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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Evicted, Matthew Desmond takes a look at the Affordable Housing Crisis using Milwaukee, Wisconsin during 2008-2009 as a social laboratory to help describe the American experience of poverty during the Great Recession. Through the eyes of eight families in crisis, and the two landlords who rent to them, Desmond unfolds a piece of Americana that many would rather ignore. In the Prologue, Desmond describes this experience succinctly when he says:

“Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early morning knocks at the door, the belongings line the curb” (4).

Later, Desmond rightly identifies this as a justice issue when he notes:

“All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary. Because it is unnecessary, there is hope. These problems are neither intractable nor eternal” (299).

He challenges the status quo, and our decades long view that poverty is self-inflicted, by confronting directly our exploitation of the poor:

“If the poor pay more for their housing, food, durable goods, and credit, and if they get smaller returns on their educations and mortgages (if they get returns at all), then their incomes are even smaller than they appear. This is fundamentally unfair” (306).

Yet, though Desmond challenges our assumptions, he doesn’t put all the blame for this exploitation at the feet of the landlords. This is a systemic issue that must be corrected, allowing opportunity for the poor to live without systemic exploitation, while also allowing the landlords the opportunity to rightly pursue profit. Both have the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” but Desmond rightly recognizes that these rights require “a stable home” (300).

And Desmond offers one solution that he thinks will satisfy the needs of both landlords and tenants. Expand our current Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) programs into a Universal Housing Choice Voucher program.

Although he recognizes the possibility of other solutions, and has a healthy respect for the complexities of poverty and housing issues, Desmond’s housing-focused solution appears to me to be a bit naive. As someone who has worked for years with both the homeless and those at risk of homelessness, I know that a house, with the goal of ensuring it costs no more than 30% of an individual’s income, will not reduce the issues associated with poverty. There are multiple systemic and personal issues that are the cause.

However, a housing-first, asset-based solution, focused on expansive supportive services, almost always works. It provides housing stability, enables individuals to get the level of support they need to address the other issues that are contributing factors, while empowering them to overcome these challenges using their own skills and resources.

These challenges are also much more complex than the stereotypical families in crisis that Desmond portrays. There is often an assumption in America that the poor get what they deserve, because of the poor choices they have made. While Desmond vocally expresses disdain for this view, the families he chose to present us with almost reinforce this assumption.

I wish Mr. Desmond would have taken the time to find an individual or family who didn’t fit the stereotype, and tell their story as well. Some of the people I find on the street are experiencing severe homelessness for the first time in their lives. They are the aged, the sick, the handicapped, who have no remaining family and no support system to help them. Individuals who have suddenly found themselves on the streets due to circumstances beyond their control, who have fallen through the cracks, because there are no systemic supports in place to assist them.

They are being evicted at an alarming rate, because they have spent most of their lives on the edge of poverty, and as housing costs have continued to increase, their financial resources haven’t. The sad thing about reading this book, as one who works in the field, is recognizing that the Housing Crisis has only grown worse since Desmond did his research. His book is timely and relevant, and his considerations must be taken seriously. Otherwise, we will have failed as a nation if we refuse to address this issue. Ultimately, our great experiment in Democracy will have failed as well. Desmond rightly notes:

“Working on behalf of the common good is the engine of democracy, vital to our communities, cities, states–and, ultimately, the nation” (294).

This is a book that every thoughtful American should read (including many of our current political candidates). Desmond is to be commended for undertaking this work, and offering a solution to address these issues.

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The Storied Life of A.J. FikryThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a great literary dessert, wonderfully baked with ingredients that are put together just right.

A tale about the power of stories, it’s built with literary allusions from mixed genres. Add a few love stories, throw in a dash of poetry, a love of the writing process, and a little literary criticism and you have the sweet tale of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.

It’s a simple story (or really a collection of shorts), hiding a deeper tale about the love of community, and the impact that literature has in bringing people together, while ultimately shaping their lives.

Zevin sometimes appears to bring things together too perfectly, occasionally tugging at our emotions a bit too predictably, when suddenly she lets the reader know that she thinks they’re intelligent enough to recognize this and still enjoy reading for the sake of the story. (I suspect that this technique will prevent some individuals from seeing the deeper story, much like Maya’s story was overlooked for it’s depth).

Zevin skillfully and openly foreshadows much of the story from the very beginning, yet manages to add a twist of mystery, and surprise the reader several times along the way. Without conveying the snobbery often apparent in much of contemporary and classic fiction, she manages to weave a deep tale of everyday people discovering the power of fiction, while enabling the reader to see that fiction is often more truthful than it first appears.

This is a book that everyone should read at least once, and one that I intend to read again. I’m rating it five stars not because it’s a perfect literary masterpiece, but because it precisely achieves its intended aim. I read a lot of books, but this is the first book I’ve read in a long time that I didn’t want to put down simply because of the joy of reading it! Zevin has reminded me why I love books and why I long to read them. She has rekindled my romance with reading, made me crave the re-reading of some literary masterpieces I love, while giving me a hunger to read the ones I’ve yet to devour.

A tasty, fattening literary dish served with much delight!

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The New World: A Novel
by Chris Adrian & Eli Horowitz

2 Stars **

The New World: A Novel

The New World intends to tell the story of a marriage from the perspectives of future and past; present realities that separate pediatric surgeon, Jane Cotton, from her deceased chaplain husband Jim whose head has been preserved for the future by the Polaris Corporation.

Throughout the story, they each find that love, and life shared, in all its messiness is far more eternal than deferred hope in life somewhere in the far distant future. Eternity is far less tangible than the eternal now–a moment when we are fully present with one another (such as during the experience of a tender passionate wedding kiss embracing all of our past and future history).

The premise is an interesting one, but an underdeveloped plot, flat characters, intangible realities, and poorly executed back story left me disappointed.

This tale could have been so much more. Instead, it took a shallow dive into the deep mystery of love, and offered a meaningless reflection of life that leads me to recommend this as one tale you should avoid reading.

 

You can also find this review on Goodreads here
Connect with me on Goodreads: john-taylor

 

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Just a short walk from my home is the Hackley Public Library. A gem in the heart of Muskegon that I try to visit weekly, and one of the best small libraries in the state of Michigan. I always find interesting reading on Hackley’s shelves. Here are five books I’ve picked off the shelves during the month of August:

Backpacking with the Saints by Belden C. Lane

Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice 1st edition by Lane, Belden C. (2014) Hardcover

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

Following the Path by Joan Chittiste

City of God by Augustine

Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science

Medieval books
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90 Church: Inside America’s Notorious First Narcotics Squad
by Dean Unkefer

2 Stars **

90 Church: The True Story of the Narcotics Squad from Hell

The publisher’s disclaimer set the stage for some of my skepticism as i read through Unkefer’s book: “These memoirs are based on the author’s best recollections of events in his life…the author has stated to the publisher that the contents of this book are true.”

While I have no doubt that the team at 90 Church operated with an ideology of the ends justifying the means, I have serious doubts that the author was an innocent among the crazies. Unkefer sets himself up throughout the book as a naive dupe, who just goes with the flow and becomes corrupted in his endeavor to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.” He seems intent on justifying the evil he discovers in his own heart, pinning the blame on many of the individuals that surround him. However, it is important to remember that he was an active participant in many of these events.

At other times, the scenes he describes seem far too dramatic, even for a such a lawless force. I found myself moving from thinking that these events were somewhat unbelievable, to believing that many were embellished for the sake of the memoir. Terrifying and dramatic as I’m sure Unkefer’s experiences were, some of his recollections border on the ridiculous and I find them unbelievable. I never doubted his experience overall, nor that there were some almost unbelievable events that dramatically impacted Unkefer. However, some of his recollections seemed more imaginative than others.

Then, there are times when Unkefer seems to leave out too many details. It’s at these points that I’m sure there is a story here, probably a very dramatic one, but that Unkefer has sanitized them to protect the parties involved, and perhaps to downplay his level of participation in these events. Because of Unkefer’s heavy sanitizing, at points it’s difficult to follow his timeline, and I was often frustrated by the choppiness of the memoirs flow.

Perhaps Unkefer’s tale really is true, and my perceptions are wrong. Perhaps the sense of disconnect I experienced is exactly what Unkefer himself experienced. I sure hope not. While I have no doubt that the work of many undercover law enforcers walks a fine line along the path of criminality, and at times even crosses it; I would be sadly disappointed to discover that the events inside 90 Church were not embellished but merely downplayed. Because justice is never justice when evil prevails on both sides of the law.

I have read law enforcement memoirs that describe more effectively the moral challenges many law enforcers face, and that I believe express the details much more honestly. They are no less dramatic, almost unbelievable, but never over the top. Ultimately, I found Unkefer’s tale to be too exaggerated and unbelievable.

Note: This review has also been posted on Goodreads at: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1345115718?book_show_action=false

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Just a short walk from my home is the Hackley Public Library. A gem in the heart of Muskegon that I try to visit weekly, and one of the best small libraries in the state of Michigan. I always find interesting reading on Hackley’s shelves. Here are five books I’ve picked off the shelves during the month of July:

90 Church: Inside America’s Notorious First Narcotics Squad by Dean Unkefer

90 Church: The True Story of the Narcotics Squad from Hell

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrow

The Truth According to Us: A Novel

Getting to Yes with Yourself by William Ur

Getting to Yes with Yourself: (and Other Worthy Opponents)

The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew B. Crawford

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

Medieval books
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Her Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger

3 Stars ***

I’m not a fan of ghosts. Although I believe in an afterlife, I don’t believe in ghosts. I believe that death brings destination, and there aren’t spirits roaming the planet trying to figure out the afterlife. However, people are often haunted by their memories of the deceased. Things we wish had been said, moments we failed to share, things we left unresolved, and these torments can be as real and visceral as an actual haunting. It’s never a good thing when death leaves things undone, and even worse when a ghost comes into the picture.

Thus, the backdrop is set for the story of twenty-something twins Julia and Valentina Poole. It all starts when an unexpected letter from London arrives at their home in the Chicago suburbs. Their mother’s estranged twin Elspeth has died and left everything to them, including her wealth and her London flat near Highgate Cemetery where luminaries such as Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, and Karl Marx are buried. In order to receive it all there are only two stipulations: the girls must live in the flat for one year before they sell it, and their parents Jack and Edie, must not enter the flat for any reason.

The girls accept the terms of Elspeth’s will, move to London, and quickly develop relationships with the residents of their building, all of them haunted. There is Robert, a scholar of Highgate Cemetery, and love of Elspeth, haunted by his memory of her; Martin, a brilliant creator of crosswords suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder; Martin’s wife Marijke, tormented by memories of the man that Martin once was; and Elspeth who is haunted by the memories of the life she might have had, as her specter roams her flat in loneliness, until she slowly comes to the attention of Robert, Julia and Valentina.

I am a big fan of Niffenegger’s well-received first novel The Time Traveler’s Wife. Surprisingly, her second work was more enjoyable for me than her first. Surprisingly, because previous reviews have rated Her Fearful Symmetry  as a much worse novel: more incoherent, choppy, and sophomoric. I actually found that it took less effort to read Her Fearful Symmetry than it did The Time Traveler’s Wife. Like her premier novel, which left many questions unanswered for me, Niffenegger’s second work presented a fresh perspective of the traditional story form, and like her previous work added a few twists at the end. I suspect that many were disappointed because they didn’t enjoy the surprises she had in store, the journey didn’t go quite as they expected, and she failed to develop some of the richness present in The Time Traveler’s Wife. In addition, I think the novel suffered from poor editorial support, which would have helped Niffenegger develop a richer, more robust tale.

Like many, I wish that Niffenegger spent more time developing the final chapters. They seemed to be a bit more sketchy than the beginning of the book, which was fairly well-developed (although it too had some moments that were irrelevant to the tale). It appeared as if Niffenegger rushed to finish her story, forcing it along, without taking time to develop things a bit more fully for the reader. Perhaps the tale was much clearer in her mind, or she was simply pressured by page limits and deadlines. The result is that she failed to successfully communicate her main point, which is that there are times in our lives when we are all haunted. There were moments near the tale’s end when the story bordered on the ridiculous. However, because I could sense some of her intentions, I was able to overlook these weaknesses. It appears others weren’t.

For me, the biggest disappointment was Niffenegger’s failure to focus more attention on a few of the story’s silent characters. The city of London, Highgate Cemetery, as well as Martin’s flat. While there was some history and detail provided, Niffenegger seemed more interested in focusing on her human characters and less on their environment. This was a tragic oversight, which in my opinion prevented her from developing the richness of character that she was seeking. Often, a character’s environment reveals much more about the individual, while creating a rich tapestry that helps move the story along.

In the end, however, I was delighted to see some of the characters overcome the things that haunted them, while moving forward into the brightness of their life ahead. They were learning to experience the richness of the moment, enjoying the opportunities for living that surrounded them. Others remained haunted by the specters of their past, unable to shake the ghosts that remained, empty shells waiting for death to finally take them. Trapped in their own memories, torn by their own desires, they found life far more empty than anything that death could bring.

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The library is not dead! Just a short walk from my home in the beautiful city of Muskegon, Michigan is the Hackley Public Library. It is a gem in the heart of our city, and I generally visit it weekly. In addition to my own overflowing shelves, I find a lot of interesting reading on Hackley’s shelves; some of the best I’ve seen even in libraries twice its size.

Hackley Public Library was donated to the city of Muskegon in 1888 by businessman and philanthropist Charles Hackley an important figure in Muskegon history. He’s never far from the minds of people in Muskegon (Charles even has his own Facebook page). We still owe much to the generosity of this lumber baron who gave away nearly one-third of his fortune to the city he loved. His first gift was for the construction of Hackley Public Library. Hackley once said:

“A rick man to a great extent owes his fortune to the public. He makes money largely through the labor of his employees. . . . Moreover, I believe that it should be expended during the lifetime of the donor, so that he can see that his benefactions do not miscarry and are according to his intent. . . . To a certain extent, I agree with Mr. Carnegie . . . that it is a crime to die rich.”

Charles Hackley lived the words he spoke, and stands as a tremendous example to for today’s wealthy who have committed themselves and their wealth to the betterment of social good. Because of his commitment, and the continuing commitment of Muskegon residents like me, who constantly seek to ensure that Hackley Public Library can continue to grow and improve, I offer you today’s “High 5” books I picked up this morning off the shelves of Hackley Public Library, and will be reading throughout the rest of June. These are five of the eight books I selected and am most excited about reading:

The Mother of All Booklists by William Patrick Martin

Black Prophetic Fire by Cornel West

Black Prophetic Fire

Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier

The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World Data and Goliath (Hardback) - Common

Detained and Deported by Margaret Regan

Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire

Fallen Leaves by Will Durant

Sources:

Charles Hackley: Wikipedia, Hackley Public Library
Photo courtesy of: mlive.comhttp://media.mlive.com/chronicle/news_impact/photo/hackley-su-c–suniq-da65f5d53864a369_large.jpg

Medieval books
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Everyone has a reader in their life, who like me, likes to receive the gift of reading. Here are ten books I recommend for the book lover in your life.

For Short Reads

The Best American Short Stories 2014

by Jennifer Egan [Mariner Books]
Rank/Rating: 284124/-
Price: $7.88

Collected Fictions

by Jorge Luis Borges [Penguin Books]
Rank/Rating: 20151/-
Price: $12.50

For the Philosophical

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away

by Rebecca Goldstein [Pantheon]
Rank/Rating: 312469/-
Price: $10.74

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story

by Jim Holt [Liveright]
Rank/Rating: 39909/-
Price: $14.65

Give a Pulitzer Gift

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

by Donna Tartt [Little, Brown and Company]
Rank/Rating: 8238/-
Price: $17.44

The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

by Adam Johnson [Random House Trade Paperbacks]
Rank/Rating: 2982/-
Price: $7.00

Bestselling Nonfiction

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

by Laura Hillenbrand [Random House Trade Paperbacks]
Rank/Rating: 1026/-
Price: $9.69

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

by Daniel James Brown [Penguin Books]
Rank/Rating: 377/-
Price: $10.11

being mortal: medicine and what matters in the end

by Atul Gawande [Metropolitan Books]
Rank/Rating: 669330/-
Price: $24.97

Small Victories( Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace)[SMALL VICTORIES][Hardcover]

by AnneLamott [RiverheadBooks]
Rank/Rating: 4804951/-
Price: $12.66