Thursday, August 25, 2016

Cluster Critiques

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Reports of a terrorist attack in Paris keeps us perched on the edge of our couch, horrified, vulnerable.  Three young boys sizzling with the joys of youth go to the market in Dehli, India on a Saturday morning and two of them, brothers, are killed instantly by a small terrorist bomb, and we never hear about it on the news. Small bombs in developing countries; who cares? Happens all the time.

The brilliance of The Association of Small Bombs, other than the fact that it is written brilliantly, is that it takes the story of religious terrorism out of the context of Islamic radicalism against capitalism, giving us a less defensive perspective. It’s not about us versus them, so we can relax into the story. It’s about eight people whose lives are destroyed, redirected and sustained by the small bombs of death, loss, love, disillusionment, religion and destiny.

The author, Karan Mahajan gets us off that comfortable couch of distance and puts our hearts in the bedroom with the two boy’s grieving parents, into the impossibly derailed life of the boy who survived the bombing, and into the tragically ordained lives of a non-violent Muslim activist and a violent Muslim radical. Each character roils in conflict, dissecting the trajectory of their lives in a desperate search for meaning and justification. Read The Association of Small Bombs.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Mary Roach, in spite of having a regrettably creepy last name, is my alter-ego because she has an insatiable curiosity about the weirder aspects of otherwise ordinary things, and she is very funny. In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary wrote about what happens to the human anatomy after life has left it. The most fascinating parts were when she described how bodies donated to medical science are used – which led me to immediately change my medical directive. Scientists won’t be tossing my corpse out of a plane to see what happens when it hits the ground. And then there were her books about sex, Bonk, the digestive system, Gulp, Mars travel Packing for Mars, and ghost, Spook -  all of which I read practically within hours of their release.

So now in Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War Mary digs into military minutia to uncover the biggest challenges that come with soldiering, like diarrhea, panic, exhaustion, heat, flies and noise to name a few, and some unbelievably wonky things the war machine has spent millions concocting in its quest for world dominance. As it turns out snipers can’t have velcro pockets because they are noisy, and seaman on submarines have to eat caffeinated meat to stay awake and alert, and Hitler was nearly taken down by a stink bomb. When Roach ask a navy commander why they wore blue camouflage, he replied, “That’s so no one can see you if you fall overboard.”

Roach never fails to entertain and astound. I recommend you read all her books because you’ll laugh and you’ll learn – well maybe not super important stuff, but then I think learning why you shouldn’t donate your body to medical science without caveats is pretty important.   

Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Born With Teeth  is an autobiography by Kate Mulgrew, aka Red in the TV series Orange Is the New Black and Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. Although Mulgrew grew up in Middle America, geographically and economically, her childhood was anything but average. First, she really was born with teeth, literally. It’s a phenomenon called neonatal teeth, and they had to be removed. She also had a condition called congenital analgesia whereby she couldn’t feel pain, so she had to be restrained pretty much continuously for her own safety until she was around four, when the condition disappeared.

But the “born with teeth” double entendre is about her capacity for survival – much of which could pretty much mirror anyone’s life. We all have struggles of one sort or another. But what made Mulgrew’s book mostly readable and enjoyable for me was Kate and her mother’s extraordinarily intellectual and dispassionate take on life – that you’ve got to keep your head up and deal with what comes your way – no whining allowed. I say “mostly readable and enjoyable” because there were more than a few times in the book I felt Mulgrew was trying to impress rather than bare her soul - not in a name-dropping way, but rather in an “I’m so smart” way – and in fact she is, but sometimes it came across as scripted.

I saw a quote from her in the LA Times that I really liked in which she spoke of her very unglamorous role on Orange Is the New Black, she said, “There's a kind of liberty when you let go of your vanity and pay attention to your character. I want whatever I do for the rest of my life to be excellent or not to be done at all.”

Not the best biography I ever read, but certainly one of the better ones.

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

I was surprised at how much more graphic A Man on the Moon was compared to all the other books I’ve read about space travel.  The author, Andrew Chaikin, has an extraordinary capacity to place you in the moment. Your butt puckers when he details the emergency situations that accompanied nearly every single Apollo mission. You feel triumph when one of the astronauts solves a really complex problem. Each mission feels so urgent, dangerous and real, and Chaikin’s skill brings each moment to life. Unlike so many portrayals I’ve read and movies I’ve seen about the Apollo program, our astronauts weren’t just blasted into space and mostly controlled remotely, they were mechanics and problem-solvers and death-defying decision-makers. And then there were the men and women behind the space program at NASA – the lives they lived, their singular focus on launching humans into a virtually unknown abyss, and bringing them home safely.  

I’d also forgotten how many trips we made to the moon. Somehow I’d sort of mashed my memory of that time into one walk on the moon – there were nine missions to the moon. between 1968 and 1972. Twelve astronauts walked on the Moon's surface, and six drove Lunar Roving Vehicles on the Moon. Three astronauts flew to the Moon twice. If you have any interest in the details of the Apollo program this is the book to read. Very well done.