Monday, July 6, 2015

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield (2013)

You may have heard of astronaut Chris Hadfield from his YouTube videos, such as his popular performance of Space Oddity which he recorded aboard the International Space Station. Hadfield has written a book about his experiences as an astronaut and the life lessons he has learned along the way.

As a child in Canada, he watched Neil Armstrong take those first historic steps on the moon and knew that he too wanted to be an astronaut one day. Canada didn't even have a space program and at the time it was impossible for a Canadian to go into space. But, Hadfield reasoned, only recently it had also been impossible to walk on the moon. So there we have lesson number one: just because something is impossible doesn't mean it will always be impossible.

Hadfield didn't know if his dreams would ever come true, but he did everything he could to prepare himself nonetheless. Throughout his career he has shown the same incredible patience and perseverance, and I was in awe as I read about it. He is very sensible and logical and determined, but also displays a healthy sense of humor (which I am convinced is key to being successful as a human being.) I was also envious of his ability to concentrate and maintain focus. Once he was flying a jet in formation, and discovered a bee in his helmet. He had no choice but to ignore it, which is completely reasonable, but had I been in this situation I would surely have panicked and gotten myself (and possibly others) killed.

His anecdote about ignoring the bee was meant to illustrate a piece of wisdom he came back to a couple of times. Basically, don't worry about what you can't control. Focus on what you can do and ignore the rest. Ignore the bees, and don't take jerks personally. Complaining about things you can't control doesn't help either. He cautions against getting carried away with group griping. It does help bonding, but if you let it go on it only makes the problem you're complaining about seem even bigger than it is and certainly doesn't solve it.

I learned a lot about space travel; there's just so much that had never occurred to me. As you would expect, a lot of preparation goes into preparing for launch but I didn't realize the extent of it. Because of everything that goes into preparing for launch far away from home, NASA provides family escorts: astronauts who aren't currently training for a mission who sort of act as a surrogate spouse/concierge for the family. That escort runs out for sandwiches, deals with hotel issues, and carts the family around, but also has to be there if someone in the family dies while the family's astronaut is away or, worst-case scenario, if the astronaut dies during the mission. In that the case, the escort will help with the funeral and long afterward, advocating for the family and assisting with things like setting up an education fund for the kids. Hadfield has done this for other families as well, and it helped him to see what a launch was like for the families and also helped him to understand that his family's struggles were just like those of other astronauts' families.

Over and over Hadfield would ask himself "What is the next thing that could kill me?" and then prepare for that. An astronaut needs to be the very best that he or she can possibly be so it's no surprise that this is kind of a self-improvement manual. It's a great complement to Mary Roach's Packing for Mars, which is the first book I read about life in space. Hadfield's book touches a bit on some of the same practicalities, but is really more focused on becoming an astronaut, what it's like in a larger sense, and of course the lessons he's learned that can apply to all of our lives.

I listened to the audio version, which was read by Hadfield himself, complete with charming Canadian accent. But when I grabbed a copy of the paper version to peruse in preparation for writing this post, I saw that it includes photos. They're not integral to the experience of the book, but if you're going to listen to the audio - which I definitely think is worthwhile - you might just want to be aware that photos are available. There aren't a ton either; you could easily peruse them in just a few minutes in a bookstore if needed.

However you choose to read it, I think everyone can get something out of this book. Have you read it? Or have you read another book about space travel that you would recommend?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)

The Mortmain family live in the crumbling ruins of an English castle in the 1930s, where seventeen-year-old Cassandra chronicles their lives in her journal. When the heir of the Mortmains' landlord settles nearby with his brother, the family hopes he may lift them out of poverty through marriage. But don't think this is a rip-off of Pride and Prejudice - the similarities end there.

Cassandra's father once wrote a critically-acclaimed novel, but since then hasn't written a thing or earned any sort of income to support his wife and three children. He's an absent-minded genius, doddering about the property working on crossword puzzles and having eccentric conversations that his family can't make any sense of. To get by, they make do as best they can, selling off furniture and valuables, but now there is little left to sell. Cassandra's step-mother, Topaz, is a rather Bohemian former artist's model who is barely older than her step-daughters. But the young women all get along really well, which is a nice departure from the wicked-stepmother stereotype. The family is rounded out by two boys, a younger brother and a servant named Stephen who has become part of the family and is in love with Cassandra.

Stephen's is not the only unrequited love in this novel; in fact, many of the relationships are one-sided, or at least lop-sided. Everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person and it gets pretty messy at times. Interestingly, at my book group discussion about Tibetan Peach Pie someone pointed out the part where Robbins expressed that even if the person you love doesn't love you back, you are still better for having felt that way yourself. This idea also comes up here in this very different book. (I'm honestly not sure I agree with the sentiment, but I think that's my own shortcoming.) This willingness to feel good about love for the sake of love is just one of many things that make this story a feel-good one despite some seemingly-bleak plot points.

Probably the greatest strength of the novel is Cassandra's narrative voice. She's intelligent but dreamy, self-aware but naive, and brimming with clever observations. When discussing her theory of bathing she says, "The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way." (Oh it does, Cassandra, it does.) Another part I enjoyed was a conversation she had with their neighbor Neil comparing English and American table manners. Growing up in America, Neil has been taught that you should cut each mouthful, set your knife down, transfer your fork to the other hand, eat, then start the process again. He dislikes how the English "all hang on to your knives." He also points out that though the English always serve the guests first, the American custom of serving the hostess first makes much more sense, so she can model the correct way to approach unfamiliar foods, which Cassandra agrees is a very good idea. (It's way more amusing the way she tells it, trust me.)

Any book that takes place in a drafty old castle in the English countryside is going to appeal to me, but this one is just so well-executed it's practically perfect. I know that poverty isn't romantic, but there's just something incredibly cozy and almost magical about Cassandra's life. I think it's just the lens through which she sees it and the way she tells us about it.

I first read this book probably 13 or 14 years ago now, and I barely remembered anything about it except that it was about a teenager living in a castle and that I really liked it. This is the problem with getting older - I've forgotten books that I've read even as an adult and now I want to reread them. But there's great pleasure in starting a book that you know you'll love but that can still surprise you. I could see myself reading this again in another decade or so.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tibetan Peach Pie

Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins (2015)

When I was in my early- and mid-20s I read all of Tom Robbins's books. They were so unusual and I loved the quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and madcap adventures. Now Robbins has a nonfiction book about his own true-life adventures and my book group picked it to read this month.

Recounting his childhood, marriages, military service,  and his relationship with LSD (among other things) his voice was familiar and his stories came across as much like tall tales as his novels. It sort of felt like listening to an older relative tell stories about his life that were likely embellished to liven up a family gathering. Because it was a loose collection of stories rather than one continuous storyline, I found it a bit difficult to get into. At the same time, I read it while I was feeling generally distracted (while prepping for, and on, my trip to Russia) and that didn't help, but it was probably a good choice since I didn't need to follow any complicated story lines.

Overall, I found it entertaining and funny, but I don't have much to say about it. Although I didn't read it under the best of circumstances, I don't know if I would have loved it even under ideal reading conditions. As much as I loved Tom Robbins when I was in my 20s, I'm not just sure if he's my sort of thing these days. If you're a fan of Tom Robbins, you might appreciate it; if you haven't read Robbins before, I'd suggest that you try his novels first.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Top Ten Books I've Read So Far in 2015

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is Top Ten Books I've Read So Far in 2015. Here are my favorites, with links to the reviews. They are in no particular order.

1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
2. The Likeness by Tana French
3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
4. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
5. The Martian by Andy Weir
6. The Bees by Laline Paull
7. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
8. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
9. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
10. The Selection by Kiera Cass (I really mean the whole series - is that cheating?)

What are your favorites so far this year?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Russia Vacation

Hi everyone, I'm back! I just spent a week and a half on vacation in Russia. Would you like to see some pictures? If not, avert your eyes!

The first half of our vacation was in St. Petersburg, where all the buildings are shaped like this.

Did you know that there are canals in St. Petersburg? They're very nice, and break up the monotony of all the buildings being the same height and shape. Seriously, walking down the street feels like you're in a tunnel. At least the parts of the city where we went.

Our first stop was the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games. Luckily, it's not a traditional museum, so we were able to actually play the games.

Then we went to the Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood, which was built on the spot where Alexander II was murdered in 1881.

We looked at art at the Russian Museum and the Hermitage. The Hermitage is overwhelming huge, so the only building we visited was the opulent Winter Palace. Here is one of my favorite rooms.

Most of our activities were in one area, within walking distance to where we were staying. But one day we did take a train to the Peter and Paul Fortress. The last Romanovs, who were killed in 1918, were buried there after their bodies were found in 1991. This room of the cathedral is dedicated to them.

And here's a nice picture of Eric and I on the wall of the fortress with the Neva River behind us.

We also attended a ballet at the Mariinsky Theater, even though neither of us really like ballet. It was nice though. And of course we ate a lot.

I have discovered one of the most delicious foods in the world, which is called khachapuri. It is bread filled with cheese and there's a well in the center in which they put a raw egg and then you mix up the eggy cheesy goodness and break off bits of bread to dip in it. It is heavenly.

Of course there were also lots of pickled things.

Seriously, Russian food is so underrated. It's full of potatoes and mushrooms and pickles and cheese and eggs and dill. So much tastiness!

This trip was deliberately planned in late June to coincide with White Nights, when the city never gets completely dark. The sun set at around 10:30pm and rose again at 3:30. It didn't go far enough below the horizon to get completely dark and it was a really interesting experience to walk home from dinner at 9pm and see the sun shining. Luckily our hotel room had heavy drapes and I had an eye mask from the plane, so I was able to get some sleep.

We took a train to Moscow and it was neat to see all the small towns and villages we passed through on the way. Our Moscow hotel was super swanky and only about a block from Red Square.

The first place we went was to the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral. So many onion domes! There are actually more onion domes in Moscow than I ever expected.

The day we planned to visit the Kremlin, all of Red Square was unexpected closed. Because it was a Monday, many other sites on my list were closed anyway. So we went to Gorky Park, where there's a really cool collection of sculptures. Many were from the Soviet era and were taken down in 1991. Here are two Lenins.

We visited the Kremlin the next day, and did a tour of the Armoury. You're not allowed to take photos in the Armoury, but it's really fascinating. They have tons of stuff that belonged to the tsars, like fancy gold and silver relics, thrones, armor, carriages, and coronation gowns. I thought it might be boring, but it was actually kind of amazing to see these pieces of history. The free audio tour walked us through some of the things and provided background on what we were looking it, but there was way more than I could really look closely at in one day.

There are also several cathedrals in the Kremlin, with onion domes.

Our hotel offered a Russian Tea Ceremony, which we decided to try.

It was an elaborate setup of delicious tea served in fancy glasses, sandwiches, savory pies, blini, and little cookies and tarts. It was all served by Marina, pictured above, who was a lovely hostess. She teaches English and was very happy to chat with some Americans.

We visited Lenin, who you can see in his tomb (he was embalmed and put on display) after standing in line for a long time. It was weird and surreal and we were not allowed to take pictures. But I can show you the nearby grave of Joseph Stalin.

I also couldn't take photos inside of Tolstoy's house, which was our next stop. But here's a picture of us sitting in his back yard. It was so neat to see where Tolstoy and his family actually lived, especially so soon after finally reading War and Peace.

The last activity on our trip was visiting the Tretyakov gallery, which was filled with many really wonderful paintings that I now want to learn more about. Here's a photo of the front of the museum with a statue of a tall, stern man. (Russia seems to be filled with statues of tall stern men, and also men on horses.)

I liked both cities, but really wish I had more time in Moscow. I seriously think I could live there. It's a very classy city with beautiful architecture, a ton of things to see and do, and the most well-dressed people I've ever seen. It was a pleasure just watching people walk to work in the mornings, they were all so well put-together. Americans look like slobs now! On the other hand, I'm glad I don't have the pressure of having to dress so nicely every day. That would be exhausting and stressful.

Enough people spoke English there that I didn't really need to use my extremely rusty Russian, which was lucky because my pronunciation is horrible and it's been so long that I can't ever remember basic things like the verbs of motion (which I never really grasped anyhow.) But it was incredibly useful to be able to read signs, so if you go I highly suggest at least learning the alphabet so you can match up street signs to what is printed on your maps in English.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip! Russia has such a fascinating history, not to mention great art and literature, and it was such a great opportunity to actually go there. We saw just a small part of this huge country, and I'd love to see more of it someday. If you're looking for a someplace a little different for a vacation, I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gerald's Game

Gerald's Game by Stephen King (1992)

Jessie Burlingame and her husband Gerald slip off to their cabin in the woods for some sexytimes, but when Gerald is accidentally killed Jessie is left hand-cuffed to the bed with no way to escape and only her own thoughts to keep her company. Or, maybe not.

As Jessie lies uncomfortably on the bed for hours, her mind begins to drift back to one summer when something so terrible happened she hasn't let herself even think of it until now. A small chorus of voices in her head argue with each other and vie for her attention as she comes to grips with her both her past and her present.

Gerald's Game is not a book of action so much as one of internal struggle and growth. Most of the book takes place in Jessie's head as she thinks about her husband, her father, her therapist, and her old friend Ruth. Ruth and Nora, the therapist, are a couple of the voices she hears in her head, along with an alter-ego she thinks of as Goodwife Burlingame.

But that's not to say that the novel is all about thinking. Things do happen, and they are creepy and sometimes downright gruesome. Jessie makes attempts to relieve her worsening thirst and, of course, to free herself from the handcuffs. She also has visitors, but the less said about those the better. You'll just have to read it yourself.

I've had a tough time reading lately, possibly because of so many distractions in my life right now, which is why I turned to Stephen King. This is one of his books I missed because it came out soon after I went to college and discovered that there are, in fact, other authors out there. I didn't read anything of his for quite a while and now I'm trying to catch up. I think it was a good book to pick at the time and I'm glad I read it, but it's definitely not one of my favorites. I really appreciated the story of Jessie coming to grips with her childhood trauma, and trying to save her own life, but I do like a little more action in a story.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Sporadic posting ahead!

Just a quick note to let you know that posts will be less frequent in the next few weeks because of lots of travel. I'll still be reading of course, and will post when I can, but it's not my highest priority this month. I'll be back to my regular schedule in July!