Tales of space dandruff and chimponauts

Plus, the story of a female friendship, a surprising exposé of a country singer, a compulsively readable thriller, a bio of Norman Podhoretz and the art of choosing

Mary Roach
She never uses the term, but Roach’s new book could best be summarized as an overview of “wetware” aspects of space exploration, with the emphasis on the “wet.” What’s it like to pee in microgravity? What happens if you barf in your helmet while spacewalking? Has anybody had sex up there? Was it fun?
Generations of scientists, largely nameless and often working in secret, have had to deal with awkward biological matters like these. The necessary experiments have many times been absurd, and sometimes dangerous. Proposed solutions and training methods can get mighty weird. As in “toilet-cam” weird.  “Monkey in a V-2 rocket” weird.

Roach’s funny, profane, fearless approach is admirable, and the wisecracks ought not to mislead anyone. Packing for Mars adds much to the public understanding of a realm that NASA—which is, after all, an agency of the U.S. government—would rather not talk about. It tackles some of the great legends and rumours of space exploration, adding context to incidents like Rusty Schweickart’s Apollo 9 motion sickness and the sexual harassment of Canada’s Judith Lapierre in a Russian space-station simulator. On historical topics like astronaut meals and zero-G hygiene, her treatments are near-definitive.The explicit theme of the book is the future of manned space exploration: how far we’ve come, and what’s left to learn before we can send humans to Mars and beyond. But letting robot proxies serve instead looks all the more like common sense after Roach’s stories of how lousy sentient meat is at travelling. The man-on-Mars scenario has remained about equally far into the future since the days of the Apollo program; Obama says he “expects to be around” to see it, but this is not exactly JFK-esque “before this decade is out” talk. With the shuttle program ending in a whimper, there is something sad and ironic about Roach’s Rabelaisian tales of space dandruff and chimponauts.
– Colby Cosh

Gail Caldwell
The friendship of Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp seemed meant to be. When they crossed paths at Fresh Pond Reservoir in Cambridge, Mass., something sparked. They promptly fastened themselves together for the rest of their lives.

This proved shorter than expected; Knapp died of lung cancer in 2002, at the age of 42. In her new memoir, Caldwell lovingly uncovers each layer of their friendship and how it transformed her life. She and Knapp first bonded over their pups—Clementine (Caldwell’s Samoyed) and Lucille (Knapp’s shepherd mix). Next came a deep respect for each other’s work—Caldwell is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer and Knapp was a columnist acclaimed for her own memoir, Drinking, a Love Story. Alcoholism and recovery were something they had both been through as well. And then there was rowing, a passion Knapp transferred to Caldwell. The first scene of the book has Knapp standing on the shore, generously coaching Caldwell’s teetery negotiation of a tiny racing scull, then laughing as her friend plunges into the water.

This collegiality and safety of competitiveness was one of the more intangible essentials in the women’s friendship. There was also Knapp’s “polite” refusal to be rejected by Caldwell, as well as her head-on approach to conflict. Caldwell was in her early 40s when Knapp came into her life, on an indefinite break from men and resigned—by choice and not unhappily—to never having children. She was a “gregarious hermit,” happy to socialize or to be left alone. But she soon found herself telling Knapp: “Oh no. I need you.”

As this dependence grew, Caldwell’s fears surfaced. “Hostage to attachment,” she remembers thinking. But she didn’t run away. When Knapp was in the hospital, Caldwell brought her a T-shirt from their dog-training days that said “Sit! Stay!” then realized, “That was what I did. I sat and I stayed.”
One evening several months after Knapp died, two pit bulls attacked Clementine at Fresh Pond. Caldwell threw herself into the melee, helping Clementine escape. At first, she credited Knapp’s spirit with saving her dog’s life. Later, she amended her conclusion: “Caroline’s dying had forced me into courage under fire; now I had her inside me as a silent sentinel.”

Don Winslow
A veteran and well-regarded American thriller writer, Winslow has just been catapulted into the big leagues with this, his 14th novel, slated to be filmed by Oliver Stone. Savages is one wild ride, an action story with literary ambitions. Beyond the frequent bursts of blank verse, there’s what any one of Winslow’s California  characters would call a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid vibe: the two main protagonists, Ben and Chon, partners in a high-end marijuana business, are “this close to being gay,” as a stoned Ben once says, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart. They’re not, though—they merely love each other almost as much as they love their common girlfriend, Ophelia. But just as a reader begins to tire of the ways cerebral Ben resembles Paul Newman and Chon channels Robert Redford, the characters bring it up themselves in this wickedly funny novel. Wait, asks Ben, didn’t the Wild Bunch all end up dead? “Not the girl,” Ophelia cheerfully responds.

At first, all is well in the boys’ impossibly Edenic garden of pot, until the Mexican Baja Cartel moves to take over their operation, while demoting Ben and Chon to employees in their own start-up. Although Ben appreciates the post-colonial irony of the offer—the Mexicans want to turn them into field hands—he and Chon decide to simply abandon the field to the forces of big business. But the cartel wants Ben’s horticultural genius along with the operation, and kidnap Ophelia to enforce compliance.

There is nothing the boys won’t do for their girl, and thus commences an orgy of violence amid a dizzying spiral of plot twists. And the question of just who are the savages of the title—once seemingly answered when the cartel sent Ben and Chon a snuff video showing the decapitated bodies of dealers who had failed to co-operate—comes alive again, in a novel that’s almost as thought-provoking as it is compulsively readable.

Thomas L. Jeffers
For critics on the left, in America and abroad, neo-conservatism (or neo-liberalism, as some call it), militantly capitalist and robustly pro-military, is an almost literally diabolical political stance responsible for much of the world’s troubles. And the brilliant and pugnacious Norman Podhoretz remains, at age 80, its chief Satanist. Jeffers, in a detailed first biography of the man who edited the highly influential New York journal of ideas Commentary from 1960 to 1995, offers an absorbing—if laudatory—account of Podhoretz’s now famous Damascene conversion from classic Jewish liberalism to a right-wing conservatism that was both specifically Jewish and broadly all-American.

When he took over Commentary—one of the two leading journals (along with Partisan Review) of intellectual New York—the ambitious Podhoretz, son of immigrants to Brooklyn, was only 30. He was soon at the centre of liberal politics, publishing New Left thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, while personally organizing parties for Jackie Kennedy. Yet the excesses of the ’60s began to wear at him, and in 1972 he voted for Republican Richard Nixon, a rightward slide in tune with wider U.S. trends in the ’70s. But Podhoretz didn’t stop there: in his newly conservative magazine he criticized Ronald Reagan in the ’80s for insufficient Cold War aggressiveness. Last March, he went on record as preferring Sarah Palin to Barack Obama for president.

The root cause, of course, was over America and Israel, increasingly—and, for Podhoretz, outrageously—seen as forces for evil by his former friends and fellow liberal intellectuals. As Podhoretz put it in a 1985 statement, he began painfully to “unlearn” what he had accepted as unquestioned truth. “That the last thing one ought to be defending was one’s own, that it was nobler to fight for others and for other things in which one had no personal stake.” A gross and dangerous error, in Podhoretz’s opinion, and one he was resolved never to embrace again.

Eileen Sisk
It should probably go down in the User’s Guide to Celebrityhood: when a dirt-digging journalist offers to pen your life story, think twice before blowing her off. If Buck Owens had kept author Eileen Sisk inside his tent, for example, his reputation as a hard-living country music legend who’d do anything to succeed might have survived. Instead, the singer led Sisk on for three years, teasing her with salacious details of his life before abruptly cutting her off in 2000, telling her whatever she wrote would be unauthorized.
Freed from the sense of obligation that comes with access, Sisk has carved up Owens with ruthless precision.

Wife-beater. Philanderer. Liar. Miser. Deadbeat dad. Thief of intellectual property. There’s practically no label of dishonour that doesn’t fit the man who blackens these pages, and if he hadn’t died in 2006 you can be sure he would have sued. Sisk, a former editor with the Tennessean newspaper, pays due homage to the unprecedented string of hits Owens unleashed—along with the “freight-train” sound that revolutionized a stagnant genre in the 1960s. Owens ruled the country charts despite turning his back on Nashville, she explains, transforming his adopted home town of Bakersfield, Calif., into a rival of Music City. But his 21 chart toppers and his pioneering use of TV pale next to the thought of him smashing his third wife Phyllis in the jaw with a golf club. Baby boomers who recall the aw-shucks co-host of Hee Haw might be interested to know he sired six unacknowledged children. Or that he boasted shamelessly about the size of his genitals.

Owens styled himself part of the Okie exodus to California in the early ’30s, but he was certainly no Tom Joad. By 1966, he was already worth millions, yet he still forced his bandmates to sleep two to a bed during road trips. Surveying the trail of embittered musicians, stiffed business associates and jilted women Owens left behind, singer-songwriter Gene Price described him as “a very bad man who made very good music.” Seldom a truer word was spoken.

Sheena Iyengar

Despite its title, this is not the book to read if you are trying to pick between a sedan and a coupe, pondering whether or not to re-shingle the roof or deciding on a university.

The Art of Choosing isn’t a guide to making the right choice. Rather it is a contemplation on the complex nature of choice itself: how choosing defines us as individuals and the ways in which our culture’s attitude toward choice in turn shapes us.

Iyengar, a business professor at Columbia University with a cross-appointment to the psychology department, is famous for her jam experiment. She set up a table in a busy grocery store in San Francisco and offered customers two alternating options for sampling jams. Part of the time there were 24 different kinds of breakfast spreads to taste. Other times the selection was just six. The results seem surprisingly counterintuitive. While more customers were attracted to the bigger range of options, only three per cent actually purchased jam. While fewer people came to the table when only six jams were displayed, 30 per cent of them bought a jar.

To Iyengar, this suggests that while most people claim they want a lot of choice in their lives, this can often become a crippling burden. Less choice is better. She pursues this idea via investigations on a wide variety of subjects, including arranged marriages, fashion, investing and politics, generally with the aid of social experiments such as the jam study. Quite often Iyengar concludes it’s better to have experts make your choices for you. Her study of parents forced to decide whether to take a baby off life support, for instance, suggests they should let doctors make the call.

Some readers may be unconvinced that choice can be a bad thing. But it’s rather bracing to have someone challenge the North American birthright to 25 kinds of cola and 1,000 channels on cable TV. Besides, if you don’t like her message, you can always choose a different book.