Review: ‘Endurance’ by Scott Kelly

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always wanted to go into space, and I know I never will.

I know I never will because I’m 52 years old, and the world of “2001: A Space Odyssey” I wanted to be a part of – a world of Pan Am shuttles and space station Hiltons and, obviously, regular use of both by mere Earthlings – is decades away, if it ever happens at all. I will either be too old or too dead to try them, and thus will be spending the remainder of my life gravitationally attached to this oblate spheroid.

Fortunately, if space must remain the domain of well-trained astronauts, we have people like Scott Kelly to tell us what it’s like.

Kelly freely admits he was a ne’er-do-well student probably ticketed for a middling life until he stumbled on Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” early in college. (“The Right Stuff” is probably my favorite Wolfe book, too, and considering that I love most of what Wolfe has written, that’s saying something.) Suddenly he had a purpose. He wanted to be an astronaut. However, that meant mastering math, physics and engineering, excelling in the military, becoming an accomplished jet pilot and being selected by NASA.

As he writes, often humbly, in his memoir “Endurance,” he pulled it off.

“Endurance” alternates between chapters describing Kelly’s “Year in Space” – 2015-16, when he set the record for consecutive days by an American on board the space station – and his push to get there. He seldom spares himself, writing matter-of-factly about his initial lack of discipline, his occasional foolishness as a Navy pilot (in one incident, he went overboard after drinking too much and could easily have died) and the divorce from his first wife, who – at least as of the book’s writing – barely speaks to him.

However, what makes his memoir so gripping, and what raises it above the level of the overcoming-adversity book it could have been, is his sense of wonder. Inside Kelly is still that college kid reading “The Right Stuff” and pondering the heavens. It’s when he’s describing those moments – staring at the Earth from the cupola (the space station’s viewing room) or, during spacewalks, noting the fragility of the tether connecting him to the station – that the book almost brought me to tears. You can feel Kelly’s awe. How I’ve stared at the night sky and felt that feeling myself, wishing to see it from the other side.

Which is not to say astronaut life is all zero-G dances to the “Blue Danube.”

There’s the impact of zero-G, for one. What seems so natural in “2001” (or “Star Wars,” or any movie set in space) is actually quite unnatural for human beings. Kelly gets headaches as his brain tries to figure out which end is up. A crewmate spends several days throwing up. Their bodies start wasting away, since there’s less need for the muscle and bone that keeps us upright and ambulatory. Makes you wonder how easy it would be for Dr. Heywood Broun, or his Pan Am flight attendants.

Then there’s the space station itself: a remarkable creation, but one that seems put together with chewing gum and baling wire. The station struggles to keep up with its resident humans’ oxygen needs – carbon dioxide builds up all too easily – and the toilet craps out (sorry) a couple times, which means that it has to be fixed … while its parts threaten to float away. Frankly, it’s amazing the space station has held up as well as it has, given the lack of passion and funding for space exploration among national governments.

Finally, Kelly acknowledges how difficult it is to be hundreds of miles away from home – not just in another part of the world, but literally above it. He can’t step outside for a breather; he can’t go shopping or drinking or simply grab a change of scene. In a moving section near the end of “Endurance,” he talks about what he’s missed:

I miss cooking. I miss chopping fresh food, the smell vegetables give up when you first slice into them. … I miss grocery stores, the shelves of bright colors and the glossy tile floors and the strangers walking the aisles. … I miss rooms. I miss doors and door frames and the creak of wood floorboards when people walk around in old buildings. … I miss the feeling of resting after opposing gravity all day. … I miss showers. I miss running water in all its forms: washing my face, washing my hands.

Amazing what you take for granted, simply existing on this planet.

“Endurance” isn’t perfect. The writing (with Margaret Lazarus Dean) can be workmanlike – not dull, but not at the level of its most heartfelt sections. I would have liked more information on Kelly’s crewmates, particularly the Russians — though, to his credit, he offers up the occasional tart comparison. (If NASA is by-the-book to the point of absurdity, the Russians are sometimes casual to the point of imprudence.)

I’m glad Kelly was blunt about the stresses of space, though. The training alone would eliminate me, all that drownproofing and roughing it in the Russian woods. And having nearly passed out after trying an “anti-gravity workout,” in which you do pushups and situps while hanging from the ceiling, I can’t imagine how I’d survive life in the space station … never mind the trip to and from the place. (Kelly describes the ride back in a Soyuz capsule as “going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, while on fire.” And he loves it.)

So I’d never make it in space unless Pan Am, or whoever, made it reasonably comfortable. But Kelly has made it in space, and has done so with an open-mindedness that makes “Endeavor” a welcome, and surprisingly deep, addition to space-oriented literature – including “The Right Stuff.”

In a classy move, Kelly called Tom Wolfe from space late in his journey to thank him for the inspiration. In turn, I’d like to thank Kelly for taking me along on his trip. Godspeed.

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Review: ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can see why “A Wrinkle in Time” is beloved.

The hero of Madeleine L’Engle’s award-winning novel is a girl on the edge of adulthood, still unusual in fantasy and science fiction and particularly unlikely back in 1962, when the book was published. The book is imaginative, whether using tesseracts as a means of transport or through the invention of three ancients of the universe, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. And its invocation of love as the cosmos’ essential ingredient remains resonant.

I didn’t much like it.

I admired it, certainly, for all the reasons I listed. But as a story I found it a slog. In short, Meg Murry’s father, a scientist, has disappeared. Her brother, Charles Wallace, seems to be in tune with the universe and suspects he’s vanished to another point in space-time. A boy from school, Calvin, joins their group, and thanks to the three ancients, they’re off to find Prof. Murry. They learn that there’s a dark IT (I found it hard to read that without thinking of Stephen King’s clown) that clouds certain planets, and also that Prof. Murry is being held captive on a planet of order-following, brain-dampening creatures.

Sounds fascinating, right? But the characters, particularly Meg and her boyfriend-to-be, Calvin, are two-dimensional (perhaps appropriate given their dimension-hopping), with Meg pouty and Calvin Boy Scout-polite. (He addresses Meg’s father as “sir,” not even “Professor Murry.”) The book travels from point to point without much point, besides offering tidbits of L’Engle’s wonderful imagination. The end comes so abruptly I wondered if L’Engle had to rush “Wrinkle” to her publisher.

And the dialogue. Ugh.

I winced every time the story returned to Meg, Calvin and Meg’s brother Charles Wallace – which was pretty much every page. While the Mrses were grandly entertaining – I particularly enjoyed Mrs Who’s endless quotations — the children spoke like they’d just emerged from a Dick and Jane book or a bad movie script. I don’t think children talked like this in 1912, never mind 1962 (perhaps I should get my copy of “Penrod” off the shelf to see), and their words called attention to their flat characterizations.

Some random examples:

“Sure, we all know that. And he’s supposed to have left your mother and gone off with some dame,” Calvin says early on. “Some dame”? Had Calvin been spending time with James Cagney?

“No!” Meg shouts later in the novel. “I know our world isn’t perfect, Charles, but it’s better than this. This isn’t the only alternative! It can’t be!” Exclamation point!

Meg seldom “says,” too. She shouts. She cries. She objects. I can hear Elmore Leonard – he of the terse “he said, she said” dialogue – turning in his grave.

OK, that’s not fair. “A Wrinkle in Time” was written for children. But I couldn’t help but think it.

Having not read the book when I was a child, I thought I’d be treated to one of those timeless classics that still read well when you’re all grown up. (Roald Dahl succeeded with his works, but maybe it’s because he has a mean streak the gentle Ms. L’Engle lacks.) Sometimes L’Engle manages to strike the tone of Carrollian whimsy she’s pursuing, and yeah, I assume if you’re a young girl (or young boy, perhaps slightly older than Meg’s brother Charles Wallace), it’s probably remarkable.

But in general, now that I’ve read it, I wonder what all the fuss is about. I can’t say “A Wrinkle in Time” isn’t worth reading, but if I could tesser, I would travel back a few days and devote my attention to something else.

Or maybe find a child and read it, aloud, to them. They wouldn’t even have to call me “sir.”

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