Category Archives: Books

S3E2: The Monkey’s Paw

In honor of All Hallow’s Eve, Stan reads an old favorite, W.W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw.” Enjoy!

One Giant Leap

Douglas Brinkley, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race (Harper Collins, 2019, 548 pp.)

Since humans first crawled out of the primordial soup millions of years ago, they have gazed up at the moon in the night sky and dreamed of what it was like. Only 24 people–all men–have ever been there. Twelve of them walked on it.

With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this summer, I thought I’d check out Douglas Brinkley’s new book on that historic event. Your favorite blogger reviewed Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite a few years ago [Cronkite was a space junkie], and this new book seemed a natural with all the fuss over the moonshot anniversary. 

Despite the title, American Moonshot is not a history of the space program or of Apollo 11, but is instead a history of JFK’s leadership of the program up until his death. It is very thorough through the Mercury program, less so for Gemini or Apollo.

Still, the book is a goldmine of information and insights, as you’ll see below. And Brinkley makes clear that without JFK’s single-minded devotion to space exploration, the great events of July 1969 would never have happened.  

As I watched the commemorations of Apollo 11 this summer, I was deeply moved once again by the tremendous courage of the astronauts, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo. They willingly placed themselves on top of rockets that could have blown them to bits; they could have been sent into orbit and never returned, or they could have been stranded on the moon to die very lonely deaths. Their country called them and they answered, in the name of science, exploration, duty, and Cold War patriotism.

Still, the thing that I can’t help wondering about the moon landing of 1969 is the dramatic impact it had on everyone at the time–President Nixon called it “the greatest week in the history of the world since creation”–and how little of that effect seems to have lingered across the years. The space shuttle program gave NASA a boost in the 1980s (at least until the Challenger disaster) but when’s the last time you talked to someone who dreamed of being an astronaut when they grow up?

Has anything ever seemed so momentous at the time that has arguably had so little impact on the world now? Was all the sacrifice and billions spent to get there ultimately worth it?

I think it was, but a lot people then and now disagree, perhaps most famously Gil Scott Heron in his 1970 song, “Whitey on the Moon”:

“I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)

The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)”

To be sure, as Walter Isaacson pointed out, while working to solve the problems of manned spaceflight, NASA laid the foundations for all kinds of modern technology, to wit: satellite TV, GPS systems, microchips, virtual reality technology, solar panels, carbon monoxide detectors, cordless power tools, bar coding, even the Dustbuster.

Research into space medicine contributed to radiation therapy for treating cancer, foldable walkers, personal alert systems, CAT and MRI scans, muscle stimulant devices, advanced types of kidney dialysis machines, and many others.

What NASA didn’t invent: Teflon (developed by DuPont in 1941), Velcro (invented in 1941 by a Swiss engineer to remove burrs stuck in his dog’s fur), or Tang (1957).

Rather than reviewing Brinkley’s book in detail, I thought it might be fun to provide you with a bulleted list of some of the things I learned that I didn’t know before. What follows is another list in the ever-popular feature known as

Fun Facts Known by Few

  • Jules Verne, writing in the 1860s, predicted that the United States would beat Russia to the moon, that the voyage would be launched from Florida, and that it would take four days–all of which turned out to be true.
  • Theodore Roosevelt (no longer in office) was the first president to fly in a plane, October 11, 1910. The first sitting president to fly was FDR, January 14, 1943.
  • In a 1920 headline, the New York Times famously lampooned Robert Goddard’s idea of a rocket being able to operate in a space vacuum. After Apollo 11 landed on the moon 49 years later, the Times famously issued a public retraction.
  • Brinkley pulls no punches on former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun: “NASA was lucky to have a rocket engineer as talented as von Braun to work on Apollo. But he shouldn’t be remembered as an American hero. His direct role in the Nazi concentration camp labor programs, where thousands perished under inhumane conditions, makes him a pariah figure of sorts”
  • Following his success with the Nazi V-2, von Braun worked to design the first trans-Atlantic ballistic missile, which Hitler wanted to use to attack New York, Washington, and Boston. It was called “Projekt Amerika.”
  • A Nazi V-2 rocket launched on October 3, 1942, broke the sound barrier and traveled to an altitude of 52 miles, reaching the ionosphere and marking the first time in history that a man-made object had technically ever flown beyond Earth’s atmosphere. On June 22, 1944, another V-2 became the first man-made object to reach outer space.
  • Hitler’s commitment to the V-2 rocket meant that Nazi rocket engineers would work on and solve many of the problems of space flight that ultimately helped to speed up the moon landing by decades.
  • JFK enrolled at Embry-Riddle Seaplane Base in Miami in 1944 to learn to fly; his flight log confirming this was not discovered until 2018.
  • In 1946, the Army Signal Corps bounced radio waves off the moon and received the reflected signals back, proving that radio transmissions through space and back to Earth were possible. This would be crucial for space exploration.
  • On September 14, 1961, the Soviets unmanned Luna-2 spacecraft crash-landed on the moon, becoming the first man-made device to touch another planetary body.
  • When the first Atlas rocket that would launch the Mercury astronauts into space exploded just after liftoff during its first test, astronaut Alan Shepard quipped, “Well, I’m glad they got that out of the way.”
  • In 1961, as planning for Apollo began, NASA identified more than 10,000 separate tasks that had to be accomplished to put a man on the moon.
  • Alan Shepard was the first American in space aboard Freedom 7 in 1961 and is the oldest man to have walked on the moon, as commander of Apollo 14 in 1971. He was 47.
  • A reporter asked Shepard what his thoughts were as he sat waiting on the launch pad aboard Freedom 7. His reply: “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.”
  • In 1999, the Liberty Bell 7 was discovered and recovered from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, 16,000 feet below the surface, almost 38 years to the day after Gus Grissom splash landed on July 21, 1961.
  • The Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who piloted the Vostok 2 at age 25 in August 1961, was the youngest person ever to fly in space. He died in 2000, age 65.
  • In April 1962, JFK had a 79% approval rating as president. Only 12% disapproved of his performance.
  • JFK’s favorite beer was Heineken
  • Cape Canaveral flight director Chris Kraft thought astronaut Scott Carpenter performed horribly aboard Aurora 7 in May 1962, talking to himself, peering out the porthole, and ignoring NASA requests to check his instruments: “I swore an oath that Scott Carpenter would never fly again.” He didn’t. Kraft died July 22, 2019, age 95, two days after the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
  • Dr. William Lovelace II, an aeromedicine pioneer who chaired the Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, believed that women were physiologically better equipped for space travel than men. In 1959 he invited American aviator Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb to take the same tests as the Mercury astronauts, along with 18 other female aviators. They graduated with flying colors and the those at the top became known as the “Mercury 13,” ranging in age from 23 to 41. When NASA got wind of it, they shut the entire program down: “Since there is no shortage of qualified male candidates, there is no need to train women for space flight.” John Glenn came out publicly against the program as well. The next year, the Soviets did what the Americans wouldn’t, making Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space, in June 1963. She orbited the Earth 48 times and remains the only woman to have been on a solo space mission. It would take the Americans 20 more years to send Sally Ride into space aboard the Challenger in 1983.
  • During NASA’s heyday between 1964 and 1969, the space agency employed 36,000 people, hired 400,000 contractors, and operated facilities worth $3.65 billion.
  • President Dwight D. Eisenhower always derided the frantic moon-shot efforts as an unnecessary and expensive Cold-War stunt. He died on March 28, 1969, nearly 4 months before Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.
  • Jackie Kennedy sent Wernher von Braun a note two months after JFK’s death, lamenting that her late husband was “at least given time to do some great work on this earth, which now seems such a miserable and lonely place without him.”
  • As the Apollo 11 launch approached, former LBJ Press Secretary Bill Moyers and future Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan lobbied the Nixon administration to name the spacecraft the John F. Kennedy. Nixon refused and did not mention JFK in the days before or after the moon landing.
  • 528 million people around the world watched the moon landing on television.
  • Neil Armstrong took a fragment of the Wright brothers’ famous Kitty Hawk plane with him on Apollo 11, linking man’s first successful flight with the first moon landing.
  • A total of 12 men have walked on the moon, all between July 1969 and December 1972. Four of them are still alive: Buzz Aldrin, Harrison Schmidt, Charles Duke, and David Scott. NASA has pledged to put a woman on the moon as part of Artemis by 2024.

Finally, perhaps my favorite story of all: just before climbing back into the Eagle and leaving the moon for the last time, Neil Armstrong reminded Buzz Aldrin to leave behind some NASA-sanctioned mementos he had brought with him. Aldrin reached into his shoulder packet and pulled out a package containing four items: two medals honoring Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin–the first human to orbit the Earth–and Vladimir Komarov, both of whom were killed in separate 1967 accidents; an Apollo 1 patch that memorialized Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, all killed in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967.

These were fitting tributes and recognition, deep in the midst of the Cold War, of the courage and sacrifice of their American and Soviet colleagues, upon whose shoulders they stood.

The last item was an olive-branch pin, symbolizing that the Apollo 11 astronauts had “come in peace for all mankind.”

Aldrin bent down and laid the package on the lunar surface. It’s still there.

The next time you look up at the moon, think of that small bag, and reflect a moment on all that it symbolizes, and on the giant leap it took to place it there.

The Greatest Novel Ever Written?

Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1. The C. Scott Moncrieff Translation, Edited and Annotated by William C. Carter (1913; rpt. Yale University Press, 2013, 487 pp.)

“What are you reading these days, Stan?”

“Proust.”

Let’s face it, one of the best reasons for reading an author like Marcel Proust is being able to tell people that you’re reading an author like Marcel Proust. To get the full effect, you should be wearing a bow tie, adjusting your monocle, and holding a pipe.

While I was reading Proust, I had no less than three occasions to tell inquiring minds that I was reading Proust, just as if I’d tee’d it up myself. Even without the bow tie, monocle, or pipe the effect remained the same: the questioner seemed impressed, slightly bemused, or downright baffled by my choice of summer reading. Responses ranged from “Hmm, something heavy,” to “A little light reading, huh?” to “Who?”

My own response might be, “Why?”

The reason, of course, is that Proust is one of those writers, like James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe, that usually show up on the list of 20th-century authors who are “must-reads.” But are they really? You began to wonder once you start reading their books. Their writing can seem like trying to climb the literary Mount Everest–forbidding, daunting, and, yes, even unreadable. Who hasn’t cracked open Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and wondered, what the hell is even going on here?

In Search of Lost Time is made up of not one but seven volumes, of which Swann’s Way is the first. Proust published it at his own expense in 1913; he published two more volumes before his death in 1922 and the last four were published posthumously between 1923 and 1927.

“This is the longest first-rate novel ever written. Its difficulties, like its rewards, are vast. If you respond to it at all (many do not) you may feel quite justified in spending what time you can spare over the next five or ten years making it a part of your interior world.” So wrote Clifton Fadiman in his essay on Proust in The Lifetime Reading Plan nearly 60 years ago. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it “one of the most profound achievements of the human imagination.” All of this is still true.

What is this book about? In 1909 Proust experienced a moment that perhaps you’ve shared: the involuntary recall of a childhood memory. It happened through the act of eating a piece of bread dipped in tea. Struck by the impact of it, he committed the rest of his life to writing a novel about recapturing lost time, the vanished past that gives our lives beauty and meaning. The novel was formerly referred to as Remembrance of Things Past.

Sometimes it’s heavy sledding, and sometimes not. The prose is famously beautiful, but, as Fadiman says, Proust can analyze “with intolerable exhaustiveness” and you may agree with him and other critics that the book is “less like a narrative than a symphony.” Proust could challenge Henry James for sentences that go on for days, but for all the underbrush, when you do come upon a clearance the views are indeed magnificent.

To say that there is a Proust cult would be an understatement. Shelby Foote–he of Civil War and Ken Burns fame–read all seven volumes at least nine times in his life and considered him second only to Shakespeare among writers. Alan Jacobs in The Pleasure of Reading in the Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011) wrote that one of his high school teachers affirmed that she read the entire seven volumes every summer “because the book was so great, and so deep, and so subtle that she always found something new in it, always had more to learn about it and through it.” Yale University Press is in the midst of publishing new editions of the C. Scott Moncrieff translation, edited and annotated by the renowned Proust scholar and biographer William C. Carter.

There seem to be three schools of thought on this tome: that it’s the greatest novel in the world; that it’s unreadable; or, finally, that it’s mammoth but minor. To which of these do I subscribe after finishing the first volume?

I did not find it unreadable, though I can definitely say that at times I felt like the proverbial buyer who wanders in but is “just looking around”–I wasn’t always sure what was going on but I admired everything and just kept moving. At this point I wouldn’t call it the greatest novel ever written, but give me another year and I’ll be ready to tackle the next volume.

If Proust really is better than Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, Hugo, Dumas, or a host of others, he will be a mountain well worth climbing.

Check back with me in about ten years.  

What I’m Reading Now: May 15, 2019

Robert A. Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, 207 pp.)

I’m fascinated by process. I’m never content to simply talk to someone about what they do, I always want to know how they go about doing it. This is especially true of writers and readers, even down to what the space looks like where they work.

There are a plethora of books written by writers about writing–including the one I wrote about in this blog, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of the most popular and one of the best, in part because he gets down in the weeds about how to actually write, giving advice about everything from how to craft dialogue to how to find an agent.

More unusual is a writer who tells you how they actually work–what time of day they write, how many hours a day, how much time they spend researching, even the kind of paper, pen, or computer they use. I’m fascinated by all of it. 

I well remember the afternoon in the fall of 1986, when, as a first-year graduate student at the University of Georgia, I was prowling the history stacks on the 4th floor of the Main Library and came across the sixth volume of Douglas Southall Freeman’s George Washington: A Biography.

Freeman died while the volume was in production, and Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone paid elegant tribute to Freeman in the Preface, entitled “The Pen of Douglas Southall Freeman.”

Here I first learned about Freeman’s Spartan schedule–rising at 2:30 in the morning, slavishly following the same routine every day, writing in the third-floor study of his home “Westbourne,” and tracking in a notebook every hour he spent working.

Mesmerized, I searched for every newspaper and magazine article I could find in those pre-Google days about this strange man who, by his own reckoning, spent 15,693 hours working on his biography of Washington. (Needless to say, I devoured David Johnson’s biography Douglas Southall Freeman when it was published in 2002.)

Robert Caro is in the midst of writing–as he puts it–the fifth of a projected four-volume biography of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and he has paused in that task to produce this little gem about why he wrote and how he researched his lives of Robert Moses and LBJ. As fascinating as this book is, I have to wonder why at age 83 and needing about a dozen years to write each of the Johnson volumes, Caro decided to steal precious hours away from that book to write this one. And yes, he knows the clock is ticking.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s well worth it: Caro gives us a behind-the-scenes peek at his process, beginning with the advice proffered by his editor at Newsday, Alan Hathaway. He advised the young Caro that in his investigative reporting he should “turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”

Caro followed that advice through his massive study of New York commissioner Robert Moses and his four-volumes on LBJ–though he admits there aren’t enough lifetimes to turn every page in the LBJ Presidential Library, totaling 40,000 archival boxes and thirty-two million pages.

Caro is interested in power–where it comes from, how it works, and what people do with it. The famous mantra is that power corrupts but Caro insists that “power reveals.”

Robert Moses, the powerful NYC commissioner who, over the course of 40 years, built 627 miles of highways through New York’s five boroughs that uprooted hundreds of thousands of people (mostly the poor and minorities), had more power than any elected official, more power than the governor or the mayor, and he was never elected to anything. 

How did he amass that kind of power? Caro was determined to find out, and he explains how he surmounted roadblocks placed by Moses himself, stonewalling by other Moses cronies, and the near-poverty he and his wife Ina endured as the book advance ran out and the research and writing stretched out into years. The story of what became the Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Power Broker (1973) is a tale of perseverance, dogged determination, and plain hard work. President Obama called it the most influential book he’s ever read.

To research LBJ, Caro and Ina moved to Austin, Texas (“why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?” she pleaded). When they weren’t both trying to “turn every page” in the archive, he spent hundreds of hours driving hundreds of miles, interviewing LBJ connections in far-flung places to give his readers not just a sense of LBJ, but a far deeper understanding than anyone ever had of this paranoid, insecure, nakedly ambitious Texas Hill Country native and his relentless quest for power.

After reading Working, you’ll want to dive in to The Power Broker and not come out till you’ve finished the most recent LBJ offering, which I reviewed elsewhere on this blog. Have your calls held and your food sent in.

To return where we began: what is Caro’s process? After the research is done, and the writing begins, he wakes every morning at 7 a.m., puts on a coat and tie, and walks across Central Park to a small office he rents (he lost the one he had for 22 years on Columbus Circle to a Nordstrom). Sitting at an unadorned desk, with a vast outline tacked to a cork board on the wall, he writes three or four drafts in long-hand on narrow-lined white legal pads. He types up the next draft on a Smith-Corona Electra 210, triple-spaced, leaving plenty of room to re-write in pencil. Work stops in mid to late afternoon because he found that most of what he wrote in the evening didn’t pass inspection later. The next day he comes in, reads what he wrote the previous day, edits, and begins the process all over again.

Does he know the title of this last volume? He does. Will he tell us? He won’t.

The aforementioned Dumas Malone spent 33 years on his 6-volume Jefferson bio, not counting the years of research before the first volume appeared in 1947. He was 56 when that first volume was published, 89 and nearly blind at the last, and he died at 94.

We can only hope that Robert Caro has that many years left because we need him to finish this monumental task, and, who knows, maybe there will be enough years to spare to write the full-length memoir that he promises in these pages. Caro says that he will finish the 5th and final volume of LBJ in about 3-4 years, which would put him at 87.

As much fun and informative as this slim volume is, speaking on behalf of his legion of fans (including Conan O’Brien), we can only hope that Robert Caro doesn’t take on any more side projects that will delay, even for a day, the last LBJ volume.

The finish line is near, and the clock is ticking. Write, Mr. Caro, write.

S2E10: Steve Oney

Stan’s guest this week is prize-winning author and journalist Steve Oney, talking about his latest book, A Man’s World: A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors, and Desperadoes (UGA Press) and his interviews with Greg Allman, Harrison Ford, Nick Nolte, Herschel Walker, and many others.