All the Myriad Ways – Larry Niven

This short story and essay collection contains some of my favorite stories of all time. For example Becalmed in Hell is about a man and his machine partner exploring Venus. It has a very clever psychological twist. Inconstant Moon, which won the Hugo in 1972, is about a couple of people inferring a great disaster on the far side of the world. Epic stuff. Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex is a hilarious essay about the problems Superman would have mating with the hypothetical woman “LL”. It may be one of the funniest things ever written. You can read it here in its entirety.

Stupid White Men… and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation – Michael Moore

Written by the director of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, it is a very funny series of essays pretending to be a complete book. If you don’t feel much sympathy for President George W. Bush (denominated “son-of-a-Bush” in this book) and the American political/societal system in general, you will probably enjoy this. It takes some tragically fun true facts about America and just plain tells it the way it is. I found myself nodding a lot, and being sad a lot. Despite the humorous language, the subject matter is deadly serious. America is in bad shape, tells us Michael Moore.

The book has a big left-wing bias, but it is thought-provoking and a fun read. Satire becomes Mr. Moore.

Never Enough – Joe McGinnis

This is the true story of the famous “milkshake murder” in Hong Kong in 2003. A rich, bitchy and spoiled expat wife kills her rich and boorish expat husband. The book tells the story all the way back to their parents, but mainly focuses on their life in Hong Kong. The whole thing is quite disturbing, and truly shows that money can’t buy happiness. Most of the characters seem mostly interested in money and power, and will do anything to have them.

As an expat in Hong Kong myself, I found it very interesting. Unfortunately, some things are written for dramatic effect. For example, Hong Kong International School, while a good school, is not “the most prestigious private school in Hong Kong”. And Parkview is certainly not “the most exclusive Hong Kong housing estate”. Still, a riveting read about some rather disturbed people, and the shocking events surrounding this notorious murder.

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut – Mike Mullane

Mike Mullane flew on three shuttle missions as a Mission Specialist. His autobiography is a frank portrayal of NASA and the Shuttle program through his eyes. It starts with a hilarious and eye-opening description of the astronaut selection process (I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes) and then takes the reader from Mullane’s childhood through his NASA career.

The book is not written for laughs, but there is a lot of humor involved in Mullane self-deprecating style. (Of course there are  serious moments as well, such as when dealing with the Challenger disaster.) The narrative reflects one man’s singularly obsessive passion for spaceflight, and what happened once he made his dreams come true. Mullane is open about his fears, but also about what drives men and women to crave spaceflight and torture themselves in order to achieve it. The book focuses in detailed fashion on many of the less glamorous, and less well-publicized, aspects of spaceflight, chief among them visits to the toilet but also what it is like to lie uncomfortably on your back for hours waiting for launch.

This book is a real treat and highly recommended even if you aren’t that interested in space travel.

 

Lost Japan – Alex Kerr

In preparation for a vacation to Japan, my mother gave me this one to read. Its main themes are about the loss of important Japanese cultural traditions and the uglification of both the body and the soul of Japan. The author is an art collector, calligrapher, Japanologist and long time resident of the country. Kerr decries modern Japan as filling with concrete, electricity poles, neon pachinko parlors and ugly rooflines while her inhabitants have become conformist, dull and unimaginative.

I found the book quite interesting in parts. His stories of finding and buying an old house in a secluded valley, of the inner workings of kabuki theatre, of unappreciated artworks and of the history of tea ceremony and zen are everything from fascinating to merely eye opening. Unfortunately Kerr does give a strong impression of being the kind of luddite who wishes for all old things to be preserved. By the end of the book, I had somewhat amended this initial impression. I think he does appreciate the need for change, even encouraging it. But he does not understand why there should be change for its own sake if the change only leads to worse things. As an ideal, there is of course nothing wrong with that. But in reality, things don’t really work that way. Change happens and decades or even centuries later people figure out what the actual causes and effects were.

One particularly annoying thing about this book is the constant name dropping. All the people described in the book seem to be maverick geniuses in their fields and Kerr is a close personal friend of every single one. It comes off as not a little pompous. Kerr has certainly led an interesting life, and it is through his life experiences that he can describe his “lost Japan” so deftly. However, this reader felt a bit put off by the tone.

I was also left wondering why, among all this horror at the disappearing culture of Japan, he does not spare even a moment for one of Japan’s most vibrant forms of modern literature, manga/anime cartoons. This art form is lauded the world over. One could even draw parallels to the kabuki described by Kerr, with its emphasis on single moments of resolution as opposed to the narrative continuitiy more emphasized in the west.

The episodic nature of the book works against it. It was originally a series of articles, and the disjointed nature of the whole is unfortunately quite glaring. All in all, the book gave me an eye opening view of Japanese culture through anectodes and strong opinions. I may not necessarily agree with the author, but I suppose that is as it should be. The text should serve as a brief and good introduction to Japanese culture through the eyes of a foreigner who has made it his own.

The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank

As is well known, Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl, hid for years in the back of a house in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. She later died in a concentration camp. This is her diary. A frightening work in many ways, but also a monument to innocence in a terrifying world. I suppose the historical significance of the work makes it an important read, but frankly I didn’t find it that interesting.

Cosmos – Carl Sagan

This book explains… “everything”. In his great style, using “small words”, Sagan takes us on a wondrous journey through creation. Even if you are not interested in cosmology or physics, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Wild Blue – Steven Ambrose

The late and great Ambrose on USAAF bomber crews flying over Europe during WWII. Very well researched and focusing on the men (and their families) and how the conflict affected them. Enjoyable and worth the read even if you are not into aviation or militaria.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach

In this curious non-fiction volume, Mary Roach explores an aspect of space travel that is normally glossed over: the human inside the machine. She starts by explaining why engineers find humans the trickiest part of their spaceships, and goes on from there through impact experiments on cadavers, body odor research (really!), what happens to humans if they lie still for weeks on end, the horrors of space food, the even greater horrors of going to the potty in space and various other subjects.

If this sounds boring, think again. Not only is the subject matter surprising and fascinating, but Ms. Roach’s writing is infused with an extremely entertaining dry wit. Throughout her research and her many interviews with scientists, astronauts and even interns involved in space travel and its accessory activities, she seems to find the humor in every situation. To be fair, it is hard not to see the humor but she describes it so well. A couple of selected gems:

“Safeguarding a human for a multiaxis crash is not all that different from packing a vase for shipping. Since you don’t know which side the UPS guy’s going to drop it on, you need to stabilize it all around.”

“The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press. The PCLP said that the room that houses the base archives is locked. And that only the curator would have a key. And that Holloman currently has no curator. Evidently the new curator’s first task would be to find a way to open the archives.”

I recommend this book even if you are not particularly interested in the space program. It is a great read about what it really takes to put people in space.

A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin

A simply magnificent portrayal of the Apollo program. Easily accessible even for the non-engineering inclined. Chaikin interviewed a whole host of people from engineers to administrators and of course the astronauts, thus managing to produce what many feel is the definitive account of NASA’s Moon program. A fascinating insight into what actually happened on the American side of the Moon race. Despite its heft it does not feel like a heavy read. The only caveat is that you might have to read it twice since it is packed with information and a bit much to digest in one go.