I worked my way through my stack of library books a few weeks ago, so it’s down to the Kindle and re-reading a few books I have around until the physical library opens again.
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name – Vendela Vida
With the transition to Kindle books, I’m finding recommendations in odd places. Someone on Twitter recommended this book about a month ago, when it just happened to be on sale. I snatched it up without knowing who the author is. Turns out she is married to David Eggers, although she is quite accomplished on her own. I’ve kind of fallen out of love with Eggers work in recent years. I actively hated his last book and vowed to never read another of his works.
Fortunately Vida’s story was much better than her husband’s recent output.
She tells the story of Clarissa, a 20-something woman whose father has just died and whose mother disappeared suddenly 15 years earlier. Shortly after her father’s death she learns that he was not her biological father. A copy of her birth certificate reveals her biological father to be a man who lives in Finland who her mom apparently met during some years she lived there.
Clarissa runs off to Finland in a search for her true father. She treks deep into Lapland, crossing into Norway, to scour through the Sami communities for the man listed on her birth certificate. She finds him, learns that he was not her dad. He was indeed married to her mother, but the pregnancy was the result of a rape. Using this knowledge, Clarissa begins searching another small community for men who might be about her biological father’s age and with whom she shares physical attributes.
She does not find her true father. But she does find her mother, who is uninterested in either a formal reunion or answering any of her questions.
Vida tells this story through sparse prose. I wouldn’t call it Hemingway-esque, but she doesn’t waste words. This style fits the desolate environment of Lapland. It also fits Clarissa’s character. She’s pretty no-nonsense, cuts to the chase, and isn’t afraid of being abrupt in conversations when she is disinterested or they no longer serve her purpose.
I did enjoy the story though I found Clarissa a little difficult to connect with. There is a coldness to her that made it tough to be fully invested in her. I wanted her to learn the truth of her parents, but more to resolve the mystery than to give her a sense of emotional closure. Maybe it is fitting that she never gets that closure, then.
One Giant Leap – Charles Fishman
This is a deep yet not overwhelming look at the Apollo space program. Fishman goes back to the earliest days of the US space program and its struggles in the 1950s, the impact the success the Soviet Union had on the American psyche, and then the push to get to the moon that began with John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to Congress in the spring of 1961.
He spins all this out in a satisfying way. He doesn’t just go through all the key events in chronological order, but rather picks a cornerstone for each chapter then jumps all through the history of the program to tie different events back to that theme. He takes deeper dives in the politics surrounding the program, the development of the computer systems and software that made the missions possible, the massive engineering advances that were required to get three men with enough material to survive for over a week off the earth, and the process in which the lunar module was designed and built.
One of the most surprising elements of the book is Fishman’s argument that we likely would not have made it to the moon in 1969 had JFK not been assassinated. Just weeks before his death, Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral to see the massive Saturn rocket that was about to be launched. In that moment, with the development of the biggest rocket in the world, the US had clearly passed the Soviet Union. Once the Saturn was successfully tested, the Apollo program would enter a lull of about two years of testing and training when nothing exciting to the public eye would occur. Aware of this lack of PR eye candy, congressional pressure to trim his budget, and his true feelings about the space program – JFK was much more ambivalent about going to the moon than he declared publicly – Fishman believes had he survived and served a second term, Kennedy would have declared victory in the space race, requested less money for Apollo and slowed the pace of development. This likely would have either pushing the moon landings into the 1970s or delayed them so long they never happened.
Who knows what JFK would have done if he had lived beyond 11/22/63, but it’s a fascinating thought to consider.
Beyond that, Fishman’s work is a really good look into arguably the greatest thing humans have ever done. Even knowing the history of it coming in, it is still pretty amazing that we went from barely being able to get Americans into space in 1961 to landing men on the moon less than eight years later. I could read/watch/listen to stories about the Apollo program forever.
By the way, one annoyance of Kindle books is how they don’t differentiate between body text and notes, appendixes, etc when showing your progress. There are so many notes in this book that you only read about two-thirds of its pages. It was a bit strange to think I had a couple hundred “pages” left only to reach the end.