Book Review: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Author: Mary Roach
Title: Packing for Mars
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton, c2010.
ISBN: 9780393068474


With plans for long-term space exploration afoot, Mary Roach explores the many challenges of putting human beings in space.  This is less the physics of rocket propulsion and more the psychological and cultural  problems of human space exploration.  Roach is a good investigator in that she asks the questions we always wanted to ask and many more we never even thought to ask.  She’s also an amusing writer in that she seems to challenge the mindset of a 12-year old boy.  Issues explored in this book include the effects of  isolation and working in close quarters with others for long duration, the physical and psychological effects of weightlessness, illness and vomiting in space, personal hygiene, sex in space, evacuating from space disasters, and everyone’s need to eat and thus need to poop.  Roach draws upon astronaut memoirs, technical documents, and interviews with people around the world who are directly involved in the fascinating and often absurd work that goes into human space exploration.

Recommended books: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, Moon Shot by Alan Shepard, A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, & Lost Moon by Jeffrey Kluger,
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

Author: Rory Stewart
Title: The Places In Between
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2006)
ISBN: 1428116702


A Scotsman sets out on a long walk across Afghanistan having already walked through several other Central Asian nations.  Complicating an already difficult challenge is that Stewart takes his walk in the winter of 2002 when Afghanistan is being invaded by the United States and his own Great Britain.  Many people think he’s crazy for doing so, and Stewart seems proud of that, I question his ultimate purpose in doing this walk, something he never satisfactorily explains.  Despite his criticism of Western attitudes toward the Middle East, Stewart carries an air of imperialism himself and his often dismissive and judgmental of the people he encounters on his travels.   Still there are positive factors of Stewart’s journey and his memoir of it.  First, he is offered a great deal of hospitality on his walk, never having to sleep out of doors, something unimaginable for someone walking in a Western nation who isn’t going to stay in a hotel.  Second, there is a great sense of human endurance as Stewart encounters mountain passages, severe winter weather, and armed assailants along his path.  Third, Stewart weaves in a lot of history, anthropology, and archaeology about the places he walks through.  Finally, there is Babur, an old dog Stewart adopts as his walking companion, and their relationship is the emotional heart of this narrative.  This is an interesting and challenging work of travel memoir with a lot of current events spun in.

Recommended books: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy, and The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth.
Rating: ** 1/2

Book Review: In Transit: An Heroi-Cyclic Novel by Brigid Brophy

Author: Brigid Brophy
Title: In Transit: An Heroi-Cyclic Novel
Publication Info: New York, Putnam [1970, c1969]


This bizarre novel is a work of modern fiction set in an airport, and like the architecture of airports it is very modern but dated in the way that modern things from the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s seem to age rather quickly.  The narrator is “in transit” – between flights – at the airport having decided to skip the ongoing flight and reflecting on the narrator’s past life and the undefined status of being in transit.  Suddenly, the narrator cannot remember his/her sex and rather comically tries to figure that out.  More odd events transpire eventually leading to a rebellion against the airport.  The book is full of wordplay, especially puns, and satire of the modern world.   It’s the best book with a gender-ambiguous narrator that I’ve read since Written on the Body by  Jeanette Winterson.

Favorite Passages:

“Have you noticed how little of the twentieth-century life is in fact conducted in twentieth-century surroundings?  There are precious few places where you can glance unhibitedly round you and be sure of never placing eyes on an artifact that’s an anachronism.  Indeed our century hasn’t yet invented a style — only a repertory of cliche motifs which aren’t in fact functional, since they can  be stuck on anywhere, but which imitate the machine-turned and stream-lined and thereby serve the emotional purpose of signaling that our century prefers function to style.” – p. 22

Recommended books: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, Under the Net by Iris Murdoch, Written on the Body by  Jeanette Winterson and In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

Author: Dennis Lehane
Title: The Given Day
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2008)
ISBN: 0061661511


This sprawling historical novel is in many ways seemingly targeted towards the demographic of me.  It is set in Boston circa 1918-1920 among the working class and immigrant communities with the labor movement central to the narrative.  Events in the novel include the 1918 World Series, the great influenza, the Salutation Street Bombing, the Red Scare, the Great Molasses Flood, and the Boston Police Strike.   Historical details like that appeal to me but the story and interesting characters also make it worthwhile.  The novel focuses on two main characters: Danny Coughlin, a police officer who finds himself drawn into the labor movement and Luther Laurence, a black man on the run from a criminal gang in Tulsa.  Dozens of characters both fictional and historical circulate around the parallel stories of these two men including recurring appearances by Babe Ruth.  There are many flaws in this novel including a penchant for melodrama,  two-dimensional characters (especially the women), and ahistorical progressive behavior in the friendship that arises between Danny and Luther.  Still, it’s an enjoyable read and a treat for anyone interested in a fictional take on the social history of Boston.

Recommended books: Empire Rising: A Novel by Thomas Kelly and Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz

Author: Steven Mintz
Title: Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood
Publication Info: Belknap Press (2004)
ISBN: 0674015088


This book is an interesting history of the United States from the perspective of children that takes on the myth of the idealized childhood – one enjoyed by precious few children, mostly prosperous and fairly recent.  The analogy of Huck’s Raft is adept centering on the idyllic childhood adventure yet the raft itself is adrift and unsheltered from the storms raging around it.  Mintz’s history goes back to the earliest American children among the Puritan’s of New England and traces childhood life among the enslaved and working class, the inner city immigrants and the privileged elite.  It’s amusing to note that commentators over the centuries are always stating that children of the day are more spoiled, more sexually promiscuous, more violent, and less educated (statistically kids these days have actually improved upon their predecessors as far as teen pregnancies, violence, and education despite outcries to the contrary).  It’s an interesting take on what is really the creation and evolution of childhood as a concept in America and reassuring that there was  never really a golden age.  If I have any criticism of this book is that Mintz’s prose is dry & academic and at times repetitive.  Still, an interesting book about the history of a large but generally voiceless part of the populace.

Favorite Passages:

“But despite popular stereotypes of ghetto pathology, most inner-city residents resist the temptations of crime, drug abuse, or teenage pregnancy.  Indeed, inner-city youth drink less, smoke less, and use drugs less than their suburban middle-class counterparts.  One factor that has contributed to this pattern is the strength of black mothers, who serve as models and nurturers of strong and independent behavior.  Socialization among African Americans historically has not emphasized sex-role dichotomies in the way found among white families, and as a result many young black women, even in the poorest neighborhoods, have higher aspirations for education and a career than many of their white counterparts.” – p. 353

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Author: Jonathan Franzen
Title: The Corrections
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2001)
ISBN: 0743510003


I’ve avoided reading Franzen and if it weren’t for my book club, I wouldn’t have read this book but I was pleasantly surprised.  Pleasant may not be the best word for this novel as it is an unpleasant story about a dysfunctional family and I swiftly found myself hating every character in the book.  It is a credit to Franzen’s writing that I was still interested in finding out what happens to them.  I was particularly impressed by the opening of the book where the narrative would follow one character until he met up with someone else and then the story would rather cinematically tag along with another character.  Franzen also did well at capturing the sense of dementia in the family patriarch and the spreading effect that had on the family.  Still, this book is not an easy read as these are nasty, nasty people.

Recommended books: No specific books, but I find parallels with the writing of Richard Russo and Jonathan Lethem.
Rating: ***1/2

The 40th Anniversary Christmas Revels

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m a big fan of Revels and their annual Christmas Revels performances at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge.  I was excited and honored to attend the dress rehearsal performance of this year’s 40th anniversary production of the Christmas Revels on Thursday, December 16th.  Had I better journalistic standards I would have used this scoop to get my review up before the show opened on Friday night, but at least at this point there are still eleven more shows to go.

This year’s Christmas Revels returns to a familiar setting, Haddon Hall, an English manor house that was the scene of the first and many subsequent Revels performances.  This time the show is set in the 1920s and the 10th Duke of Rutland with his wife and children are making one last visit to the long abandoned house before it is demolished to make way for a motorway.  I never before realized that Haddon Hall is a real place and the characters in these Revels are based upon real people who in fact saved and renovated Haddon Hall in the 1920s.   The story told in the Revels performance of course is a beautiful fiction but one that contains deeper moral truths about family, ritual, and place.

In the performance, the spirits of the Duke of Rutland’s ancestors emerge from the walls to celebrate the solstice.  This gives the chorus and instrumentalists the very enjoyable opportunity to perform music and stories from various eras – medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian – a Revels’ clip-show of sorts.  While building on the historic traditions of England, the show also builds on Revels traditions of the past 40 years.  Sanders Theatre is very much our Haddon Hall for the families and friends of the Revels who come each year.

I’ll try not to give too much away, but here are some of the highlights of the show (don’t read if you want to be completely surprised):

  • The emergence of the spirits in white shrouds to the “Cries of London” is eerie and creepy in a beautiful way.  When the chorus makes it on stage and remove the shrouds so that there costumes are visible for the first time is a big wow moment for me.
  • The children’s chorus is excellent as always and seem to be more integrated into performing with the adult chorus, especially on the lovely piece “On Christmas Night.”
  • All the actors put in a great performance, particularly Tim Sawyer as the Duke and Emma Jaster as a mute jester.
  • Harriet Bridges plays the Duchess and also provides a soaring soprano for pieces like “Down in Yon Forest.”
  • The traditional mummers play of St. George in the Dragon is always entertaining and the brand new dragon (part costume/part puppetry) really steals the show.
  • A sing-a-long of “Let’s All Go Down the Strand” is joyful and exuberant, and as David Coffin noted they really do make it fit into the show.
  • The real showstopper for me is the chorus’ performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s “There Shall A Star From Jacob Come Forth.”  The intertwining of voices and the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble is breathtaking.

I’ll be returning to Sanders Theatre on December 26th to catch a Revels’ matinée with my wife, son, and mother.  In the meantime, if you live anywhere near Cambridge and want to celebrate the holidays, go see this show!

Other reviews & articles:

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The World of Soccer

A lot has happened since my last soccer update.

First, there was the draw for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.  The USA were drawn in Group C with Korea DPR, Sweden, and Colombia which looks like a tough group.  I expect the USA will probably advance, but I could see a scenario where they finish behind Sweden and North Korea as well.  Group A with the  hosts and two-time defending champions Germany, Canada, France, and Nigeria looks like a tough group as well.

The bigger news for many people was the announcement of the hosts for the men’s World Cup in 2018 and 2022.  I find myself have mixed reactions to the whole thing.

On the one hand, I was really hoping the World Cup would return to the US (and to a lesser extent I would have liked the Netherlands & Belgium to get a chance to host).  The USA, England, and some other bidders seemed much better prepared to host a World Cup than Russia and Qatar.  On the other hand, it’s good that countries that have never hosted the World Cup before to get a chance. And the World Cup is going to have great attendance and be a great success no matter where it is held.  Experienced fans will travel anywhere in the world, and new fans from those regions will have a chance to see the games. On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of evidence of corruption in how FIFA awarded the bids.  Yet, corruption or not there is some virtue in the World Cup going from South Africa to Brazil to Russia to Qatar, about as four different places in the world as I can imagine and sign that this is a truly global event. Yet Qatar hasn’t yet built the stadiums and it could be 120 degrees in the summer.  Building a dozen new stadiums and air conditioning them doesn’t seem very economical.  But the plans for Qatar’s systems call for solar power of the air cooling system and the stadiums will be dismantled and donated to developing nations after the World Cup. Still it seems that countries with lots of money are being awarded as hosts rather than countries with a true love of the game.  So what, they have the money, let them spend it on creating a great stage for the world’s greatest sporting event.  Let the US spend money on player development.  Let developing nations spend on more important things than soccer. But Russia is a bastion of racism against black players and Qatar discriminates against Israelis and homosexuals.  This is a tough one to rationalize, but there is a case to be made for the World Cup being a way of pushing a progressive message through in these countries. So, I don’t know what to think, but I’m not going to worry about it too much.

Here are the games I’ve watched the past two weeks.

Barcelona 5:0 Real Madrid (29 November 2010)

Deep inside I have no real reason to hate Real Madrid or to support Barcelona, but damn if this wasn’t a satisfying result in the first El Classico I’ve ever watched.  It helped that Real’s Cristiano Ronald was a total brat in pushing Barça  Pep Guardiola for no apparent reason, while Barcelona played a beautiful game of passing and possession.  The goals for lovely too, my favorite being David Villa’s second goal through the keeper’s legs and then gently bouncing into the net.

Chelsea 1:1 Everton (4 December 2010)

After the Blues poor form through November and coming off a 1:4 home loss to West Brom, a trip to Stamford Bridge didn’t look to promising.  Luckily Everton put in a good performance against (an admittedly slumping) Chelsea strong on possession and attacking in the second half.  Jermain Beckford’s header to equalize in the 85th minutes was a lovely sight to see.

Arsenal 2:1 Fulham (4 December 2010)

For a loss to a top side, this was still a pretty impressive game for Fulham.  The goal by Diomansy Kamara in the 29th minute tied the score and Fulham had some good chances to go ahead even as Arsenal squandered some excellent chances of their own.  Unfortunately for Fulham, they were victims of the beautiful footwork and scoring of Samir Nasri and his two amazing goals.

Ajax 1:1 NEC Nijmegen (4 December 2010)

A tense and frustrating match saw Ajax go winless at home for the third straight game.  The disappointing season for Ajax resulted in head coach Martin Jol leaving the team after this game.

Napoli 1:0 Palermo (6 December 2010)

This was a low-scoring game but not for lack of trying as there was lots of end-to-end play with each side attacking well but meeting up with even better defending and some great saves by both goalkeepers.  The game nearly ended in a scoreless tie but for Christian Maggio’s last minute goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

Barcelona 2:0 Rubin Kazan (7 December 2010)

Barça finished up Champions League group play (winning Group D) with a pretty easy win over the defensive Russian side.

AC Milan 0:2 Ajax (8 December 2010)

In their first match under their new coach and last match in Champions League play, Ajax had to try to earn a win in hopes of securing a spot in the Europa League.  Unexpectedly, the result was a satisfying road win at Milan with goals by Demy de Zeeuw and an awesome long range shot by Alderweireld.  Milan brought on former Ajax players Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Clarence Seedorf, but didn’t have much fight in them.

Everton 0-0 Wigan (11 December 2010)

Ugh!  The less said about this match the better.  There’s no reason that Everton shouldn’t have won this game dominating play throughout.  To go scoreless defies belief.

Newcastle United 3-1 Liverpool (11 December 2010)

Not teams I would usually watch but I’ve made friends with a NUFC supporter on Tumblr and this game was on the tv at the James Gate pub when I went in for lunch.  I didn’t see the whole match but I did see Liverpool equalize early in the second half and then the impressive goals by Joey Barton and Andy Carroll to give the Magpies a deserved win.


Related posts:

30 Day Football (Soccer) Challenge

I participated in a meme on Tumblr called the 30 Day Football (Soccer) Challenge.  I took more than thirty days, but I completed the project.  Here are the links to my responses.

Day 1 – Which team/s do you support? Explain why.

Day 2 – Who is your current favourite player (you can only choose ONE) and what is it about them that makes you like them above any other? Post your favourite picture of them.

Day 3 – Which leagues/tournaments do you watch?

Day 4 – What is your earliest football memory?

Day 5 – Which football moment has made you the happiest?

Day 6 – Which football moment has made you the saddest?

Day 7 – 5 things you love about football

Day 8 – 5 things you hate about football

Day 9 – If you were the president of your favourite club and money was no object name one player you would buy and one player you would you sell?

Day 10 – If you were the manager of your favourite club, what would you change in terms of starting team, tactics etc? Transfers not allowed!

Day 11 – Who is your favourite manager?

Day 12 – Favourite ever match?

Day 13 – Favourite goal?

Day 14 – Which live matches have you been to?

Day 15 – Name your dream XI of all time.

Day 16 – Which other current players, other than whoever you answered for Day One, are you a fan of?

Day 17 – Name a transfer that has broken your heart.

Day 18 – Favourite footballer bromance?

Day 19 – Are there any teams you hate with a passion?

Day 20 – Who is your favourite player from a team you dislike?

Day 21 – Favourite legendary player i.e. one who is no longer playing

Day 22 – Biggest footballing injustice you’re still not over.

Day 23 – Favourite young player? (Under 21)

Day 24 – Players you really cannot stand and why.

Day 25 – Describe your typical matchday routine.

Day 26 – Favourite WAG?

Day 27 – Which football shirts do you own?

Day 28 – Most overrated player and most underrated player?

Day 29 – Best football advert/commercial?

Day 30 – Which has been your favourite World Cup? And favourite Euros?

Book Review: Do It Anyway by Courtney E. Martin

Author: Courtney E. Martin
Title: Do it anyway : the next generation of activists
Publication Info: Boston : Beacon Press, c2010.


Martin (who I didn’t discover until after reading the book is an editor for one of my favorite blogs interviews and tells the stories of 8 people under the age of 35 who are contributing to their communities as activists.  Martin takes the approach that this generation has been told from generation that they need to “save the world” but are often criticized for being aloof and narcissistic.  Through these essays Martin shows that while they can’t “save the world” there are in fact many young people who are far from self-centered.

These include:

  • Rachel Corrie, a peace activist killed by a bulldozer as she attempted to prevent the Israelis  from destroying a Palestinian home.  Martin goes beyond the sensationalist headlines to tell the story of Corrie’s hopes for transformation through peace.
  • Raul Diaz, a  social worker who helps young men reenter society after prison sentence as part of his work with Homeboy Industries.  Diaz lives a life shattered by gang violence and persists despite the deaths of many friends and mentees.
  • Maricela Guzman is an activist for veterans and against the military culture that contributed to her being raped by an officer and failing to get the support she needed after the attack.  A highlight of this chapter is when Martin brings together Diaz and Guzman together to share common experiences of trauma and violence.
  • Emily Abt who found her voice as an activist through making documentary and dramatic films through Pureland Pictures.
  • Nia Martin-Robinson, an environmental justice advocate, who carries on her family’s activist tradition by fighting pollution’s inordinate damage on communities of poor and people of color (as well as giving a minority voice often shunned by the green movement).
  • Tyrone Boucher, who chose to establish a philanthropy to give away his trust fund and fight for social justice outside the confines of the capitalist system.
  • Rosario Dawson, an actress who dedicates much of her time away from the set to various charities and social causes.
  • Dena Simmons, a teacher who grew up in the Bronx and remains as an inspirational teacher to her middle school students.

These are all inspiring stories of people doing good in their communities tied together by their common respect for humanity, perseverance, and big dreams with strategic visions.  This is a good book to read if you want to read something positive about people in our world today.

Recommended books: Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and From the pews in the back : young women and Catholicism by Kate Dugan.