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REVIEW:  Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

REVIEW: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in...


“Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour? To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations. As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.”

I honestly can’t remember when Mary Roach’s name appeared on my radar but on the strength of lots of good reviews, I’d bought two of her books and put them in my TBR e-pile. After starting, and for various reasons almost immediately stopping, three romance books in one day, it made me think I needed a palate cleanser.

When I saw a recent interview with Roach at Mental Floss, a light bulb clicked on. What I ought to try next should be a Mary Roach book. “Packing for Mars” turned out to be just what I needed.

What a fun and funny yet informative book. Roach makes the minutia of what has already gone into the thought processes of the various space agencies of the world fascinating as well as approachable for the average lay readers. If you’ve ever wondered about how some aspect of daily life would be – or already has been – translated into a gravity free (actually most of what has been done so far is not totally gravity free, it’s more gravity lite) process, wonder no more as I’ll bet Roach covers it. I was amazed at the specialties of various NASA employees and how they’ve spent years and decades of their lives researching and refining not only the big but also the humble necessities needed for humans to boldly venture out past our beautiful planet.

Some of this research is carried out in various government labs of different countries, some on the “Vomit Comet,” and some was done by the astronauts and cosmonauts in “runner-up” missions that predated the “one giant leap” taken by Neil Armstrong. The 14 days of Gemini VII endured by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell sound like one layer of hell after another. The various means used by JAXA to winnow down the Japanese applicants aspiring to become astronauts is ingenious. The fact that many of the early people involved in determining the type of food eaten aboard the NASA missions were actually Air Force veterinarians says a lot about what these men were forced to consume. Yes, a version of Astronaut Chow was proposed and, thankfully, shot down.

Potential readers should be aware that Roach never shies away from digging deep for answers to questions that might not be appropriate dinner conversation. Frankly I was astounded that some of these people would still have jobs after what they fessed up to. Often gross but always engrossing nonetheless, this book should answer many if not all of those niggling questions you’ve always wanted to know about life in space. B+


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REVIEW:  Hard Time by Cara McKenna

REVIEW: Hard Time by Cara McKenna

Hard Time Cara McKenna

Dear Ms. McKenna:

I’ve not been able to connect to every one of your books as I would have liked but I couldn’t help but be drawn to the idea of a felon and a librarian. For all of its forbidden nature, this is a lovely, heartfelt romance.

Annie Goodhouse is the new outreach librarian for Cousins Correctional Facility in Cousins, Michigan.  She teaches various classes each day and one of her students is Eric Collier, a man she can’t keep her eyes or mind off of.

The setup is a bit of a strain. Eric comes on to her by writing a letter full of down home charm and come ons. There’s no question that this sort of thing happens in real life but Annie doesn’t seem the sort to be romanced by a felon who has a prison sentence of ten years.

Annie wants to know what he’s in for and she never really looks it up which, for a librarian, seems odd. Don’t they like knowing a bit about everything and are really good at finding out information?

Nonetheless, she remains somewhat in the dark about Eric’s true circumstances which are as palatable as a felon’s can be, I guess. (In some ways I felt like I was reading a slightly different version of Ruin Me). Because the two can’t flirt openly, they begin to do so through letters. After each encounter with Eric, Annie goes home to read the letter he has written to her. In the letters, he writes beautifully, honestly, and graphically about how he feels about Annie.  And at the end of the letters, he waits for a signal from her to discern whether he should keep writing.

While Eric chides Annie for handing him a letter, there is no real privacy for inmates. His letters to her or her incoming letters to him could be read at any time. The story seems to indicate that there’s some privacy and safety after the exchange but there really isn’t.  There’s an early tension that permeates the story that the exchange might be discovered or that their every increasing closeness will be discerned by a sharp eyed guard.

The entirety of the story does not take place while Eric is incarcerated. Instead the story shifts to post incarceration. And the emotional conflict post incarceration was real and believable. Eric wasn’t driven by revenge or vengeance but the desire to protect his family which he only knew how to express in violence. This desire had to be balanced against her desire to see him not be incarcerated again. She wanted him to value himself higher than he did, to be more selfish.

What was well conveyed was that the change Annie sought from Eric was one that he believed would intrinsically change him in a way with which he would not be comfortable.  The two exchange “I love yous” often but the last one is the one I thought was most meaningful. It expressed a sacrifice which to both of them was really large but might seem small amongst the cosmos.

Annie’s struggle, not only with loving a felon, but grappling with Eric both in prison and without was authentic. She’s a bit naive and she comes off as a little too wide eyed to be engaged in her present activities. She had moved to Michigan to be away from an abusive boyfriend. That she didn’t express more fear around being with a guy who got ten years for assaulting someone was a chink in the realism of the entire story but the two of them are sweet and touching together.

The one downfall of this book is the ending.

Spoiler (spoiler): Show

It’s very romantic but it felt incomplete. Annie’s father is a law enforcement officer and her family was important to her, much as Eric’s family was to him. The failure of including a scene of Annie and her family dealing with her new beau felt off to me, as if I only received one half of a fulfilling ending.  

Overall, though, the letters, the sweetness, the tender eroticism made this book a recommended read for me. B

Best regards


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