Monthly Archives: August 2009

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream

Astronautsby Tanya Lee Stone

I would bet that very few Americans today — of any age — will recognize the names of Jerrie Cobb or Jane Hart. They were, in fact, 2 of the 13 trailblazing women who, in 1959, began the same grueling battery of psychological and physical tests that the men trying to become members of the first cadre of astronauts did, hoping to prove that a woman or two should be among that first group. (In fact, in some cases the tests the women were given were more difficult than those the men took; the women were placed in sensory deprivation tanks, an ordeal the men never had to go through.)  Now, in Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, Tanya Lee Stone attempts to give these women their due. Although the book is aimed at young readers (10 to 14), I found it fascinating and suspect many adults will as well. Stone covers all the important aspects of the women’s fight to be taken seriously as possible astronauts, including describing their backgrounds as test pilots, their superior test scores, the discussion among their (few) supporters within NASA and outside the space agency and those who were leagued against them, including then Vice–President Lyndon Johnson, President Kennedy’s liaison to NASA. It’s sobering to read Stone’s account of the Congressional hearing in which Hart and Cobb made their case for equal treatment for the women. This is a stirring, and ultimately sad story of hopes dashed and talent wasted. But in the end, I suppose, it’s more helpful to view Cobb, Hart, and the others as setting the stage for all the women who came after them, including Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman in space.

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Dark Star Safari

Dark Starby Paul Theroux
Although Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar is one of my all–time favorite books, I stopped reading him when he fell into what seemed to me to be an interminable bad mood — somewhat ironically, along about Happy Isles of Oceania in 1993, so it’s been quite a while since I picked up a Theroux travel narrative. But a friend recommended his Dark Star Safari, and ever trusting (and, as always, looking for a good book to read), I tried it and was immediately hooked. It begins, “All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre–and–earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again.” I’m a sucker for an opening line like that. There are sentences on every page of this engrossing book that you just want to write down and share with others. Theroux seems to have recovered his emotional equilibrium and shed most of his grumpiness and petulance. All of his talent for discovering the unusual in the ordinary people he meets and places he visits is in evidence on every page of this tale of his trip overland from Cairo to Cape Town. Here’s another wonderful line, also from the first chapter: “I … was heading south, in my usual traveling mood: hoping for the picturesque, expecting misery, braced for the appalling. Happiness was unthinkable, for although happiness is desirable, it is a banal subject for travel. Therefore, Africa seemed perfect for a long journey.” Along the way, he celebrates his 60th birthday, revisits Uganda, where he once taught at Makerere University, and offers his opinion (not high) on the efficacy of foreign aid. He travels by nearly every sort of conveyance you can imagine: a variety of trucks, a ferry, train, bus, and dugout canoe (a particularly fascinating section) and talks to a diverse group of people from all walks of life, both Africans and others, such as missionaries, tourists and aid workers from Western countries, which gives him (and us) a well–rounded portrait of a continent struggling to find itself. Incidentally, there’s also a very funny joke on page 123 of the paperback edition.

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Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay

by Terry Pratchett

Whenever I feel the need for something light and humorous yet still complex and thoughtful enough to keep me reading, I turn and return to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. By my count, there are 32, not including his books for kids and teens. And of all the characters who inhabit Pratchett’s imaginary universe — the witches, a talking suitcase, Death, Death’s granddaughter Susan, the librarian at the Unseen University who’s an orangutan, and various wizards — my favorites are the members of the Night Watch police force led by Sam Vimes. In Feet of Clay, Sam and his cohorts, who include a werewolf, a zombie, a dwarf, and several lovable if minimally intelligent humans, have to try to stop a killer who leaves shards of what appears to be clay behind him. What I love about all of Pratchett’s novels (and it’s so evident in Feet of Clay) is his brilliant imagination, and how detailed and complex and real he’s made Discworld. Who else could have thought of a Dwarf–Bread Museum, in which some of the items on exhibit are drop scones — a perfect weapon to throw at your enemy? For some reason, that just makes me chuckle. Pratchett is always writing about something serious under the surface of, or by means of, the humor he employs. So in Feet of Clay, there are echoes of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a history of golems, ideas about race relations (a topic that runs through many of the Discworld novels), personal responsibility, man’s relationship to God, and so on. These days, what makes reading Pratchett’s novels such a bittersweet experience is that his dazzling mind is being lost to early–onset Alzheimer’s. When I learned that, I thought of how Iris Murdoch, another extremely intelligent writer, was felled by that dreadful disease.

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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel Bittersweetby Jamie Ford

In 1986, at age 56, Chinese–American Henry Lee watches as modernization comes to the derelict and long abandoned Panama Hotel, long the gateway to Japantown in Seattle. As a new owner prepares to remodel the building, she discovers in the basement the belongings of 37 Japanese–American families, left behind when they were sent to spend the World War II years in the now–infamous internment camps. This discovery evokes in Henry memories of his own experiences of the war years, and especially of his first love, Japanese American Keiko Okabe, a fellow student at the private school he attended, whom he never saw again after she and her family were sent to the camps. What Ford does so nicely in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, his first novel, is give us a picture of the war years from the point of view of a Chinese–American boy, a young man whose non–English speaking father tries to deal with the strong and frightening anti–Japanese sentiment by making his son wear a button that says “I am Chinese,” in the mostly futile hope that Henry can thereby escape the prevalent racism. Although I’ve read many novels that touched upon the discrimination against Japanese–Americans during WWII, Ford’s book presents a point of view that I’d never encountered before. Ford does a fine job transitioning the reader between present and past; those sections set in the present day explore Henry’s relationship with his own son, as well as his attempts to finally locate Keiko and put the past to rest. Ultimately, this is a book about memory and regret. It reminds us that the great events of history take place not only on the world stage, but also reverberate throughout the lives of individuals, even the young and innocent. Fans of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars will definitely want to check this out. Ford based part of his book on real events: the Panama Hotel was remodeled, and the belongings of Japanese Americans were found, so a nice bonus for readers of this book who visit Seattle is that the Panama Hotel offers tours of the building, as well as great tea and coffee.

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The Family Man

Family Man

by Elinor Lipman

I’ve been a huge fan of Elinor Lipman for years. There are lots of reasons why I love her books: the delectably screwballish nature of the plots, and the realistic yet infinitely wittier–than–anything–I–ever–encounter–in–real–life dialogue, for two. For me, though, what most sets Elinor Lipman apart is the way she just adores her characters. She has such abounding affection for the people she’s invented; she seems to regard even the most unpleasant ones with sympathy. It’s only natural for readers to adopt an author’s attitude toward her characters and, in Lipman’s case, take the same delight in reading about them that she obviously took in creating them. Her new novel, The Family Man, is a madcap romp with a heart of gold. Retired lawyer Henry Archer’s biggest regret in life is that when his wife left him 25 years before, he allowed her new husband to adopt Thalia, Denise’s 4–year–old daughter, whom Henry had adopted when he and Denise married. So when he’s reunited with his ex–stepdaughter, now an actress (whom he never knew works at the salon where he gets his hair cut), he couldn’t be happier. Complications of the wackiest sort, of course, ensue. The recently widowed Denise insists that Henry help her fight a lawsuit when her step–children try to overturn their father’s will; and, more importantly for Henry, Denise introduces him to a man she’s recently met while shopping. Todd, a tabletop specialist at the Gracious Home store, still lives with his mother and has never actually told her he was gay. Thalia gets a job pretending to be the girlfriend of a Hollywood actor of dubious character, and so on. You can see, I’m sure, how deliciously complicated the plot all is — it would be easy to lose track of it all. But under Lipman’s skilled touch, these disparate plot elements come together in a totally satisfying way. If you enjoy The Family Man, don’t miss my other favorite novels: The Way Men Act, The Inn at Lake Devine, and My Latest Grievance.


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Living Witness

Living Witness

by Jane Haddam

I have recently become addicted to the mystery novels of Jane Haddam. I read a few of them years ago — her first Gregor Demarkian mystery, Not a Creature Was Stirring, was published in 1990 — but for some reason I don’t think I ever fully appreciated her until I read her newest one, Living Witness — the 24th featuring ex–FBI agent Demarkian — at which point I went back and avidly read all the earlier ones that I had skipped. Haddam’s books aren’t for thriller readers looking for adrenaline–charged page–turners; they’re truly character–driven, British–style cerebral mysteries, deliciously slow–paced and intricately plotted. Living Witness is centered on the controversy over the biology curriculum in a small, very conservative town in Pennsylvania. Ninety-one–year–old Ann–Victoria Hadley, newly elected member of the school board, has initiated a lawsuit that would forbid the teaching of intelligent design (synonymous with creationism in her mind), thus requiring the teaching of evolution in the local schools. When Ann–Victoria is found beaten nearly to death, and shortly thereafter two fellow plaintiffs to the lawsuit are found murdered, the local police chief, no fan of Darwin’s theory himself, and thus a possible suspect in both the beating and the killings, calls on Gregor to take over the investigation. One of the things I especially like about Haddam as an author is the way she treats her characters. All of them — both major and minor, and on both sides of the controversy — are fully developed, as well as being treated with respect. It’s easy to imagine them having real lives both before and after we meet them in the pages of this book (except for the ones killed off, of course). Although events in Gregor’s personal life change and develop over the course of the two dozen books, I don’t think it’s necessary to read them in order. Two others I’d recommend wholeheartedly are The Headmaster’s Wife and Cheating at Solitaire.

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A Far Cry from Kensington

Far Cryby Muriel Spark

One of my favorite characters in all of fiction is Mrs. Hawkins, the greatly overweight, greatly capable, and greatly opinionated narrator of Muriel Spark’s light–hearted novel, A Far Cry from Kensington (New Directions, 2000). I’ve always felt that were I to meet the now elderly Mrs. Hawkins today, she would have morphed into the sort of woman that Maggie Smith played in the film Gosford Park — tart, loyal to her friends, easy to confide in, impossibly self–assured, and yet, for all that, incredibly easy to love. Here’s how Mrs. Hawkins describes herself:

I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.

And here are just a few of her opinions that we’re treated to in the course of the book:  On losing weight–“only eat and drink half of whatever you’re given”; willpower–“you should think of will–power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you have already done or refrained”; on being capable–“don’t demonstrate it too much; you’ll incur resentment from those who think they’re your betters.”  There are many more, and we would all no doubt be better people for taking her advice.

The heart of the novel, recounted in a long flashback, takes place in 1954, in the world of literary London. Mrs. Hawkins lives in a rooming house in Kensington, then a down–at–heels part of the city, and works as an editor for a small publishing company. One of her great dislikes (among many) is bad and pretentious writing, and Mrs. Hawkins believes that the very worst of the hacks whose writing she would so characterize is Hector Bartlett. One day, when she happens upon Bartlett in the park on her way to work, Mrs. Hawkins accuses him of being a “pisseur de copie,” someone who “vomits literary matter.” Not unnaturally, he takes great umbrage at being referred to thus, and becomes Mrs. Hawkins’ great enemy, not only getting her fired from two publishing jobs but also, quite possibly, doing even more serious harm to one of Mrs. Hawkins’ fellow boarders. Or did he? With Spark, it’s hard to know.

Spark is a spare and meticulous writer; she brings her creations to life in a simple sentence or two. One female character in A Far Cry from Kensington is described as being so forgettable that “she seemed to live in parentheses.” But it’s the character of Mrs. Hawkins who demonstrates Spark’s talents at their finest. I first read this novel more than 20 years ago and loved it then. Rereading it for “Pearl’s Picks,” spiffied up in a new cover from New Directions, I found it as buoyant and satisfying as I did back then. 

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