Monday, July 30, 2018


I love the idea of exploring space. Perhaps it doesn't have a lot of practical here and now benefits, but the idea of 'going beyond' feels right to me; something we ought to do as a species to push the boundaries of what's known, and to explore and inspire.  This is the story of one astronaut.

The book is structured as alternating chapters describing Scott Kelly's 11 months in space, as well as the long road to that point in his life, from a kid who didn't do well in school, to fighter pilot, and finally, astronaut.

I found the story of his rise interesting, perhaps a bit more so because he wasn't a 'model student', but not terribly different from many other stories of success.  He found something that motivated him to pursue a dream and stuck with it.

Scott's time on the space station, on the other hand, including the launch from the earth from the Kazakhstan launch site, really held my interest. I sort of had this idea of 'space stuff' as this gleaming, hi-tech world where everything is wonderfully built and engineered; the best that humanity can build. It seems that the reality doesn't always live up to this ideal, though, and there are a lot of stories of various pieces of equipment that need regular, difficult maintenance. And then the stories of "ordinary", day to day living in a zero-gravity environment make you realize what an amazing feat it all is - people able to survive in a tiny shell so far away from the rest of humanity.  Utilizing tortillas to eat a lot of food with because it's easy to wrap stuff up and keep it floating away!  The contrast of the big with the small makes it all the more something we can relate to.

I mentioned the launch earlier - it's one of the funnier bits, with some of the odd superstitions that the Russians have prior to getting in the rocket that takes them to the space station.  Getting out of the vehicle take them there and peeing on the rear tire, for instance.

Lots of other interesting tidbits about what it's like to be there in person make the book worthwhile for anyone interested in the challenges of 'boldly going where noone has gone before'.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Draft Animals

Draft Animals: Living the Pro Cycling Dream (Once in a While)

Many "sports books" tend to be a bit formulaic: the hero starts out, faces some adversity, and then wins something big.

Phil Gaimon's book about climbing to the top ranks of professional cyclists is more interesting than that.  He's funny, adds a lot of detail, and perhaps because he's "only" really, really good at cycling, but one of the top guys, the ups and downs of his career feel a bit more real.

This book takes over where his last book, Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro
leaves off.  Phil has secured a spot to ride with the Garmin team, a part of the World Tour.

The book follows the ups (race win!) and downs: not having his contract renewed at the end of that season, dropping down a level for a year, then another season in the World Tour.

There is no Big Win, and when he winds up without a contract at the end of 2016, and decides to call time on his professional career.

He had what it took to be in the World Tour, but wasn't one of the best guys there, and his struggles related to that are what provide a lot of the tension in the book.

There's also a lot of (sometimes raunchy if that's a thing that bothers you) humor too, though, so the book bounces around nicely between thoughtful, funny, happy and sad.

If you like cycling, this book and the preceding one are well worth it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Child of Steens Mountain

Child of Steens Mountain

I love to read about life in wild places in the past, and this book didn't disappoint.  Indeed, I enjoyed the perspective of a girl growing up as a different one than many of the books about eastern Oregon written by men.

Steens Mountain, if you've never heard of it, is one of the most remote areas in the United States, outside of Alaska.  Even in this day and age, it's a 2 hour drive from the area where the author's parents homesteaded to Burns, a small town of less than 3000 people.

Despite many modern innovations becoming available during her childhood in the 30ies and 40ies  - cars, airplanes, radios, and so on, the life Ms O'Keefe lived on the southern flank of Steens mountain in the 30ies was probably closer to that of Laura Ingalls Wilder of "Little House on the Prairie" than that we enjoy today, in many ways.  Stories of animals both wild and domestic abound, as well as the ever present sense of being very isolated and independent, as it wasn't likely for help to come quickly if you got in trouble.  On the other hand, she also talks about a deep sense of neighbors helping one another out, and the pleasure of other people's company when they were around.

This is not a lengthy book; it's simple and interesting, with a number of anecdotes woven in.    Rabid coyotes, rattlesnakes, freezing winters and hot summers, wandering sheepherders and an automobile more or less held together with bailing wire all make their appearances.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

The latest from Neal Stephenson, this feels like an apple that hasn't fallen far from the tree. Somehow familiar in that it mixes bits in the past with present day science fiction, it reminds me a bit of Cryptonimicon, one of my favorite books ever.  I wouldn't quite put Rise and Fall in that category, but it was certainly entertaining.  The central concept of the book is unique and interesting, even if perhaps it tugs a bit too much at the limits of the plausible, even for science fiction.

As is often the case with his books, the ending is not 100% satisfying, although it's not actually bad or depressing.

The fact that an eclipse plays a central role in the book made reading this book over the summer, around the time the big eclipse crossed central Oregon, that much more entertaining.

I'd give it a read - it's fun - if you like Stephenson's writing, but wouldn't put it among his best works.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man

First a hero in dime novels, and subsequently reviled as a killer of Native Americans, this book tries to look beyond both and describe Kit Carson as he actually was; a product of his time.

Going back in time, his family is described as Scots-Irish, a people used to rough justice carried out in person, and often retributive in nature, rather than carried out by the authorities.

Life on the frontier, where Carson grew up as his family migrated west, was similar.  The law was a somewhat distant concept.

This is a central theme of the book - how many of Carson's actions should be viewed in the light of the times he lived in.  Some are brutal from a modern viewpoint, but perhaps he should not be judged so harshly, the author states.

I wish the book had dealt more with Carson's travels throughout the west, and given more of a sense of place to his journeys, as that was my own interest in reading it.  In any age without automobiles, Carson traveled through a vast area of the country in a time when relatively few people of European extraction had been there.

An interesting look, in any event, at a figure who grew to be 'larger than life' despite being fairly modest and unassuming.  The leader of the mapping expedition Carson joined, John Fremont, was far more of a self-promoter.

The author's task is not made easier by the lack of much in the way of a written record from Carson himself.

A solid effort, but I'm not sure I'd recommend the book.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier

Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier

"The Frontier", once described as those places with less than 2 people per square mile, lives on in a large swath of the western United States.

This book follows the author as he travels to meet the inhabitants of the numerous counties in the western US that meet this definition.

Having spent most of the past 15 years in Europe, there's something I find fascinating about these places.  Indeed, most of the south-eastern quarter of my home state of Oregon is extremely sparsely populated, and earns a few mentions in the book.

The book talks about how the west was, and how it is now, and how it's changed, and how it may continue to change.

Most importantly, the author introduces us to a number of people who live in this part of the world, and gives us an idea of what makes them tick, who they are, and what they're doing "out there".

The book is nearly 20 years old at this point, but interestingly, many of the counties in question have continued to decline in population.

Recommended reading if you're curious about the kinds of places where the "road less traveled" leads.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Gold and Cattle Country

Reading "Gold and Cattle Country" is like sitting down and listening to a lifetime of tales about how things were in the real "old west".  And what a lifetime it was!

Herman Oliver's father came to the US from the Azores as a stowaway, and ended up settling in Oregon's Grant County.  Herman Oliver was born in John Day Oregon in 1885, when horses were the main means of transportation, and died in 1970, after a man had walked on the moon for the first time.  He was a successful cattle rancher and banker, and later became involved in local and Oregon politics as a member of various committees.

The sense of listening to an "old timer's" stories is strong, as the book rambles a bit at times, but in a pleasant way.

The author dedicates some space to evidencing the differences between the real west he lived in, and "the west" of movies and TV, like most of eastern Oregon. Nonetheless, the book carries a sense of "west" that is not present in the mossy green valleys and slate gray skies of western Oregon; a west of ranches and gold mines and of raw, remote country.

This is reflected in the names, too:
Western Oregon, perhaps due to the mild and friendly climate that attracted home loving people, abounds in gentle names such as Amity, Glad Tidings, Freedom, Forest Grove, Goshen, Fernhill, Fairview, Enchanted Prairie, and the like.
Indeed, Western Oregon was mostly settled by people looking to farm, build churches and schools and communities, and otherwise create a peaceful, and somewhat dull existence compared to the "gold and cattle country" of eastern Oregon.  While it's hard to disagree with the motives of the former, it does not make for much in the way of stories.

At times the book rambles a bit too much, and goes into more detail than many might find interesting about actually running a cattle ranch, but those parts are brief and bearable.

A few anecdotes that jumped out:

Sheep had a reputation for being driven through areas and laying waste to the graze. An Irish sheepherder is allowed to graze his sheep in some wheat that otherwise would have gone to waste:
I said to the herder, "Pat, did you ever have your sheep in feed as good as this?" He answered, "Ounly in the moonlight."  A whole story of an era is wrapped up there.
Interestingly, the wild horses of Oregon were in high demand when they were still used by various military forces:
The U.S. cavalry and light artillery looked to Oregon for their choicest mounts. In the Boer War, the British bought many thousands of horses, and in the first World War, British, French and American officers could be seen inspecting horses at every eastern Oregon shipping station.
Some border on the "not very politically correct", but I guess that goes with the times:
Once, while judging the riding events at the Pendleton Roundup, I was sitting on my horse waiting for the next event, while the Indian women, in their finery, happened to be lined up in front of me. They were back to me and another judge was appraising them and their costumes for the title of "Indian Queen". An old Indian saw me, noticed the judge sign, hurried up and told me confidentially but emphatically, "You no judge squaw's behind! You judge 'em in front." 
The book is full of stories like these, and they give a real sense of what life was like, and how much things changed over the years.

Lastly, this quote struck me as something that makes as much sense now as it did then:

If asked for a single sentence of advice to anyone starting a ranch or any other business, I'd say, "Be constructive." Time spent in fighting neighbors, fighting the business people, fighting other organizations, is wasted. We improved the meadow, improved the breed, made our association stronger, built harmonious relations, made friends everywhere. The policy has made our lives smoother and has made it fun to live.