, having 2 experimenters giving different opinions (2 conflicting voices of authority), and many more.  It was fascinating to read about the experiments and see the results tables.  Milgram’s experiments showed that, even though subjects were distressed at having to cause pain, their drive to obey was often so strong that they kept going.  Milgram pointed out over and over that people are not inherently sadistic.  Given the choice, teachers chose to use the lower levels of shock on learners.  Some teachers even tried to lie to the experimenters by telling them that they were shocking the learners at higher levels when they were actually using the lower levels.  The more the authority figure was removed from the experiment, the more likely people were willing to stop the experiment.

Most of the book is about the experiments, their results, and vignettes about the subjects.  Towards the end of the book, there are a few chapters on why people obey authority and under what circumstances.

I didn’t think much of the movie, but I loved that it brought Milgram’s work to my attention.  His work is important because it’s so easy for us to be dismissive of people’s actions.  If we were polled, we would probably say that we would definitely stop the experiment.  We want to believe that our moral compass will drive our actions, but as Milgram pointed out, there is a disconnect between our beliefs and our actions.  There are strong survival reasons for our willingness to obey authority, and being aware of those forces that influence us can help us break through that disconnect.

Book review: Five Days at Memorial. What would you do?

As the title “Five Days at Memorial” implies, this book is about spending 5 days at Memorial Hospital in Louisiana.  However, these 5 days are the 5 days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where the power is out, the streets are flooded, generators fail, looters are out and about in the city, resources are scarce, but there are still plenty of sick people needing care.

The beginning of the book starts off a bit sluggishly with a history of the hospital and how it came into being.  Stick with it because it picks up.  Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is the description of moral dilemmas that face caregivers.  How do you triage patients?  How do you determine who gets to be evacuated first, second, etc?  Should it be the ones who are well enough to move on their own?  Should it be the sickest ones because they are the most fragile?  What about those with DNRs?

The author does a great job of describing the circumstances under which caregivers had to make these decisions.  There was a lot of confusion amongst administration, which led to fewer patients being evacuated.    There was despair with both patients and caregivers wondering if they were ever going to be rescued.  There was worry about snipers outside the hospital, and the worry about looters coming into the hospital to steal the precious drug and food supplies.

The most frustrating part of this book (besides the confusion and miscommunications between administration and rescuers) is how people who were at Memorial brought their pets along to save their pets, but then they turned people away who came to the hospital for help.

As you are reading this book, try to put yourself in the position of these caregivers and ask yourself what you would do.  Would you do things differently?

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books.

Book Review: Rain

Rain is a book similar to Cod and Salt in that it takes one object and shows how, through a rippling effect, this object affects everything from our history to our societies to our economy.  This should be a new genre of nonfiction.  Rain (water) is one of the most essential things to our lives – it helps our crops grow, it provides us with drinking water, it provides animals with drinking water (which we then use to plow our fields or to eat), it’s the source of contention between different countries,   It was an interesting read.

In all honesty, in some places, the book dragged a bit because there was so much detail provided, but for the most part, the tangents were interesting.

I would recommend this book to anyone who liked Cod and Salt.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

Book review: The Seven Good Years

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret is a memoir.  Keret has written several fictional works, including a collection of short stories.  The title of the book refers to years between when the author’s son was born and when his dad died.  It sounds kind of depressing, but this book was hilarious.

I’m usually not very fond of memoirs (with a few exceptions), but I really enjoyed reading this one.  The book is short and filled with funny vignettes about the author’s life.  I think my favorite bit was when he described how he used to write fictional inscriptions for people at book signings.  He would write things like, “Where’s that tenner I lent you?  You said two days and it’s a month already.  I’m still waiting” and “I don’t care what the lab tests show.  For me, you’ll always be my dad.”  Too bad he stopped writing those kinds of inscriptions at his book signings.  I would have loved to have gotten something like that at a book signing.

It should be mentioned that the author is Jewish and lives in Israel.  This is important to know because some of his stories involve being a Jew.  I loved that he laughs at himself.  For example, he confronts his paranoia in his story about his first trip to Germany.

It’s a short book – you could probably finish it in one sitting.  Read it.

Book Review: Proof of Heaven

Proof of Heaven is a non-fiction book by Dr. Eben Alexander about his near death experience (NDE).  Normally, I’m really not interested in this sort of stuff, but this guy is a neurosurgeon … a scientist who has heard about NDEs and had always been convinced that they weren’t real so I thought I’d give this book a shot.  Plus, it’s a pretty short book.

Dr. Alexander is a decent writer.  His descriptions were interesting to read.  Spoiler alert: he describes a sort-of holding place that was gray and then described heaven.  Heaven is the white light area where you feel love and there is someone there to be your guide.  As I said, I don’t read much about NDEs, but from what I’ve heard/seen/read, that seems to be pretty usual.  He drifted back and forth between the gray area and heaven until heaven shut its doors to him.  Then, he started recognizing faces in the gray area and realized that they were members of his family.  When he remembered his family, he realized that he had something to lose and that was his way back to awakening from his coma.

Dr. Alexander said that he was taught many things by talking to God through his guide, but that since he had to return to his earthly body, he was still trying to process everything and couldn’t teach it all to us.  We are all spiritual beings, but our mortal bodies tend to limit our instinctual understanding.  His message to us is that we try to expand our spirituality by looking beyond the physical world.  I’m not exactly sure how to do that.  I’m not sure how I feel about the message either.  I did, however, like the message that he got from heaven.  The message was (and I’m doing this from memory so it’s not verbatim) that you are loved unconditionally and there is nothing you can do that would change that.  How could anyone NOT like a message like that?

It begs the question, though, what about Hell?  What about the people who do bad things? His descriptions of what happened during his NDE were too vague to understand.  He describes the places and how he felt, but he couldn’t describe what he learned or discussed with God.  The gray area wasn’t really Hell even though at first he felt uncomfortable … to me, it seemed more like a holding place.

I found his description of the rare meningitis that caused his coma more interesting, to be honest.  He certainly has a supportive, loving family who were by his side throughout his ordeal.

I haven’t looked up anything else on this book so I don’t have much additional information.  I know that he spends time going around and speaking about his experience, but I wonder if he ever went back to neurosurgery and how his colleagues feel about his book.

I liked the Burpo book about the little boy who went to Heaven better.