Book 16: Moondust, In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

February 28, 2009 at 12:46 am (Review) (, , , , , , , , , )

In Moondust Andrew Smith goes on a quest to answer  question, “What did it feel like to walk on the moon?” and to discover what the answer means for all of us. He attempts achieve this by  interviewing each of the men still alive who walked on the moon and asking them. The simplicity of this approach could easily lead to a trite recitation of clichés we have all heard before but Smith works hard to get beyond this. He manages to do so by looking at the wider effects of the moonwalks on the astronauts’ lives. Though none of the astronauts ever did anything quite like going to the moon afterwards, he takes a highly engaging look at the ways in which they followed similar paths and the ways in which they diverged. What is lovely and entirely typical is that the most interesting and entertaining astronauts are not who you would expect.

The wider story is obviously extraordinary, it is after all the story of how we made it to the moon and back. It is this quality that makes it such a challenge to write about. It would be easy to slip in to hyperbole or watery metaphysics, especially when the astronauts’ themselves have such difficulty expressing what they experienced. Smith deftly avoids this by discussing events and astonishing facts in a very earthbound fashion. It is not simply the fact that we once went to the moon that makes this book so astonishing there are a plethora of incidental facts that dropped my jaw, for example all the men who went to the moon were either eldest sons or only sons, which clearly says something about the psychology of the men involved. He also places the moonwalks within the wider cultural and political landscape, exploring how they came to happen at all given the immense cost and what effect they had on art and music as well as science. 

Smith makes it clear that this book is not just about the astronauts (though that may have been his original intention) it is also about the people around them and about the people who watched at home and found their lives changed because of it. There are collectors of memorabilia, venture capitalists investing in space hotels, a lobby for a manned return to space and of course the nay-saying conspiracy theorists all of whom get a look in as part of his exploration of the meaning of the Moonwalks. It is also about his journey following this story across America, sometimes the device of putting yourself in what is essentially a journalistic search can be excruciating, books can become more about the writer than the story. Thankfully Smith has enough charm and enthusiasm for his subject out weigh any of the narcissistic tendencies of the device. 

I would very strongly recommend Moondust it is utterly fascinating and filled with amazing stories and facts. He reminds us that when Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the moon they didn’t know if he would sink in to the surface or if space germs would come back with them and wipe us all out or if a large hungry alien would devour them. They didn’t know because no one had been there before. Imagine for a minute what that must be like. Surely knowing more about that is worth your time.

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Book 12: Split by Suzanne Finnamore

January 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm (Review) (, , , , , , )

I was perfectly ready to hate this and before starting to read it I was composing my scathing review. I was looking forward to it. It has a bride and groom wedding cake decoration split in two on the cover. This was going to be some Oprah, self help, woman finding herself after her man leaves her memoir and I was going to be mean. It turns out that they have that saying about judging book covers for a reason.  

Split is a fairly brutal account of the break up of Susan Finnamore’s marriage. It is in no way pretending to be a unbiased account. It is all about how she felt and how she choose to deal with it. It’s also about how she went to pieces. I admire how brutally honest this book appears to be. While the split was the husband’s decision she doesn’t step away from her culpability or excuse herself for some pretty poor behaviour in the course of the split. 

Finnamore’s writing is clear and unflinching. There can be a tendancy in break up memoirs to descend in to ‘Dear Diary, A boy hurt my feelings today. He’s really mean’ territory (one of the things I was hoping to mock) but Finnamore never even touches that sort of tone. She describes her hurt without sentiment. She is also writes with humour about the semi-lunacy that descends when you are in the midst of a bad break up. 

If you happen to be in the midst of a bad break up and you are not of the Oprah self help persuasion, there are some incidental do and for the love of god do not’s in the book. One of them being rid yourself of self help books (If you find that sort of thing helpful fine, personally makes me feel homicidal). Learn from someone else’s mistakes and save your self the hassle.

The wider cast of characters are colourful in a California sort of way (a transvestite driver for example) and a bit cliché (straight talking, slightly demented mother anyone?). This would bother me more if the description of the devestation that follows nasty break-ups was less real. 

I strongly recommend it for the heart broken. For everyone else its worth a read but not essential.

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