No-one should be embarrassed about getting sick in space

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in Space
by Mary Roach

This was my first read for the 2014 Popular Science Reading Challenge. It was perhaps a bit of an easy choice to begin with, as I knew Roach’s reputation for humour and I’m already familiar with the subject. But it was still a good, enjoyable read.

Roach’s premise is to look at the nitty gritty detail of what would be involved in sending humans to Mars. But this isn’t about rockets and propulsion systems, this is about the human side – how will people cope with a year or more stuck in a rocket? She looks at this biologically, psychologically, but also at the practical side of things – food, facilities and so on.

“As a gross overgeneralization, the Japanese are well suited to life on a space station. They’re accustomed to small spaces and limited privacy. They’re a lighter, more compact payload than the average American. Perhaps most important, they’re raised to be polite and to keep their emotions in check.”

Roach has spoken to almost everyone who can contribute to this conversation – experts from NASA, the European, Russian, Canadian and other space agencies, university researchers, astronauts – and she really has a gift for picking out the curious details, the facts that make you laugh and learn. She also clearly has a fondness for asking the awkward questions, the things most people don’t discuss, so there’s a chapter each on sex in space, vomit and human waste.

“No-one, not Jake Garn or Rusty Schweickart or Frank Vomiting [Borman], should be embarrassed about getting sick in space. Some 50–75 per cent of astronauts have suffered symptoms of space motion sickness. ‘That’s why you don’t see much shuttle news footage the first day or two. They’re all, like, throwing up in a corner somewhere,’ says Mike Zolensky [NASA curator].”

It’s a genuinely interesting book on a topic that has been extensively researched despite it not being definite that it will ever happen. Roach manages to show great respect for astronauts and scientists while at the same time probing for very intimate facts. She shows a sense of humour about her own curiosity as well as the facts she discovers. But she is also tenacious when she wants to be, doggedly pursuing the truth behind various intriguing rumours.

“It is hard to imagine anyone going through the significant risk and hassle of catheterizing a chimpanzee just to keep him from playing with himself during training sessions. As for the balloon catheter, it was patented in 1963 – two years after Enos’s flight – as a tool to remove blood clots, not to discourage chimpanzee masturbation…Enos, your name is cleared.”

I think what holds me back from outright loving this book is that it didn’t stick closely enough to its premise. Particularly in the second half of the book, it felt more like a book about historical and current humans in space, with some chapters not even mentioning how experience to date in the topic at hand might be extrapolated to a manned Mars mission. And that would have been fine without the title and opening chapters concentrating on the Mars idea. Obviously some historical stuff is necessary, and it’s all extremely interesting, but it isn’t quite the book it sets out to be.

My one other quibble is that early on Roach refers to “US astronaut Helen Sherman”. Oh no no no. Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space. She wasn’t even trained in the US; she trained in Russia with the cosmonauts she flew with to Mir space station. So that’s two errors in one sentence. And I’m by no means an expert in any of this stuff, so how do I know that the rest of the book isn’t riddled with errors? (Obviously these might well be typesetting errors rather than Roach’s own, but it’s still a bit shoddy.)

But those fairly minor gripes aside, this was a very entertaining and informative book.

Published 2010 by Oneworld.

Source: Borrowed from work.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2014 Popular Science Reading Challenge.

Bristol Old Vic Ferment Fortnight

Bristol Old Vic
(CC-BY NotFromUtrecht)

Bristol Ferment is the community of theatre-makers from Bristol and the South West that Bristol Old Vic supports and helps to develop exciting and adventurous new work. Twice a year, we can get a glimpse behind the scenes of the artistic process during Ferment Fortnight, when work in progress is performed and discussed directly with the audience.

The current Ferment Fortnight runs until 31 January, so there’s still time to check it out for yourself.

The Stillness of the Storm That Never Came at All
by Clerke and Joy
Bristol Old Vic, Friday 24 January 2014

I arrived in the Studio Theatre to the powerful smell of garam masala, coming from a large pool of it spread on the theatre floor. Josephine Joy created sound effects using a laptop, a microphone and an array of electrical goods, while Rachael Clerke delivered a monologue about an Indian girl who has just moved to Mumbai after studying abroad in London. The sounds were a combination of traffic, voices, weather and domestic appliances, occasionally ratcheted up so that they threatened to drown out the monologue. Combined with the spice smell this gave a powerful sense of place to the story, especially considering there were no visual cues to place it anywhere particular. The story is currently only a snippet but it was absorbing and well written, and I definitely felt that a whole character had been created in this brief snatch of a play.

After the performance we had a Q&A in which Clerke and Joy explained the roots of the show and where they hope to take it (as well as encouraging lots of feedback, which is after all the whole point of Ferment Fortnight). Their plan is to write three monologues for three actors, each set in a different city. They will have a musician or DJ on stage and do a lot of their scene-setting with soundscapes. They have themes they want to explore but no firm story as yet. (To be fair, I should mention that they have only been writing this for a few days, having not long been back in the UK after spending three weeks in Mumbai running theatre workshops and developing the concept for this show.) Their themes include weather, feminism, decline in industry, reclaimed land, migration and oral storytelling – which is quite an eclectic bag, yet I can see it working. All of those are already present to some extent and the choice of the other two cities (one of which is likely to be Belfast, but the third is completely unknown right now) will no doubt both be informed by and have an effect on that list of themes.

The monologue text came from the workshops and some other conversations that Clerke and Joy held in Mumbai. I thought they demonstrated a gift for picking out the thoughts and observations that got to the heart of what this one lonely girl’s experience of Mumbai would be like. This play has the potential to turn into a really fascinating glimpse of some very different locations and lives.

I loved this opportunity to see something so raw and new, something unformed but brimming with potential. I’ll definitely be checking out future Ferment performances.

Disclaimer: A free ticket was kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for contributing a review to Theatre Bristol Writers.

We seem to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex

Bullet Park

Bullet Park
by John Cheever

I wasn’t much aware of John Cheever until a year or two ago. And even then I lumped him together with the great big male American 20th-century greats, which made me feel that I should read him, but didn’t really feel much inclination to. So I might never have read this novel if my book club hadn’t chosen it. And I’m glad they did, as it was a more enjoyable read than I expected.

This is a comedy, poking fun at suburbia, but it’s a dark, subtle kind of comedy. I certainly didn’t laugh out loud. The story is that of Eliot Nailles, sensible middle-class long-term resident of Bullet Park, a New York suburb, and his recently arrived neighbour Paul Hammer. At first glance Nailles is hard working, happily married, blessed with a perfect teenage son and admired by all around him, while Hammer is somehow mysterious, with a wife who says things she shouldn’t after a few drinks.

The first half of the book, perhaps predictably, cuts through that façade of suburbia and looks behind the closed doors at the details of Nailles’ life. His love for his wife Nellie borders on obsession but does she feel anything like the same loyalty for him? And his son Tony seems to have been struck down suddenly with some form of bedridden depression, which Nailles is trying desperately to both understand and find a cure for.

What I found interesting was that Cheever doesn’t entirely subvert the prevalent view of suburbia, because overall the picture painted is one of dreariness and predictability. Not that the writing is at all dreary, but if this section had gone on much longer I think I would soon have become bored.

“There seemed to be some metric regulation to the pace of the talk. It was emotional, intimate, evocative and as random as poetry. They had come from other places and would go to other places but sitting against the light at four in the afternoon they seemed as permanent as the beer pulls.”

What saves this book is the switch at the start of part two to Hammer’s story. This part is narrated by Hammer and fills in his backstory, and I was immediately grinning and enjoying the ride that he takes you on. He has a wonderful turn of phrase and a calculated assessment of which facts to give. He is an archetypal unreliable narrator, which makes it all the harder to figure out what is coming in part three, when the narrative switches back to the two men in Bullet Park.

“We traditionally associate nakedness with judgments and eternity and so on those beaches where we are mostly naked the scene seems apocalyptic. Standing at the surf line we seem, quite innocently, to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex.”

Hammer and Nailles are very different people, both full of ambiguity, but neither came 100% to life for me. I think this comes down to the style of writing. We talked at book club about how this might be related to Cheever being for the most part a short-story writer, and how this novel in many ways feels like a long short story. This is a slight criticism, but only a slight one. And certainly I would be interested to read Cheever’s short fiction and see if his style is better suited to that.

The writing is often beautiful and the story includes some wonderful quirks, that completely thrilled me. For instance, Hammer has an obsession with yellow rooms – they have to be a specific shade of yellow and he has to find them already painted that colour. Hammer’s mother (a fairly minor character but an absolutely brilliant one) decides that her therapist is too expensive so she takes to analysing herself, aloud.

“Three times a week, I lie down on my bed and talk to myself for an hour. I’m very frank. I don’t spare myself any unpleasantness. The therapy seems to be quite effective and, of course, it doesn’t cost me a cent.”

In the end, I liked this book but I didn’t love it. This is partly related to the ending, which I won’t discuss here and I wasn’t necessarily disappointed by, but I did feel a certain…deflation at. But I also wonder if it’s related to the comedy not being that funny but also not that biting. Another thing we mentioned at book club was that this book reads like a satire without a clear target. Bullet Park is both a safe, happy place and a dull or even sinister place. But New York City gets lots of mentions and it isn’t painted as particularly better or worse than suburbia. And society itself is similarly both lampooned and forgiven. I think ultimately I would have enjoyed it more if it was either more sharp and biting, or if it had more relatable characters.

First published 1969 by Knopf.

Source: I bought this from Topping Books in Bath.

I had to crack every word one by one

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd

It is a while since I have been so thoroughly engrossed by a book, to the point where no matter where I was, day or night, I wanted nothing more than to be reading this book. Which of course means that it was over far too soon. So this definitely comes under the category of A Good Read.

It’s the fictionalised story of real-life anti-slavery campaigner Sarah Grimké, who was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, in a slave-owning family. But it’s also the story of the (almost entirely fictional) slave girl Hetty who was given to Sarah as a birthday present when she turned 11. The two girls take turns at telling the story, painting two lives closely linked and yet starkly different.

“The skies were bright cerulean, teeming with ferocious winds, spilling mallards and wood drakes from the clouds. Up and down the lanes, the fences were bright with yellow jasmine, its musk a sweet, choking smoke. I rode with the same drunk sensuality with which I had reclined in the copper tub, riding till the light smeared, returning with the falling dark.”

Sarah is the middle daughter (there are also several brothers – her mother is…prolific) and while considered a little plain and too intelligent for her own good, it is her wilfulness and ambition that get her in trouble. As a child she dreams of becoming the first female lawyer and devours the books that her father (a powerful legislator) secretly allows her until he realises that she is taking her dream seriously. When he shoots down that dream, it takes her many years to find another way to do something about the issue nearest to her heart – abolition of slavery.

Hetty, or Handful as she is known among the slaves, might have been happy with her lot – the cruelties of Mrs Grimké, or Missus, notwithstanding – were it not for her mother Charlotte who harbours such hatred of her lot that she devises small revenges against her owners and plots their eventual escape. Handful is practical and in many ways protected by Sarah, but between Charlotte’s unhappiness and Sarah’s abolitionist leanings, she catches the bug – the yearning for freedom.

“The man’s writing looked like scribble. I had to crack every word one by one and pick out the sound the way we cracked blue crabs in the fall and picked out the meat till our fingers bled. The words came lumps at a time.”

The other major character is Nina, Sarah’s youngest sister, who is in many ways a daughter to her. They are so close that it is never clear whether Nina’s small revolutions – from refusing baptism to writing anti-slavery pamphlets – are entirely her own, or the influence of Sarah. She’s an interesting character because she is more beautiful, more determined, more confident than Sarah, and yet it is Sarah’s lead that she follows.

I think it’s important that Kidd chose Sarah to narrate the story, not Nina, because Sarah is undoubtedly more troubled. She suffers from a stammer and, after the dream to become a lawyer is snatched away, never again feels that confidence in her abilities. She fervently feels that slavery is wrong (in fact, the day that she is given Handful she tries to grant her freedom, but of course that isn’t allowed) and more than that, she feels that women and coloured people are equal to white men in the eyes of God, but for much of her life she feels helpless to do anything about those beliefs.

“They say in extreme moments time will slow, returning to its unmoving core, and standing there, it seemed as if everything stopped. Within the stillness, I felt the old, irrepressible ache to know what my point in the world might be. I felt the longing more solemnly than anything I’d ever felt.”

What I thought was wonderful about this book was that it isn’t an anti-slavery treatise (after all, I think we all know these days that slavery is bad, we don’t need persuading), it’s a warm engaging story full of characters painted in all sorts of shades of grey. And there’s action and adventure too, from the terrible punishments meted out to slaves to a planned slave revolution. But there’s also romance, broken hearts, social faux pas and outright castigation. There are complicated relationships between people and there are terrible decisions that have to be made.

I also appreciated that the publishers have included quite a long author’s note at the end detailing Kidd’s historical research, including where she did and didn’t deviate from history in her fiction.

Clearly, I outright loved this book. I now plan to look out all Kidd’s previous works and hope that it all lives up to this high standard.

Published January 2014 by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times

The Days of Anna Madrigal

The Days of Anna Madrigal
by Armistead Maupin

I thought quite hard about what should be my first book of the new year and this felt like a really good choice. I was really excited to be sent a copy of this, the latest Tales of the City novel, having loved the first book in the series. And this ninth instalment is just as funny, touching, well observed and eye-opening as that first one was for me. Those who haven’t read the whole series might find spoilers in this review.

Anna Madrigal was the eccentric but beloved landlady of the legendary 28 Barbary Lane. Now she is very old and, feeling that her time is near, takes a trip to her childhood home in Nevada, hoping to come to peace with the actions of the boy she once was. At the same time, several of her dearest friends are heading for the annual Burning Man festival, also in Nevada, and they have their own gremlins to deal with. Will Shawna take the biggest step of her life and become a mother? Will Michael find peace with his younger, hipper husband? Will Jake’s painstaking plan to honour Anna come to fruition or fall apart in the desert dust?

“‘Chillax? You don’t say chillax.’
‘I’m saying it now. Because you’re acting like you’re twelve and hormonal.’
If only he knew, thought Michael. Sixty-two was a lot like twelve and hormonal. Teenagers rage against the end of childhood, old people against the end of everything. Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times.”

This book was, perhaps inevitably, a little more serious than the start of the series was. It’s certainly not without humour, or lighter moments, but the overarching themes include ageing, death and betrayal, and when the death that’s most imminent is that of a character who has been beloved through eight previous books over 35 years, well, you can’t be flippant about it.

There are also more positive themes such as renewal and acceptance. Which all sounds remarkably worthy, and that’s one thing this book isn’t. It’s touching, moving even, but never overly sentimental. In fact, I found Anna just as hard to get inside the head of as ever. But then the other characters have the same problem with her so I guess that’s just how she is.

“Summer had been warmer than usual this year, but the heat that throbbed in the East Bay was already coaxing pale fingers of fog into the city. Anna could feel this on her skin, the chilly caress she had come to think of as ‘candle weather’.”

There’s quite a broad cast of characters here, most of whom (though not all) are LGBT, and I like how the sheer number of people he’s created allows Maupin to not stereotype or pigeonhole any one character. They are all human and interesting. They have realistically complicated relationships with one another, which I know is partly a result of having several previous books about most of these people. But it’s also an accurate reflection of how the world is. Couples break up and move on but often still have mutual friends. Sometimes if you examine how you met your best friend you realise that to begin with they were your ex-boyfriend’s boss’s landlady, and you’re no longer in touch with your ex but that tenuous connection became the most important friendship of your life.

It’s hard to write much more about this book without giving away the events in it, but I really did find it charming and enjoyable, and I am glad to have been reminded to go back to this wonderful series.

Published January 2014 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Sunday Salon: New year, new start?

The Sunday Salon

The new year is really just an arbitrary point in time, but I think a lot of us see it as an opportunity for change. That might be making resolutions, beginning new projects or routines, or just making promises to ourselves to be “better” in some way this year. I pretty much never make resolutions, though I do have annual reading goals, but I do tend to see the new year as a time to start afresh on good habits.

Well, we might only be 12 days in, but so far the signs aren’t good for my habits this year. I could blame it on the nasty cough/cold I’ve had or the fact I’ve not yet settled back into a routine after the Christmas holiday, but I’m still not happy with how my year has started. I have so far finished one book. I have done zero exercise. The to do list is longer than ever. And I’ve not been eating especially healthily. Hmm.

Just practising

On the plus side, since my mother-in-law taught me to knit in December I’ve been practising a little every day and I’m really pleased with my progress. I might even treat myself to a second ball of wool soon! I find myself studying every knitted item I see to figure out what stitches it’s made up of and whether I think I might be capable of making it in the future.

Oh – and I have also ordered myself a comfy reading chair, which I look forward to snuggling up in when it arrives. That will – finally – complete our library, a mere three a half years after we started work on it. We’re not the fastest at redecorating!

Right, I need to squeeze in some reading and review-writing before the weekend is gone. It’s time to start asserting those good habits!

How’s your new year going? Do you have any special aims, goals or resolutions? If so, then good luck with them!

This is mad, and I promise. All those words


by Iosi Havilio
translated from Spanish by Beth Fowler

I got this book as part of my subscription to And Other Stories. I didn’t realise that it’s a sequel to Havilio’s first novel, Open Door, but I’m not sure how much that mattered. However, I guess that does mean that this review might contain spoilers to the first book (which I fully intend to go back and read now).

This novel follows a young mother who, suddenly widowed and forced off her husband’s farm, moves to Buenos Aires with her four-year-old son Simón. She finds work, housing and friends in a poor, dodgy corner of the city.

“It’s me who ends up carrying Simón most of the way, and if at first it feels like he’ll break my back, I adapt as we go and that annoying kick between the ribs becomes just another part of my body. Like everything, once the novelty has passed, things stop hurting or making you happy.”

The unnamed narrator floats through life, letting things happen to her, which was sometimes frustrating but totally believable. There are fleeting references to a lunatic asylum in her past, and she does show non-specific signs of some kind of mental illness – a loose hold on reality, an inability to say no to some really bad ideas, a surprising comfort with lying.

“I think about how each of us had to devise our truth in relation to the other, a comparison of before and after. And that’s the reason for all the affectations, the smiles, the embarrassment, the surprise, the And you? This is mad, and I promise. All those words.”

In some ways this is a story of survival. The narrator is doing what she can to get through life and parenthood. Though she’s new to the city, she is some ways ideally suited to this kind of life, though she is also the type of person most at risk from it.

Her vagueness isn’t just apparent in her narration, it’s also clear from the way her friends interact with her. Most of them take what they want from her silence, interpreting it the way that suits them best, but then other people (probably those who are best for her) struggle and fail to understand.

“I look into his eyes, sad, broken eyes like an orphaned, tortured cat’s, I don’t know what to say to him…I sympathise in silence, with my eyebrows, all the words of consolation that occur to me turn out to be impossible to articulate. He realises this and must feel a bit disappointed.”

I loved the opening of this novel, with the uncomfortable funeral and the final days at the farm. And I liked the rest of it, but I think I did ultimately find the narrator too vague and frustrating to love the book overall.

Published 2013 by And Other Stories.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.

The snarling cries of a wind eating its way

cold comfort farm book cover

Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons

I read this novel as the Guardian Reading Group picked it as the book for December and it had already sat for too long on the TBR. It’s one of those books so beloved, and described so often in hyperbolic terms, that I worried I would be disappointed. It turns out, I was not.

I suppose my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t find it funny, that the comedy would have dated. And there are aspects of the book that show their age (some racism/antisemitism and homophobia) but the comedy is still very funny.

The story is that of Flora Poste, who is well brought up, highly educated and suddenly orphaned, therefore in need of somewhere to live. Eschewing all the easy options available from her various friends in London, she writes to all her distant relatives and accepts the offer that sounds the strangest and least appealing – Cold Comfort Farm near Howling in Sussex, with the wonderfully named Aunt Ada Doom and her large family.

Flora is a busybody and immediately decides that these strange parochial relatives, with their gloomy demeanour and dislike of cleaning, need straightening up, so she sets herself the challenge of sorting them all out. And it’s a big challenge. From the lustful young man Seth, who gets the serving girl pregnant every spring, to doddering old farmhand Adam, who fails to notice when hoofs and horns fall off his beloved cows, to raving old Ada Doom herself, who never leaves her room yet wields a strange power over the farm, which may or may not be related to that fateful night when she saw something nasty in the woodshed.

“Aunt Ada Doom sat in her room upstairs…alone. There was something almost symbolic in her solitude. She was the core, the matrix; the focusing-point of the house—and she was, like all cores, utterly alone. You never heard of two cores to a thing, did you? Well, then”

Oh, and I should also mention that this is set in a near future (or what was near future at the time it was written), so it has a touch of SF mixed in there. It’s quite subtle but there are small details, especially toward the end – video phones, airmail literally dropped at the front door, personal planes to the nearest field – which add an extra level of strangeness. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the future setting was – perhaps to make the strong female lead and satire excusable in some way?

“‘She – she’s mad.’
The word lay between them in the indifferent air. Time, which had been behaving normally lately, suddenly began to spin upon a bright point in endless space.”

If there’s one thing this book has in spades, it’s satire. Right from the author’s foreword when Gibbons tells her friend Tony that she has “marked what I consider the finer passages with one, two or three stars”, which “ought to help the reviewers” and indeed there are passages so marked throughout the book, all particularly overblown examples of satirising the prose of “country” novels such as those by George Eliot.

“**Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.”

One of the questions raised on the Guardian Reading Group was whether or not we are supposed to admire Flora. She is an interfering city girl who decides that these country folk aren’t up to scratch and sets out to change them into a more acceptable “normality”. Or is that also part of the satire? She is after all in love with her cousin back in London, who happens to be a vicar, so her own story is pretty much a satire of a Jane Austen plot.

“The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers. The cold beat in glassy waves against the eyelids of anybody who happened to be out in it.”

I like that the satire is of literary styles, rather than any people or ways of life (or at least that’s how I read it). And I must say I found Flora adorable, which is surprising because it’s in a way irritating that she is so capable and right about everything, but then that also makes her a brilliant strong female character. And she wasn’t the only surprise for me. Most of the characters begin as almost surreal fairytale types but become human as you get to know them (or should that be as Flora works her magic?).

I really enjoyed this book and can definitely see myself returning to it. The question now is do I seek out the sequels that Gibbons wrote, which are by most accounts good but not as good, or leave it at this, the pinnacle of her ability?

First published 1938 by Penguin Books.

Source: I bought it secondhand, probably from a charity shop.