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