The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.
As would be expected, Americans without a religious preference are highly unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, although a small proportion -- 4% in the 2018-2020 data -- say they do. That figure is down from 10% between 1998 and 2000.
Given the nearly perfect alignment between not having a religious preference and not belonging to a church, the 13-percentage-point increase in no religious affiliation since 1998-2000 appears to account for more than half of the 20-point decline in church membership over the same time.
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Thursday, March 25, 2021
Bluebird, Bluebird is the first book by Attica Locke that I have read. It’s a police procedural, murder mystery novel based in Texas. The main character, Darren Matthews, is one of the very few Black Texas Rangers. I wasn’t aware before reading this book that the Rangers are sort of like a State-based version of the FBI. In other words they have the ability to make a “state” case out of crimes that can supersede local jurisdiction. Matthews is one of the very few Black people in a predominantly white organization and this reality and how he (and his colleagues) deal with race animates a significant portion of the book. And this story is taking place in Texas, with an infamously racist past and unambiguously racist present.
As with most interesting protagonists of mystery novels, Matthews is a complicated character. He has problems at work and at home. His wife has basically kicked him out, because she doesn’t approve of his job as a Ranger when he just needs one more year of law school to be an upstanding attorney like she is. (Matthews left University of Chicago Law School and returned home to East Texas where he was raised by his twin uncles after the grotesque hate-infused murder of James Byrd made headlines and inspired federal hate crimes legislation.) He’s basically been suspended from his job as a Ranger due to his improperly close relationship with an elderly Black man who the police view as a suspect in the suspicious shooting of a racist redneck who before he died had been harassing the suspect’s granddaughter.
So we aren’t surprised at the beginning of Bluebird, Bluebird when Matthews agrees to do a favor for a (white) friend of his who is also a federal agent to (unofficially) and drive up Highway 59 from the Big City to take a look at the appearance of a Black male body that has recently washed up in Lark, a backwater town in East Texas, population 187. Matthews soon finds out the deceased is Michael Wright, a lawyer from Chicago but. The situation becomes even more complicated than it first appeared when soon after the first body appeared, a second body shows up, and this time it’s a white girl, a local waitress named Missy Dale known for her predilection for spending time in the company of Black men. Surely the two must be related, and there’s no way that the linked deaths of a Black man and white woman won’t be a dangerous powder keg in a hick town like Lark which is known for its long history with the Klan. Are the deaths some kind of hate crime? But the conceit of the book is that the bodies showed up in reverse order. Wouldn't you think it would be the white girl who would be killed first, and then the Black guy she cavorted with killed by the Klan afterwards?
Soon after Matthews arrives in Lark, so does the widow of the Black man, her name is Randie and she’s trying to find out what happened to her estranged husband. The parallels with Matthews and his personal situation are obvious. The relationship between Randie and Darren is complicated. She’s not from “around here” (and Matthews is) so he takes it on himself to show her around and promises himself to try and see she gets justice by solving the mystery of her husband's killing. But, as a knight in shining armor, Darren is more than a little tarnished. He’s got a drinking problem and he’s a little too fond of telling little white lies to people in order to get his way. As a Black Ranger with a badge in a town full of meth-heads, rednecks and extreme poverty he’s got a lot going against him in order to fulfill the ill-advised promise he made to the grieving widow.
The story in Bluebird, Bluebird is interesting because of the complex connections the author, Attica Locke, weaves between the characters (and suspects) in this little town where everyone knows everyone, and secrets have and stories have festered for decades. Both bodies washed up within walking distance of a roadside hole-in-the-wall restaurant right off Highway 59 run by an elderly Black woman named Geneva Sweet who admits to seeing both Missy and Michael within several hours of their deaths. Geneva also has a complicated history. Her husband and son, both named Joe Sweet, are dead from violence within the last ten years, about 2 years apart. That's a lot of suspicious death in a town this small. Another important character is Wallace Jefferson III, an old white guy who literally owns all the land in town, lives a stone’s throw away from Geneva’s Sweets and clearly once (and maybe still) has had an impossible attraction to Geneva, who a long time ago used to be the hired help in the Jefferson Southern Gothic mansion.
Overall, Bluebird, Bluebird is an interesting, atmospheric novel which poses thoughtful and thought-provoking questions about race, family and the ties that bind people together, both emotional and obligatory. As a mystery novel it’s less successful and I’m not sure Darren Matthews is someone I really want to spend much more time with, but I am willing to spend more time with Locke’s spare, evocative prose and look forward to reading the next entry in the series Heaven, My Home.
Title: Bluebird, Bluebird.
Author: Attica Locke.
Length: 320 pages.
Publisher: Mullholland Books.
Date Published: September 10, 2017.
Date Read: February 20, 2021.
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).
Thursday, March 18, 2021
Real Life by Brandon Taylor seems like it is a book that was designed in a lab to appeal to me. It’s a fictional account of a Black gay graduate student who likes to play tennis and is working on getting his Ph.D. in a STEM discipline at a predominantly white institution in a small town somewhere in the northeast. 30 years ago I was a black gay graduate student who liked to watch tennis and was working on getting his Ph.D. in a STEM discipline (applied mathematics) at a predominantly white institution (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) in a small town in the northeast (Troy, NY).
However, Wallace, the protagonist of Real Life, is very different from the person I was then, and since the book is set in a contemporary context, his experience is very different from my graduate days. That said, the situations that Wallace experiences as well as the descriptions of some of the characters he interacts with seem very familiar. Wallace is a graduate student in biochemistry and has a cadre of white friends, most of whom are also graduate students (in various fields). The group contains a gay couple named Cole and Vincent, another named Lukas and Nathan, and a gay international couple named Klaus and Roman, a straight couple named Emma and Thom, two “straight” guys named Yngve and Miller and then there’s Wallace. Almost all of Real Life is told through Wallace’s eyes as he observes how his friends interact with him, as the only black guy in a group of white people. Wallace is from the South, and we learn he is the first in his family to have ever gone to graduate school, and perhaps the first to go to college. His life experience is very different from the people he hangs out with when he’s not working in the lab and he is also very different from the people he works with in the lab as well. Later we learn that he was basically abandoned by his father and that his parents apparently blamed him for the fact that a family friend molested the tween-aged Wallace. The key material of the book is sourced in the tension caused by the ways Wallace’s identity and temperament distort and disrupt his experience of everyday social interactions with those around him, especially the ways these are frequently leavened with micro-aggressions and not-so-micro aggressions. And that’s when he’s with his “friends”!
Relatively early in Real Life, Miller and Wallace hook up sexually, a somewhat surprising event initiated by the putatively heterosexual Miller. Both Miller and Wallace have some warped ideas about sexuality, to my somewhat prudish sensibilities. Suffice it to say, even though their sexual activities are consensual, afterwards one or both of them are sore or bruised. (Not exactly my idea of a good time, but “different strokes for different folks.”) Near the end of the book I wasn’t completely convinced both of them would survive its conclusion. The sexual fluidity of Wallace’s coterie of friends is an interesting feature of the books, and is another example of unspoken tension that animates some of the peculiar social dynamics in the group. For example, even though Yngve is straight, it is a commonly understood fact in the group that Yngve and Lukas are often together, hanging out publicly. Lukas' boyfriend Nathan doesn't seem to be bothered by this situation, since Yngve is "straight." However one of the other gay guy, Roman, is a troublemaker. He says something explicitly racist to Wallace, and he causes tension among the other gay couples by remarking on how happy he is that he is in an open relationship with Klaus. (Or as he puts it, "Nothing is better than f***ing someone while my boyfriend watches.") This completely sets Cole off, who is a bit strait-laced and prone to jealousy about his relationship with Vincent, who seems fascinated by the idea of something other than a monogamous relationship, while Cole seems to be a gay Republican in training. Cole is probably the gay guy Wallace is closest to. There's a very fun scene where there is a very detailed description of a tennis match the two play together which appears as if it could lead to something else, and definitely reveals the evanescent sexual tension that can arise in non-sexual interactions between gay men who are friends. In some instances Wallace deliberately chooses to exacerbate not ameliorate the conflicts that arise from these tensions. To me it seems clear that Taylor is portraying Wallace as a masochist, both sexually and emotionally. There are several examples in the book where painful things happen to Wallace and even when he could try to take action or respond to reduce the pain, he doesn’t, instead he “simply takes it,” as if he deserves (or enjoys?) being victimized.
Overall, Real Life is a quick, compelling and insightful read. The writing sometimes tends to the florid, and there's not much of a plot. (The central question is, "(How long) Can Wallace survive interacting with these people?") Wallace is in a bad situation, made worse by the cluelessness and casual racism of his “friends” as well as the precarious and disempowered nature of graduate education. I was hoping for a happy ending, but this is really not that kind of book. I’m somewhat surprised at the level of acclaim Real Life has received (such as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize) but I would definitely recommend the book to people, especially well-meaning white people who think the reason for underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities and women in STEM academic circles is a “pipeline” problem. Taylor provides real insight that rings true for me about what it’s like being “the only one” in certain academic settings as well as the complicated nature of gay male friendships. Since this is his debut novel, I look forward to reading future books by him.
Title: Real Life.
Author: Brandon Taylor.
Length: 335 pages.
Publisher: Mullholland Books.
Date Published: February 18, 2020.
Date Read: March 3, 2021.
OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).
Thursday, March 11, 2021
The Doors of Eden is the third book by Adrian Tchaikovsky I have read. The first two books are Children of Time and Children of Ruin and these are some of my favorite books of all time. Tchaikovsky is impressively prolific, but generally I have only taken notice of and consumed his works of hard science fiction. Both Children of Time and Children of Ruin, in addition to being critically acclaimed works of startling imagination, cover somewhat similar conceptual territory. This involves following the discovery and development of alien intelligences that happen to be related to creatures familiar to us on Earth. These kinds of books are sometimes referred to as “uplift” after the now-famous books by David Brin in the Uplift Saga. Evolution and a keen and sympathetic outlook on creatures that most people find “icky” is a common feature of Tchaikovsky’s books (at least the ones I have read so far). He often depicts a surprising developments caused by quirks of evolution and eons of time.
Something similar animates a good portion of The Doors of Eden, but this time the central characters are all decidedly human. In fact, one of the most surprising elements of the book is the author’s choice to center his book around a lesbian romance and the depiction of a trans woman as the ostensible hero who is tasked with saving Life As We Know It. (I'm not complaining, of course, I'm just remarking at how unusual this is for a mainstream science fiction novel.)
The main characters in The Doors of Eden are Lee and Mal, who are two girlfriends with very different backgrounds and views of the world. Lee and Mal have known each other since childhood, and have common (rather odd) interests, that involve seeking out and attempting to document paranormal activity. While on a trip together to Bodmin Moor, Mal disappears after what appears to be actual paranormal activity. Then suddenly four years later, Mal contacts Lee again, but she seems very different. In addition to Lee and Mal, we are introduced to Kay Amal Khan, a mathematical physicist who is working on a theoretical extradimensional model of the universe that the Government seems extremely interested in. Two of the intelligence agents who are tracking Kay Amal Khan are Julian Sabreur and Allison Mitchell, who are colleagues and friends who might want to be more than friends but they are married to other people and their job commitments.
The structure of the book is that it alternates chapters moving forward the plot with relatively short chapters that purport to be excerpts from "An Essay on Speculative Evolution" by Dr. Ruth Emerson that goes into numerous other possible ways intelligent life cold have evolved on Earth. It becomes clear that the "theoretical" extradimensional model of Dr. Khan is actually our reality, and in these other dimensions Earth life evolved in very different ways. Now, for some reason, the separations between the dimensions are getting less rigid and creatures from other realities are entering our reality, trying to address a threat to all existing realities that only someone like Dr. Khan can understand.
Lots of other reviewers were not enamored of the central story and said that they actually enjoyed the intervening excerpts more. My experience was exactly the opposite; I found the evolution passages tiresome and regularly skipped them, to get back to the plot. But this was primarily because I wanted to know how the story ended. I agree with other reviewers that I was not overly enamored with any of the main characters in the book, but I was definitely interested in the overall story.
Overall, I would say that The Doors of Eden should not be the first book you read by Adrian Tchaikovsky. (If you haven't read Children of Time, stop reading this review and immediately obtain a copy of that book and read it--you'll thank me later!) It's a book I appreciate more than I admire. I am glad that the characters are diverse and I'm glad that I read it, but I find it hard to imagine a scenario where I would recommend it to go to the top of anyone's TBR (to be read) pile.
Title: The Doors of Eden.
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky.
Paperback: 445 pages.
Date Published: August 20, 2020.
Date Read: January 29, 2021.
OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).
Thursday, March 04, 2021
Remain Silent by Susie Steiner is the third book in the DI Manon Bradshaw series. It is what appears on the surface to be a pretty traditional British police procedural series except with the notable difference that the author and protagonist are both female. The first two books in the series, Missing, Presumed and Persons Unknown were interesting, quirky crime fiction novels I quite enjoyed a few years ago, so when I saw the third one had been released in 2020 I decided to give it a go. It turns out that I have somewhat recently read the first three books in multiple crime fiction series: Cork O’Connor by William Kent Krueger, Ruth Galloway by Elly Griffiths, Roy Grace by Peter James, Ben Cooper & Deborah Fry by Stephen Cooper and Joe Pickett by C.J. Box. I would probably say my favorites in this bunch are the last 3 (I intend to read every book in each of these series, and happily each of these series are at least 12 books long). My point of showing this list in this review is to put the DI Manon Bradshaw series in the context of others I have recently read and to alert readers of this review to some other (longer) series they may want to check out, if you like the Manon Bradshaw books as much as I do, perhaps you’ll like these others as well.
One reason I connected with Manon is her unique view of the world and attitude towards the police and police work itself. To put it mildly, she’s quite skeptical of the ability of the police to “make things right” and her personality doesn’t mesh well with working in a rigidly hierarchical, faux-militaristic, staunchly bureaucratic organization like the Metropolitan Police. What’s great is that Steiner makes Manon’s thoughts very clear on this and many other subjects.
In Remain Silent, Manon’s (and very likely the author’s) views on multiple aspects of contemporary life in modern Britain are made very clear. The focus of the story is on the death of a naïve, saintly teenager from Lithuania who is trafficked into England and exploited by a gang of dehumanizing, heartless thugs to do awful work (catching live chickens for slaughter with unprotected bare hands for 10-12 hours a day) that no homegrown Brits would do, especially at the slave-labor wages provided. Steiner is clearly making a point about immigration and xenophobia (and of course, Brexit, although that word never appears in the text). The depiction of how a group of able-bodied men are forced into a situation which is basically modern-day slavery, primarily caused by a language barrier and compounded by culturally inculcated fear/hatred of official authority and the law, occurs in the full view of polite society, which in most cases is literally snarling hostilely at the foreigners’ exploitation, is blood-curdling.
One of the best features of Persons Unknown was watching as Manon’s relationship with Fly, her adopted teenaged son (who is Black), develops, especially in the context of the plot, where Fly’s racial identity (and Manon’s) play extremely important factors. Sadly, Fly is almost a cipher in Remain Silent and barely appears in the text. Instead, Manon's second child, a toddler named Teddy, gets far more “ink” in this book. Happily, Mark, one of the best things to happen to Manon in Book 2, along with her co-worker Davy, continue to have substantial roles in Book 3. Davy and Manon’s professional relationship and banter while working together is one of the highlights of the series as a whole.
In addition to making her thoughts known about “the immigration question,” the author also deploys Manon’s status as a middle-aged, unmarried, white woman in a committed relationship raising two kids to make several points about marriage and middle-age and modern life. At some points, Manon’s thoughts and comments about her best friend’s philandering husband (and her success at terminating his infidelity and convincing him to return to his wife) as well as her running commentary about the nature of commitment, especially in the context of medical uncertainty overwhelm the police-procedural, crime fiction narrative that we the reader are ostensibly reading this book for. And this was absolutely fine with me, elevating it above the first two entries in the series. Remain Silent is more than a whodunnit, it’s also a “whyshouldwecare” and I liked that about it. As I’ve said multiple times, ultimately most genre books are formulaic, so to build more than a casual connection with readers requires more than just the elements that are found in all books of this type, and with the attention brought to a serious, pressing issue as well as particular insight brought to modern life, Remain Silent stands out among the pack.
Title: Remain Silent.
Author: Susie Steiner.
Pages: 320 pages.
Publisher: Random House.
Date Published: June 5, 2020.
Date Read: February 8, 2021.
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).