Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Book Review: Old Age is a Terminal Illness

Author: Alma H. Bond
Publisher: Universal Publishers
ISBN: 1-58112-904-1

When five of her friends died within the space of a few years, Dr. Alma Bond, acutely aware of her own advancing years, grew depressed. Dr. Bond finally decided to deal with her problem by keeping a dream journal. Believing that her dreams held clues to the issues underlying her depression, she perceived the journal as a means for analyzing, understanding and, ultimately, controlling her psychic, emotional and spiritual pain. The journal eventually evolved into a forum in which Dr. Bond would record, in addition to dreams, ideas gleaned from her readings and her developing philosophy of the relationship between life and death.

Having been a professional analyst for several decades, it is not surprising that Dr. Bond draws heavily on Freud’s writings as fuel for her thought processes. Her journal is rich with references to the works of Freud, as well as to the writings of a range of psychologists, philosophers, poets and other students of the human condition.

In addition to drawing on her dreams and a range of literature, Dr. Bond draws on a lifetime of memories of life and love to clarify her thoughts and emotions about death. She describes her brother’s tragic death at the age of eighteen, her husband’s death in middle age and, of course, the lives and deaths of those friends whose losses had plunged her into depression.

A year after she began her journal, Dr. Bond brought the project to a close. In addition to aging yet another year, Dr. Bond had come to satisfactory terms with her fear of death. Did she conquer it completely? No, of course not. After all, she knows it is inevitable – someday. In the meantime, she is far too busy enjoying life to pay undue attention to death.

The book’s title is indicative of the humor that suffuses Dr. Bond’s book. Many books about death are either excessively clinical or disgustingly morbid. This book is neither. Ultimately, Old Age is a Terminal Illness is a celebration of life. Dr. Bond enumerates and celebrates a lifetime of fulfilling, loving relationships throughout her book. Every time she comes to peaceful terms with another loss, she resolutely affirms her joy in living and her desire to continue enjoying life as long as possible.

Dr. Bond’s writing is honest and gracious, and her book is enriching and easily digested. While this book will not appeal to all readers, there are several sorts of people who would benefit from reading it. First, readers suffering the agonies of losing a love one will find Dr. Bond’s book comforting. Second, clergymen and other professionals who offer grief counseling will find Dr. Bond’s book informative. Finally, readers pondering the meanings of life and death will find Dr. Bond’s book insightful. For readers such as these, Old Age is a Terminal Illness is a timely and indispensable book.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Quickie Comment: The History of the World's Most Famous Board Game

If you grew up, or have lived, in North America, chances are you've played Monopoly. You probably know that the original version is based on Atlantic City, New Jersey. On my first trip to that city at age 11, I earnestly searched for all of the Monopoly streets. If you travel at all, you've seen other versions too: the New York City or Chicago versions, the University of Iowa or Virginia Tech versions, the US National Parks version, and so on and so forth. I grew up playing the American Atlantic City version, with the little metal playing pieces: a dog, a steamboat, a car. . . . When I visited Canada on vacation, I was surprised to learn that there is a Canadian Atlantic City version with completely different playing pieces, including a little wooden milk bottle.

If you go to the Monopoly home page, sponsored by Hasbro (the game's manufacturers), you will read that the game was invented in the 1930s. If you read Philip E. Orbanes book, Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game - And How It Got That Way, you'll learn that an earlier "folk" version of the game, called The Landlord's Game, had been circulating for about three decades before Hasbro introduced its mass-market version. It seems that Monopoly's history is not as straight-forward as Hasbro would like consumers to believe. Given the game's premise, this is, to say the least, an amusing irony.

If you want to learn more about Orbane's book, you can read David Parlett's fine review of it here. Don't be surprised if, upon reading his review, you're inspired to head over to your nearest bookseller so that you may read more about the world's most famous game. After you've done that, you'll undoubtedly amaze family and friends, the next time you play Monopoly, with your insightful knowledge of the game's provenance. In my case, that may alleviate my pain when I suffer yet another bankruptcy at Park Place.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Book Review: It Might Have Been What He Said

Author: Eden Collinsworth
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
ISBN: 1-55970-812-3

Isabel tried to kill her husband, but she can’t remember why. With the help of her psychiatrist, Isabel slowly restores her memory of the events surrounding the attempted murder. They begin by examining Isabel’s childhood.

Isabel was born into a wealthy, dysfunctional family. Her father was emotionally distant. He refused to give his adult children any financial assistance for fear of instilling laziness. Her mother was mentally disturbed. She tried to kill herself and spent much of her life in an asylum. Her brother was socially dull. He depended on his younger sister to guide him through the maze of family interactions. It seems that Isabel, with her photographic memory, intellectual aptitude, interpersonal insight, acerbic wit and cool demeanor, is the only normal person in the lot.

Ambitious and conscientious, Isabel swiftly rises to the top of her profession as a publisher. She meets her opposite in James, a talented, debonair, indolent writer whose primary interest in life is being (carefully distinguished from getting, which requires effort) rich. Opposites attract and Isabel marries James. Their marriage starts happily enough, but cracks gradually appear beneath the veneer of their relationship. James is the source of all the cracks: he spends irresponsibly, works intermittently and drinks excessively. In contrast, Isabel’s determined efforts to hold together her marriage and family are almost saintly.

Isabel and James have an unusual son. Burgo is intellectually gifted, socially astute and the devoted son for which all mothers wish. An elementary school child who should still believe in Santa Claus (but does not), Burgo tells his mother, “you are fact, Papi [Daddy] is fiction” (p. 182). Despite his youth, Burgo realizes that his mother is the family bedrock, his father the quagmire. Surprisingly, this circumstance does not alarm him. Surely he is the most placid child ever to grace the face of the earth. After Isabel’s botched murder and her marriage’s dissolution, the story ends with James ensnared in a trap of his own making while Isabel and Burgo dash into a promising future.

The greatest weakness of this story is its characters. Burgo does not resemble any child in the known universe. Instead, he resembles Wesley Crusher, the nauseating boy wonder from Star Trek. James is so unremittingly boorish it’s impossible to conceive what, aside from his good looks, attracts Isabel to him. And Isabel’s solitary flaw seems to be her bad temper, which is displayed only once throughout the entire book. None of the characters have any depth or complexity; they are all neatly categorized as either heroes or villains.

The second weakness of this story is the anti-climactic nature of its climax. Building gradually to its apex, the actual culminating event is comically clumsy. Moreover, the event’s aftermath is hardly credible. James conspires with Isabel to pretend it never happened and they resume their ordinary lives. When the marriage eventually dissolves, it is James the would-be murder victim, rather than Isabel the failed murderess, who is to blame. This is not surprising. After all, the characters in this book either wear white hats or black ones. Gray hats don’t exist in their world.

It Might Have Been What He Said is Collinsworth’s first novel. She writes concisely and the story moves at a fairly good pace. Moreover, her initial premise forms an intriguing skeleton upon which to build a captivating story. Unfortunately, neither the characters nor the plot provide the flesh and bones required to make this book a full-blooded body. Overall, this is a decent, but not great, first novel. If Collinsworth learns from the experience gained with this book, she may prove to be a writer worth watching in the future.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Quickie Comment: Flower Confidential

I haven't yet read Flower Confidential, by Amy Stewart, but I'm intrigued by Adrian Higgins' review. The review was published in the Washington Post this past Sunday, February 11. You can read it here.

According to Higgins, Stewart's book provides the inside scoop on the floral industry. Chances are, the roses you gave your wife, or received from your husband, this week were grown in South America, dipped in God knows what chemicals to more or less preserve them, shipped to Miami, then shipped to your local florist.

WOW! I actually thought perhaps my store-bought flowers were grown in a local greenhouse. Not likely. There's something disappointing about the fact that economic globalism isn't limited to sneakers and stereos. It even affects the floral centerpiece on my dining room table. Something to think about.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

D'Souza & the West, Darwin & Wallace, Stalin & Science

There are so many interesting books in the world that I can't begin to read all of the ones on my constantly growing "books-to-read" list. Perhaps readers will be interested in some of these:

Dinesh D'Souza has created quite a stir with his contention that decadent Western societies are largly responsible for the terrorism that is aimed against them. A review of his latest book - The Enemy at Home - and a link to reader comments can be found here. Another review, with a link to comments, is available here. Yet another one here. A final one here.

Charles Darwin was not the only person to posit natural selection as a mechanism of evolution. One of Darwin's contemporaries, Alfred Russel Wallace, developed the same basic idea. When Darwin finally published his theory, part of his motivation was to get it out before Wallace did. Volumes have been written about Darwin, but not much attention has been paid to Wallace. As one reviewer points out here, that situation is changing. This reviewer cites several biographies of Wallace that have been published since 2000.

Finally, a new book - Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars discusses Stalin's attempts to force science to conform to his brand of Marxism. The review is available here.

If anyone has read any of these books, please drop a comment and share your thoughts.

Monday, February 12, 2007


Author: Walter Dean Myers
Publisher: Harper Tempest
ISBN: 978-0-06-440731-1

Steve Harmon is 16 years old, black, and on trial for murdering a Harlem shopkeeper during a robbery. The prosecuting attorney repeatedly refers to Steve and his co-defendant as “monsters.” Steve’s attorney says that a large part of her job will be simply getting the jury to see Steve as a human being.

Monster is Steve’s account of his imprisonment and trial. An avid student in his high school film class, he presents his story as a film script. Interspersed between the trial scenes are flashback scenes that reveal portions of Steve’s life up to the time of the trial. These film scenes alternate with excerpts from Steve’s prison journal, as depressing an account of life in jail as anyone will ever read. The film and the journal reveal Steve’s deep fears. He is afraid of other prisoners, afraid of spending twenty years in prison, afraid of the numerous quirks of the American judicial system and afraid of the effect his imprisonment and trial are having on his relations with his family. Through Steve’s film and journal, the reader is allowed to look deeply into the soul of a sensitive, troubled young man.

As the story progresses, the reader is not sure what role Steve played in the crime for which he is on trial. As the story closes, the author provides some hints regarding Steve’s guilt or innocence, but never explicitly answers the question. Instead, Myers allows the reader to come to his or own conclusion.

The book includes a Reader’s Guide for classroom discussions about the book. Like many of Myers’ other works, this one is written for adolescents. By casting his story in the form of a film script and journal, Myers employs two forms that should appeal to teenagers. After all, most teens enjoy movies and many of them may keep diaries. Moreover, these two formats allow Myers’ to keep his prose very informal and to communicate his tale efficiently. Myers never uses five words if three will suffice.

The Reader’s Guide is followed by a brief interview with the author. In this section, Myers explains how and why he wrote this story, and what he hopes it will accomplish in the lives of its audience.

Monster is a story that teens will carry with them long after they close the back cover. It is a stark story about the moral choices that teens face every day and about the long-term consequences of those choices. An absorbing tale, Monster should keep readers enthralled and give them important insights into the responsibilities that they bear for themselves, for their families and for society.

On the Field from Denver, Colorado. . .The Blue Knights

Author: Gregory M. Kuzma
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc.
ISBN: 0-595-32278-6

In 1994, a college student named Greg Kuzma spent his summer break touring with an American drum and bugle corps company, the Blue Knights. This book is based on his daily journal.

The summer begins with Kuzma's flight from his home in Florida to the Blue Knights' home in Denver, Colorado. The 128 corps members, who are billeted in local homes throughout Denver, meet every day for 12 or more hours of rehearsals. Their show, when it is ready, will be approximately 11 minutes long; all of the music and drill will be performed by memory. Upon the completion of approximately three weeks of rehearsal camp, the corps hits the road for a two-month-long tour across the United States.

Once the tour begins, the corps members live primarily in buses and school gyms, and they rarely stay in one town for more than one night. Most of their meals are provided by the chuck wagons that travel with the group. According to Kuzma, the food is fairly good and nutritious. He eats far less junk food over the summer than he does throughout the year at college. Nevertheless, according to his daily journal entries, he consumes a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The Blue Knights compete against approximately 20 other division 1 drum corps throughout the summer. Competitions are held 3-5 nights per week throughout the country and each corps competes approximately 30 times before heading to the final round of competition in mid-August. When the corps members are not competing or traveling, they march in local parades and spend time refining their shows. Days off are rare and treasured events.

Throughout his journal, Kuzma describes the ups and downs of his friendships and the stresses that relationships endure when approximately 150 people live and work closely together for 3 months. He describes the fatigue of long rehearsals and the elation of good performance scores. He describes the joy of a successful season and his sorrow at the summer's end. Most importantly, he shares the many lessons that the drum corps experience taught him about discipline, commitment, physical and psychological endurance, patience and communication. For Kuzma, the drum corps experience is not merely about marching, playing and competing. It is, ultimately, about developing skills and work habits that he will take with him long after the last note has been played.

Due to its specialized subject matter, this book will appeal to a fairly small group of readers. Nevertheless, there are some people who will benefit greatly from reading this book. Anyone interested in joining a drum corps should read this book. Anyone who is the parent of a drum corps member, or a prospective member, should read this book. In fact, drum corps fans of all ages will enjoy reading this book. For readers such as these, Kuzma's book is a goldmine of honest, inside information about the drum corps experience.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Beyond the Summit

Author: Linda LeBlanc
Publisher: Pilgrims Publishing
ISBN: 0-9785353-0-8

The year is 1968. Beth and Eric, a journalist and a photographer who are also romantically involved, are trekking in the mountains of Nepal to do a story about the Sherpas. Dorje - a Sherpa who aspires to climb Mt. Everest as his childhood hero, Norgay Tenzing, had done fifteen years earlier - serves as the chief guide for Beth and Eric’s party. Since Dorje is one of the few Sherpas who speak English, he becomes an important source of information for Beth. Although Beth and Eric become engaged during their trek, it does not take long for Beth and Dorje to develop a friendship that could, given the opportunity, bloom into a more intimate relationship. That opportunity arises when Eric leaves Nepal to undertake another photographic assignment while Beth remains in Nepal to finish her research. By the time Beth leaves Nepal, she and Dorje have become lovers.

Beth returns to the United States and Dorje remains in Nepal. As Beth prepares for her wedding, Dorje becomes betrothed to a Sherpani woman. Unable to shake the memory of Dorje from her mind, Beth returns to Nepal for a quick visit just before her wedding. She and Dorje resume their relationship and make plans for him to return to the United States with her. Before they can do this, however, Dorje must make one last journey high into the Himalayas. This journey, the most dangerous he has ever undertaken, will take him to Mt. Everest’s summit. The journey to the summit will fulfill the dreams of his childhood and, he hopes, free him to pursue the new dreams of his manhood.

Beyond the Summit’s plot is not particularly intricate, but that does not matter because the story’s momentum is derived from its characters and context. LeBlanc’s principal plot device is the exploitation of conflict and resolution. There is conflict between Beth and Eric, conflict between Eric and Dorje, conflict between Dorje and his traditionalistic father, conflict between various mountaineers, conflict between humankind and the unrelenting forces of nature. . . . The book does not need a complex plot; its characters and their context are more than adequately stimulating.

This book is filled with fascinating information about the Sherpas and mountaineering. The author has trekked in the Himalayas herself and has gained much of her knowledge through personal experience. She knows the extreme discomfort of sleeping in a tent at 18,000 feet above sea-level. She knows the stress of struggling to breathe, let alone engage in physical labor, at extremely high altitudes. She has deep respect for the Sherpas and understands the stresses they endure as their culture undergoes abrupt, startling transformations. Even though LeBlanc’s thorough knowledge of her subject is the greatest strength she brings to this project, the book never feels pedantic.

Readers looking for something to push their adrenaline into overdrive will not find it in this book. On the other hand, readers who like well paced accounts that realistically portray adventures will find this book compelling. Readers who enjoy romantic stories in exotic settings will find this story intriguing. Readers interested in non-Western cultures will enjoy LeBlanc’s warm portrayal of the rapidly disappearing Sherpa culture. And readers interested in extreme sports, particularly mountaineering, will enjoy LeBlanc’s vivid depiction of a trek to the highest mountain of them all.


Author: Hari Singh
Publisher: HRD Press
ISBN: 0-87425-873-1

People make hundreds of decisions every day. Most decisions are either so trivial or so routine that we don’t even think about the processes we follow to make them. In fact, we probably don’t even realize we are applying any processes to our decision-making. Our dilemmas arise when we must make significant decisions: who to marry, what career to pursue, where to live . . .. Are there any useful models we can apply to decisions like these? Dr. Hari Singh would answer that question with a resounding, “yes!”

If you think a business professor’s account of decision-making is likely to be dry as dust, think again. Dr. Singh uses a remarkably creative “frame” to present an abundance of scholarly material. Rather than explaining concepts deductively or formulaically, Dr. Singh enfolds those concepts in the frame of a novel. Moreover, Dr. Singh’s uses the classic framing technique of enclosing a story-within-a-story. Thus, the story, the concepts and the models are literally “framed” in multiple layers.

The outer frame of the story is a conversation between two brothers. Chris, who must soon make some critical decisions, has come to his elder brother, Larry, for advice. Larry could dryly explicate Benjamin Franklin’s Balance Sheet method, or the Weighing Attributes and Ranking Scores method, or the Scenario Strategies method of decision-making and then tell Chris to select a model from that menu. He doesn’t do that. Instead, Larry tells Chris how he first learned, through two life-changing experiences, to apply all of those decision-making models at appropriate times.

The first life-changing experience, which provides the inner frame of the story, is Larry’s account of a decision-making course he took in business school. This is the primary context in which academic concepts and models are introduced. Dr. Singh uses the dialogue between the students and their professor to explain and clarify the subject matter. The students’ learning experiences, however, are not confined to the classroom. The students, by means of a case study, demonstrate how the ideas discussed in class can be applied to real-world situations. To this point, the concepts, models and case study have been set primarily in a business school context. But Dr. Singh does not stop there.

The second life-changing experience, which provides the fascinating (dare I say “fun?”) core of Larry’s story, is his application of the knowledge acquired in his business course to solve a murder mystery. Thus, Dr. Singh cleverly transfers concepts derived from a wide range of academic disciplines to an entirely new context and demonstrates that they can be used, literally, to resolve all manner of dilemmas. One could even say that it would be appropriate to view these ideas as life skills rather than mere business or decision-making tools.

Not only does Dr. Singh present his material in a novel (pun intended) context, he uses a variety of mnemonic tools and acronyms to assist the reader’s retention of the material. I have not had the privilege of attending any of Dr. Singh’s classes but I suspect that he is an outstanding teacher as well as a scholar. He has published numerous journal articles and served as a consultant for a variety of organizations and government agencies. This book is merely the latest addition to his substantial list of accomplishments.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in management, decision-making, group dynamics and the like. In addition to acquiring decision-making skills, readers of this book will gain a keen understanding of human nature and interaction. For that reason, in addition to being fruitfully used as a textbook in collegiate courses across a range of disciplines, this book should be required reading for executives and management professionals in all business (including non-profit organizations) and government agency contexts.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Pilgrim Heart

Author: Darryl Tippens
Publisher: Leafwood Publishers
ISBN: 0-9767790-7-2

Darryl Tippens, provost of Pepperdine University, believes that many contemporary Christians practice what he calls a “privatized spirituality” (p. 22). Throughout Pilgrim Heart, Tippens uses the metaphor of the life of faith as a journey to explain his conviction that, far from being a matter of one’s inner life, “spirituality is learned and confirmed in relationship” (p. 27). Accordingly, he makes a strong case throughout the book that the Christian life is not a solo journey, it is a shared one.

Each chapter of Pilgrim Heart explains a distinct spiritual discipline and demonstrates how each is most fully realized in the context of a community of believers. Although the communal context for such disciplines as humility, hospitality, confessing and forgiving may seem self-evident, Tippens brings fresh insight to each of them. For example, in discussing humility, he notes, with regret, that many spiritual leaders have abusively imposed upon their followers forms of humility that reinforce illegitimate gender and racial distinctions. He also makes it clear that the humble, risky act of confession requires a response of forgiveness. Christians who have wronged others must confess their wrongs and those Christians who have been the victims of wrongdoing must forgive those who have wronged them. The relationship between these two disciplines is reciprocal and essential to a full Christian life.

One might argue that, even though the communal nature of the disciplines described above is obvious, surely some abilities, such as discernment, are more personal. The ability to discern, however, is not necessarily inherent in some people and absent in others. Rather, discernment can be learned and developed, and, therefore, taught. Thus, Tippens contends that those who are blessed with wisdom should act as mentors to their fellow believers. In his view, “Like all spiritual gifts, discernment is not intended primarily for personal benefit but for the good of the community” (p. 140).

Much Christian devotional literature touches upon the disciplines described thus far. Tippens’ refreshing, and perhaps rather unique, contribution to this literature is his discussion of such disciplines as friendship, story-telling, and the use of music and the arts in worship. He discusses three types of friendship and the role that each plays in the life of the Christian and in the life of the Church. The first is a general love for all humankind that is expressed in charitable works, hospitality and so on. The second is a more specific love for other Christians. The third, most neglected one is a close relationship with a partner in faith who shares in one’s struggles and holds one accountable for keeping the faith appropriately. Following his discussion of friendship, Tippens acknowledges that the role of the arts in Christian worship has always been an area of tension between believers. Therefore, he discusses the importance of music, story-telling and other arts in allowing the faithful to express their beliefs and preserve those beliefs for transmission to successive generations.

The fact that Pilgrim Heart is lucidly written and easily absorbed should not lead the reader to conclude that the content is shallow. Tippens is well-read and he draws from an impressively diverse array of authors to develop and support his ideas. In order to teach the foundations and traditions of the spiritual disciplines, Tippens offers incisive biblical exegesis and cites the writings of several early Church fathers. Knowing that Christian faith must be reinvigorated by each generation of believers, Tippens also draws on the works of assorted twentieth century theologians and contemporary authors. Thus, he shows the origins of Christian faith and various ways in which that faith has developed in the intervening centuries since its founding. Tippens is also aware that Christian faith has developed in a context that includes secular ideas. Accordingly, he explains the relationships between philosophical and theological trends through the ages, and draws on the works of philosophers (some Christian, some not) as well as Christian clergy and lay writers to illustrate and support his thoughts.

Christians interested in deepening their understanding of the spiritual disciplines will benefit greatly from reading Pilgrim Heart. Upon finishing, they will be challenged to examine and deepen their commitments to their faith communities. Pastors and church leaders looking for a “textbook” to use in Bible study groups or discipleship classes should consider this book. The author would be gratified if his work was adopted for such purposes and many congregations would be enriched by applying the principles taught therein.