I’ve about had it with likable optimists. I mean, they just keep looking on the bright side, sloshing that half-full glass, and touting marginal increI’ve about had it with likable optimists. I mean, they just keep looking on the bright side, sloshing that half-full glass, and touting marginal increases in strength from things that didn’t kill them. And all the while they just keep being likeable. What’s a devout pessimist like me to do?
For me, the answer was to preview astronaut Mike Massimino’s soon-to-be released book “Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.” Talk about likeable optimist! As astronauts go, “Mass” is an all-star. He flew on two shuttle missions to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. He also excels at popularizing science and engineering, in part through appearing as himself on the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Despite my affinity for pessimism, Massimino’s “Spaceman” won me over. He tends to do that to people.
I’ll spin it with this analogy: Mike Massimino is to Twitter as Neil Armstrong is to the moon. Through social networking and undeniable likability—in addition to intelligence, courage, and hard work—Massimino has fueled popular support for space exploration like few others. His book “Spaceman” tells the story of how he rose from a normal childhood to an extraordinary career within the tightknit yet super-competitive corps of NASA astronauts.
An unabashed fan of “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” Massimino draws on those films to craft a thrilling prologue describing his first launch into space. Yet this book rewards readers with more than just high-flying thrills. Throughout “Spaceman,” Massimino incorporates elements of history, politics, culture, and human nature to craft a fascinating and engrossing narrative. The result is a complete and balanced picture of his journey, often humorous, in the tradition of good old-fashioned page-turners.
Speaking candidly, like Massimino often does, the most thrilling passages for me involved the author’s struggles to pass NASA’s eye exam. NASA rejected Massimino three times before he finally made it into the astronaut program. Similar to watching “Apollo 13,” I found myself tense up witnessing just how close Massimino came to being rejected by NASA (a fourth and final time). As a pessimist, I often fret about how obsessed we humans are with stories fixated on simple If questions. With Massimino’s thought-provoking adventure, I am heartened to observe a publisher—and soon readers—embrace a story focused on the richer questions of Why and How.
As I read how Massimino overcame his ocular limitations, I noticed a parallel with Hubble Space Telescope’s own visual impairment. Both suffered from flawed lenses. Frankly, Hubble and Massimino had every right to fail. Yet they both succeeded. Delicately orchestrated planning combined with dogged effort enabled both the man and the machine to overcome their initial sight defects.
The word “human” shows up often in “Spaceman.” Attributing this to a writer in need of a thesaurus would be a mistake. As Massimino worked his way through the academic ranks of engineers, he labored in a specialized topic called “human factors.” I’ll let the man holding a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering explain it. “Anytime you get in your car and you can work the brakes and the steering wheel and read the speedometer and not drive off the road in confusion, that’s because an engineer who understands human factors designed it for you.”
“Spaceman” succeeds because of Massimino’s keen sense of human factors. The result is a book capable of satisfying a wide range of readers in addition to space enthusiasts like myself. In a conversational manner, “Spaceman” relates the remarkable journey of an eager kid from Long Island who made it all the way to 350 miles above the Earth’s surface. There he repaired arguably the most important science instrument ever built. The risks, the costs, the times NASA came up tragically short, are discussed with candor. Nevertheless, the prevailing sentiment is one of optimism steeped in gratitude and faith for human potential.
I strongly recommend “Spaceman” by Mike Massimino for optimists, pessimists, and of course, for all the starry-eyed young men and women who currently dream of Mars. Explorers like Massimino remind us how fantastic an adventure life can be, no matter how unlikely success may seem.
DISCLAIMER: Jake received a complimentary advance “Uncorrected Proof” copy of “Spaceman” from Crown Publishers....more
My first takeaway from "The Right Kind of Crazy" by Adam Steltzner is this: If you want to achieve a come-to-Jesus moment, you need to un-f***-up whatMy first takeaway from "The Right Kind of Crazy" by Adam Steltzner is this: If you want to achieve a come-to-Jesus moment, you need to un-f***-up whatever is holding you back.
Such is the brash but ultimately likable sentiment of Dr. Steltzner’s book, co-written with William Patrick. When his team successfully landed NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012, Steltzner oversaw arguably the most revered NASA landing since Apollo 11 reached the surface of the Moon. To understand this incredible engineering feat, you should watch the viral NASA video known as the "Seven Minutes of Terror."
Curiosity’s landing captivated society. People stayed up late to watch live coverage in Times Square. Space enthusiasts like myself followed Twitter feeds on smartphones grasped in sweaty palms. The next day, A-list comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert featured the landing on their hit Comedy Central shows. Curiosity’s landing incited a cultural crush. Society realized just how colorful, cool, and even sexy, NASA could be. However, Steltzner’s book is not a wistful look back, nor is it an especially accessible primer for newcomers.
As the full title aptly states, the book is, "A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation." With a glaring lack of accompanying images, the co-writers impart the wisdom and perspective Steltzner gained over years of intensive trial-and-error mission development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The Right Kind of Crazy" doles out thoughtful anecdotes. Reflections and takeaways come fast and furious. Sometimes the writing exhibits a hasty, back-of-the-envelope quality. This book is not an immaculately laid out management treatise. If it were, the work wouldn’t be so very … Steltzner.
Steltzner brings a crooner’s magnetism to his thought leadership. Though often likened to Elvis, he shows a jazzy Sinatra side as well. In fact, Steltzner drops a lot of musical names and metaphors throughout "The Right Kind of Crazy". Occasionally I would pause my reading and jump on YouTube to sample the tunes he referenced. The book, like its author, also exudes a sports car driver’s swagger.
This brings us back to this review’s opening. In the book’s first chapter, Steltzner recounts a last-minute software glitch that might have led to mission failure. He sets up a “tiger team” to troubleshoot the problem—or as he puts it, “get it un-f***ed-up if possible.” Later in the same paragraph, this team assembles to have a “come-to-Jesus session.”
It is not the last time Steltzner mixes culture, religion, and profanity to get his points across. This is not reckless communication, even if it is rather loose tongued. With this approach, Steltzner drives to the core of the book’s ethos: engineering and exploration can be good, paradoxically non-destructive, battles. He explains this after referencing another engineer at JPL who swore in a heated intra-staff discussion fueled by competing ideas.
“To many readers that may not seem like very strong language, but for me, coming from an environment where I barely met the people I was working with and everything was filtered through others, this sounded like war. It was the kind of war I wanted to be a part of.”
Elsewhere, Steltzner describes his back and forth with colleagues as punch and counterpunch, like boxers sparring in preparation for the championship bout. Fighting is a recurring motif in the book. Also recurring, quite compatibly, is the notion of engineering displaying sexy, even naughty aspects. “All engineers have lust for designs we want to see realized…” Steltzner explains in a chapter entitled “Puzzle Pieces.”
Sometimes undercutting Steltzner’s noble goals are the complex structures at JPL—both mechanical and organizational. Such complexity forces the authors to do a lot of name dropping, coupled with copious shoptalk. Sometimes it runs together. Yet, the cumulative effect is to reveal the steely beauty of custom spacecraft held together by old-school nuts and bolts. In close-quarters fashion, the book acquaints readers with passionate scientists and engineers, as well as their methodically devised robotic love children.
Steltzner’s brand of crazy rightly offsets the stereotypical notion of NASA personnel as stodgy guys in lab coats. Such a style may challenge the comfort zones of taxpayers, as well as old guard types at NASA. Nevertheless, if the incredible cultural impact of the Curiosity rover’s landing proves lasting, "The Right Kind of Crazy" may come to define 21st Century space exploration....more
“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.
“But that’s a misconcept
“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.
“But that’s a misconception…”
The infamous lateral blast of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 tears apart Steve Olson’s narrative the way it tore apart the countryside north of the mountain. The book’s heretofore studious exploration of the cultural, economic, scientific, and political background ceases for a time. It is replaced by abrupt, somewhat speculative, macabre mini-chapters about those who lost their lives during the eruption.
As the pyroclastic flow overcomes person after person, the book takes on an uncomfortably personal, borderline exploitative feel—verging on disaster film melodrama, almost in spite of the academic writing which makes up most of the book. This choice works, however. It sets up a highly thoughtful aftermath, including the above quote.
For all its objective journalistic ambitions, Eruption endears itself to the individuals who died. Olson makes a point to speak to the oft maligned motivations of the people who verged too close to the mountain on the day it blew. It is often assumed they were foolhardy thrill seekers. Olson’s “Untold Story” presents a more nuanced and sympathetic depiction of the victims.
Yet Olson cannot resist, and I do not fault, his willingness to at times render them as characters in a geological opera. In particular, he finds a hero in scientist Dave Johnston. As a coda to Johnston’s ill-fated visit to the mountain, Olson includes a quote from Teddy Roosevelt of which the scientist was fond. It begins as follows:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”
Within our solar system, volcanoes are among the most coveted of geologic phenomenon, second only perhaps to the presence of water. Olson’s account of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption demonstrates how humanity, science, and literature can interweave to produce an appropriate sense of awe and respect, both for the volcanoes and those who venture close to them....more
I should read books about great writing more often. Perhaps it would help me make the leap to regular professional writing. Regardless, there is a pleI should read books about great writing more often. Perhaps it would help me make the leap to regular professional writing. Regardless, there is a pleasure in reading works such as How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish.
This is not a dry textbook, though it does include writing exercises if you are interested. This is a quick read, but you would be wise to take your time. Each chapter is packed with great ideas about writing effectively at the sentence level. The book declares a relationship between analysis and appreciation. By extension, analysis and appreciation set one on a course to writing great sentences.
As this is a theory book, not a record of proven grammatical laws, you may find yourself disagreeing with various points the author makes. I did. Then he would point out his awareness of the very objections I was having. Astute, to stay the least. If you want to be a great writer, books like this are something to invest your time in. A great way to revisit fundamentals without killing the spirit of what makes writing so fulfilling: expression....more
There is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disThere is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disaster. The USS Indianapolis was sunk 40 hours earlier. The survivors have been treading water, suffering from toxic doses of sun rays and ocean water, along with relentless shark attacks. Yet, for legitimate reasons, the book is only half over and things will get worse. Stanton writes, "By late afternoon, things had mutated from horrific to unbearable."
Being an English Major, I balked at this word choice. The gist seems to be things are extremely bad, but somehow they are becoming even worse. To me the words "horrific" and "unbearable" are sufficiently complementary--if not synonymous--that they lack the proper sense of escalation the author seems to intend. Am I nitpicking? Most certainly. But the issue still stands.
The story of the USS Indianapolis is so very horrific, even a good author like Stanton risks running out of macabre word choices while the story is only at its midpoint. He does succeed. Personally, I find his writing at its best as he journalistically rehearses the facts and provides the relevant eyewitness perspective. Wisely, he almost never uses the disaster as a springboard into semantical indulgence. The author dutifully recounts the events, as best as they were remembered and documented by the participants. Where accounts differ, he provides footnotes rather than ostentatiously claim--like any given cable TV documentary might--that he alone has uncovered the real story.
For many of us, our knowledge of the USS Indianapolis is limited primarily to a single monologue in the fictional movie Jaws. I regard that monologue as one of the greatest in Hollywood history. Yet it does not completely capture, as even Stanton struggles to in a full-length book, the sheer horror of this naval disaster.
Stanton also, without belaboring the point, succinctly juxtaposes the violence and loss of one Navy ship with the destruction it assisted in bringing upon Japan by delivering the Hiroshima Bomb to its staging area in the Pacific. The facts, and the price paid in lives on both sides, need no embellishment. As such, I highly recommend In Harm's Way, for its sobering and revealing look at this key moment in World War II....more
Jon Ronson books have twice served as good non-fiction offerings for the book club I attend. His journalistic prose engrosses, mixing intriguing subjeJon Ronson books have twice served as good non-fiction offerings for the book club I attend. His journalistic prose engrosses, mixing intriguing subject matter with a dash of empathy via writing that drives to the point. So long as a group of people have come to both talk AND listen, Lost at Sea in particular makes for good discussion.
Our book club leader made a great choice to direct the evening’s conversation by asking a question for each chapter. Since each chapter covers a different story, that enabled us to cover the bulk of the material in a single meeting. Given that some of the stories in this book are troubling, one about pedophilia being the most obvious example, reactions had a cathartic element to them. We were getting our reactions off our chests so to speak. Ronson has a gift for getting people to open up, interviewees and readers alike.
That may be at once the greatest strength and risk in Lost at Sea: depicting people with the appearance of extremist tendencies in a manner that makes them sympathetic or even likable. Some readers may not wish to experience empathy for a pedophile. Ronson, as our book club has noted more than once, risks liking his subjects. This informs his writing, keeping it from becoming detached. Whether contemplating an Alaskan town that relies on the Santa Clause myth as means of denial in the face of violent threats, or robot makers whose lifelike creations beg all sorts of existential fretting, Ronson lets things get personal. His is not the safest form of journalism. For readers like me, that makes his books all the more worth reading.
I recommend Lost at Sea to be read with a friend or group. Read and then talk AND listen, like Ronson does....more