Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Unlike most people, my first experience with Andy Weir was Artemis which I had mixed feelings about. I never did read The Martian. But somewhere along the line I heard the buzz about Project Hail Mary and I figured it would be a good book for when I am burned out on non-fiction and need something entertaining to read.

A lone astronaut.
An impossible mission.
An ally he never imagined.

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission – and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery-and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he’s got to do it all alone.

Or does he?

Sounded intriguing so I requested it on Libby and waited for my turn. I recently was able to check it out and read it.

I didn’t hate it but I also didn’t love it. My initial reaction on Goodreads:

A creative and unique story about potential apocalypse and a dramatic attempt to save the world. I enjoyed it, but in the end too much science and math undercut the story for me. I enjoyed the way the story played out as Grace slowly began to recover his memories and there are some definite twists as that process unfolds. I even enjoyed his growing relationship with Rocky and how they learned to communicate and work together. And the ending was well done if a little cheesy.

But there was just way too much explanation of science and discussion of how to do the math involved. It felt like it was trying too hard to make math and science cool. Don’t get me wrong, math and science are important and I am glad there are people who are brilliant at these things. But it doesn’t necessarily make for engrossing reading. I am guessing those who enjoy and are good at math and science will enjoy this book a bit more than the rest of us…

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Book Review: Goodbye to Clocks Ticking: How We Live While Dying by Joseph Monninger

Tragically, a friend has recently been diagnosed with cancer.  So the topic has been on my mind as I have prayed for her and tried to offer her what support I could. As a result, when I saw Goodbye to Clocks Ticking: How We Live While Dying at the local library I thought it would be worth a read. I thought it might be helpful to read someone’s perspective on going through the process of diagnosis, treatment, etc.

Here is the publishers description:

After thirty-two years of teaching, Joe Monninger, an avid outdoorsman in robust health, was looking forward to a long retirement with the love of his life in a cabin beside a New England estuary. Three days after his last class, however, he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, even though he has not smoked for more than 30 years. It was May, and he might be dead by early fall.

Soon Joe learned, however, that he was a genetic match for treatment with a drug that could not cure his cancer, but could prolong his life. With this temporary reprieve, he sets out to live life to the fullest and to write about the year of grace that follows, from his cancer treatments to his innermost thoughts.

It turned out to be an interesting read.  I enjoyed reading Monninger’s perspective despite not sharing much of his background.  He is a New Englander, former professor/writer, who has traveled the world.  He is an avid outdoorsman looking to retire along the coast of Maine.  I am a lifelong Midwesterner, who works in government and politics, and is years away from retirement. He appears to be a lapsed Catholic while I am an active churchgoer.

That said, there is still the underlying blunt issue: you think of yourself as healthy and are making plans for the future when suddenly you are told you have a life threatening illness.

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Book Review: The Man in the Corduroy Suit by James Wolff

I used to read a great deal of spy fiction. When I was younger I would read through the back catalog of classics like John le Carré and Len Deighton (who I have recently re-read) and others.  Which is probably why I enjoy the work of friend of the blog Olen Steinhauer so much.

I have recently added James Wolff to the list.  So I was thrilled when I found out he had a novel coming out in 2023 and was able to get an advanced copy.

And what better day to offer my thoughts on The Man in the Corduroy Suit than pub day (today).  Here is the description from the publisher:

The story of an internal investigation into the past of a British spy suspected of having been turned by Russian agents. British intelligence is in a state of panic. Cracks are appearing, or so a run of disciplinary cases would suggest. To cap it all, Willa Karlsson, a retired secret services officer collapses, the victim of what looks like a Russian poisoning.

Leonard Flood is ordered to investigate – and quickly. Notorious for his sharp elbows and blunt manner, Leonard’s only objective is to get the job done, whatever the cost. When Leonard discovers that he is also a suspect in the investigation and that Willa’s story is less a story of betrayal than one of friendship and a deep sense of duty, he must decide whether to hand her to her masters or to help her to escape.

The third in the espionage trilogy The Discipline Files, after the acclaimed debut Beside the Syrian Sea, and its follow-on novel How to Betray Your Country.

As soon as I was finished with the third book I felt like I needed to go back and read the first two books. Which I did (more on that later). It reinforced what I noted above, literary, intelligent espionage fiction is something I just love to read and Wolff is a great example.

What makes Wolff great? Fascinating characters, suspenseful with high stakes, yet carefully and creatively written. Wolff makes you feel like you are working a case yourself in some ways, with memos and documents from the past. Painting a picture and allowing the reader to put together the puzzle (to mix metaphors). Somehow he does all this with a sense of humor and a light hand even as the subject is frequently dark or at least comes from a world of cynicism and weary politics.

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Book Review: Mr. Breakfast by Jonathan Carroll

I haven’t read any Jonathan Carroll in some time (archive shows Glass Soup in 2005) but recently learned that he had a book published in 2023 so put it on the TBR list.

Here is the publishers description for Mr. Breakfast:

Graham Patterson’s life has hit a dead end. His career as a comedian is failing. The love of his life recently broke up with him and he literally has no idea what to do next. With nothing to lose, he buys a new car and hits the road, planning to drive across country and hopefully figure out his next moves before reaching California.

But along the way Patterson does something his old self would never have even considered: he gets tattooed by a brilliant tattoo artist in North Carolina. The decision sets off a series of extraordinary events that changes his life forever in ways he never could have imagined. Among other things, Patterson is gifted with the ability to see in real time three different lives that are available to him. The choice is his: The life he is leading right now, or two very different ones. In all of them there is love or fame and of course danger because once he has chosen, there is no telling what will happen next.

Mr. Breakfast is a dazzling, absorbing and deeply moving novel about the choices that we have to confront and face, confirming Jonathan Carroll’s status as one of our greatest and most imaginative storytellers.

I gave this three stars on Goodreads. I enjoyed it and found it pretty quick read but it didn’t wow me. It is interesting to think about how various lives can be intertwined and how our choices shape and change our lives. Cliche in some ways but still profound in practice and in the hands of a skilled storyteller.

I mean, choosing between being single but famous and highly successful or having a family but an otherwise pedestrian life is not as easy a choice as one might think. A unique life or a meaningful one? Or can you have both?

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Books for Juneteenth on Juneteenth

If I was a competent book blogger or reviewer I would have put together some intelligent thematic thought for today’s holiday.  Heck, I have the day off so not having the time isn’t an excuse.

Instead I really struggle composing reviews for books that are complex and multifaceted; or ones I don’t have a simple reaction too or whose point I can articulate quickly.

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed, for example.

Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African-Americans have endured in the century since, from Reconstruction through Jim Crow and beyond. All too aware of the stories of cowboys, ranchers, and oilmen that have long dominated the lore of the Lone Star State, Gordon-Reed―herself a Texas native and the descendant of enslaved people brought to Texas as early as the 1820s―forges a new and profoundly truthful narrative of her home state, with implications for us all.

Combining personal anecdotes with poignant facts gleaned from the annals of American history, Gordon-Reed shows how, from the earliest presence of Black people in Texas to the day in Galveston on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in the state, African-Americans played an integral role in the Texas story.

Reworking the traditional “Alamo” framework, she powerfully demonstrates, among other things, that the slave- and race-based economy not only defined the fractious era of Texas independence but precipitated the Mexican-American War and, indeed, the Civil War itself.

Despite reading it twice, and underlining passages throughout, I just could not pull together a coherent review in any serious way. To be fair, I don’t have the knowledge or history chops to review the argument about Texas.  But instead of a more serious review, I offer my quick take from Goodreads.

A mix of personal and historical reflections centered on Juneteenth, this was an interesting read. As someone with a background in history, I appreciated her perspective and enjoyed the way she attempted to flush out her own feelings and approach to history and the complex and difficult issue of race and slavery in America.

At times it felt too thin, like it could have dug a little deeper into the history. The arguments, such as they are, come tangentially and through a mix of history and family stories. When I first saw it in the bookstore I was hoping for a short history of the event and subsequent holiday but enjoyed this book anyways. A quick and thought provoking read that brings a personal element to this day and its context.

In 2021 I also read Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison:

From the author of bestselling Invisible Man— the classic novel of African-American experience—this long-awaited second novel tells an evocative tale of a prodigal of the twentieth century. Brilliantly crafted, moving, and wise, Juneteenth is the work of an American master.

“Tell me what happened while there’s still time,” demands the dying Senator Adam Sunraider to the itinerate preacher whom he calls Daddy Hickman. As a young man, Sunraider was Bliss, an orphan taken in by Hickman and raised to be a preacher like himself. Bliss’s history encompasses the joys of young southern boyhood; bucolic days as a filmmaker, lovemaking in a field in the Oklahoma sun. And behind it all lies a how did this chosen child become the man who would deny everything to achieve his goals?

Here is the master of American vernacular at the height of his powers, evoking the rhythms of jazz and gospel and ordinary speech.

Again, from Goodreads:

I really struggled with this book. Started it on Kindle but finished it on audiobook. The production was quite good but the stream of consciousness nature of the book made it really hard to follow. I think this is a book that you would be better off reading after you have read more Ellison and/or this era and genre. Of course, it was an unfinished novel that was published posthumously so perhaps the jigsaw nature of the prose and/or story is not just me. I enjoyed it as an experience, as part of expanding my knowledge but not necessarily as a novel.

Apologies for not engaging with these books in the way they deserved but I thought it was worth posting to note the holiday and my having wrestled with some of its history and literature.