Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars
February 20, 2012, 4:10 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

Reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars is like seeing the journalist version of my twelve-year-old self: Roach is endlessly curious, prone to digressions, and drawn to potty humor. This makes her a fantastic if sometimes frustrating guide through NASA’s history, and training and testing processes. She alternates between making seemingly unconnected ideas and stories “click” into satisfying place, and leaving her readers with a mass of information on something connected to NASA in only the most generous of terms. Her habit of preceding some throw-off fact with “I read somewhere…” smacks of occasional laziness (just tell us where you read it!), but Roach always recovers herself through the sheer enthusiasm with which she attacks such topics as how to use a space toilet, and whether a Russian porn film was really filmed in zero gravity.

Still, there isn’t anyone I would rather follow on a tour through NASA. Roach has an eye for the absurd and the uncomfortable, and appears to take some pleasure in noting how frequently her questions (about toilet use, sex in space, and so much more) are evaded. She provides a view of the astronaut’s life that is sometimes startling for its divergence from the grade school dream. Astronauts, it turns out, spend most of their time not being in space – a disappointing discovery for someone like me, who maybe hasn’t held close the dream of journeying to outer space, but who nonetheless never paused to think about how unromantic the astronaut’s life is.

Roach’s greatest discovery here, though, may be in finding the NASA employees who are as willing as she is to joke about the odder elements of life in space. She also has a special talent for finding the few worthwhile, gut-busting lines from transcripts that run for hundreds of pages, as when the Apollo 10 crew members find themselves plagued by some “floaters.” (Seriously: shit, in space, does not always stay in the toilet or bag where it’s been deposited.)

CERNAN: …You know once you get out of lunar orbit, you can do a lot of things. You can power down…And what’s happening is –
STAFFORD: Oh – who did it?
YOUNG: Who did what?
STAFFORD: Who did it? [laughter]
CERNAN: Where did that come from?
STAFFORD: Give me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air.
YOUNG: I didn’t do it. It ain’t one of mine.
CERNAN: I don’t think it’s one of mine.
STAFFORD: Mine was a little more sticky than that. Throw that away.
YOUNG: God almighty.

[And again eight minutes later, while discussing the timing of a waste-water dump.]

YOUNG: Did they say we could do it anytime?
CERNAN: They said on 135. They told us that – Here’s another goddam turd. What’s the matter with you guys? Here, give me a –
YOUNG/STAFFORD: [laughter]…
STAFFORD: It was just floating around?
STAFFORD: [laughter] Mine was stickier than that.
YOUNG: Mine was too. It hit that bag –
CERNAN: [laughter] I don’t know whose that is. I can neither claim it nor disclaim it. [laughter]
YOUNG: What the hell is going on here?

Look, this space turd segment is, without a doubt, one of the greatest moments of Packing for Mars – I could not resist the temptation to quote it in full – and it highlights what makes Mary Roach such a fun writer. She knows no shame or boundaries, and she answers the questions we didn’t even know we had. She mixes these (frankly hilarious) moments into more serious examination of all the things we don’t know about space: what would happen to a baby conceived in space, how to keep the human body from deteriorating in zero G, how to handle multinational crews dealing with their fellow astronauts’ cultural quirks, whether it is worth putting a half billion dollars into a mission to Mars that in all odds won’t have any tangible results. Oddly enough, given the way Roach strips away many of our childhood images and myths of NASA, she imbues the organization with slightly more wonder than she pulls away. NASA is a bureaucratic engine, and one that perhaps takes itself too seriously; but even in this it offers us something new, as with the biblical instructions regarding sandwiches that can go into space:

The contraband Wolfie’s sandwich violated no less than sixteen of the formal manufacturing requirements for “Beef Sandwiches, Dehydrated (Bite Sized).” The requirements cover six pages and are set forth in the ominous phrasing of biblical commandments. (“There shall be no…damp or soggy areas.” “The coating shall not chip or flake.”)


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Review: Neal Pollack’s Stretch
October 11, 2011, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Neal Pollack’s Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude is an at times joyful and refreshing look at yoga culture in the States. The “at times” is the key phrase in that sentence; Pollack’s book, which describes his journey from being an overweight, balding, mean-spirited, struggling writer to a “yoga dude,” is at its best at the start of his journey.

Dealing with stress over a poor review in The New York Times and a six-a-day donut habit, Pollacks’ wife urges hm to attend a yoga class with her at the local gym. Unlike his wife, Pollack ends up hooked on yoga. When they move to L.A. so he can pursue work as a screenwriter he gets more serious about yoga; L.A. Is, after all, described as being to yoga what Paris was to writers in the 1920s.

Even when he’s taking yoga seriously Pollack doesn’t take it too seriously. This isn’t a book you’ll be rolling your eyes at as you read, thinking, “christ, gimme a break about this ‘connection with the universe’ stuff.” But he’s at his best early in the memoir, when his skepticism about yoga is still evident to everyone around him. Pollack never hesitates to take jabs at himself, either, but the best come early on, as when he struggles with bouts of gas during yoga class, effectively deflating the world of yoga (which to us outsiders can too often seem composed of people who have never had to do something so crass as race for a bathroom):

If at all possible, I liked for my farts to get lost in a wave of sound. Therefore, the best time to fart, if I absolutely had to, was during the part of the class where we said “OM.” As a beautiful chorus of human voices (including mine) harmonized as one, my colon expanded and contracted, discharging useless gases. I sent them out to the cosmos as an extra blessing, a karmic bonus.

What makes Pollack’s book so fun and accessible is that, when the book opens, he’s willing (even eager) to reveal these aspects of himself, but also that he is such an asshole. Pollack is a contributor to the first issue of McSweeney’s, and the first book published by McSweeney’s is written by him. He views himself on a path to success, and the self-destructive path he heads down (quickly killing off his best contacts) when the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers do make it big, is recognizable to anyone who’s ever felt overwhelmed by the unfairness of not being viewed as remarkable as their (assumed) counterparts. The joy Pollack feels in his transformation from the sort of man who publicly rips into a perceived competitor’s book, to one who tries to do headstands without farting, is evident and makes the first third of the book a pleasure to read.

What ultimately works against Stretch is the same thing that makes Eat, Pray, Love a hard swallow: Pollack got a book deal to write about his yoga journey while still on his yoga journey. With the writing he does on articles he writes for journals like Yoga Today, and the Thailand yoga retreat he pays for with his book advance, the last two-thirds of the book read like a journey that’s been designed for its narrative arc. Pollack covers a yoga conference for Yoga Today, travels across the country and attends classes representative of types of yoga, like Bikram, that have defined yoga in America, goes on his retreat and then covers a yoga conference/indie rock fest. His observations about “yogis” in America (like the number of middle-upper class practitioners who wear their $100 lululemon yoga pants while turning their yoga poses into poses for the gaze of others) do effectively skewer the commercialization of yoga, but even this loses its pleasure after a couple chapters.

Pollack writes about finding his “best self.” It’s hard to take that effort seriously, in part because of his habit of smoking a bowl before heading in for yoga practice, but more so because his attempts to craft a redemptive narrative are so apparent. Pollack’s book is at times an entertaining read, but it never quite lives up to its potential.


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Review: Gayle Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Disclaimer: The publisher provided a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

After reading Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea in January I wanted to read more about women’s issues but not so much in the vein of “American traveling abroad and doing great things, changing the world in ways that are never satisfactorily explained, worrying about his weight gain” and more in the vein of women actually doing things for themselves. Gayle Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana was the perfect book to answer my complaints about Mortenson’s book, providing a clear picture of life under the Taliban in Afghanistan and of the ways in which women responded to the Taliban-imposed limits on their lives and sought to support their families.

Lemmon writes an introduction about herself, her trip to Afghanistan and her attempts to seek out a story like the one she eventually writes about in this book, and this is – perhaps oddly – one of my favorite parts of the book. After my nightmare journey through Three Cups of Tea, I was worried Dressmaker would be more of the same, at least so far as a lack of illuminating or smooth writing goes. But Lemmon introduces herself early on as a strong writer, perfectly capturing the feel of landing in a foreign country, feeling uncomfortable in your clothes (in her case, a wool headscarf), and trying to understand the mass of landscape and history in the first moments you see it after leaving an airport.

Where Lemmon is going with this is to introduce us to the manner in which she was introduced to Kamila Sidiqi, the subject of her book. Kamila graduated from teacher training on the day the Taliban entered Kabul, finding her life plans shattered; under Taliban rule women couldn’t work outside their homes, or even exit their homes without a male escort, limiting Kamila and her sisters to their home.

Much of Kamila’s story is about sheer luck, about being in the right place at the right time, though Lemmon never says this. Having heard about women sewing in their homes and selling dresses and pantsuits to local stores, Kamila visits her older sister Malika, an accomplished seamstress, for a crash course in sewing a dress. Despite not knowing how to sew or run a business, Kamila is able to take this sample dress to a store, secure some orders, and teach her sisters how to sew, Malika-style. They make good on their first order, receive a second, expand to sell to other stores, find the least expensive stores to buy their sewing supplies, and grow their business until they can barely find the time to sleep. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of time during this period; at times I found myself surprised by the Context Clues (as my sixth-grade teacher would say) that suggested a few months had passed rather than the few weeks I had thought, but my occasional confusion didn’t do much to impede the narrative flow.

It’s around this point that Kamila expands her business in ways that set it apart from other small businesses run by women at the time. (As Lemmon writes in her introduction, and as is clear from what Kamila says throughout the book, other women were running similar businesses out of their homes.) With neighborhood girls daily visiting the Sidiqi home to request work as seamstresses, Kamila decides to expand her business into a training school of sorts, allowing girls to come in and do an unpaid apprenticeship.

There are so many interesting things to this book, details that we’re able to get to because Lemmon’s writing focuses so closely on local women and their experiences and work. Example: Kamila goes to one tailoring shop and gets orders, then begins to take orders from the brother of the owner of that first tailoring shop – who also owns a tailoring shop. Later, their older brother moves to Kabul and opens his own tailoring shop, and Kamila’s family is able to supply all three brothers. When I lived in the States it never occurred to me that in many countries businesses are run in this fashion, with a family all working in the same field and even with their stores close to one another. It’s how things are done in Macedonia too, though, and it’s fun to see how and why families run their businesses in this fashion.

Lemmon also shows us the huge divide that exists between Taliban members on the street and those in the government. She never tries to oversimplify her subject matter, and though she writes about things like women being hit in the street for a wrist briefly slipping into sight, she also suggests that the street level members of the Taliban support Kamila’s business. At one point some women place last-minute orders for dresses that turn out to be for a Taliban wedding; clearly, the business is known. Lemmon uses this incident to add nuance to the story, and that she refrains from labeling Kamila a hero or every low-level member of the Taliban the opposite is one of the great strengths of Dressmaker.

Lemmon writes Kamila’s story in clean prose; it’s a fairly easy but nuanced glimpse of life under the Taliban and the ways in which one woman and her family undertook, with no outside support, to start a business that eventually supported their family and many members of their neighborhood. If you’re debating reading Three Cups of Tea, I implore you, I beg you, to read Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana instead. It’s a better book because of the quality of writing but also, and especially, because it looks at what women are able to do by themselves, not what women are able to do when a man flies in from another country to do something for them.

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Review: Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes

Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes is about his year spent working in Iraq as deputy governor of Amara and then Nasiriyah. Stewart worked in Iraq from August 2003 until the handover in June 2004, and what he captures in this book is the utter futility of the whole exercise.

The book is an interesting follow-up to his earlier one, The Places in Between, about walking across Afghanistan. Stewart goes from being a lone traveler on an inexplicable quest to a member of the coalition, or occupying, government in Iraq, trying to put together a workable government with the Iraqis in his provinces. He is open about his lack of qualifications; at the time of his governorship he was only thirty years old, “spoke little Arabic, and had never managed a shattered, unstable, and undeveloped province of eight hundred and fifty thousand people” (7).

Most of the book is composed of descriptions of meetings and other interactions with members of the countless local political parties and powerful local figures. Stewart is trying to put together local governing councils and find local governors, while working within the unique constraints of the occupation. That so much of the book is a baffling list of names and off-kilter interactions with these local figures makes it hard to keep track of who is who, but I think that’s the point; it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand these local power structures and struggles as an outsider.

Stewart repeatedly refers back to colonial times with a sort of longing that at first seemed odd to me. But he writes of the lifelong commitment colonial administrators had to their provinces, and their resulting fluency in the local languages and understanding of the workings of local politics. In comparison to what the Coalition did in Iraq (of bringing in people who were poorly qualified, giving them short deadlines and wads of money to create a democracy) Stewart’s positive remarks on colonial administration begin to make sense.

The turnover rate in Iraq was high; as difficult as keeping track of the Iraqis is remembering the Americans, Brits and Italians who move in and out of meetings. And every once in a while one of these characters turns up dead – someone briefly mentioned for having roomed with Stewart once, or having shared a breakfast. This, in combination with the heartening list of kidnapped or murdered Iraqis Stewart worked with, is a harsh reminder that even with Stewart’s writing on the development and employment projects he was working on, this was probably not the best environment in which to be trying to forcibly build an American-style democracy.

Stewart’s orders came from above, of course, from people in the Green Zone who were even less connected to the needs of Iraqi provinces than the temporary members of Iraq’s government like Stewart. He writes, “The CPA in the Green Zone wanted to build the new state in a single frenzy. Instead of beginning with security and basic needs and attempting the more complex things later, we implemented simultaneously programs on human rights, the free market, feminism, federalism, and constitutional reform” (78 – 79). Such a task was impossible, and the only real hope anyone could have was to ignore those directives that didn’t fit with the most pressing needs of their province. “We needed security before we could create any kind of functioning government. I could help with development projects and political reforms, but all our policies depended on the rule of law” (81).

A while ago I read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and so found interesting the way Stewart’s descriptions of the Green Zone echoed Chandrasekaran’s. Stewart writes:

I was accustomed all over the world as a civilian in post-conflict zones to eating food made from local ingredients. The BBC in Kabul might serve fried chicken and salad, but they bought in the market. Here everything had been imported, much of it directly, twelve thousand miles from the United States. (109)

He writes also of entering the Green Zone alongside an Iraqi translator, who asks why Americans are so aggressive. Stewart fumbles an answer, to which the translator responds:

“We know these are just young kids. They are frightened and hot and don’t know anything. But they should learn something. Why don’t they learn a little? Just a few phrases. Yesterday, I was on the highway at a checkpoint and they stop a car and they are shouting at the driver, ‘Stay in your car’ in English. He cannot understand what they are saying – he was not educated man – he is opening the door. And I am running to him and saying in Arabic, ‘Don’t get out.’ But I cannot in time and they shoot him. Dead.”

I looked at him.

“You don’t believe me. Listen, I saw this with my eyes. This is why they are losing Iraq.” (105).

Both these passages show a certain disconnect the occupation had from Iraq as a nation, and it would be my inclination to say, “Well, we should have learned the language, we should have been out there ‘winning hearts and minds,’ and maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad.”* But like Stewart writes in the epilogue, “the invasion was crippled not by what we did but by who we were. Coalition leaders never had the power to define the future of Iraq” (397). Even with this, though, the invasion was further crippled by the unstable goals of America and its allies:

Not only did our officials struggle with the ethical and practical uncertainty of invasion, they also struggled to define its purpose. The political aims of our home governments changed continually. Initially they wanted to topple Saddam and leave immediately. But by November 2003, Bremer’s ambitions extended from the computerization of the Baghdad stock exchange to the reform of university curricula and the creation of a full liberal democracy. Six months later, the objective had become to exit as soon as possible and declare a victory. We could not articulate consistent views on how our security and interests related to the interests and rights of Iraqi citizens. (399 – 400)

Even as he recognizes the futility of his work in Iraq, the impossibility of ever understanding a culture from within the well-fortified walls of a compound in which he works 16 or 20 hour days, Stewart maintains a certain sort of idealism. After news of the torture in Abu Ghraib is released he nearly resigns, writing, “…I had believed that we were in a position to set an example and lecture Iraqis about democracy and human rights. I would have taken the news better if I had thought it an isolated incident. But I realized that I had always known, without admitting it to myself, that such things were going on” (343). He doesn’t resign, because he has only two months remaining in Iraq and wants to finish his work; but he writes, “The Iraqis hardly commented on it [Abu Ghraib] and I saw for the first time that they had always assumed we were doing these things and had never believed my statements about human rights and the rule of law” (343).

Stewart doesn’t try to answer every question he poses, and while he leaves a fairly bleak picture of the Coalition’s mission in Iraq, it’s one worth reading by anyone who wants a better picture of what happened after Saddam was toppled. And happily, as of this writing, the book is on sale at Amazon for $5.30. (Well, happily for you. Maybe not so much for Rory Stewart or his publishers.)

* It’s impossible to address most of what Stewart brings up in his book – it’s a lot, especially given that towards the end he is moved from Amara to Nasiriyah, where political parties may have the same names but entirely different make-ups and goals – so I’m jumping on to the end here.