Clay Stafford

An American Story “I wasn't worth a damn until I was thirty.” Such bluntness is typical of An American Story, Debra Dickerson's inspiring new biography. The daughter of former sharecroppers, she literally started at the bottom of life and worked her way up to become the Air Force's chief of intelligence in Turkey and, later in her career, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

This is a rags to riches story, but it isn't as pretty as Cinderella. By writing An American Story, Dickerson has taken a mental evolutionary trip that few will ever dare to explore.

For all she's accomplished including a law degree from Harvard Dickerson went through much of her early life without a winner's attitude. “My hair was only one of the many things to be ashamed of. My big, fat nigger nose. Ugly, gnarled nigger toes.” While in her 20s, she writes, “What I'd wanted most in life was not to be me: black, working class, female.” Looking at the beautifully defiant face on the cover of the book, one would never know.

Dickerson's father, a former Marine who received no credit for his military accomplishments, ruled his St. Louis home resentfully, as if everyone present served under him in a strict military environment. She escaped the rigors of her home life through reading. “I wanted that special knowledge to which only whites had access,” Dickerson says. That knowledge inspired her, but it didn't come without a price. Her father would beat her simply for being curious.

Dickerson floundered until she joined the Air Force (following her father's military example), which built her self-confidence and gave her opportunities she would never have had in St. Louis. She became a Korean linguist and a distinguished Air Force intelligence officer during her 12-year career. After hitting the glass ceiling for women in the military, she applied to Harvard Law School and went on to build a successful career as a writer for such publications as the Washington Post, The New Republic, Slate, Essence, and Salon. An American Story is a fascinating chronicle of ambition; family anger; loneliness; double standards; poverty; racism; military inequity; drunkenness; rape; career burnout; sheer will; final success; and most of all, hope. For readers who can take the heat, Debra Dickerson is definitely in the kitchen.

Clay Stafford is a writer and filmmaker.

An American Story “I wasn't worth a damn until I was thirty.” Such bluntness is typical of An American Story, Debra Dickerson's inspiring new biography. The daughter of former sharecroppers, she literally started at the bottom of life and worked her way up to become the Air Force's chief of intelligence in Turkey and, later […]

Academic authors are comfortable in their genes What do you get when two professorial Ph.

D.'s contemplate man's place in the biological world? Quite simply, “an owner's manual for your brain,” according to authors Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan. Some of their conclusions about how our brains work, documented in the new book, Mean Genes, are bound to stir controversy. “Faithful or not in life, human bodies are designed for infidelity,” the authors contend. And if you're interested in sharing your inadequacies with friends, Burnham and Phelan advise against it: “Weaknesses we reveal [to friends] may be used against us in the future,” they warn.

When they wrote Mean Genes, Burnham, an economics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Phelan, a biology professor at UCLA, set out to combine science and self-help by examining how our genes affect our behavior and how we can overcome our primal urges.

“What we talk about is what's true on average for all people,” and for some other mammals as well, Burnham said in a recent interview. As they tackle issues such as debt, fat, drugs, risk, greed, gender, beauty, infidelity, family, friends, foes, business relations, and achievement, one concept emerges: “Our brain is not an obedient servant.” Phelan said he became fascinated with gene study because genes appear to have “an agenda of their own. I do feel that very often it's not the same agenda I want to have. I think of them as maybe not mean [despite the title of the book], but not always looking in the same direction I'm looking.” But, Phelan is quick to add, “This is not another Darwin-made-me-do-it kind of book.” The authors' intent is to point out that “human genes have not changed very much in thousands of years,” and though our instincts served us well in our natural environment, they sometimes fail us in modern industrialized society.

“Genetically, we are still cavewomen and cavemen despite our living in ultramodern homes,” the authors write in Mean Genes. Look at diets (the ones we constantly fail). “Our appetites were built in a world where plentiful food was inconceivable,” and life was much more draining. We are genetically programmed to eat as long as food is on the table; dieting goes against that. While “our nearly insatiable appetite was once a survival feature of human biology,” Burnham says it now undoes us. Phelan adds, “Each of us has fairly predictable periods of strength and weakness, so we should take preemptive steps when we are strong.” The authors offer similar suggestions throughout the book for overcoming the problems created by our genetic heritage.

Ever make promises to yourself, fail, and then rationalize it away? “We are wise to people who renege on their promises. Unfortunately, we are less savvy when it comes to our own internal promises,” the authors note. The brain has a convenient way of minimizing or hiding our own failures, a valuable tool when it comes to survival, but a nuisance when we're aiming for self-improvement. The authors suggest following the common self-help advice of writing down our goals.

For motivation, Burnham and Phelan point out, “Positive surprises make us happy, even when they are small.” It's like the caveman suddenly finding another bug before bedtime suddenly the day is brighter. To create daily positive experiences, on your to-do list only write things that can be accomplished on that day. That way, you can wipe items off the list and get a hormone buzz (seriously, the authors say). If the task will take two days or more to accomplish or three years, as in writing Mean Genes break it down into smaller tasks that can be accomplished on assigned days (except for my wife who can accomplish several tasks at once).

Which brings us to another question about our genes: is there a significant genetic difference between men and women? Studies show that by chemically switching hormones, a male begins to act like a female, and vice versa. Huh? Diaper changing just got easier? “Genes build men and women with different bodies, and our brains have some subtle differences” as do our life spans, Burnham and Phelan say. “The cost of keeping your testicles runs about 15 years!” Yikes. The authors go into great detail discussing our gender differences, our commonalities, our parenting proclivities (in animals, “you can be confident that the smaller sex is probably doing most of the child care”) and what qualities we value in a mate. “Beauty is as much in the gene of the beholder as the eye,” they say, offering a mathematical formula as proof. Most beautiful women (as human males see them) have a 0.7 ratio of waist measurement to hip measurement. “Scientists studying conception found that women with the 0.7 ratios were the most fertile. Men are attracted to a particular hourglass shape because it indicates fertility.” Pull out those measuring tapes.

Like any nonfiction book, Mean Genes should be read analytically. There are a few spots where conjecture replaces correlation, and others where experts may disagree with the authors' conclusions. But on the whole, the authors deliver on the promise that their research will “allow us to predict when we will be weak and why we are vulnerable.” From sex to money to food, Burnham and Phelan present a fascinating look at our aboriginal dark side.

Clay Stafford, a former college professor, is a writer and filmmaker.

Academic authors are comfortable in their genes What do you get when two professorial Ph. D.'s contemplate man's place in the biological world? Quite simply, “an owner's manual for your brain,” according to authors Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan. Some of their conclusions about how our brains work, documented in the new book, Mean Genes, […]

On June 8, 1972, a photographer captured the now infamous image of Kim Phuc, a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl, running naked down a Trang Bang highway, her clothes and skin incinerated by American napalm. The photograph was featured in news periodicals around the globe, immediately altering the international perspective of the Vietnam conflict. To the world, Kim became “a living symbol of the horror of war.” In this well-researched, easy-to-follow (and exhaustive) biography, Denise Chong attempts to give an overview of the Vietnam confrontation, and a fair one at that. She focuses on Kim Phuc's family and has successfully painted through her own on-site research, reading, and interviews the simple peasant world in which they lived, and the attacks they endured from all sides: Invasion by ruthless Chinese-sponsored Communists from the north; manipulation by self-serving, faraway nations in the West; deceit and corruption by greedy leaders within their own ranks; and betrayal by disingenuous neighbors and even family members. Essentially an entire generation of children grew into adults knowing only terror, maiming, death, manipulation, distrust, and self-imposed silence; the latter only if one wanted to live.

Within this world Kim Phuc, fighting daily pains that only a burn victim could know, found her destiny.

Each chapter of Kim's life a snapshot of almost 40 years roils with emotion, beginning with the miracle of surviving her initial burns. From that tragic moment forward, her mother and family overprotected her and treated her as a weak and ugly burn victim, a woman destined to live her life alone. From high school on, she spent her life shadowed by “minders,” individually assigned hawks for the Vietnamese government who watched her constantly for any transgression of word or deed. Dismissing Kim's ambition to be a doctor, the Vietnamese Communists took away that dream when they realized she could be used more effectively as a propaganda tool. And as that tool, she suffered the dual life of being pampered as a celebrity when abroad, but treated with disdain, poverty, and starvation when at home. Yet, two words kept falling from Kim's lips and strengthening her faith: “I forgive.” The South Vietnamese people sought only basic needs. They desired to be left alone, to feed their children, to laugh at each other's jokes, to work, to worship, to sleep and dream; they didn't ask to be pawns of superpowers, or victims of land-grab, of endless and esoteric debates concerning communism and capitalism. And Kim Phuc wanted only to be “normal.” It took the face of one child, screaming in pain, nakedly frozen in time, to help bring us all to our senses.

From her modest beginnings in Vietnam to her successful new life in Canada, her dramatic story will set you on fire.

Clay Stafford is a writer and filmmaker who lives near Nashville.

On June 8, 1972, a photographer captured the now infamous image of Kim Phuc, a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl, running naked down a Trang Bang highway, her clothes and skin incinerated by American napalm. The photograph was featured in news periodicals around the globe, immediately altering the international perspective of the Vietnam conflict. To the world, […]

The scariest word in the English language excluding IRS has to be cancer. And what if you heard doctors say cancer to you, not once, but three different times regarding three different illnesses? Hamilton Jordan, former campaign manager and chief of staff for President Jimmy Carter, was diagnosed on three different occasions with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, melanoma, and prostate cancer. He had been given a 25 percent chance of survival, but claims that by taking control of his own treatment, he raised his projected odds to more than 50 percent. That was almost 15 years ago. How people react emotionally, intellectually, and physically to the simple words

The scariest word in the English language excluding IRS has to be cancer. And what if you heard doctors say cancer to you, not once, but three different times regarding three different illnesses? Hamilton Jordan, former campaign manager and chief of staff for President Jimmy Carter, was diagnosed on three different occasions with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, […]

The Seville Communion is a literary mystery and thriller so tight it could hold hot water. With each page there seems the opportunity for more danger, more strength, more weaknesses, more blood (either hoped or dreaded) leaving the reader continuously baited. Arturo Perez-Reverte, the author of The Flanders Panel and The Club Dumas, has created a story and characters so real and likable (even the evil ones) that the reader can't help but become emotionally involved.

Originally released in 1995 in Spanish under the title La Piel del Tambor, the translator Sonia Soto does a skillful job in capturing the nuances of both the Spanish and English languages, with a little Latin thrown in for the priests.

The story at first seems deceptively simple. A hacker breaks into the Vatican computer system and sends a personal message to the Pope regarding the fate of a local church in Seville, Spain. There are two deaths, both accidental. The e-mail letter, however, differs with authorities and implies anonymously that the church building itself is responsible. Concerned mostly with the reality of the security breach and not the crack-pot message, the Vatican sends one of its best to investigate. In a textbook study of how things are not always as they appear, it is here that storyteller Perez-Reverte begins to tie the reader in knots in an intriguing and foreign location with old and new blending seamlessly together in a realistic story which is rich in history and frighteningly contemporary at the same time. Romantics will fall in love with Seville and with the investigating priest from Rome who serves as the main character. What Richard Chamberlain was to The Thorn Birds, Father Quart is to Seville. He is attractive, disciplined, and tested. Unlike Chamberlain's character, though, Quart's discipline comes not from faith, but from pride. Characters begin to emerge and evolve quickly. All can betray and be betrayed. It becomes clear to the reader and to the main character that what is at stake is much more than electronic security or the survival of a particular parish. For what would it profit a person to gain any of these and lose his own soul in the process? The challenge is a serious one. You must determine how Seville unravels before Perez-Reverte tells you, and he waits until the very last line to do it. From intricate plot to well-developed characters, every storytelling element is here for the lazy “reader” (film rights sold to Canal Plus and Iberoamericana), but don't wait for the celluloid.

If we are to believe the sad publishing statistics that the average American buys only one book per year, this should be that book. If you can afford the luxury of two books, read this one twice. It's that good.

Reviewed by Clay Stafford.

The Seville Communion is a literary mystery and thriller so tight it could hold hot water. With each page there seems the opportunity for more danger, more strength, more weaknesses, more blood (either hoped or dreaded) leaving the reader continuously baited. Arturo Perez-Reverte, the author of The Flanders Panel and The Club Dumas, has created […]

In 1950, a poor Lebanese teenager, 19-year-old Sam Moore, emigrated alone to America. His English was as broken as his prospects for the American Dream. Eventually, Moore would purchase one of the oldest and most respected publishing companies in Britain, Thomas Nelson Publishers. Under his direction, Thomas Nelson would become one of the leading Bible publishers in the world and would contribute to the developing successes of such best-selling nonfiction authors as Robert Schuller and Zig Ziglar. Watching his company being listed in 1995 on the New York Stock Exchange was many smiles and tears from Idlewild Airport in New York City just across town where Moore first entered the country with only $600 to his name in 1950. Moore can testify loudly that the American Dream is neither myth nor fact. It is opportunity.

Written to coincide with the 200 year anniversary of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the first half of American by Choice is pure Moore autobiography. In places, the writing is cliche-ridden, but where the writing itself fails, the reader should concentrate on the unusual and inspirational story revisited in the second half of the book. When Moore begins to write about Thomas Nelson Publishers, his tone changes dramatically. In the last half, it is obvious that Moore is more comfortable outlining his company and where he wishes to lead it than he is in writing about himself. As you read, you can feel his driving nature.

"They did not know how hard I worked and the amount of hours and sweat I put out during the summer, the dogs that jumped on me, the doors that were slammed in my face. But that was nothing compared to the joy and rewards I found in what I had been able to achieve." His is more than a rags-to-riches story. It's a reminder.

In 1950, a poor Lebanese teenager, 19-year-old Sam Moore, emigrated alone to America. His English was as broken as his prospects for the American Dream. Eventually, Moore would purchase one of the oldest and most respected publishing companies in Britain, Thomas Nelson Publishers. Under his direction, Thomas Nelson would become one of the leading Bible […]

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