SIX MONTHS OFF
An American Family’s
by Lamar Alexander (William Morrow: $18.95) Lamar Alexander, then-governor of Tennessee, looked at the mirror one morning in 1985 and saw, to his surprise, the toll of two consecutive terms in office: “Tired eyes. Fatter face. Deeper lines.” Soon after, he began planning to put his political career on hold and head off to Australia when his term expired in 1987. It is a tale not unlike the many stories of civilization-flight that have been proliferating in books and films in the 1980s, reflecting the dreams of people riding the fast track since careers became particularly consuming during the Me Decade.
But while most tales of civilization flight have been cynical and iconoclastic--the executive in “Splash” escapes a dog-eat-dog world by diving into the East River to join his mermaid lover, the executive in “Bliss” by homesteading deep in the jungle--Alexander flees to Australia with his family not to escape his life in Tennessee, but to affirm it. The trip was the inspiration of his wife “Honey,” spurred by her belief that “we need to get to know each other again,” and it makes for a tender and funny story which exemplifies the special gift Southerners seem to have for appreciating the value of family, community and tradition.
Alexander begins by affectionately poking fun at his heritage--describing Mississippi talk, for example, as “a language of growling and nudging and elbowing and foot stomping"--and then goes on to detail how the trip draws his family closer together. While descriptions of Australian culture and politics are rare in these pages, Alexander does profile the land in a few passages, and in this rumination on the twists and turns of Sydney Harbor, one can see that he has a flair for nature writing: “Australia may have been God’s first try on this Earth, the first continent, and He tried nothing too fancy, just practiced with His cutting tool, fashioning a nearly oval huge crust . . . when all of a sudden something roaring in the Tasman Sea, something in those choppy waves, diverted his attention and He turned His head. It was just long enough for the cutting tool to run wild.”
Alexander’s whimsical tone is less effective when the topic turns to politics during a side trip to Japan; a Republican opposed to protectionism, Alexander doesn’t challenge a Japanese businessman, for instance, when he claims that in 50 years, “we can buy America.” Like the more successful leaders of his party, however, Alexander projects a strong and appealing political presence through these pages despite some unpopular issue stands. Though Alexander begins this book by affirming his own family, he ends by celebrating America’s, calling on the next President to hold “a new American homecoming. A year-long celebration of what is most worth holding onto in each of the 100 thousand places we Americans call home.” While such a celebration is becoming increasingly impractical (because Americans have become more mobile and communities more characterless), the vision that inspired it has and will continue to be a principal strength of the Republican Party.
WHERE WE LIVE
A Social History of
by Irving Welfeld (Simon & Schuster: $17.95) This closely argued, well-informed analysis of American housing policy is bound to stir considerable debate, for Irving Welfeld’s theories reflect the Reagan Administration’s controversial belief that the free market can meet our nation’s housing needs better than such massive government intervention as subsidized housing communities.
Welfeld, policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is optimistic about America’s housing industry largely because of its past track record. “The number of homes and apartments has tripled since 1940,” he points out, “outstripping the projections of even the most cockeyed optimist.” In the process, Welfeld writes, “the road to riches has undergone a near-magical transformation. In the dimly remembered past, one achieved wealth and then bought a house. During the postwar period, one bought a house and then became wealthy. Young couples with almost no money to their name bought houses with a minimal down payment . . . and before they knew it, they were rich.” One expects the author to then detail the current crisis--in which younger generations are unable to afford their parents’ houses--but he doesn’t broach this subject until the 11th chapter, where he largely dismisses the problem: “Although there is much noise about the difficulties the young will have in achieving their dream, there is a difference, as Paul Freund has noted, ‘between the sound of popguns and the crack of doom.’ ” Welfeld blames the hefty price tag of today’s houses partly on new government regulations, but says the problem is less severe than it is portrayed in the media, for Americans are punctually meeting their mortgage payments, houses are of higher quality and interest rates have gone down.
Welfeld’s plans for lowering these prices are bold and eccentric: reduce demand for single family dwellings, he suggests at one point, by using subsidies to encourage the elderly to move to condominiums. One could argue that the elderly do not always live in neighborhoods where baby boomers can find jobs and that broader reforms are necessary to mitigate inequalities, as Welfeld’s own figures suggest: For every homeless person, for example, there are over 10 vacant year-round units. His ideas are sound and highly persuasive on the whole, however, demonstrating that at least in some areas, U.S. housing development needs to be freer from government regulation.
TAKING CHARGE OF YOUR MEDICAL FATE
by Lawrence C. Horowitz MD (Random House: $18.95)
While our suspicions about hospitals, doctors and health insurance have grown in recent years, our faith in American medicine remains solid. This schizophrenia is evident in recent medical books--some wonder-struck at medical advances, others warning us, in the words of Stanford physician Eugene Robin, that “medical care can be dangerous to your health.” In “Taking Charge of Your Medical Fate,” Lawrence Horowitz, the former staff director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health, shows that the fallacy behind this thinking is the notion that medicine, empowered by technology and guided by progress, is somehow less affected by the desire to maximize profits, human fallibility and lax regulation that afflict other human services in America.
Horowitz is particularly concerned that Americans, trusting in the benevolence of progress, have let themselves be “assaulted with a deadly weapon” in surgery in dramatically greater numbers than in the late 1960s--Caesarean sections and coronary heart bypasses, for instance, are now performed three times as often--despite increasing evidence that these surgeries are often unnecessary. Horowitz, unfortunately, does not offer (or recommend texts which offer) medical advice that might give readers a sense of when the risks of surgery outweigh the benefits: His goal here seems not to further readers’ comprehension of facts about controversial medical procedures, but to alert them to danger areas and to encourage them to seek out second and third opinions. Without some knowledge of the medical decision-making process, however, patients might well be persuaded by the force, rather than the reason and judgment, of these second and third opinions.
Horowitz’s calls for radical reform are bold and sensible: He writes, for example, that medical licenses, now renewed on the basis of spending a minimum number of hours in a classroom, should be based on exams that test knowledge and competence. In the interim, however, many readers might be troubled by his advice to seek out the best doctors and hospitals--"If you are seriously ill . . . who treats you and where you are treated can be more important to your survival than what you have"--because insurance limitations make many of these doctors and hospitals prohibitively expensive even for upper middle class Americans. “Taking Charge of Your Medical Fate” is still a remarkable book, though, because of Horowitz’s clear and informed writing, his unusual ability to help patients better express their needs to doctors, and his jarring warning: “Walking through a doctor’s door without taking charge of the selection process is playing Russian roulette with your health.”
JFK FOR BEGINNERS
by Errol Selkirk, illustrated by Naomi Rosenblatt (Perigree: $7.95) Since 1974, the “For Beginners” series has tried to break the exclusive hold that “high culture” books and journals have had on serious social and scientific ideas by showing how theories spring out of the life experience of the theorist and the social and intellectual climate of the day. The series has been a success, selling a million books since the mid-1970s and presenting a range of ideas without trivialization. While some illustrations in these pages lack the wit and bite of previous installments, this well-balanced work lives up to the series’ standards, criticizing Kennedy for “allowing himself to be sold to the voters like a new brand of soft drink” but affirming his greatness as an inspirational leader.