What We’re Reading: August

the-martian coverThe Martian, by Andy Weir
review by Aaron Downey

Sometimes the stars align. I received this book for my birthday at the time I was editing our forthcoming book, The Boundless Universe: Astronomy in the New Age of Discovery by Sidney Wolff, and shortly before the New Horizons spacecraft wowed us at the pinnacle of its nine-year mission with amazing photos of Pluto. So outer space was on my brain, and I devoured this finely crafted interplanetary shipwreck story.

Mark Watney, the engineer and botanist of the first manned Mars mission, is hurt in a freak accident during a storm and thought dead by his hastily departing fellow astronauts. Stranded and unable to communicate with the crew of his ship or Earth, Mark must muster up every bit of MacGyvering he can to save his own life with the equipment and smarts he has available. He’s like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, except with insane temperatures, a lack of easily accessible oxygen or food, and 70s TV shows to keep him company instead of Wilson the volleyball.

The brilliance of this book is in the voice of the narrator, Mark; he logs the math and physics of everything he is doing to solve his never-ending problems, but in a totally accessible, lively, and humorous manner. And the science is legit, according to Weir, a computer scientist who dabbles in astrodynamics as a hobby. As he posted earlier versions of the book online, he received many tips and corrections from fans within the world of scientists who know these things.

The day after I finished reading this book, I mentioned it in passing to Sidney, former director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (including Kitt Peak). Though not her usual fare, she had just finished and enjoyed it as well. The Martian is a fast and fun read for anyone who likes science fiction, but it has major crossover appeal to those who simply enjoy a ripping yarn about good old-fashioned strength, determination, and ingenuity in the face of all odds.

land of milkThe Land of Milk and Uncle Honey: Memories from the Farm of My Youth, by Alan Guebert and Mary Grace Foxwell
review by Marilyn Noble

Alan Guebert has been an ag journalist since graduating from the University of Illinois in 1980, and his weekly column, The Farm and Food File, has been syndicated in more than 70 newspapers across the U.S. and Canada since 1993. While many of his columns are no-punches-pulled commentaries on the state of agriculture, others are reminiscences of his life growing up on a Midwestern dairy farm.

His first book, The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey, is a compilation of those columns, revised with the help of Guebert’s daughter Mary Grace. He reflects back on the days of back-breaking labor and farm-kid high jinks with love, poignancy, and a good dose of humor.

His grandfather’s brother, Uncle Honey of the title, is an especially rich target. Uncle Honey was a sweet-natured, gentle man who worked the farm with the rest of the family and hired hands, but he was inept when it came to machinery.

“In fact, the machinery-killing Uncle Honey was the inspiration of my father’s favorite quasi-Biblical axiom. ‘The Lord protects fools and children,’ Dad would often say when he eyed Uncle Honey on a tractor. ‘That’s a wonderful thing,’ he’d add, ‘because either way, Honey’s covered.’ More borderline blasphemous than sacred, I knew it wasn’t a proper prayer. Still, it worked, because in the twenty years Uncle Honey bent, busted, and beat up every piece of machinery he touched, not one hair on one person, including himself, was ever harmed by all the mayhem.”

If you ever spent time on a farm, or just wish that you had, you’ll appreciate Guebert’s portrayals of family farm life—the work, the food, playing baseball in the pasture—and the richness that comes from living a life of hard work and simplicity, things that get lost in our uber-connected, always-on, 21st century world.

This book is a beautiful trip down memory lane, whether or not the memories are yours.

boys in the boatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown
review by Caroline Cook

I knew very little about the sport of rowing, and didn’t have much interest, before picking up this book. This true story about one eight-oar crew team of University of Washington students and their road to competing in Hitler’s Olympics, however, was absolutely fascinating, nonetheless. Brown focuses on one of the students, Joe Rantz, who overcome extreme poverty and a tumultuous family life to put himself through school and succeed at the highest level in his chosen sport—a sport that traditionally had been reserved for the wealthy elite. Rantz and his teammates faced a childhood and adolescence during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and entered adulthood as Hitler was weaving his web in Europe.

Brown puts you right in the boat with the crew with beautiful descriptions of technique and environment. You can feel the excitement and tension of each race as the team gets closer and closer to the coveted gold medal. Periodically we leave the racing waters of Lake Washington and get a glimpse at Adolf Hitler, Jospeph Goebbels, and Leni Riefenstahl preparing for the great propaganda stage that would become the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The juxtaposition is haunting indeed.

This may not be the most famous story to come out of the 1936 Olypmics, but it is just as compelling as any. There are no stars in crew like there can be in other sports—these nine men had to fully give themselves to and trust the other eight in the boat to achieve the perfect “swing” on the water.

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