Posts Tagged nonfiction

Nonfiction Friday Returns with Charles Leerhsen’s “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty”

It’s Nonfiction Friday at SBR! So I thought I’d take a look at the most recent biography of Ty Cobb by author and baseball historian Charles Leerhsen.

Why does Cobb continue to fascinate me so? Well, for decades, Ty Cobb has been drawn as a foul-mouthed, brawling racist. This is largely because of Al Stump’s now-controversial “autobiography” of Cobb (Stump ghost-wrote it), and partly because of the movie Cobb featuring Tommy Lee Jones as the virulently racist title character.

Ty Cobb.09cYet Leerhsen, in TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty, has drawn a picture of a much different man. Someone difficult to know, but interesting to read about — a man of his times, but also a man of learning, and quite possibly baseball’s first superstar.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb was not always an easy man to get along with. He appears at this remove to have been somewhat thin-skinned, someone who, as Leerhsen says, names “could always harm.” He played a tough brand of baseball during a tough era, where guys often had fistfights to settle bets, then shook hands and became friends again.

Cobb wasn’t always a gentleman on the field, no. But Leerhsen’s exhaustive scholarship proves that Cobb was not a racist.

Instead, Cobb is famous for saying that “The Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly.” And Cobb put it on the record that he enjoyed watching Roy Campanella and Willie Mays play, among other black baseball greats, something I’d never read before I’d picked up Leerhsen’s new biography (but was able to independently verify afterward).

How in the world did Cobb’s legacy get so distorted?

Leerhsen believes Stump needed money, and portraits of monsters sell better than balanced portraits of tough-but-fair baseball players. And since there’s almost no film of Cobb’s play — very few still pictures exist, and most of Cobb’s efforts predate radio broadcasts as well — Leerhsen seems to think Stump must’ve figured it would be easy to make up anything Stump liked and call it “history.”

Yet it wasn’t the truth, and Leerhsen explains why.

You see, just because there isn’t much in the way of radio coverage or pictures or film, there were valid accounts of Cobb’s play to be had in various newspaper archives. Stump apparently couldn’t be bothered to study them, as that would’ve likely messed up his narrative framing something fierce, but Leerhsen made a comprehensive study of them. And what he found led him to the belief that Cobb had been badly maligned by both Al Stump and the movie Cobb, all because Cobb played during that twilight “dead ball” early-1900s era.

Leerhsen viewed Ty Cobb as the perfect ballplayer for that time. Cobb had a take-no-prisoners, hard-nosed attitude, and desperately wanted to win. But he did not sharpen his spikes; he did not set out to intentionally hurt anyone; he did not go out of his way to cause trouble.

All of those latter things were either made up or distorted out of proportion to the actual events by previous biographers, most notoriously Al Stump.

Granted, for modern readers, it can be challenging to read about Cobb’s encounters with a disabled heckler. This particular heckler was causing trouble for Cobb and several other players, by the newspaper accounts Leerhsen dug up. But most of his fingers were missing, so the contemporary reader has to wonder why Cobb just didn’t leave the guy alone after hitting him once.

(That is, if the guy even needed to be hit.)

Perhaps it needs to be said just why Cobb did this (according to Leerhsen). At the time, players were not protected at all from unruly fans. Fans had actually hurt players and umpires before, after, and sometimes even during games, and no one was doing anything about it.

You have to realize this before you can understand just what might’ve been going through Cobb’s mind as he methodically beat up this disabled fan.

The picture I gained of Cobb after reading TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty was that of a difficult, prickly man who could be quick to anger. But he had depth, and quite probably charm. He loved to read, particularly biographies of Napoleon and Les Miserables. As you’d expect from one of baseball’s all-time best hitters, Cobb had exhaustive baseball knowledge. And he loved making the other team nervous.

Ultimately, Cobb was someone fans loved to see. They never quite knew what they were going to get from Cobb — but they knew it might be something great.

Ty Cobb the man was a far different person than the monster Al Stump drew him to be. While hardly a saint, Cobb was a brilliant ballplayer and a smart, well-read man.

Bottom line? Prepare to have your assumptions challenged, because Charles Leerhsen conclusively proves that Ty Cobb the man was far different from Cobb, the movie, or Al Stump’s writing made Cobb out to be.

Grade: A

–reviewed by Barb

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Nonfiction Friday Returns with “Push Dick’s Button”

After a few weeks’ worth of nasty illness, I have returned in time for Nonfiction Friday. (And the crowd goes wild!)

Push Dick's Button: A Conversation on Skating from a Good Part of the Last Century--And a Little TomfooleryPUSH DICK’S BUTTON is the first nonfiction effort by long-time figure skating commentator Dick Button. Button knows figure skating down to the ground, as he’s a two-time Olympic gold medal winner (1948 and 1952) and has won an Emmy for his television commentary on figure skating — which, if you haven’t heard it, can be pungent. (Think of him as the figure skating answer to Jim Rome, long before Jim Rome sat before a mike — but with far more authenticity as Button, unlike Rome and Howard Cosell before him, actually “played the game.”) So opening up the pages of PUSH DICK’S BUTTON, I knew I’d be in for an entertaining experience.

That said, I hadn’t expected Button’s conversational approach — the subtitle “A Conversation on Skating from a Good Part of the Last Century — and a Little Tomfoolery” notwithstanding.

But maybe I should have. Button’s always been at his best in conversation, as his wit, knowledge, repartee, and yes, even cattiness come into their sharpest relief. So taking a conversational approach with regards to the current state of figure skating was actually a very smart move.

Note that you do not need to be a long-time figure skating aficionado to enjoy PUSH DICK’S BUTTON, as Button goes into much detail about why he loves figure skating. Button’s explanations are worded in such a way that people who know very little about figure skating should be able to get the gist of what he’s talking about. (For example, Button believes that figure skating combines the best of dance, performance art, and athleticism in order to tell a compelling story. Anyone who’s seen Torvill and Dean’s “Bolero” should know that…and if you haven’t seen Torvill and Dean’s performance yet, go look it up on YouTube. You’ll enjoy it, even if you know nothing whatsoever about figure skating.)

Within the pages of PUSH DICK’S BUTTON, I observed a number of things, including:

  1. Button detests the current figure skating scoring system. He views it as inherently flawed at best, and outright obfuscational at worst. (Quick note: your correspondent shares that belief, and has since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics — if not before. Johnny Weir was robbed.)
  2. Button despises Ottavio Cinquanta, who currently is the President of the International Skating Union and sits on the board of the International Olympic Committee. Button lays much of the blame of the current scoring system at Cinquanta’s feet, and believes much of the reason viewers have turned away from figure skating is because of Cinquanta’s meddling.
  3. Button does not think much of the current state of figure skating, either, mostly because athleticism (quadruple-rotation jumps, or simply “quads”) has been more greatly rewarded than artistry in recent years. (‘Nuff said.)

Now, if you are a long-time watcher of figure skating, none of this is likely to come as a surprise to you. But it’s still quite interesting to read. Button, while much gentler in print than he often was as a TV commentator, continues to pull no punches when it comes to his opinions. They are informed, sometimes edgy, but always delivered with a wry wit and charm that was positively disarming…and I enjoyed it immensely.

The only drawback I found is that Button was a bit cagey when it came to his personal life. He mentions his traumatic brain injury, his sons, his love of dogs and gardening and much, much more — but he never discusses his ex-wife, figure skating coach Slavka Kohout Button (Janet Lynn’s coach). And that is a rather curious omission.

There are a few minor issues as well when it comes to editing and organization, and one or two minor things when it comes to factual references (did Button really think Michelle Kwan’s “Scheherezade” was great, or was he referring to “Salome” instead, as is much more likely? Or did he like them both, but conflate them?) But the book, overall, is a solid effort and a very enjoyable one at that.

Bottom line? PUSH DICK’S BUTTON is a fast, fun read with many laugh-out-loud moments. If you love figure skating, figure skating commentary, or just want to know a little more about Dick Button, this book is for you.

Grade: A-minus

–reviewed by Barb

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Nonfiction Friday: “Unbroken Circles for Schools” by Ken Johnson

Apologies for being away so long from Shiny Book Review, folks. To partially compensate for that, I’m starting a new category for reviews called “Nonfiction Friday.” Expect there to be more nonfiction reviews on Friday in the not-so-distant future.

Tonight’s review subject is Ken Johnson’s UNBROKEN CIRCLES FOR SCHOOLS: Restoring Schools, One Conflict at a Time. This may sound like an unenticing title, but Mr. Johnson’s book is among the most thought-provoking works I’ve ever read because of his premise. Simply put: the criminal justice system, along with our public school system, is doing juvenile offenders wrong.

Why? Well, Mr. Johnson’s background is in conflict resolution, and over time, he’s noticed that when an offender — particularly a juvenile offender — is punished, the offender doesn’t usually learn anything except how to re-offend. This is because most of our current justice system is set up for something called “retributive justice,” which means if someone does something awful, he or she is going to pay for it. But that’s not enough to help the offender figure out how to repay the person who’s been harmed, nor does it do much to help the offender figure out how to be a better person in order to never, but never, do the same things that landed him or her in jail in the first place.

In other words, the need for our criminal justice system is to change the paradigm entirely. We must stop throwing our youngsters away like garbage, and at least try to teach them how to do better rather than simply punish them.

But Mr. Johnson explains this concept far better than I. From p. 108:

An America Journalist, Mignon McLaughlin (1913-1983) once said that, “True remorse is never just regret over consequence; it is regret over motive.” In other words, true justice means that the punishment must fit the motive rather than just the crime. However, such beliefs, for well over 200 years of American history, have been lost on lawmakers and criminal justice officials. The belief of social retribution is the prominent paradigm of choice. Social retribution occurs when offenders are punished for being deviants, miscreants, and other terms used to socially stigmatize offenders…According to Steven Dellaportas, a writer and lecturer on white-collar crimes, recidivism is one indicator of the failure of a system to meet demands. (Bolded section by BC.)

Restorative justice is different from retributive justice. For one, restorative justice tries to make the victim as whole as possible in addition to punishing the offender. And for juvenile offenders, this is extremely important; as Mr. Johnson says, young people who’ve committed crimes (especially minor ones), but are willing to reform, cannot afford to be stigmatized as their whole lives are ahead of them. Becoming an empathetic person who cares about others is part of the restorative justice process, but teaching the juvenile offenders to make better choices and not to re-offend is the second part.

That’s where the schools come in.

Johnson says the Unbroken Circles (SM) program differs from traditional, retributive-based justice for juveniles in this way (from p. 6):

The Unbroken Circles (SM) program is intended to unify schools, build character, espouse good citizenship, improve grades in low performers with a history of disciplinary issues, and reduce recidivism rates. The skills and lessons espoused by this program give the students the tools they need to diffuse problems both at school and at home.

The program covers a wide array of tactics and methods that run the gamut from simple daily class circles, to peer mediation, conferences, and other forms of Circle Justice. The plan slices through every aspect of a child’s life, whether in the classroom, on the playground, on school grounds, or even in the juvenile justice courts. A community of care is created. This is a veritable unbroken circle that will hold the offender accountable and seek for the child to make things right when wrongs have been committed.

But what does this mean, boiled down to brass tacks?

Simply put, if you use the Unbroken Circles for Schools (SM) method, everyone plays a part in helping the juvenile offender learn how to become a better person. It’s something like the old “it takes a village to raise a child” idea, but it has more teeth in it despite being an outwardly gentle process. Here’s how Mr. Johnson explains a morning circle (from p. 124):

Morning sessions are a great way to build the Community of Care (class) while also relieving stress, learning communication skills, and collectively collaborating on meaningful ways to solve various issues and problems. Usually, the Circle Keeper (i.e., school resource officer, teacher, and aide) gathers the students in a circle and has the students go around the circle saying one nice thing about the person to the left of them. Once the student has said the one nice thing, he/she cannot use that comment ever again in the circle sessions to refer to that same person. By doing such, the students are forced to engage each other and learn more about the members of their own Community of Care. From there, the Circle Keeper may ask questions about how the students are feeling, what happened to them over the weekend, what is happening in their lives this week, or other questions.

Note what Mr. Johnson said about being “forced to engage each other.” This is the important, core concept, because it gets the juveniles out of their own heads. They must learn about one another, and in that learning, they most likely will grow to care about at least some of their fellow classmates.

Midday circles and end-of-the-day circles are intended to defuse any issues that have cropped up during the day, then set up the student for the next day’s learning process. As Mr. Johnson says, “The goal of the end of day circle sessions is to solve problems that have happened, thwart problems before they occur (i.e., a fight after school), relieve tension, and afford students an opportunity to engage in community building.” And he asserts that while using even one of these three circles a day will help, using all three will be incredibly beneficial.

The circles, you see, are intended to work with whatever the kids are learning about. If it’s Japanese proverbs, the starting point of the circle may be to talk about that. If it’s a test day, the starting point may be something having to do with stress relief, as nearly every student feels overstressed on a testing day. And by tying in the circles with the learning, that makes it possible for juveniles to better focus themselves and defuse their anger.

Best of all, Unbroken Circles (SM) works to help all students. It is cost-effective, is proven, and the system works.

Bottom line? UNBROKEN CIRCLES FOR SCHOOLS, despite its simple title, is one of the most important and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read on any subject. More nonfiction books should be like this.

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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Interview — Stephanie Osborn

One of the good things we at SBR are able to do from time to time is to interview writers, editors and/or publishers (well, so far we haven’t had one, but the year is young). Today’s chosen victim — er, writer and editor, is the acclaimed Stephanie Osborn, author and rocket scientist, who consented to doing one of the most wide-ranging interviews we’ve ever had. Three of her novels in her “Displaced Detectives” series have been reviewed at SBR (here and here), while her nonfiction work with scientist and author Travis S. Taylor, A New American Space Plan, is reviewed here.

SBR: Ms. Osborn, thanks for coming to visit with us today.

Stephanie Osborn: Thank you for asking me!

SBR: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Stephanie Osborn: You know, I didn’t want to be a writer in my youth; I wanted to be a scientist and work in the space program. I’m not sure when I first decided to become an author. I had some notions about a possible novel franchise after the very first Men In Black movie, which I adored, and my husband Darrell encouraged me to pursue it. That’s when I discovered there were many books in me. But of course, the rights were all tied up, and the only publisher with the rights didn’t take unagented submissions, and being yet-unpublished, I couldn’t get an agent at that point. However, somewhere in there is when I realized I could do this, and that I liked it and wanted to do it.

SBR: Your most popular solo series is possibly the Displaced Detective series, which brings Sherlock Holmes into the modern day, where he solves crimes with the able assistance of hyperspatial physicist Skye Chadwick. How did you come up with the idea to meld both mystery and science fiction in this way?

Stephanie Osborn: Wow. You know, I really don’t know. I had gotten back into a spate of reading everything Sherlock Holmes I could get my hands on ― I’ve done that periodically since childhood, when I discovered Holmes ― but there wasn’t a book out there that was quite what I was looking for. So I decided to write it. I deliberately set out to do something different, to expand the range of what the Great Detective could do, and I think I succeeded rather nicely.

SBR: What’s so attractive about Sherlock Holmes, and what’s the key to Arthur Conan Doyle’s enduring appeal?

Stephanie Osborn: I really don’t know about Sir Arthur. That might sound kind of snarky or arrogant and I don’t mean it like that at all: I just don’t like to analyze an author’s work to the level that it would take to answer that question, because literary analysis always took the magic out of the book, to me. For whatever it’s worth, I think it has to do with his ability to generate these fascinating and unusual characters.

But Holmes was the first in what became a long line of characters like him ― though there were mystery and detective stories before him, he started the detective genre as we know it, AND he has a certain cachet due to his intelligence. I like to say that he had Spock Syndrome before there was a Mr. Spock to name it after.

SBR: Skye Chadwick, the heroine in the DD series, is a hyperspatial physicist.  Explain how you came up with her character.

Stephanie Osborn: Well, that’s pretty simple. I wanted to give Holmes a female to interact with, someone to actually work cases with. After all, this is the 21st Century, and, well, equality, you know. But I recognized right off the bat that she would really have to BE his equal or he wouldn’t bother with her. Then I realized that if she was the scientist responsible for developing the project that brought him over from his home universe, she’d have to be bloody brilliant from the get-go, and he couldn’t possibly gainsay the fact. And the character formed from those beginnings.

SBR: What are books five and six in the Displaced Detective series going to be about?  And what’s their ETA?

Stephanie Osborn: Book five is titled, A Case of Spontaneous Combustion. It starts out with a tiny village in England being wiped out – every living thing in it killed – by a phenomenon that appears to be a case of mass spontaneous combustion, but turns out to be something very different. Holmes is called in to investigate – without Skye – and hijinks ensue. I got the contract for it a couple weeks back. It should come out sometime in the Spring of 2014.

Book six is something that has been banging around in my head for awhile now, and this past weekend it congealed. I wanted to do a supernatural-based Displaced Detective story, something about a haunted something-or-other that Skye and Sherlock end up investigating, but I’d been going to set it in a European castle, either in the UK or on the continent. Well, I’d just been to CONtraflow science fiction convention in New Orleans, Louisiana! Wonderful, young convention, growing fast, lots of fun. Just as much fun, though, was going to the French Quarter and exploring. NOLA has the reputation of being the most-haunted city in the world, and it turned out to be perfect for that book concept. Scenes started coming to me as soon as we started walking around! I started writing it the next day, during the convention! It wouldn’t wait! It’s going to be called Fear in the French Quarter.

What was to have been Book six, now Book seven, is in work also. I call it A Little Matter of Earthquakes. Suffice to say that seismic activity is heating up in the Pacific Northwest, in a fashion that is not normal. When one of Skye’s friends is killed in a phreatic eruption of a Cascade volcano, she and Holmes go to the funeral and discover the abnormality. Skye’s curiosity gets the better of her, and soon they find that there’s about to be a very VERY large, not so natural disaster unless they can stop what’s happening. I have to finish six & seven before I can get any idea of a time frame for when they might appear in print. But it shouldn’t be long for either, I don’t think.

Book eight is actually finished, but it requires five & seven (and maybe six) to help it make sense. (Yes, I wrote ‘em out of sequence.) It’s called The Adventure of Shining Mountain Lodge. Rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park find an illegal immigrant in the middle of nowhere, in January, and he’s dying…of radiation exposure. His clothing is filthy with radioactive dirt. The FBI and the CIA are contacted, and the CIA believes it may have to do with rumors of a possible dirty nuke. Sherlock and Skye are called into the investigation, and they have to find out what’s going on and stop it before the rumors become reality.

I’ve been accused of giving my books jawbreaker, long titles. But that’s only for the Displaced Detective series; there, I’m trying to evoke the names of the adventures that Sir Arthur recorded: The Sign of Four; The Valley of Fear; A Study in Scarlet; The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Final Problem; The Adventure of the Empty House, etc. Other books, not so much. The Fetish, Burnout, The Y Factor, stuff like that. Granted, Burnout has a subtitle that renders it kind of lengthy, but the publisher felt it was needed.

SBR: Speaking of Burnout, what drove you to write that novel?

Stephanie Osborn: Burnout: The mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281 was my first novel. It’s a science fiction mystery about a space shuttle disaster that turned out NOT to have been an accident, and the ensuing investigation and cover-up. Its tag line is, “How do you react when you discover that the next Shuttle disaster has happened…right on schedule?”

It started off years ago when I was a payload flight controller for Shuttle Spacelab missions. A bunch of us were discussing what to do in the event of a “catastrophic malfunction,” and how we might be able to get the bird and its crew down intact. I went off still thinking, and eventually realized that, if said “malfunction” was in fact no accident, it might make for a good book. It made Amazon’s Top 25 Overall list, and Fictionwise’s top 25 science fiction, when it was released, so I guess other people thought so too.

The scary, distressing part for me was that in the process of writing the novel, and doing all the research to get it right, I pretty much predicted what ended up happening to shuttle Columbia on her final flight ― and she had a friend of mine aboard. Oh, I’m not saying that Columbia was anything other than pure, awful luck of the draw. But the overall scenario of re-entry, loss of thermal integrity, loss of aerodynamic stability, breakup…I got the orbital inclination, incoming trajectory, even the overflown states and debris field, all correct according to what really happened to Columbia. I…was not best pleased. My writing mentor had to talk me out of trashing the manuscript. I ended up dedicating the book to the Columbia crew.

SBR: Did your scientific background help you with Burnout? (Sometimes, here at SBR, even we must state the obvious. Apologies in advance.)

Stephanie Osborn: Oh, I couldn’t have written it without my science background, AND my experience working Shuttle program. I had to lay out a scenario that made sense on several levels, and that proved very complicated.

SBR: You’ve said that Burnout is in some senses the most personal novel you’ve ever written.  Can you explain that?

Stephanie Osborn: Well, there was the Columbia connection, which was personal enough in that I lost a friend, Kalpana Chawla, and I lost the bird I worked with the most.

But the two main characters of that book are special to me. It’s kind of funny, really; I’ve been “accused” on numerous occasions of making Skye Chadwick, from the Displaced Detective series, my own personal “Mary Sue” ― meaning she’s supposedly a fictional version of me. Truthfully? She’s no more me than Holmes is; every character I write has some facet of me in it, or I couldn’t relate to the character well enough to write it. I’ve written a couple of books with strong female leads in them, and somebody always wants to make ‘em out to be my Mary Sue(s), especially if they have any sort of a science background. But Crash Murphy and Mike Anders, the protagonists in Burnout? Well, they’re different. If you combined them into one person and flipped the gender, it really WOULD be me. Astronomer and Shuttle flight controller, rolled into one. I’m fond of those characters. But nobody ever accuses me of making THEM Mary Sues. I guess it’s because they’re male.

SBR: Let’s talk about another series you’ve worked on where you’ve never once been accused of writing a “Mary Sue” character, the Cresperian Saga. What’s that about?

Stephanie Osborn: The Cresperian Saga is a series of books by several authors, about Earth’s first contact with extraterrestrials when their starship wrecks in our solar system. A few of the lifepods make it to Earth, but most of the crew (and it was a small city) dies in the disaster. Said alien lifepods land scattered around our planet, and the beings within use their shapeshifting abilities to try to blend into the general population.

The first book, Human By Choice, was co-authored by Travis S. Taylor (my writing mentor) and Darrell Bain. When it came time for book two, Travis and his wife were expecting their second child and he was snowed, so he bowed out. Lida Quillen, publisher of Twilight Times Books, tapped me to step in, so The Y Factor was written by Darrell Bain and myself, with Bain taking the lead. But Bain is up in years, and his memory isn’t what it once was; this series has a huge cast of characters over the entire story arc, and he didn’t like having to keep up with them all. I thought he was doing fine, but I suspect what it amounted to was that he just didn’t like keeping up with ‘em. I can understand that. So for book three, The Cresperian Alliance, I took the lead. I’m currently working on book four, Heritage. Hoping to get it out in the next six months or so. But it’s harder than my usual writing, because the concept wasn’t mine to begin with.

SBR: The Cresperian Saga sounds fun to read, but as you just said, it sounds extremely difficult to write as it wasn’t your original concept. What interests you so much about this series, and what makes it different from other “aliens versus humans” movies and books?

Stephanie Osborn: The concept of discovering an alien race when THEY crash into YOU, because they don’t know you’re there, is kind of different. And the problems that the aliens have with our form, our cultures, were to my knowledge unique.

SBR: How challenging was it to come into this series in Book Two, and how did that process work between you and Darrell Bain?

Stephanie Osborn: It was difficult at times, and fun at others. First and foremost was getting familiar with that world, that universe, and coming up to speed with the fictional tech. I respect Mr. Bain greatly; he’s a popular e-book writer, and I learned from him. But we have different philosophies, and sometimes we disagreed about what should be in the manuscript. Still and all, we’re both professionals, and we discussed and went back and forth, and what resulted was, if I do say so, a pretty darn good couple books.

SBR: You’ve also written some shorter works. One of them, Starsong, is meant for children. What sort of things did you do differently while writing this story, if anything?

Stephanie Osborn: My only change from the usual is in keeping in mind that it is a children’s book, and as such I have to be careful about: 1) the language used (both the basic,” not having characters cursing,” and vocabulary, choosing words that wouldn’t be over the heads of the readers) and 2) making the themes appropriate. I wrote it because my parents wanted me to write a book that my nephew (then in elementary school) could read. By the time it made it to print, he was in late junior high school and too old for it. Oh well.

SBR: How did you think up the mythos behind Starsong?

Stephanie Osborn: The same way I do all my stories…it just sort of comes to me. It’s a blend of Tolkienesque and Native American voices, when you get down to it.

SBR: Since Starsong is a bit of a departure for you, being fantasy and intended for children, how has it been received?

Stephanie Osborn: It’s been received very well, but has yet to find a large audience, unfortunately.

SBR: Another of your shorter works is The Fetish, a story from the Burnout universe. What brought that particular story to mind?

Stephanie Osborn: In Burnout, Dr. Mike Anders rather impulsively buys a lapis fetish necklace at a trading post on an Indian reservation during their efforts to get to Las Vegas undetected. The Fetish is the story of how that necklace came to be. It was an EPIC Award Finalist in the short category.

SBR: Tell me about your typical writing routine.  When you’re coming up with a plot, how do you get everything to all come together in your head so you can write about it?

Stephanie Osborn: I spend a lot of time staring into space and daydreaming. Seriously. People watching me would think I was goofing off. But there are certain things I have to have in hand before I can start writing, or anything I set down is rambling gibberish.

I have to know my protagonist(s) AND I have to have the antagonist(s). The antagonist does not have to be human, or even a sentient being. Sometimes a force of nature is the best bad guy around. But I have to know who or what it is. And I have to have the names of the principal characters.

I have to have an idea about what the general problem is ― that is to say, what is the source of the drama, the conflict? Is there more than one conflict?

Once I get these things, once they come to me, then I will daydream a scene, whatever grabs me most about the conflict. It’s almost always a climax of some sort, possibly even the main climax of the book. And once I have that, then I can start writing. And it takes however long it takes. I can push it to some extent but I have to have those things, or it’s pointless to write. Better to go off and work on something I’ve already started. John Ringo is a friend of mine, and he calls this process “ideating,” or, “to ideate,” pronounced, “eye-dee-ate.” Sometimes brainstorming, either with my husband or another writer, can help this process along, and John and I have ideated together once or twice.

Now, if I AM writing on an existing manuscript, I will start the day’s work by going back to where I started writing the day before, or maybe a bit earlier. I will read through it, making sure it flows with what came before, and editing it for clarity, continuity, smoothness of wording, grammar, and the like. When I’ve read all the way through what I wrote the day before, I’ve effectively gotten into the flow, and I start in with writing the new material.

SBR: As you’re also an editor, can you discuss some of the books you have edited, at least so far as the types of books you’ve edited?  What interests you about editing, and how is it different from writing?

Stephanie Osborn: Mostly science fiction of various types. Several were YA books. I’ve edited a number of books for my main publisher, Twilight Times Books, and a few more as a free-lance editor. I don’t think my publisher would want me to reveal which books I edited, but one of the free-lance jobs was just plain fun. Half the time I wasn’t sure if I was editing or just reading! The Flux Engine by Dan Willis is YA alt-history steampunk; it was a great book and I loved working on it. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

SBR: Let’s switch gears. You’re a well-known advocate for literacy.  Tell me why this is so important to you.

Stephanie Osborn: I have always been a voracious, omnivorous reader. I cannot imagine my life without it. Reading is, and will be for the future of our culture, the primary means of communication of ideas and concepts and data between people. Without the ability to read and write, our civilization as we know it would collapse.

Unfortunately not only is illiteracy on the rise in our country, disinterest in reading is rampant among our young people. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have seen teens and twenties at science fiction and fantasy conventions walk by book dealers with noses upturned. I have had teens walk up to my table, scan my books with utter indifference ― or even contempt ― then pick up a business card and ask me to autograph it. If it isn’t a film or a game, they’re just not interested. After I left the space program, I used to do some tutoring, to get me out of the house mostly, and was shocked at seeing the same attitude toward great literature. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude I have encountered again and again.

How are we to continue our society, our culture, if the next generation doesn’t READ?! How do we communicate the most important concepts of our world? How do we teach them what works and what doesn’t? It isn’t possible to cram it all into a movie, into a game. The concepts of freedom, the lessons of life, good versus evil…this is the stuff of drama, of the great and less great literature. But they won’t read it, and in some cases, can’t.

There’s an old saying: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Trite, but true nonetheless. And it applies here doubly ― historically, societies whose literacy broke down tended to collapse shortly thereafter; and how can the kids learn history if they can’t or won’t read about it?

If this trend continues, I shudder for our people.

SBR: You’re also a well-known advocate regarding treatment for panic attacks and/or anxiety disorder. This is a disease that’s become more prominent lately, partly due to the efforts of NFL Hall of Famer Earl Campbell. What is it, why is it important to you, and what do you think should be done about it?

Stephanie Osborn: Panic attacks are horrible. They can feel like you’re having a heart attack or like you’re going to faint, and sometimes you wish you would. Faint, that is. Because then you’d be unconscious and not suffering through it. You’re scared, your heart pounds, you can’t breathe fast enough, your whole body either flushes or the blood drains away into the vital organs and you get light-headed. It can be pure, abject terror. And it can happen for no reason that you can see.

The tendency to have these attacks on a regular or frequent basis is known as anxiety disorder. There are different categories, depending on severity, acuteness of attack, and to some extent, cause of the attack, because it can have many causes.

Causes can range from things like PTSD; to problems in the brain’s amygdalae, which processes fear; to problems in utilizing neurotransmitters, particularly GABA, but also including serotonin. It isn’t fun, and the sufferer isn’t always able to control it.

As it turns out, I have anxiety disorder. It trends in my family, and I have had it off and on since I was a child. It comes and goes, and I can go for long periods of time, even years, decades, with no problems. Then something may happen to stress me ― an event, or an illness, or the like ― and it will come back and hammer me. I’ve had counseling for it and have learned various relaxation techniques, which help. But if a full-on panic attack jumps me unexpectedly, those techniques don’t work too well because they require me to concentrate on the technique, and if you’re panicked, you aren’t going to think too well. So I try very hard to catch it on the upswing by recognizing the symptoms and working to relax. I also have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), where the nerve network in the gut is exceptionally sensitive, and it’s tied into the anxiety disorder: an IBS attack can trigger an anxiety attack, and vice versa. In general, nobody but my family knows I have it, at least to see it happening. I don’t necessarily announce it to the world. But I don’t make a secret of it, either.

Interestingly, it is never DURING an acute, stressful situation that the panic or anxiety hits. If I’m in the middle of an emergency, I will work through the emergency and do whatever is required to get through the situation safely. After it’s over, I may go into a corner and hyperventilate for a few minutes! During that post-emergency time, I’m apt to shake like the proverbial aspen leaf, and all I want is to be quiet and try to relax. I may or may not have a full-blown panic attack. Having a trusted friend or family member nearby is usually soothing, if I do. And I may have recurrences of that, off and on for a few weeks, if something happens to remind me of the emergency.

I want to emphasize: it isn’t dangerous, for the person experiencing the panic or anyone around him. We won’t go ballistic or postal; we aren’t scary crazy people. In general we aren’t confrontational, because confrontation produces stress, and stress will bring on the anxiety. We’re far more apt to want to retreat to the bedroom and just be very quiet. And we aren’t having a heart attack or the like, though it can seem like it sometimes. In so far as I can tell, the very fact that you have anxiety attacks seems to be an indication of a strong circulatory system. I suppose it stands to reason. If it weren’t for the fear it creates, fear that can last for days, weeks, or even months, it probably wouldn’t even be worth a note in the medical books.

But if you know someone who has anxiety disorder, the best thing you can do, if you see him or her in a panic attack, is to take the person aside into a quiet, low-stimulus environment, and help ‘em settle down. Just a couple words to let ‘em know you’re there, you get what’s happening, and you’re there to help. Maybe holding a hand gently, or laying a hand on a shoulder. Don’t babble. In fact, other than the initial, “It’s OK. I’m here, and I get what’s going on,” you don’t really have to talk (unless the victim wants you to talk to help get his/her mind off the panic, in which case, keep the conversation light and away from the focus of the problem). The person experiencing the anxiety needs as little stimulus as possible, and needs to be able to focus on relaxation techniques. (Slow, steady breathing, in various cadences, is the best that I’ve found. If the person is having trouble, offer to count softly: “In… two… three… four… Out… two… three… four.”) When the patient begins to talk again, s/he is starting to relax. You can chat then, but keep your voice down and in a soothing pitch until the person is obviously relaxed again.

SBR: Getting back to your writing career, what sorts of awards have you been nominated for? (Not that this is the be-all and end-all, of course.)

Stephanie Osborn: I have been an EPIC Finalist twice, once for The Y Factor with Darrell Bain, and once for The Fetish. I have also been a finalist for a few other awards, not so prestigious. My experiences with awards have not been good in general — you generally have to pay a fee (the smallest I’ve encountered is $50) for every category you enter, and the final results tend, in my estimation, to be…unusual at best, questionable at worst. Like the time L. Ron Hubbard won a category for a book he wrote…over a decade after his demise. I’m proud of the EPIC finalists, and I consider that award an excellent one; I stay away from most others, these days.

SBR: Two interesting things have happened recently regarding your Displaced Detective series, as an omnibus edition has been released by your publisher, Twilight Times Books, and more interestingly yet, The Displaced Detective Suite, an album put together by composer Dan Hollifield, has also been released. How did these two things happen?

Stephanie Osborn: I couldn’t tell you how The Case of the Displaced Detective Omnibus came to be! That was a complete surprise from my publisher! I was on travel and when I got home she emailed me to surprise me with it. I’m very, VERY pleased, because this is the first omnibus that Twilight Times Books has ever produced, and I’m thrilled that it’s mine.

As for The Displaced Detective Suite**, it is a duly licensed “derivative” work, available in CD and mp3 download, from Amazon (CD), CreateSpace (CD), and Bandcamp (download). Bandcamp also has a lovely bonus track that comes with the album, but didn’t fit on the CD. The album itself is a blend of instrumental and electronica, and could readily be a film score. Each piece causes me to think of the scene(s) that inspired it, and they play out in my mind’s eye as the music plays.

How did it come to be? Well, I’ve known Dan Hollifield for some years; he’s a very talented man. He’s also a fan, particularly of my Displaced Detective series, and one day he presented a song to me on Facebook. It was a solo violin with background instrumentals, what later became the track called, “Meditations of a Displaced Detective,” and I immediately fell in love with it. It evoked a mental image for me of Holmes, yanked from his original life and plopped into the modern world, knowing no one, wondering how he was going to fit in, to make a life for himself. I could “hear” it as either what he would have played during that time if he’d had access to a violin, or what a movie director would use as the theme for that part of the story. I raved over it to Dan, and one thing led to another, and suddenly he was working on more music. Next thing I knew, we had a licensing agreement in place, and he was nearing completion on an album. I’m absolutely blown away by the music.

Since my husband is a graphics artist and does most of my cover art (as well as many other TTB books, and several other publishers too), Dan and I approached him for the album artwork. He agreed, and that was the last thing we needed. The day I got my own copy of the CD, I danced around the house before I even opened it!

SBR: (Not sure what to say to this, though admittedly we’d be tempted to do the same thing in your place.) Thanks again for this wide-ranging, comprehensive interview, Ms. Osborn.

Stephanie Osborn: Thank you most kindly for having me, and especially for allowing me to ramble!

SBR: Our pleasure.


** Note: SBR will feature in coming weeks our first-ever music review, the subject of which being Dan Hollifield’s Displaced Detective Suite.  Stay tuned.

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Dorothy Ours’ “Battleship” is Excellent, Moving

Dorothy Ours’ nonfiction epic BATTLESHIP: A Daring Heiress, A Teenage Jockey and America’s Horse is about the 1930s-era Grand National champion horse Battleship, son of the legendary Man o’War.  But before you can discuss eleven-year-old Battleship’s epic win at the British Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree, you need first to look at Battleship’s owner — Marion du Pont Scott — to see first why she believed in Battleship at all.

Marion du Pont was mad for horses from a very early age.  Her brother loved horses, too, but her brother was allowed to sit on the du Pont corporation’s Board of Directors, while Marion (despite all her business acumen) was not due to her gender.  Marion was a trailblazer in the horse racing industry for a number of reasons, partly because she trained many of her horses herself early on, and partly because she was an award-winning rider at a time very few women were active in the horse racing industry.  Marion mostly rode astride, too, rather than sidesaddle, as she found it just wasn’t possible to accurately judge what her horse was able to do any other way.

Now, why did Marion du Pont get away with this?  While her father’s fortune played a significant role in getting Marion’s foot solidly in the door as a judge of horseflesh, Marion’s own knowledge and willingness to learn was what kept her in the game.

Ours depicts Marion’s life with her first husband, Thomas Somerville, her second husband, film star Randolph Scott, and her later years after she divorced Scott, and shows her to be a modern women in just about every respect — a woman ahead of her time, for certain.  Marion was ladylike, yes, and knew how to eat with royalty and all the other clichés told about the very wealthy, but she also keenly enjoyed the business of horse racing.  And because of this, Marion was able to make herself a full-fledged career as an owner and breeder at a time very few women were able to do so.

The one constant in Marion’s life was horses.  She loved them, loved horse racing of all sorts, on “the flats” (Belmont, the Preakness, the Kentucky Derby, etc.) and the steeplechases, including Aintree.  She knew what types of horses were likely to do well at each type of event, and she wasn’t willing to give up on a horse she believed had more potential yet to be shown.  Which is why she bought three important horses — Battleship, Annapolis (also out of Man o’War), and Trouble Maker — and entered them in various races.

Ours’ command of horse racing is formidable, but her researching ability is even better.  Consider, please, that Ours had to go back to various newspaper clippings and whatever stock film footage was available in order to look at Battleship’s epic win — which was well-documented, as Battleship was the first-ever American-born and American-bred horse to win at Aintree.  But she also looked and found a great deal of evidence of Annapolis’s career and the aforementioned Trouble Maker — a big bay gelding with a heart like a wheel and, as Ours depicts him, as game of a horse as may have ever raced.  Trouble Maker won the 1932 Maryland Hunt Cup (the Grand National of American horse racing), and ran at Aintree in 1933 but did not win, instead finishing fifteenth.

In fact, Trouble Maker quite steals the show from Battleship in many respects, as Trouble Maker’s career was obviously what Marion du Pont Scott wanted for Battleship.  Trouble Maker, while not in the United States Horse Racing Hall of Fame like Battleship or Man o’War, was a particularly good horse with a winning personality, a horse that would run all day for you whether he felt well or ill.  And it’s a credit to Ours’ writing that when Trouble Maker takes a particularly hard fall after a jump during his last race, I just couldn’t help wishing he’d get up and finish as he’d done so many times before, even though I knew he was done for.

The teenage jockey who rode Battleship at Aintree was a young man by the name of Bruce Hobbs, who came from a legendary training family and was mad for horses from a particularly young age.  Marion du Pont Scott liked him when she met him, and apparently felt he had steady hands and a very good feel for Battleship, a horse that needed careful handling by someone with steely nerves and an excellent grasp of how Battleship raced (saving something for the finishing kick was essential, as Battleship was definitely a strong finisher).  And as Reg Hobbs, Bruce’s father, had the training of Battleship while Battleship was in England acclimatizing for his try at the Grand National at Aintree, well, Bruce riding Battleship was as close to a done deal as it ever gets in horse racing.

The whole story of the late-blooming Battleship, his owner Marion du Pont Scott, his jockey Bruce Hobbs, and all of the incredibly vibrant people surrounding them — not to mention the incredibly vibrant horse Trouble Maker — is well worth reading.  It’s cinematic in scope, rich in depth and nuance, and absolutely wonderful to behold.

Bottom line?  If you love horse racing, women’s history, history of the 1920s and 1930s, non-fiction epics, or all of the above, you will love BATTLESHIP.  The writing is stellar, the research is excellent, the historicity is outstanding and the command of the large cast of characters is top-notch.

And obviously, if you loved SEABISCUIT or have read Ours’ earlier work MAN O’WAR: A Legend Like Lightning, you will adore BATTLESHIP.  Guaranteed.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Sean B. Carroll’s “Brave Genius” — Albert Camus, Jacques Monod, and their Remarkable Friendship

Brave Genius Sean B. Carroll’s BRAVE GENIUS: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize is  about two Nobel Prize winners — writer and philosopher Albert Camus, and scientist Jacques Monod.   As the title says, these two Nobel Prize winners both fought in the French Resistance — Camus edited the influential underground newspaper Combat at a time when his words and views were desperately needed to hearten spirits, while Monod (known as “Malivert”) was one of the highest-ranking men in France fighting against the corrupt, Nazi-appeasing Vichy government.

The strongest part of BRAVE GENIUS deals with Camus and Monod’s adventures while in the Resistance, when they did not know each other (except perhaps by reputation).  Both men were deeply principled atheists who nevertheless believed that the human spirit contains something extremely important that must not be muzzled. And both had something transcendent to offer the world — Camus in the field of letters and philosophy, while Monod worked with enzymes and simple sugars, trying to figure out why enzymes sometimes did one thing and sometimes did another.  (Being able to isolate why each aspect of an enzyme did what is the main reason Monod and his team eventually won a Nobel Prize.)  But at the time the Vichy government became ascendant in 1940, they both were little known, lightly regarded, and at the very beginning of their careers at absolute best.

Monod himself was a family man; his wife, Odette, was Jewish by heritage but atheist by temperament, yet of course the Nazis didn’t care that Odette wasn’t a practicing Jew.   Monod was in the French military before it disbanded after the Germans overran France in 1940, but continued to fight on as a member of the Resistance precisely because of how fearful he was that his wife and family would be taken, tortured and killed.  He urged his wife to “hide in plain sight” and then did his best to disappear into the Resistance in order to drive the Nazis out of the country.  Later on, he made sure that those appeasers who’d taken part in the provisional government in Vichy never again had any power whatsoever.

Monod’s spirit was great, so of course he was worried about all of France, whether he knew the people personally or not.  But his fight, ultimately, was driven by his personal belief system that the Nazis were utterly corrupt and that they must be driven out again.  Everything else — up to and including his own life, if it came to that — was subordinate to that need.

Camus, of course, was far more profligate than Monod ever was.  Camus in his prime was married and also had three or four lovers on the side.  (This book never does explain what Camus’ wife thought of his lovers, but she must have known about them.  Camus did not believe in dissembling.)  Camus was not well enough due to a past attack of tuberculosis to enlist in the French military in the same way as Monod.  But when the time came, he actively helped to resist the Vichy appeasers and the Nazi overlords, partly because Camus believed that the Nazis were evil — not just wrong, evil — and felt that the Vichy appeasers, who had to know that the Nazis were loathsome, vicious thugs, was somehow worse than most of the Nazis because the Vichys could’ve chosen to resist.

They just didn’t do it.

Anyway, both men made their stands.  Monod took part in various active efforts of the Resistance, helping to round up financing to buy guns, ammunition and other war materiel (such as bombs to blow up railways, a necessity that helped the United States when they landed on Omaha Beach in 1944), while Camus wrote stirring editorials and helped report the real news that the Vichy appeasers and the Nazi overlords wanted to suppress.

Then the War ended, and Camus was able to unveil himself.  The French people were overjoyed with relief, and their pleasure in Camus and his ideas cannot be overestimated.  (Monod’s involvement was not as well-known, and the French mostly overlooked it at the time.  It came to light later after Monod won the Nobel Prize.)  They eagerly went back and bought up The Myth of Sisyphus and The Plague (both published during the Vichy appeasement), then bought everything else Camus ever published.  And they loved Camus’ philosophy, later called “existentialism” (Camus himself never used this term and there’s evidence he actively disliked it), which, roughly stated, goes like this: “Human lives are short and perhaps they don’t matter.  But live like they do.”

This is what made Camus’ reputation — his service in the Resistance — and if it matters, it shows that Malcolm Gladwell was right in OUTLIERS (reviewed here) in that sometimes you have to be the right person at the right time and get the right breaks in order for your ideas to be seen to have worth and value.  You also must persist, mind you — Camus certainly had to persist during the Vichy government, as Camus disagreed profoundly with everything they did and wasn’t shy about saying so, either — but without having all of the right skill set plus being in the right place at the right time, Camus’ ideas might’ve died with him.

Instead, Camus won a Nobel Prize and was considered one of the strongest moral thinkers in the 20th Century.

Jacques Monod’s life was far less dramatic than Camus’, partly because Monod lived longer, partly because Monod was a family man and Camus just wasn’t, and partly because most people just don’t understand what scientists do very well.  What was understood was this — after Camus’ early death in 1960 at age 46 due to a car accident, Monod became the strongest voice French intellectuals had to combat the creeping tide of Communism, the remnants of Fascism, and the problems of pseudo-scientific bunk like Lysenkoism (basically, Lysenko believed that things would happen, genetically, just because Lysenko thought they would, and that’s nonsense, which Monod said far more eloquently than I just did right now).

So in that sense, Monod became Camus’ spiritual heir, which would’ve amused Camus no end as Camus was, of course, an atheist — as was Monod.

Monod also later published what might be the most unlikely bestselling book of all time, CHANCE AND NECESSITY: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology.  This book is a naturalistic look at biology, and discusses how important it is to come at science honestly — without preconceptions, without undue moral bias (not to mean that you should directly proceed to an immoral bias, mind you — just don’t have any biases at all if you can help it), and only that way can we as a species really learn anything worth knowing.

Now, this book isn’t exactly an easy read, even though Monod did tone down his academic jargon quite a bit and the English translator did even more to make things as comprehensible as possible.  Still, this book sold like a house on fire, and was on the bestseller list of more than one country, which just goes to show you the power of ideas can sometimes win out over just about anything, providing that particular idea’s time has come in the first place.

For whatever reason, I kept thinking about Malcolm Gladwell, though, when I read BRAVE GENIUS.  These two men were forged in the fire of the French Resistance, and without that, it’s unlikely their ideas would’ve come to fruition in the same way or perhaps at all.  So without that precipitating event, it’s unlikely either one of them, Monod or Camus, would’ve had a life that people still celebrate today, long after both have gone to dust . . . yet because of that event, and because of their responses to that event, their ideas have stood the test of time.

Overall, BRAVE GENIUS is a very strong and very entertaining book.  It’s better when it comes to the World War II descriptions — those live and breathe, and the suspense even at a sixty-plus year remove is palpable — but the scientific breakthroughs Monod and his team discovered are well rendered and probably would’ve been standouts in their own right if not for the absolute vitality of the depictions of the French Resistance.  (This is not altogether a surprise when you consider that Carroll is a scientist himself and is particularly good at explaining science to the layman.)  And the reasons that Monod and Camus became friends after the War — the compelling, heart-rending reasons — are thrown into sharp relief that resonates long after the book has been finished, as are the ideas that these two influential and important men propagated during their lifetimes.

Bottom line?  This is a book that everyone who loves writing, philosophy, science, or World War II should read — and it contains perhaps the best nonfiction treatment I’ve ever seen of the French Resistance, much less why it was so very important that the French continue to resist up until the Allies finally liberated France.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab this book and settle in — it’s not a light read, and it will take time, but BRAVE GENIUS is a book that will reward your efforts.  Guaranteed.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ “The Great Partnership:” Can Science and Religion Coexist?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ THE GREAT PARTNERSHIP: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning is one of the more compelling nonfiction books I’ve read in quite some time.  Sacks’ main argument is this: Science and religion are two sides of a coin, and human beings need both in order to both explain the world around them (science) and explain why we need to explain it in the first place (religion).

Because Sacks’ first training was in philosophy, he is a very different sort of rabbi.  He believes the scientific method has a great deal of merit, and that without it, human beings would likely not have progressed technologically, health-wise, and otherwise.  But he also believes that religious thought has a great deal to offer as well, mostly because (as Sacks says), “humans are a meaning-seeking animal.”  And without meaning, what is the point of our short human lives?

Sacks also believes that you do not have to believe six impossible things before breakfast (as Lewis Carroll wrote) in order to have faith in some sort of religion.  Nor must you abjure science; in fact, as Sacks puts it on page 219:

The idea that in some sense the findings of science in the past two hundred years — whether in cosmology, quantum physics, the theory of relativity, Darwinian evolution, genetics and the mapping of the genome, or PET scans and the working of the brain — challenge our religious understanding of the universe is absurd.

Basically, Sacks’ argument is as follows: Science explains the world.  Religion explains why we care.  And without religious faith, Sacks argues, the moral fiber of Judeo-Christian culture — much less Arabic culture, which Sacks also goes into briefly — would’ve been greatly changed.

Or in yet another way to describe it: Religion is about relationships.  Our relationship to God (which in Sacks’ terminology is definitely male, as Sacks follows the God of Abraham).  Our relationship to others, where we try to be the types of people God would want us to be (our ideal selves, as it were), providing we’re any of the “People of the Book” — members of the Jewish faith, which Rabbi Sacks knows so well; the Christian faith; and/or the Islamic faith.

Sacks points out that anyone — whether you’re a secular humanist, an atheist, or any one of a number of other differing faiths — can embody the best aspects of humanity.  But his main argument is that without Abraham — a man who was not a king of any principality, nor known as a wise man, nor perhaps not even a particularly good father — the way humankind evolved would not be the same.  And because of how pervasive the three main religions that all were engendered by Abraham in some fashion or another have been throughout recorded history, secular humanists, atheists, Wiccans, etc., have all been exposed to many aspects of Judeo-Christian/Islamic thought in addition to whatever other studies they may have done along the way.

Mind you, Sacks is not the first person to have made this argument.  The noted historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade made it in any number of books, including A HISTORY OF RELIGIOUS IDEAS, Vol. II: From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity, and it’s inconceivable that Sacks hasn’t run across Eliade’s writing in Sacks’ long career.  But most of Eliade’s work is dense (yes, I’ve read it), and it takes much thought to fully understand, while Sacks’ work, while still erudite and scholarly, is much more accessible, thus much more approachable as well.

One argument that Sacks actually is the first to make is that Christianity contains some dichotomies (a God who is personal in some aspects, and impersonal in others) precisely because the Bible, as a whole, was written down in Greek.  But the thought process behind it, as Sacks persuasively explains, was very Jewish in tone and origin — thus, readers of the Bible are seeing thoughts and expressions that probably were originally written in Hebrew (as well as Aramaic) and would have a far different connotation in that language, but are explained in Greek, which doesn’t have nearly the same emotional resonance.

Because Sacks has studied both philosophy and religious thought in depth — and because he’s a Jewish theologian, so he’s studied the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which is known to the rest of the civilized world as the Old Testament) in its original language as well as in translation — Sacks has both the depth and breadth of thought to explain this oddity.

I mean, think about it.  Anyone who’s studied comparative religion in any depth knows that ancient Jewish thought was absolutely nothing like ancient Greek thought.  But most people raised as Christians, reading the Bible as translated into our modern-day languages, are unaware just how much of that Greek thought crept into the New Testament, because we’re all reading a translation of a translation.

And because of that, many things that are otherwise inexplicable in the New Testament are far more comprehensible after Sacks shines his light upon them.

Sacks’ book has a few minor drawbacks.  He can get strident when it comes to what he believes is the downfall of society, including his opposition to same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and abortion (which he persists in calling “abortion on demand,” an extremely inflammatory term).  He goes on a bit too long while explaining how, without religion, we humans might not be interested in trying to explain what we see and measure (science, in a nutshell), much less tell a story about it afterward.   And every once in a great while, I felt like Sacks was yelling at the reader rather than trying to gently persuade instead.

Bottom line?  THE GREAT PARTNERSHIP is a thought-provoking read that I thoroughly enjoyed.  So if you like both religion/spirituality and science, but have always wondered just how these two could ever coexist, go grab yourself a copy of this book, pronto.

Then be prepared to have your assumptions challenged.  Repeatedly.

Grade: A-minus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Michael Casey’s “The Unfair Trade” — Worldwide Financial Collapse Weakens the Middle Class in Every Country

Michael Casey’s illuminating THE UNFAIR TRADE: How Our Broken Financial System Destroys the Middle Class is a financial book to be reckoned with.  Casey has covered worldwide economics for Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, and specializes in discussing global economic trends.  That’s why Casey was uniquely situated to write about the 2007-8 global financial meltdown . . . and it’s also why his book THE UNFAIR TRADE is so very good, so very readable, and so very important.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Casey’s main argument is that no matter what the country’s name, the middle class of that country has been left behind.  This has occurred because of the rapidly-changing nature of the global marketplace on the one hand and the badly outdated financial regulations of just about every major country on the other.  This has caused the “big banksters” (as radio personality Clark Howard calls them) to isolate themselves from the middle and lower classes, and it’s why, after the 2007-8 economic meltdown, these same big banksters were helped while the middle class people who’d invested at the behest of the banks got the shaft.

Casey went all over the world and found that no matter what the country, every single middle class person he talked to was disgusted with the economy (worldwide and in-country, made no nevermind).  The belief worldwide is that the economic deck is stacked against the middle class; from China, which has an overly large amount in savings due to its own government’s policies, to the United States, where small and big manufacturers must meet the “China price” (AKA the rock-bottom price, which most of the time is provided by Chinese manufacturers), it seems impossible for the middle class to get ahead.  And more than possible for the middle class to get left behind through no fault of its own.

What’s most important about Casey’s chronicles aside from his excellent reportage is the analysis he puts behind same.  Simply put: Casey has found that what every single person has told him is the truth — the middle class, as a whole, is not doing better in this generation.

In fact, we are doing worse.

And there are reasons for that — pressing reasons — that Casey can’t help but mention.  Some of it has to do with how interdependent all economies are with every other economy (even dysfunctional systems like North Korea’s must take this into account).  Some of it has to do with outdated laws that don’t adequately take into account the rise of computerization and mechanization.  And some of it has to do with the bizarre symbiosis between China and America, which must be read to be fully understood.

And even where the little guys win for a change — like Iceland — there are still huge losses.  Casey went to Iceland and chronicled what happened there; the Icelandic government actually refused to bail out the three large banks doing business on their island.  So what happened instead?  Iceland’s three big banks went into receivership.  This was actually helpful to the middle class over time, because the bank’s owners had to deal with the fallout, not just the bank’s stockholders or the little people who’d put their faith, trust and savings into the bank.

But in the short run the middle class was still harmed.  (Which just goes to show that even in Iceland, the little guy still gets the shaft.)

Even though Iceland’s taxpayers were spared the agony of TARP I and II, they were really angry over the bank meltdowns, and rightfully so.  The consequence of the implosion of the three banks was staggering.  Unemployment went sky-high.  People didn’t know how they’d get access to their money (fortunately the government stepped in, so most people did not lose everything).  And at least one person was so angry over what had happened to him at one of the three Icelandic banks that he went and took the bank’s coffee machine; Casey reported that no one stopped the man because they understood that he was only acting out what everyone felt.

And that was the best-case scenario.  The worst-case scenarios (in Spain, in Greece, and in Ireland) are still playing out to disastrous effect.

Look.  You need to read THE UNFAIR TRADE to understand what’s going on; Casey’s writing is clear, distinct, often ironic, sometimes witty, and above all is extremely important.  Because interdependence in global economics isn’t likely to go away; we must make sure that the laws in place do more than shield the people who caused the trouble in the first place, as if those bad laws stay on the books, it will be impossible for the middle class to ever regain its former stature.  (Much less make any renewed gains.)

Bottom line: THE UNFAIR TRADE is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the worldwide economy.  Period.

So do yourself a favor; read Casey’s book, think about what he says, and then insist that the safeguards Casey discusses be put into place.  Because it’s most unlikely that the 2007-8 economic meltdown is the last meltdown we’ll ever see, so we’d best heed our wisest thinkers (such as Casey) while we still can.

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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