A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

September 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

moonA Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin

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I’ve been fascinated by space and space travel since I was a kid. I used to have a copy of Our Universe, and it became one of my most-read, most dog-eared books, since I would pore over it any chance I had. When I was browsing Audible looking for my next audiobook, I stumbled across this one, and figured it would be a good way to pass the time driving to and from work. It wound up not just being a good choice, but the best choice.

Chaikin approaches the story of the missions in an interesting way, focusing on whatever makes the next mission different from the next. He covers in great details the minutiae of the journey to and from the Moon with Apollo 8, the first mission to complete the trip, but by the time he gets to Apollo 11, he skips those parts and focuses solely on the landing and the moon walks. Apollo 13 is covered in great detail, since the mission was one of survival, not of achievement, and the later missions were covered by their moon walks and goals, which grew with each subsequent mission.

The author takes a risk by writing about the Apollo missions in order, since Apollo 1 resulted in the fire that killed three astronauts. It’s a downer of a story, and isn’t the best one to capture the hope and glory that surrounded later missions. Still, this was how the Apollo program happened in real life, and the program opened with this tragedy, which is tragic not just due to the loss of three lives, but due to what it represented to the program, the organization, and even the country. The loss of the mission was as huge as the loss of life, and Chaikin captures that well in his telling of the story.

Chaikin writes about the astronauts and other key figures of Mission Control and the program overall as they become relevant to the story. He tends to focus on their characters, touching on other related people in their lives only briefly. He mentions that one astronaut from the early mission had a wife who turned to alcohol to help deal with the stress of being an astronaut’s wife, but he doesn’t mention how — or if — that was something ever resolved. Chaikin keeps his focus on the astronauts themselves. This makes sense based on his source material (he interviewed all of the astronauts to research the book), but at the same time, these are important facts about the story that are never discussed beyond bringing them to our attention. Wives, children, and support staff are only mentioned when it’s relevant to the astronauts’ stories.

One thing that threw me about the narrative was how Chaikin would write about events from the past, as if they were happening at that moment. He would sometimes use words like “yesterday” or “tomorrow” or “later” to describe a different event, even though the rest of the story was told in the past tense. It was an odd choice (why not “the previous day” or “the next day”?), and it’s not something that happened all the time, but it was frequent enough to raise my eyebrows.

Bronson Pinchot narrated the audiobook, and I don’t think there’s a better narrator they could have chosen for the book. When the story gets tense, he narrates with excitement and breathlessness; when the story tells of the astronauts’ reactions to the grandeur of space and the Moon, his voice becomes soft and awestruck; when the story covers life-and-death decisions that must be made quickly, Pinchot tells us so quickly, frenetically. He doesn’t just tell the story, he performs it, and I’ve about decided that I will listen to any audiobook if Pinchot is narrating it.

The book concludes with an epilogue that shares what the Apollo astronauts did with their lives after going to the moon. It’s an enlightening finish, as some of them became religious, others dropped out of space aeronautics all together, and others dropped out of the public life all together. Only one of the astronauts would stay with NASA long enough to participate in the space shuttle missions, while the bulk of them moved on to business ventures as wide-ranging as real estate to becoming CEOs. It helps to show how grounded the astronauts were, and how their trips to the moon were as much of a job to them as the rest of us have to our own daily grind.

A Man on the Moon is a book for anyone fascinated with space or history or engineering or dedication. We’re nearing the 50th anniversary of the first moon walk, and when we reach that date, it will have been forty-seven years since we last sent someone to the Moon. By then, it will be forty-seven years since we sent a person to any other object in our solar system. As Chaikin writes in his afterword, “How could the most futuristic thing humans have ever done be so far in the past?”

Started: August 8, 2018
Finished: August 30, 2018

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

June 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hiddenHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

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This was a deal-of-the-day on Audible around the time the movie came out, and I couldn’t resist it. Like almost every book I buy, it lingered in my “To Be Read” (Listened?) pile, but a long commute pushed it to the top of the list. I enjoyed the movie, so I expected to like the book, as well.

What fascinates me most of all about the book is how little of it actually focuses on the space race (it doesn’t come up until chapter 16, and the book is only 24 chapters long). The central characters of Shetterly’s biography had worked in Langley for almost twenty years before the launch of Sputnik, and the author tells us how their intelligence, persistence, and dedication brought them to be the key figures of this story. The movie shifts some things around, placing some of the achievements from their earlier days at NACA so they’ll occur during the space race.

It turns out the movie took a lot of liberties with the book, which I guess is to be expected, but when a movie purports to present history, it bothers me a lot more. Dorothy’s promotion came over ten years before depicted in the the movie; Mary’s request to attend the whites-only high school was granted without a court order, or any other apparent fuss; there was a colored bathroom at Langley, but the rules weren’t enforced; Katherine gained access to the meetings through her own persistence, and it was because she was a woman, not a black woman, that she was excluded to begin with. The NACA was more progressive, thanks in part to President Truman’s executive order to desegregate the federal government, issued in 1948. That’s not to say they were free from racist comments, but the way Shetterly tells it, those came from outside Langley, not in it, because those in the organization were focused on work, and winning wars, and representing the country. Race seemed irrelevant when put it contrast to all that.

To me, this makes for a more interesting story. The women gained respect and a place at the organization not because a white savior had to step in to make it happen, but because their own determination and skills proved they were more than their sex or their race. Why the movie chose to ignore that angle of the story mystifies me.

As for the book, I appreciated learning the more authentic story of the main characters, and seeing the details of how far they rose through the organization. We don’t get as vivid a look at the three women as the movie presented, but we learn more about the social issues of the time, and see their story more in context with what they overcame in their professional growth. It’s well researched, and presented well, even if the characters don’t leap off the page.

I would recommend this book to history buffs, especially those interested in the Civil Rights movement or World War II. I definitely recommend it to those who enjoyed the movie, since it gives a larger, more cohesive picture of the lives of the women and the organization they represented. Plus, the book gives the NACA the recognition it deserves for being at the forefront of desegregation, and not the then-backward place the movie makes it out to be.

Started: April 25, 2018
Finished: May 3, 2018

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The Devil in America

May 2, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

devilThe Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson

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I can’t remember what led me to read this novella. I tried reading The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps a few years back, and I couldn’t make it through, but I read something about this story that made me want to read it. I’m glad I did, though when I first finished it, I wasn’t sure.

It took time for the story to settle, and for me to realize just how good it is. I didn’t like the metafictional asides (there are moments in the story where the author’s — not the narrator’s, now, but the author’s — father interjects with comments about the story), but I realized they were clues as to what was to happen in the story. Why Wilson chose this device I don’t know, but when he comments on Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, it becomes clear that this story is about the violence done against African-Americans, historically and currently.

As such, it’s not a comfortable story. We see white cruelty, though we also see hope through our main character, Easter, who lives in the late 19th century and possesses African magic. She has the ability to control “angels”, who can either do good or ill. An uneasy bargain she makes to save her father leads to future violence … or maybe the violence would have happened regardless.

The magic story works, as does the metafictional device (strange as it is), and the theme resonates. It’s a powerful piece of fiction, though it doesn’t reveal its significance until after some thought. Wilson is a talented writer, enough so that it makes me want to revisit The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps to see if I gave up on it too soon the first time around.

Started: February 27, 2018
Finished: February 27, 2018

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The Delicate Dependency: A Novel of the Vampire Life

January 31, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

dependencyThe Delicate Dependency: A Novel of the Vampire Life by Michael Talbot

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I tend to think of how I will rate a book while I read it. In some cases, it’s clear that I’ll rate something a particular number (either I love or hate it and know exactly why), but some novels elude me until I finish them. The Delicate Dependency is one of those novels.

The Delicate Dependency has a strong pedigree, as it’s considered to be one of the best vampire novels ever written. That may be true, but I think it depends a lot on what readers expect from a vampire novel. Do you want charismatic, misunderstood vampires a la Anne Rice, or do you prefer the vampires of menace and mayhem as featured in The Lost Boys? Reading one kind of story while expecting the other can lead to disappointment.

I’m not sure what I expected from The Delicate Dependency, but I certainly got something unexpected. The story centers around Dr. John Gladstone, a man who, as a child, had a vision of an angel in his backyard. When he encounters that same angel twenty years later, it begins a series of cascading events that puts him onto a journey into the life of the vampire.

Set in the late 19th- and early 20th-century, the novel takes on the style of a novel written during that time, which means that it tends to meander. Talbot puts a lot of detail into his story, with a large chunk of the beginning of the story devoted to Gladstone marrying a woman beneath his social status, and how it affects his own standing in society. It then meanders into a lengthy section about his research as a doctor, including a rivalry with another physician and researcher, and it’s a little befuddling. The subtitle of the book tells us we’re reading a vampire novel, but it takes a long time — maybe a third of the book — to get there.

The thing is, all of these details at the beginning of the story are important. It’s not that Talbot started the book with a bunch of random thoughts in his head, and started writing until they gelled into a coherent plot; instead, he’s crafting a story that relies on the long game, and, to cut right to it, pays off. The thing is, the story meanders a lot, taking lengthy asides into seemingly unimportant areas that threaten to derail the reader. It was hard to stay focused on the book, since these asides take up the bulk of the story. The rest of the story is an intriguing examination of a simple question: If you lived forever, to what would you devote your life?

The Delicate Dependency is a book that requires dedication. I can see readers giving up on this book (if I didn’t trust Valancourt Books as much as I do, I might have done it myself), but for those who persevere, there’s a satisfying conclusion to be found. I’d be hard pressed to recommend it without hesitation, but for folks who are looking for an unexpected vampire story, The Delicate Dependency is a hidden gem.

Started: November 2, 2017
Finished: November 12, 2017

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Usagi Yojimbo: The Hell Screen

November 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

screenUsagi Yojimbo: The Hell Screen by Stan Sakai

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Every time I review an Usagi Yojimbo book, I say the same things: strong storytelling; bold artwork; vivid characters. The Hell Screen is no different, since Sakai is still a natural at all of those things. His established characters ring true and honest, and his newly-introduced ones, while less developed, are drawn well enough to serve their purpose in the stories.

The theme of this volume seems to be rain, as the stories all take place during thunderstorms. The first two stories have an overlap I haven’t seen in Sakai’s stories before, where they diverge in the midpoint of the first one. The second story begins at that divergence, which felt odd (as near as I can recall, Sakai has never gone back in his timeline, though he’s used flashbacks before), but it made sense once I understood what he was doing.

I say this every time I review an Usagi Yojimbo book, but if you haven’t yet read these books, you should. They have appeal for all readers of all ages, and the storytelling is so good that it’s a shame not to experience it. You have a long way to go to catch up (this is volume 31!), but it’s worth it.

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Hearts in Suspension

March 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

suspensionHearts in Suspension, edited by Jim Bishop

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I’m not much of a reader of non-fiction, but I’m a huge fan of Stephen King, and the lure of reading new material by him — recently written, and some of his earliest writings — drew me to this book. It’s a collection of essays by King and some of his contemporaries from the years he attended the University of Maine at Orono, since 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of his starting college there. The book also includes the novella Hearts in Atlantis, included in the collection of the same name, which is King’s take on what the 1960s meant to him.

“Five to One, One in Five” is King’s essay, which introduces the collection. It gives some background into Hearts in Atlantis, so much so that it shows how autobiographical the novella is. He based characters in the story on real people he met at college, and it’s interesting to see these two pieces together and see how one influenced the other. That’s true of most fiction, but anyone who doesn’t see how King’s life influences his fiction hasn’t read enough of either. The man wrote himself into The Dark Tower, for crying out loud.

The rest of the essays are a bit of a mixed bag. You can tell the writers from the non-writers there, but each of them do their part to convey what the 1960s meant to them. Not all of them talk about King; some mention him only once or twice; others put the focus of their essays on him. You find a lot of repetition there, too, since so many events of the 1960s — the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, Kent State, and the Great Chicken Crisis are common refrains — tie them all together. It’s to be expected; big, momentous events like that present a shared experience that links people together, and the 1960s were a big, momentous time.

I don’t see this book having much appeal to a casual reader, but for folks who have read all of King’s books, read up on his life, read books about King, and maybe even traveled to Maine in the hopes of meeting the man, this book will be of great interest. If nothing else, it will allow you to re-read one of King’s most affecting stories and see it in context with real life.

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Technology

February 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Quotes) (, )

“History shows us that the ramifications of any new technology have as much to do with how we choose to distribute it as they have to do with the technology itself.”

–Daisy Craver
(Laurie Penny, Everything Belongs to the Future)

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Chernobyl

September 8, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

chernobylChernobyl by Frederik Pohl

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I’ve been fascinated by the Chernobyl disaster since I was a kid. I remember seeing the news alert when the news finally broke, and since it was in the middle of the Cold War, it was big, frightening news. Since then, I’ve read up on it here and there, getting a clearer picture of the disaster and its tragedy. When I saw that there was a novelization of the event, I thought it would be worth reading.

The story of the Chernobyl disaster, like the one of the sinking of the Titanic, is a natural human drama. It involves arrogance and folly, tragedy and bravery, and has a flow of events that feels like a narrative. Overlooking the real human tragedy of the events, one can find the story to be engaging and intriguing. It makes sense that Pohl would take the events of the disaster and make them into a novel.

The thing is, this novel was written and published in 1987, one year after the disaster occurred. Pohl did a lot of research and spoke with people who had close knowledge of the event, and he took the facts and structured them into a story with fictional characters to humanize the tragedy, like James Cameron did with Titanic. Reading it in 1987, I might have found this book to be even better, since at that time we didn’t know everything about the disaster. I’ve been pretty fascinated by the story around the disaster since I was a kid and first learned about it on the news, so I’ve done a lot of reading on the disaster, what caused it, what its consequences were, etc, so a lot of what I read in the book was stuff I already knew. It was kind of like reading the novelization of a movie I had already seen.

With that in mind, I started focusing on how well Pohl created his characters. The two main characters are Smin, the Deputy Director, and Sheranchuk, the lead hydraulics engineer of the plant. Both men are members of the Party, loyal to their country and their ideals, but after reactor number 4 explodes, they both risk their lives in order to protect not just the people working at the plant, but also the people who live outside of and around the plant. They’re honorable characters, and easy to sympathize with.

Pohl had to create some enemies for his story, though, and they feel a little trite. At one point early in the story, Smin thinks poorly of the Director, because his position is more political. The Director is the one who initiates the test that ultimately cause the explosion, and of course he’s away from the plant when the disaster occurs, and doesn’t return when it happens. The Director is never fleshed out outside of these points, and there wasn’t a real-life counterpart to the character. Without someone to blame for the human folly, though, it reduces the effect of the drama.

Some of the characters felt superfluous. There’s a couple from the US who are touring the USSR, who don’t serve any purpose to the story that I could tell, neither do they relate to any real people who were involved with the event. Pohl created other tertiary characters — soldiers, ambassadors, and other governmental figures — to illustrate the human impact of the accident and the response by the government, but the couple was just stuck in there.

Additionally, less attention is paid to the aftermath than I expected, though that could be due to the publication of the book so closely after the events happened. Much more has been learned since then, and the aftereffects of the accident are better understood, which are some of the most interesting parts of the real story. Again, I can see this being a timely, informative book at the time of its publication, but in 2016, more can be learned about the event from reading Wikipedia.

Because the actual story of the Chernobyl disaster is a story all of its own, I don’t understand the need to fictionalize what happened. I would have more of a response to the tragedy if I read about the actual people than reading about people who are only barely based on them. Pohl and his publishers seemed to be under the idea that the details of the event would be more interesting than the people involved, but the impact of their sacrifice and courage is lost when you see them portrayed through fictional characters. It was engaging, and accurate, but less impactful than I would have expected. In the end, the book just made me want to read a nonfiction book about the event.

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Usagi Yojimbo: Thieves and Spies

July 26, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

thievesUsagi Yojimbo: Thives and Spies by Stan Sakai

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Volume 30. Outside of Discworld, I can’t think of any other series that has this kind of longevity. I know this is the only series with that many volumes where I’ve actually read them all, though. You’d think that, this far into the series, the stories would grow tiresome or repetitious, but somehow Sakai keeps his characters and their adventures fresh.

Thieves and Spies is more a collection than a graphic novel, though a big chunk of the book is a single story where Usagi joins forces with a thief and a ninja to sort out a conspiracy. It’s a good mystery, with Sakai’s trademark plotting and pacing, and the artwork (as always) matches the story perfectly. The other stories are distinctive and engaging, as one would expect from Sakai, but I found myself wanting a little more history to the stories. Previous collections have been introspective history lessons with commentary by Sakai, and I missed that context.

The character of Usagi debuted in 1984, and now that I think about it, there is another series that’s lasted as long, without waning interest: Groo the Wanderer. That title started in 1982, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sakai also has his hands in that series; he’s the letterer. I’m just glad that Sakai has returned to his own series, as my own interest in this title will always be high.

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Lovecraft Country

March 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lovecraftLovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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It’s a new Matt Ruff novel! This is a bit of an event for me. They tend to come out about once every 5-7 years, but they’re always interesting and thoughtful. I’m less concerned about an author’s frequency of writing as much as I am the quality of it, and when someone like Ruff has proved himself as a quality writer, I’m all about reading his next book.

I didn’t do much research into Lovecraft Country before I read it (Ruff is one of those “Read it immediately, no questions asked” authors for me, in case you hadn’t figured that out), so I was surprised to find that it was more a collected series of short stories and novellas than it was a strict novel. It’s fine, but I was looking forward to a full novel.

On the bright side, Ruff is a gifted, talented author, and the individual stories in Lovecraft Country come together to form a larger story, one of a family in the 1950s Jim Crow-era United States fighting against a wizard who wants to use their family to help him achieve his own goals. In Ruff’s novel, “wizard” means someone who has mastered the use of magic, but it’s also a sign of how clever he is with the story, since that’s also the title of the leader of the KKK.

Ruff balances the stories between the vast, unnameable horrors that Lovecraft created, and the terrible, prejudiced horrors that Blacks endured during the Jim Crow era. Even when the stories are primarily about the Lovecraftian horrors, Ruff makes them about the racism, and it’s a perfect blend of story and meaning. I mean, check out the cover — those white figures at the bottom could be taken as ghosts, but in reality, they’re actual people wearing sheets. Ruff takes that dichotomy and applies it toward his stories, as well, most notably near the end of the book when one character warns the rest that they will have to be on a constant lookout for danger for the rest of their lives, which causes the other characters to laugh, saying, essentially “That’s no different than every other day of our lives.”

It’s also interesting to note that Ruff sets this novel of racism against the backdrop of a mythology created by someone who was, himself, pretty racist. He doesn’t offer any apologies, directly or indirectly, but there’s an obvious, ironic tip of his hat to Lovecraft in his story.

The story works very well, as fiction as well as thinkpiece, which is normal for Ruff. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes supernatural or historical fiction, though it’s probably geared more to the former group than the latter. Still, anyone interested in a story told from the perspective of a black family in Jim Crow-era United States would find a lot to like here.

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