Posts Tagged non-fiction

Taylor and Osborn’s “A New American Space Plan” is Interesting, Ambitious

 Travis Taylor and Stephanie Osborn’s A NEW AMERICAN SPACE PLAN is one of the more ambitious pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.  Taylor, the self-described ringleader of the Rocket City Rednecks (a TV show on NatGeo), is a writer and scientist with multiple degrees who enjoys doing more with less, while Osborn is a scientist and writer whose books have been previously reviewed here at SBR (go here and here for further details).  The two between them have created an entertaining and thought-provoking book that asks the question, “What would NASA be like if it were fully funded?”  (And, for that matter, if NASA’s priorities didn’t shift with every different presidential administration.)

Taylor is known for his folksy style, and the book’s style is exactly the way you’d expect if you’ve ever seen him on his TV show.  There’s a breadth and depth of knowledge here that’s startling to behold, but for the most part the narrative never lost me.   The details are enough for most scientists without confusing the intelligent layman most of the time, which is a neat trick to pull off.   And the arguments for a much bigger budget and a solid mission focus that doesn’t depend on what President happens to be occupying the Oval Office at the time are compelling and well thought-out.

The main problem with NASA right now, according to Taylor and Osborn, is that there’s not enough money to do what’s necessary.  The space shuttle program has been dissolved, and there seems to be no real focus aside from the information gleaned by the Mars Rover.  The International Space Station has some real implementation problems (including the wiring being different in various aspects of the station), and is not funded equally by every country that has sent astronauts into space — in fact, the United States has paid far more money for the International Space Station over time than every other country combined, according to Taylor and Osborn’s math.

Yet rather than the US keeping its “first among equals” status when it comes to the knowledge of space and space exploration, for whatever reason the US has backed off giving NASA enough money to figure out a new mission — a new way forward.  Both Taylor and Osborn have worked for NASA in one form or another (perhaps not directly, but as contractors), and are cognizant of all the problems that derailed more consistent applications of American ingenuity and drive when it comes to space.

Taylor and Osborn also point out the many economic benefits, both past and present, that are accorded by the US being the leader in aerospace engineering.  And it worries them, significantly, that the US currently has no simple and well-funded way forward, especially considering the ominous symbolism of the space shuttles being grounded.

Put bluntly, most Americans no longer see astronauts as “rock stars.”  At least, they don’t see contemporary ones as such — Buzz Aldrin, the late Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, now those guys still have that rock star quality, but the new astronauts are mostly devoid of that.  Yet these are people who risk their lives to go into space, whether it’s at low-earth orbit like in the space shuttles, or in a higher orbit as with past programs, or in going to the Moon.  Astronauts have died in attaining their goals to go into space, and their bravery in continuing to go despite the “Challenger” disaster, despite the destruction of the “Columbia,” and of course the destruction of “Apollo 1” back in 1967, should be celebrated.

This lamentation for simpler and better days, when astronauts were celebrated for their bravery — along with the arguments for more money and a consistent mission for NASA (perhaps set up along nonpartisan lines) — shows that above and beyond the United States’ need for a new space plan, we also need to figure out our priorities.  It’s obvious that both Taylor and Osborn do not appreciate what’s going on today, politically.  They view the way the US Congress and current Obama Administration treats NASA as a type of political football, and they believe that must end.

They also think that Americans should regain our trust in the space program, something that is hard to argue with.  And they wish that Americans could recapture at least some of our lost optimism, because with that we could create many jobs (the space program has always created solid jobs that pay a living wage for ordinary Americans without multiple PhDs), regain our foothold in space and show that the United States can again be first in innovation.

All of this is a powerful message, and it’s delivered in an easy-to-understand way.

There are a few drawbacks here, though.  Every great once in a while, things descend into formulas, ratios, or lists.  The lists are comprehensible to intelligent laymen, but the other two may not be.  And it is a bit odd to see this in a book that’s not meant for other specialists — but perhaps this was the only way the authors could come up with to describe what they meant.

Still.  It may as well be “technobabble” to anyone outside the authors’ specialties, and is the one and only one thing I found to criticize here (aside from a possible math quibble that was brought up already over at The Space Review).

Look.  This is a book that everyone should read regardless of politics.  The authors are both literate and entertaining writers, and their collaboration has resulted in a book that will teach people why the United States still needs  a space program.  Much less why that program should be fully and consistently funded on a non-partisan basis.

Bottom line?  If you love science fiction or good, solidly researched non-fiction, you really owe it to yourself to read A NEW AMERICAN SPACE PLAN.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Mosher’s “The Great Northern Express”: One Great (Writer’s) Memoir

 Howard Frank Mosher’s THE GREAT NORTHERN EXPRESS is a memoir of Mosher’s cross-country trip promoting his writing.  But putting it in such a basic way misses the point entirely, as Mosher’s writing — and his descriptions of what happens while he takes this cross-country trip in a wholly unreliable car — is well worth reading.

Mosher decided to go on his trip at the age of sixty-five after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Getting such a diagnosis was a wake-up call, and it made him wonder why he’d never taken that trip he’d promised himself.  Mosher had always believed that the MacArthur Fellowship (one of the most prestigious writing awards out there) could eventually fall to him, and of course he hoped it would.  As that Fellowship gives a substantial grant to worthy writers (to the tune of a half a million dollars), you can see how it could fund many cross-country trips.

But with Mosher’s cancer diagnosis looming in the background, he suddenly realized, “What’s stopping me from taking a trip on my own?”  Which is why once all of his radiation treatments had been completed, Mosher decided to hit the road despite not having all that much money (something most writers will sympathize with).   Mosher’s official excuse — er, reason — for going on this trip is because he must promote his writing, which is also why he planned on visiting as many independent bookstores as he could find.  (Of course, as he wryly admitted in the narrative, his loving wife, Phillis, knew better than this, but she wasn’t ever going to tell anyone.)

Mosher then set out in his twenty-year-old Chevrolet Celebrity with 280,000 miles on it, and proceeded to discuss everything that happened to him along the way.  But in case that wasn’t enough, Mosher also included many stories from his life.  Some of these stories dealt with how he ended up in Vermont of all places, what he thought of his first career as a high school English teacher and the colorful people he met in Vermont.  Perhaps Mosher’s best story was when he described the “Eureka!” moment he had when he realized he’d finally found his writer’s “voice,” as his crystallized encapsulation of how he felt when that occurred was spot-on and extremely memorable.

This “trip and real life story” narrative is inextricably woven into Mosher’s overarching story, which (of course) is that life should be celebrated, even when it’s tough.  And that all people have a story, whether they realize it or not; it’s the writer’s job to describe that story, which Mosher does brilliantly during good times and bad, and whether he’s talking about himself or someone else.

Bottom line: this is the best memoir by a writer I have ever read, hands-down.  But even if you’re not a writer, you owe it to yourself to read Mosher’s funny, witty, and often touching memoir because it’s just that good.  (Expect THE GREAT NORTHERN EXPRESS to be on my top ten books of 2012 list, folks.)

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Rebecca Rupp’s “How Carrots Won the Trojan War” is One Great Read

Rebecca Rupp’s HOW CARROTS WON THE TROJAN WAR: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables is a fun, fast read that brings up many interesting anecdotes about vegetables.  From asparagus being thought of in medieval and Renaissance times as “sex food” to the title anecdote about the Greek warriors who, historically speaking, were said to have consumed many carrots beforehand in order to not have to eliminate while being stuck in the Trojan Horse for hours or days before they were turned loose, there are many intriguing facts here to pique your interest.

My favorite chapter was the twentieth chapter, which is about turnips and rutabagas.  Rupp points out on p. 349 that the turnip has fallen on hard times, as it

 . . . comes in dead last on the National Gardening Association’s list of most popular American garden vegetables, and a lot of seed catalogs leap insouciantly from tomatoes to watermelons without a turnipward glance.

Yet in the sixteenth century, turnips were often carved into fantastic shapes, suitable for the finest dinner parties.  And the Romans ate them, though mostly the peasants did as turnips, then and now, have mostly been seen as a form of cheap, palatable food that would help fill you up without making you go broke in the process.

And turnips have been a staple of literary tales since the fourteenth century; as Rupp says on p. 345:

The Grimm Brothers’ tale “The Turnip,” for example, hearkens back to a trio of medieval Latin poems, the gist of which is deserved comeuppance.  A poor but honest farmer brings an enormous turnip as a gift to the king, and receives a purse of gold as a reward.  The farmer’s wealthy neighbor (or, occasionally, half-brother) then decides to give the king a horse, hoping for an even bigger and better reward.  Instead, he gets the turnip.

Who can resist such anecdotes about the humble turnip?  (Surely not me.)

Other interesting facts brought up by HOW CARROTS WON THE TROJAN WAR include:

  • Most Romans ate beans, and had all sorts of interesting recipes for them.
  • While beets aren’t very popular in contemporary US of A, they’ve been grown as a source of sugar since 1801 (with the first place known to have grown them for this purpose being Kunern, Silesia, within the Kingdom of Prussia).
  • The ancient Greeks ate melons.
  • Winston Churchill once said that “All the essentials of life” boil down to four: hot baths, cold champagne, old brandy, and new peas.
  • Henry Ford was obsessed with carrots and once dined on a twelve-course all-carrot meal.

This is a lively, fun book that discusses the nutritional value of our favorite veggies along with common ways they’ve been prepared, historically, along with the ways we eat them today.   Along the way, Rupp also discusses the various types of veggies and how they propagate, whether any of the historical versions of melons and cucumbers and tomatoes, etc., are still alive today in the wild, and dispenses for once and for all the whole “is the tomato a fruit, or a vegetable?”  (Biologically, the tomato is a fruit.  But we use it like a vegetable and it’s often been taxed as a vegetable.  Which is why Rupp included it in this book.)

So if you want a great read that’ll educate you on the one hand while making you laugh on the other (as some of the anecdotes Rupp includes are quite amusing), you should immediately grab HOW CARROTS WON THE TROJAN WAR as it’s easily the best book, bar none, I’ve ever read about vegetables.

So what are you waiting for?  Go read this book today!

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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