Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson


Traveling at speeds upwards of 80 mph, across one and a quarter states over 400 miles in a day, I was on a mission and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York was coming with me!

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2017. MP3.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acting in part as a poet and as a five-star chef, Neil deGrasse Tyson serves up a condensed yet comprehensive portion of the incredibly dense and complex world of astrophysics.

Critique: I am no chef and, therefore, feel no obligation to serve my readers any kind of compliment sandwich. I must kick off this critique with my most salient complaint: this book was too short! I nabbed the CD version from the library, fed a disc to my car, then hit the road. It was only after the first disc concluded and I scavenged the passenger seat for the next that I realized I was already 1/3 of the way through the book.

Three discs. That’s it. Maybe 45 tracks in total. With over 300 miles to travel — to say nothing of the long drive back home!

But in those three discs, Mr. Tyson…er eh…Mr. deGrasse…urm…The-One-And-Only-Neil serves up an entire smorgasbord of rich and enticing information. His overview of the origins and ongoing goals of astrophysics is devastatingly concise. Get me talking about the field I love (writing/literature) and I’ll ramble on for days. Sheesh!

He also runs through all the startling, innovative ways scientists have learned/are still learning to do more than simply “see” the universe. How they managed to touch it, taste it, hear it, and yes, smell it without ever physically leaving the confines of Earth.

Most importantly, with his characteristic passion, Neil maps out the elements composing every human body and discloses their origins: straight from the blazing hearts of stars. That’s right. We all come from the intrepid fires that illuminate a mysterious, possibly limitless and multiversed cosmos — an ideal torch to light our way through the tragic shadows cast by Charlottesville’s recent banner headlines.


Two First Amendment Books by Yours Truly


At a time when our national attention sits securely, sometimes obsessively, on the goingson of Washington, D.C. and our national leaders — be they elected, electoral, or judicial — young viewers and readers deserve thoughtful texts exploring the roots of our rights.

For parents, teachers, and librarians seeking such books for the voracious omnivorous reader, might I suggest…

The Freedom of Speech and The Right to Petition by Jenny Mason

The texts introduce middle grade readers to the Bill of Rights, its historical origins, and its ongoing influences on our daily lives. From there, each book in the series zooms in on a particular clause in the First or Second Amendments. For instance, I looked at the right to petition and the freedom of speech. Whenever possible, the narrative pays close attention to landmark Supreme Court decisions that directly impact the freedoms of young individuals. (And all the books are loaded with strange or funny factoids. Mine are doubly loaded with bad puns and an overall humorous tone.)

When the editors invited me to author two books in the Our Basic Freedoms series, they challenged me to write about the First Amendment without the armor of my own political, personal, or professional biases. I was to approach the topic with an open and accepting mind. This was, in no way, an easy assignment. As I writer, I feel duty- and honor-bound to the philosophy of free speech. As if me and Free Speech pricked our fingers, mashed our blood beads together, then swore an oath and spat to make eternal. Same goes for the right to petition, which really boils down to the pen’s might over the sword in disputes.

However, the guideline proved invaluable to my research. Unarmored (and consequently unafraid of rust), I dove deep into the murky waters of Constitutional interpretation. I found credible, logical support for all sides. I discovered the tension, the constant tug-of-war for power, that makes our government function. Sure, it often resembles dysfunction, but the Framers and Founding Fathers knew that if they could keep power from ever coagulating in one corner, then all sides would have to bend (stretch their vulnerable, thirsty throats) in order to get even a taste of what they wanted.

What’s in store for the nation now that so many of the protocols intended to keep power bouncing and swinging, and swirling have been rescinded or altered or diluted? Well that is a future story being written as we speak; a narrative that young readers are due to inherit.

Where can you find these books?

Visit GarethStevens online, or shop on Amazon:

Freedom of Speech

Right to Petition

(PS–not sure why Amazon lists me as “Dr Jennifer,” unless they mean it musically. You know, like Jim Henson’s Dr. Teeth…or Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.)

On Apology by Aaron Lazare

How successful are your apologies? Whether sincere or obligatory, do they genuinely repair the damaged relationship or do they only add arsenic to the community well? This book explores the elements of both appealing and appalling apologies.

Lazare, Aaron. On Apology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Summary: Dr. Lazare, a former Harvard professor and leading expert on the psychology of shame and humiliation, deconstructs the elements of successful apologies while mapping the pitfalls of history’s more regrettable redresses.

Critique: I cannot count the number of times I was forced to apologize when I was young. The scenario usually ran thus: an argument or tussle broke out among the wild child tribe on the playground. Adults intervened and insisted we all make amends. So we did, eyes anchored to the ground, hands folded in our jagged elbow joints.

Of course those halfhearted atonements did little or nothing to sooth our wounds.

But even after I matured a little and could take (a little) responsibility for my mistakes, making a sincere apology either felt like those compulsory playground pardons, or else it did about as much good. But why? I said I was sorry AND I MEANT IT!

Lazare’s analysis of the act of apologizing starts off by parsing the vastly different psychological impact of saying and hearing “sorry” vs “apologize.” He then goes on to identify the four essential elements of a sincere, effective apology — which one that makes amends and heals the rift in the relationship.

To illustrate what happens when one or more of those elements is missing, Lazare points to high-profile public olive branches from figures like Abraham Lincoln (his second inaugural address), Janet Jackson (remember the nip-slip during the Super Bowl half time show?), Bill Clinton, former Senator Trent Lott (who gaffed when he voiced being proud of his votes for fellow politician and open racist, Strom Thurman), public officials or agencies apologizing (unsuccessfully) to historically oppressed minority groups, and so many more.

Image by Shereen M.

In light of our current circumstances, this may be a timely book to read. Our smartphones and excessive screen time already make us more socially inept, further limiting our capacity and ability to apologize when its needed. What’s more, the latest smash hit “reality TV show” — a topsy turvy political circus featuring a cast of Washington celebs suffering from colossal narcissism — promises to usher in a fresh array of catastrophic gaffes and scandals. Already we have heard a barrage of publicly televised apologies. Some we accepted. Others only lit the fuses on our Molotov cocktails. And with Lazare’s help, we won’t have to wonder if we’re getting a heartfelt mea culpa or an obvious pile of bovine byproduct.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

abbey_desertsolitaireThe perfect book for anyone feeling, of late, as though the barbarian hordes are besieging all that is sacred and precious.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine, 1968. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature/politics…enviropolitico?)

Summary: Edward Abbey, a rebel-rousing UNM graduate, goes to work for the National Parks Service. He endures a year in Arches, Utah, where he struggles with the merciless scrape of desert heat, as well as his swelling misanthropy for tourists and park administrators who seem to nimbly defile the sensuous landscape at every turn.

Critique: Like Abbey himself, the writing and narrative within this text are wayward, willful, fluid, stubborn, and unconventional. First and foremost, the book is an ode to the outdoors. A long, luxurious love poem honoring geology, praising desolation, and admiring stark vistas.

Second, the book may also serve as one of the most engrossing horticultural guides you’ll ever read.

Finally, Solitaire may be one of the timeliest treatises you could read this year, as the NPS picks up up the diapers and debris following the massive, record-busting influx of visitors during its 2016 centennial celebration, despite the endemic budgetary strangleholds imposed by Congress which have produced massive infrastructural failures. But will there be National Parks to flock to in the coming years? There is plenty of reason to worry and doubt, given the most recent White House Administration appointments, which have included powerful figures who oppose the fundamental premise of “public lands in public hands,” who ignore the studies linking spiritual and psychological healing with regular exposure to wild lands, who instead subscribe piously to a religion of nature as a source of untapped economic pulp.

Have we been through territory like this before? Yes, says Abbey. And we survived with our Parks–a unique notion in the world when they were first protected for the enjoyment of all people now and in the future, regardless of income, gender, religion, political leaning. Will we, and our Parks, survive this unfolding predicament? On that, Abbey cannot rightly say (and not just because he died in 1989). Since Abbey’s time, the Parks have come to face a truly dire duo of fresh challenges: appealing to minorities and Generation App.

What Edward Abbey might say is that the disconnects these populations experience when they visit a National Park links to the very infrastructure designed to attract them–an infrastructure he vehemently opposed and actively obstructed. Roads. Scenic pull-overs. Clean, running water. Flushing toilets. In Abbey’s view, these conveniences prevent people from breaking past the surface of what it is to be in the wild and witness its jaw-dropping miracles and horrors. Our predilection with comfort inhibits our chance to be and feel exposed…at risk…immersed…swallowed…challenged…basically, alive.

Read this book and take from Abbey a view of what the Parks are and were; what they’ve lost and what they could be. Glean from his feral trompings through the needling canyons what it is to be an animal outdoors, your civilized skin eroding like the stone arches, your spirit expanding, fed fat on the eternal nutrients of sun and space. Read this book and take heart; the revolution will, at least, have campfires!

(Photo credit for the teetering rock: NPS/Neal Herbert.)

Outcomes vs Expectations

All year, I have been training for a half marathon. My first, in fact. Not only that, my first long-distance running event since high school track, when the longest I ran was the 2-3 circles required to hurl a discus.

Month after month, I logged the long miles for training. October loomed and the event drew ever closer. Day after day, I documented the ups and downs of my training, hoping to publish the gripping narrative on

Hell, I was even going to post the outcome — triumph or failure! But lo’, in the midst of training, I discovered that Hollywood was already on to me. Not only had they turned my experiences into a blockbuster movie, but also they had gone so far as to chronicle my experiences in a best-selling, award-winning, internationally acclaimed book that debuted before the movie!

I know you think I’m joking, but I’m not. Here’s the premise:

A short, over-aged, knock-kneed runner built like a tank and often mistaken for a cow pony instead of a Thoroughbred becomes an unlikely champion and inspires a nation down on its luck.

How could that be about anyone but me???


“Air Equine” by carterse. Image CC.

To cover their crafty, ruthless copyright-infringing tracks, Hollywood’s media moguls cast a racehorse named Seabiscuit in the lead role of my story, then they hired the mightily talented Laura Hillenbrand to dredge through fathoms of research woven into a compelling narrative detailing the true yet quirky and almost unbelievable events that propelled the Biscuit to stardom during the Great Depression.

No other athlete at this time accumulated as much coverage across column inches in newspapers and magazines than the little Seabiscuit. And probably, no other athlete was as underestimated as this pokey plug!

But outcomes rarely match our expectations. Mediocrity haunts the alleged greats, just as majesty lurks in the supposedly small. Coming to half marathons with virtually no prior experience and plagued throughout training by pernicious foot pain, I certainly underestimated my own outcomes. On nights I sat immobilized with my feet and legs elevated and wrapped in liniment-soaked bandages, I expected I would throw in the towel. Hang it up. Call off all the bets. But after a few days’ rest, I’d hammer on my shoes and hobble back out to conquer yet another chunk of the 13+ mile course.

hillenbrand_seabiscuitI strongly recommend reading Seabiscuit if you seek the inspiration to keep going against all odds. For pointers on how to persevere and achieve great outcomes despite being restrained under low expectations. Read it if you enjoy historical nonfiction. Read it if you’d like to know how my half marathon went, how I struggled with mud, heat, competitors, the prying eyes of paparazzi, and how I did on the biggest race day of all with everything on the line! It’s all there.

Do be aware that the first couple of chapters are heavy with names, places, and details that, although accurate, do not come back into the narrative. Also, I feel obligated to warn you that the race scenes pitting the Biscuit against his arch rivals are so climactic, you are likely to tug for the next page with your teeth–fingers being too slow! And if you are pressed for time, may I suggest reading only Chapter 5, which will teach you more about the dangerous world of jockeying than you ever knew you wanted to know and now that you know you can’t believe no one ever bothered to tell you how friggin’ exciting it was and now you are giving everyone the silent treatment for their role in your misguided ignorance.

Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: An American Legend. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.