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REVIEWING

Snatch: The Adventures of David and Me in Old New York

by Charles Fuller


David and Me Publishing Company, Philadelphia, PA | 2010 | 176 pages | $14.95

Reviewed by Herb Boyd


charles fuller photo

As in his award-winning play, A Soldier's Play, which ultimately became the movie, A Soldier's Story, Charles Fuller enticingly weaves history and mystery together in Snatch, his first children's book or novella.

Lovers of New York's history, particularly the ante-bellum period, will flip the pages in wonder, marveling in what will happen to the two black brothers who set out in defiance of their parents' admonitions about nighttime travel to help a runaway slave.

It is a time of slave catchers and the two brothers are as much seeking the runaway as they are artfully dodging the bounty hunters and outmaneuvering a gaggle of characters that could be escapees and rejects from the books of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Their names alone are enough to terrify and astound.

The legendary Five Points section of New York is accurately evoked, though those less familiar with the environs may be baffled by the flight of the boys through a veritable labyrinth of streets, buildings, and sewers.

Even so, those familiar with New York's history—and many readers will be astonished to learn that slavery in the state and the city rivaled some southern cities in the number of African captives—will be delighted to know that David Ruggles, the great abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor, is among the key players.

And those even more informed of the city's history, will guess who Freddie the runaway is long before it is revealed at the book's end

Fuller had promised to write the story for his sons many years ago, and he may have found a completely new and vastly rewarding métier for his unlimited creativity and imagination. The indication that this is Volume I suggests that more is to come and the corridors and regions of the city cry out for exposition, especially if the two adventurous brothers are our tour guides.

The book is replete with bibliography, Endnotes, and an Afterword. There is even a smidgeon of glossary, which is helpful given Fuller's tendency to be linguistically consistent with the era.

If there is one drawback, it's the redundancy of location and streets. A wider swath of New York City would have given the book additional cache, though that might have been deliberate on the author's part, weaving a kind of hypnotic spin in keeping with the boys often dizzying flight through the maze.

Very little has been heard of Fuller since his monumental success, but he proves there are second acts in American literature, and sometimes it's merely a matter of finding another format and genre to let loose that powerful creative energy and urgency.

Herb Boyd is the author of Baldwin’s Harlem.


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REVIEWING

The Prism and the Rainbow—A Christian Explains Why Evolution Is Not a Threat

by Joel W. Martin


The John Hopkins University Press | 2010 | 389 pages | $24.99

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe


joel w martin

Joel W. Martin (b. 1955) is an American marine biologist and inveterate zoologist who’s currently Chief of the Division of Invertebrate Studies and Curator of Crustacea at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC). His main area of research is the morphology and systematics of marine decapod crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, lobsters and their relatives).

And he is a Christian and the author of The Prism & the Rainbow—A  Christian Explains Why Evolution Is not a Threat.

According to Dr. Jarvis Streeter, Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University, “Professor Martin has produced a concise yet comprehensive exposition of the fundamental issues in the current debates between (and among) Christians and evolutionary biologists on creationism, intelligent design, and theistic evolution. It addresses all the key issues, both biological and theological, in a form and language easily accessible to Christian laity, including teens, and evaluates them fairly and with erudition.”

Whereas this evaluation of The Prism and the Rainbow is somewhat true, I was disappointed with it because I wanted more. To some extent, being a Christian in the modern world is to be pluralistic in one’s thinking, that is to say, to hold possibly contradictory views, side by side, but to keep them separate from one another. How can one reconcile, for example, the virgin birth with space travel in the modern era, the Christian concept of a triune God with man’s ability to clone life, or the edict that we should forgive others of all their offenses with the satisfaction gained in getting even? And so forth!

To be a Christian in the modern era means sometimes feeling a little out-of-step with the times and avoiding arguments with atheists who love to point out these inconsistencies. And yet if there is one area with which I have little trouble reconciling, and that is the theory of evolution.  To me, the idea that all forms of life on the planet evolved over time, a period of four billion years, gives me a greater sense of reverence for life. For goodness sakes, a human being’s life while in the womb repeats evolution from tadpole to human being.

The stories of creation, as twice recorded in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, were first recorded by the ancient Hebrews in about 950 BC, when its authors had no knowledge that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, nor of other instances of prehistoric life. And yet, interestingly, the creation stories they recorded follow evolution fairly accurately, especially if, as it says in the Koran (LXX:4), each day is thought of as the equivalence of a 100,000 or more years.

Darwin’s theory of evolution increases, not diminishes, my appreciation for the grandeur of the planet, from the Grand Canyon to the oceans teeming with life. What I wanted from Dr. Martin’s book was an elucidation of the things that I already believe.

”

Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882) was an English naturalist who established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called “natural selection.” He published his theory with compelling evidence for evolution in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.  Knowing the maelstrom this theory was likely to unleash in the Christian world, Darwin delayed the publication of this book for about a dozen years.

Darwin's family tradition was nonconformist Unitarianism, his father and grandfather were freethinkers, and his baptism and boarding school were of the Church of England. When going to Cambridge to become an Anglican clergyman, he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible. He learned John Herschel's science which, like William Paley's natural theology, sought explanations in laws of nature rather than miracles, and saw the adaptation of species as evidence of design. On board the survey ship, the Beagle, Darwin was quite orthodox and would quote the Bible as an authority on morality. He looked for "centres of creation" to explain distribution, and related the antlion found near kangaroos to distinct "periods of Creation."

But he was critical of the Bible as history and wondered why all religions should not be equally valid. In the next few years, while intensively speculating on geology and the transmutation of species, he gave much thought to religion and openly discussed this with Emma, his daughter, whose beliefs also came from intensive study and questioning.

The Scopes Trial—formally known as The State of Tennessee vs. Scopes and informally known as the Scopes Monkey Trial—was an American legal case in 1925 in which high school biology teacher John Scopes was accused of violating the state's Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach evolution.

Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality and he was never punished. The trial drew intense national publicity, as national reporters flocked to the small town of Dayton to cover the big-name lawyers representing each side. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate for the Democrats, argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney, spoke for Scopes. The trial witnessed modernists, who said religion was consistent with evolution, against Fundamentalists, who claimed that the Word of God as revealed in the Bible trumped all human knowledge. The trial was thus both a religious and theological contest, and a trial concerning the veracity of modern science regarding the creation-evolution controversy. Most people are familiar with the popular movie made about the Scopes Trial, Inherit the Wind, with Spenser Tracy playing Clarence Darrow.

The teaching of science and evolution expanded, as Fundamentalist efforts to use state laws to reverse the trend failed in the court of public opinion. Since the publication of The Origin of Species in the later part of the 19th Century, and since the Scopes Trial 85 years ago, the debate between scientists and fundamentalists has waged on. Dr. Martin’s contribution to the discussion is to point out that religion and science are two entirely separate domains. He thinks the issue can be resolved by two very simple statements:

And yet I suspect this begs the question, for if all truth is one, then scientific evidence supporting evolution would not be at odds with creation stories. If some things like the length of a day are seen as symbolic, then they are not.

Many people understand evolution but balk at the thought that we are the products of evolution, that is to say, that we are descendants of apes.  Personally, I have no problem with the idea.

Dr. Martin seems to be an amiable and sincere man and is probably a very good scientist, but he’s not a writer, for he fails  to explore this important topic of evolution more thoroughly.


Jane M McCabe is a freelance writer and former teacher living in Amargosa Valley, NV.


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REVIEWING

Who Fears Death

by Nnedi Okorafor


Daw Books, Inc. | 2010 | 386 pages | $24.95

Reviewed by Janet Garber


nnedi okorafor photo

African Golem

A child conceived in unusual circumstances, raised by its mother, never knowing its real father, soon discovers its superhuman powers, and then goes on a quest to deliver its people from harm, ultimately sacrificing itself for the common good.  Sound familiar?  Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces traced the mythic trajectory of the hero back in 1949, and found that most of the world’s great stories and great religious heroes (Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, the Buddha, Christ) fit this archetypal pattern.

Drawing on a plot line with such deep ancestral appeal allows Nnedi Okorafor to take the familiar in Who Fears Death? while giving it her own unique African feminist spin.  She creates a black African heroine of mixed blood, conceived in an act of rape, whose parents are not divine, but not ordinary either – both are sorcerers from two warring tribes. The heroine, Onyesonwu (“who fears death”), enacts a redemptive tale – she dies for her people’s sins and is resurrected, overcoming death itself.

It is set in an unnamed time, with old computers, GPS-like gadgets, and “capture stations” that wring water out of the desert atmosphere litter storehouses. People are reduced to living in the most primitive circumstances and the story’s preoccupations (racial prejudice, systematic genocide, weaponized rape) seem ripped out of headlines about Darfur.  In this version, the lighter-skinned Nuuri oppress the Okeke, making them their slaves and raiding their villages, raping, slaughtering and obliterating.  Rising out of this mayhem comes Onye, an “Ewu” (half Nuuri/half Okeke), blamed, scorned and feared because of her “genetic” propensity towards violence.

Onye grows up sheltered by her mother in the desert, and is later brought into society and protected by her stepfather for a while.  She’s been told by her mother that she has a special fate, and she quickly figures out that she can shape-shift into a variety of animals, astrally project herself and fly over thousands of miles, making herself “ignorable.”

At her stepfather’s death, she learns that she can heal and even bring people and animals back from the grave.  Hearing her birth story, her one motivation in life becomes to defeat her evil Nuuri father and to bring an end to the murderous rampages and fighting between the tribes.  She tries repeatedly to get herself (a girl!) accepted as an apprentice to the great sorcerer, Aro.  Much like a 21st century woman, she refuses to live within the limitations imposed on her sex by society, even if she has to resort to violence to make her point.  Ultimately, she passes all trials and is initiated.  She vows to end the violence in her country, but no pacifist, she - more like an avenging angel!

Onye leaves for her quest with her girlfriends from the Eleventh Rite (genital mutilation) ceremony and her true love, another Ewu, whose parents were martyrs to their forbidden love.  The troupe encounters many obstacles on their path, including fantastical creatures and strange desert wanderers, until at last they confront the arch evildoer, her father.  As in all great myths, the king must die.

Will there be lasting change in the region?  The answer seems to be: not unless all are “blind” to their superficial differences, or more radical still, until all the war-crazed men who use rape as a tool for subjugation of a people are no more.

Okorafor is a 1st generation African-American (her parents are from Nigeria), a PhD professor of Creative Writing at Chicago State University, and she has won many awards for her young adult fiction, as well as her nonfiction.  This is her first foray into adult fiction and it’s an impressive feat.  She has created a memorable heroine in Onyesonwu – a raging, sexual, smart, intrepid, but impulsive creature whose out-of-control nature gets her into perilous situations before she’s ready for them.  (Fortunately, she brings along her entourage – her lover, whose mission in life it is to protect and heal her, and her friends, who provide nurture and emotional support – it takes a village?)  Okorafor also creates a complex world of the future, complete with religion drawn from The Great Book, and traditions that cry out to be changed.

I believe that Okorafor will certainly mature as a novelist. The defeat of the villain father was not entirely satisfying, and he tended to be one-dimensional, while the friends sometimes felt a little interchangeable. Onye tarried a bit too long on her journey and risked losing the attention of the reader and the “frame” of a twin recording Onye’s last words felt tacked on as an afterthought, but these are minor cavils.

Okorafor has interwoven magic realism with real-life events and fashioned a compelling story.  Like all good fantasy, it’s wishful thinking.  Millions have died in the civil wars that have raged in Sudan for the last 50 years, as anyone reading Nicholas D. Kristof’s articles in The New York Times knows.  And if we’ve read Dave Eggers’ What is the What, about child soldiers in Sudan, that helps round out the historical picture.  We are forced to ask ourselves:  Is this what it will take to cure the intractable problems of post-colonial Africa?  A teenage girl in the shape of a fire-breathing dragon???  An African golem?  So be it!

Can we get one too, please, for the Middle East?


Janet Garber is a freelance writer living in New York City.


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REVIEWING

Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Food in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens

by Andrew Beahrs


The Penguin Press | 2010 | 323 pages | $25.00

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


author andrew beahrs

When I was the editor of the Crisis magazine, during the first years of the 90’s, I embarked on several press junkets organized and paid for by the giant oil company, Chevron, which had its major office in San Francisco.

They had assembled a small group of magazine editors from around the country. We all - black, white and Hispanic, male and female - edited publications that were thought to influence public policy; so, without anyone saying it, it was obvious to all of us what the point of these trips was really about.

The first year we were first taken to Alaska, where we stayed in Anchorage, and daily piled into two large helicopters to journey northward to Prince William Sound, where the worst oil spill in American history had recently occurred.

***

Journalists can sometimes be a deeply cynical, mistrustful group of folks. While standing on the banks of one of the many islands in the Sound, I stuck a toe in the cold Artic Ocean, (just so I could claim that this was third ocean in which I had done so), as Chevron explained  how things had returned to close to normal.

All at once, a large fish breached the water. Just as quickly, a huge bald eagle swooped down from one of the tall trees that surrounded the Sound, grabbed the fish between its sharp talons, and flew off.

I exclaimed to the editor next to me, in total wonderment and awe, perhaps from watching so many animal shows on PBS, “Holy Shit. Did you see that?”

“Chevron probably staged it,” he coolly replied, unimpressed.

***

The following year we were treated to the French Quarter in New Orleans, and several more helicopter trips, only this time to off-shore oil rigs, far out in the Gulf of Mexico.

All of these memories come pouring back as I continue to witness, like most Americans, the sickening sight of vast amounts of oil pouring into the Gulf; back then, one of the top executives from Chevron assured us (editors), with great confidence, (as we had lunch on one of the rigs in a pristine lunch room, surrounded by pervasive signs warning against any kind of spark or flame), that such a thing could never happen.

And, strangely enough, reading Andrew Beahrs’ Twain’s Feast: Searching For America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, also brought those trips back to me.

Like Clemens, as a young man, I was a wanderer and note-taker, who marveled over and over again about the different experiences I had encountered nationwide. And what could be a more different than the northern tip of the New World, and the southern tip of mainland America?

Yet, from the point of view of experiencing local cuisine, Alaska proved to be disappointing.  Anchorage was filled with Pizza Hut’s, MacDonald’s, Burger King’s and Wendy’s. For a moment I thought I was back in downtown Burbank. I came all the way up here for a Big Mac? Where was my reindeer stew?

***

But fortunately, New Orleans the next year lived up to it’s billing. I felt that the people there went out of their way to present authentic local food and superb preparation. I discovered that the Gulf of Mexico was a chef’s and eater’s delight, and that the many world-class creative chefs and restaurateurs in New Orleans seemed to take great pleasure in showing off their culinary expertise.

***

America was once filled with distinct local cuisine that could perhaps rival the Gulf. Beahrs points out that the slow erosion and disappearance of distinct local food started long before the franchising of America.

For the much prized prairie chicken it was replaced with corn, “When it comes to the prairies,” he writes, “the effect of America’s subsidizing of industrial corn has been nuclear, reducing thousands of species to one, or at best a handful.”

In the case of the tasty Lake Tahoe Lahontan cutthroat trout that Twain loved so much, dams, miners, loggers and the Army Corp of Engineers soon led to its demise.

In addition to the usual suspects, there was also the impact of railroads and steamships, “which carried ice to cool rooms, frost drinks—and, of course, to preserve and ship food. In 1842 railroads were experimenting with using ice-filled cars to ship fish. Exactly twenty-five years later, one J.B. Sutherland received a patent for a refrigerated train car,” Beahrs writes.

With Sutherland’s patent, the Big Macs slowly began their century long journey to complete domination.

***

One common theme in Twain’s writing regarding a meal, was his longing for food cooked in the “southern style.”

Beahrs writes: “Twain lived in New York and New England for as long as he did the South. Still, he remained nearly nationalistic about Southern Cooking. Like most of his contemporaries, Twain probably didn’t think much about the dishes’ origins…he didn’t name the enslaved women who worked in the log kitchen…or the smokehouse behind that.”

“Though these women were almost certainly several generations removed from Africa, their skills—and those of millions of women like them—were anchored in the cooking and customs of their great grandmothers’ homeland…West Africans shared six major cooking techniques: boiling in water, steaming in leaves, frying in deep oil, toasting beside the fire, roasting over the fire, and baking in ashes.”

The black slaves on the young Samuel Clemens’ uncle’s farm employed all of these cooking techniques. The now famous Mark Twain spent the rest of his adult life savoring the memories of this great, well-prepared feast that he knew as a child.

Beahrs’ has the acute insight of both the historian and the feature writer and Twain’s Feast is filled with well-drawn portraits, complete with recipes, as Mark Twain traveled far and wide, with memories of the antebellum south always a part of him.  He also points out how much we have lost in our headlong rush for convenience, speed and “progress.”

My one regret about Twain’s Feast is that the book could have used some closer editing. Many of Andrew Beahrs’ chapters go on far too long, and lose their storytelling power. This book could have easily been cut down by at least 10 percent.

With that caveat in mind, this is an American history book that will no doubt not be used in history courses, where it should be taught. I hope not, as that would be a loss. This is American history at its best and fullest.



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REVIEWING

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg

by Deborah Eisenberg


Picador | 2010 | 980 pages

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

deborah eisenberg

The stories of Deborah Eisenberg are luminous, well crafted and beautiful—so why were they so hard for me to get through?  Maybe it was the size of the book—The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg is a hefty tome, a retrospective, if you will, of about 1,000 pages (980, to be exact).  I went through the stories slowly—sitting on the bed beside my children while they watched “Scooby Doo,” reading in the car as my husband drove to the grocery store, in coffee shops, and in my own bed. It seemed too daunting a task—to reasonably assess a writer of Eisenberg’s brilliance, and to come to some coherent conclusions about her remarkable contribution to the short story.

Or maybe I was having trouble reading the stories because the stories themselves were jarring, like little stomach punches that hurt with their very eloquence.  Perhaps I didn’t want to awaken from my malaise and be shown the world that Eisenberg so deftly reveals in her stories, the harsh reality of unrealized desires that fester and implode and the world of grace that can only be scratched at.  I’d read some of these stories years ago and rereading them was to reenter my past where, indeed, the world was shiny, yet attainable (yet maddeningly unavailable at the same time, the world as a blind date who refuses to be forthcoming, yet is suggestively, yearningly desirable).

Let me first speak of Eisenberg’s vocabulary.  Her words are sewn together with quirky finesse, so the abrasive and the fragile are stitched together in a sort of poetic puzzle.  Eyes are described as “lost, and metallic,” for example.  The words “shiny,” “glistened,” even “beautiful,” are sprinkled liberally throughout.  I am drawn to her language.  Many authors rely heavily on image, but I was aware while reading Eisenberg of how her images engulf the reader with a tactile fullness.  She describes her landscapes so vividly that the very air takes on a protean, real quality.

Her objects—tea sets, paintings, a woman’s expensive silk slip—represent a deeper truth that the characters cannot infiltrate.  So these accessories seem to be covered with a patina, a coating that only suggests the deeper reality.  The women in these stories are constantly striving to get beneath the surface, to shatter the beautiful veneer, as in the story, “Broken Glass.” 

In this story, the protagonist has gone on a vacation to a remote, “exotic” locale to recover from the recent death of her mother.  Instead of spending her time alone, she parties with expatriates who are both self-satisfied and embarrassed by their situation.  They seem gleefully amused by the peasants in the village—their customs and their attire—yet are unable to be a true part of their world, even though they have lived abroad for decades.  Sandra, a pseudo-bohemian who is portrayed as a delicate flower, finally slips into madness when she tosses glasses at her own party.  (So many things come to mind here, the parties of The Great Gatsby, Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife, being locked away, and the way women were sheltered.)  The main character is left bewildered.  Are these people happy?  Does gaiety disguise deep remorse, or worse, the ugliness of those responsible for colonialism?

In another story, called “Rosie Gets a Soul,” Rosie, a decorative house painter (she paints children’s bedrooms and elaborate murals) becomes obsessed with a slip hanging in the bathroom of a wealthy couple.  This slip represents what the main character doesn’t have—ease, luxury, and stability.  The owner of the house, Harris, seems drawn to Rosie, yet he will not allow himself to be swept away by the “hired help.”  Instead, they share a chaste cup of tea on the bed in the room where she has just finished an elaborate painting.  The ending of the story is sad and oblique—Rosie imagines the couple thinking about her.  “They will.  Yes, let them think about her…” ends the story.   Yet what are the consequences if they do think of her?  And what about Rosie?  She’s holding onto life by a thread.  What will fill the void when she no longer obsesses about Harris?

The main characters in Eisenberg’s stories are often involved with side characters that display a sort of crazy, superior knowledge.  These soothsayers can be the most seemingly innocuous players, who suddenly crack and begin talking incessantly in breathless monologues.  These strange, riveting soliloquies often act as a foil to the protagonist’s “grand plans.”  The rampages are philosophical, yet nonsensical, exposing the outrageous id and desire of the speaker.  For example, one woman at a party—Susan, described as the brilliant one--suddenly rambles on about the meaning of life: “But don’t you sometimes have the terribly vivid sensation that under this thing we refer to as ‘life’ is something that—how do I say this?—that there is this thing going on, and we make it, or it makes itself, possibly, and then there is this other thing that it looks like, or seems like, which is only sort of a top view of the first thing.  A reflection if you see what I mean…”  Many writers would end here, but Eisenberg propels her character on and on, pulling the reader along with her in a dizzying spell of words that cascade and fall in an almost dream-like quality.

In another story, a sort of dried-up pianist gets involved with an interviewer named Beale when he goes to perform in a developing country.  The story teeters on black humor as the sort of sloppy (he always seems to be consuming something), disgusting interviewer seems to devour the angst-ridden pianist with his sheer abundance of words.

This leads me to talk about Eisenberg’s men.  Some of these stories are romances, if you can call them that, or at least they are stories between two people, male and female.  In many of these stories Eisenberg honors the oddballs and eccentrics, the men, especially, who are paralyzed by their own high standards.  In one of my favorites, “A Cautionary Tale,” young Patty arrives in New York City, but is thwarted to a certain extent (but is she really?) by meeting the prickly, yet strangely lovable, Stuart.  Stuart refuses to engage in anything phony, and he is sweet.  But his sweetness, and his bold refusal to engage, begins to suffocate Patty.  Ivan, of “Transactions in a Foreign Currency,” is a similar rogue who abandons the main character when she flies to Canada to visit him over Christmas.  The woman does what she will to nurture Ivan, but he goes off to visit his first wife.  Yet there are no pity parties for the Eisenberg gals, who are tough, realistic, and funny.  These stories aren’t particularly domestic in nature, though there are domestic scenes; the shape and density of the stories do not lend themselves to simple categorization that way.

When I read an Eisenberg story, there is no mistake that I am reading a short story and a piece of writing that is molded and crafted and should be a short story and nothing else.  Eisenberg’s stories are true works of art.  Like a dance or a painting, they should be rejoiced in.  I tried to make some sense of the “progression of her career,” but it sounds rather bland to do so when faced with the beauty and richness of her glorious sentences.  In an early story, “What It Was Like Seeing Chris,” a teenaged girl dates an older guy; in the last story in the book, a heart-broken mother wonders about the state of her son.  There appears to be a progression in the stories, from the perspective of a young/single woman to a “woman-encumbered-with-husband-and-children,” and in all the stories, the voice is so fresh, so keen and aware.

As I said before, it took me a while to finally finish the book, but when I did I was seized with a sense of panic.  No more, I thought as I leafed back through pages in case I’d missed anything?  I felt a sense of sadness that the book was finally over; I wanted to begin again and I did.


Sally Cobau is a writer and teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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REVIEWING

Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery

by Stephen J. Pyne


Viking | July 2010 | 444 pages | $29.95

Reviewed by Jill Noel Shreve

stephen j pyne

“Across five centuries, while the vocabulary of exploration has changed, its syntax has remained intact.” In his newest non-fiction project, Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Age of Discovery, Stephen J. Pyne illustrates this idea for his audience, and he does it in an unconventional way. Rather than focusing the trajectory of the book on the 1977 Voyager 1 and 2 launches and their respective interplanetary Grand Tours, Pyne opts for a presentation in context. He taps into the idea that exploration transcends centuries, comparing space exploration—specifically the mission of Voyager—to the great expeditions of Columbus, da Gama, Lewis and Clark, Livingston, Magellan, and other famous spelunkers and explorers.

With artful grace, Pyne weaves together the story of the Voyager in an historical context of exploration and discovery, giving his audience access to a richer understanding of the development and use of these spacecrafts. By fitting the Voyager into her proper historical place, he shows his audience that the syntax of exploration has indeed remained intact across five centuries.

But Pyne doesn’t get bogged down in the last five centuries of exploration. He clearly articulates the Voyager’s history, moving through its conception, gestation and birth. While leading his audience through the history of its production, Pyne consistently points out how humanity always maneuvers through exploration in a similar fashion. He shows his audience that by foot, boat, wagon, submarine, or spacecraft, humans have always searched outside their current environment, eagerly seeking places to explore. For example, Pyne explains that the JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) created three Voyager spacecrafts, rather than merely one. He writes, “Launch windows were unforgiving, interplanetary space hostile, and distances impossibly remote. If something went wrong, there was no opportunity to return…the simplest solution was to send multiple vessels.”            Pyne then seamlessly crosses over into a discussion of past expeditions, explaining how Cabral, Davis, Cook, and Cabot all went out in fleets. Detailing different tours and travels, over centuries, terrains and climates, he makes a solid foundation for why JPL created three Voyagers, instead of only one.

This is Pyne’s strength, and he weaves it throughout the work, volleying between history and the Voyager mission, revealing for his audience how the Voyager mission mirrors that of all great journeys.

Pyne also bridges the language gap for his audience. Even though he has the capacity to maneuver through dense science-jargon and ideas, he doesn’t treat his audience as though they should be able to do the same. He makes the language and concepts accessible, inviting his audience in, rather than scaring them away with complicated vernacular, designs and equations. He continuously articulates clearly about the Voyager using the simplest terms. And in many cases, he uses metaphors and allusions of literature, music, and the visual arts to communicate even further what he means. He gives his audience tangible things to hang on to and resonate with, so that anyone reading about this project can understand. His objective lies in sharing what he’s learned, and not by sounding lofty or heady.

In addition to making language accessible, Pyne also provides systematic structure for his audience to follow. He divides his work into three distinct sections. Part one, titled “The Beginning and Beyond,” traces the birth and launch of Voyager 1 and 2. Moving through the narrative of the mission’s successes and failures, he gives the audience an opportunity to ignore their own historical knowledge, allowing them to wonder if the Voyagers will ever make it off the ground. Pyne divides the middle section, “Beyond the Sunset,” into two subsections titled “Beyond Earth” and “Beyond the Inner Planets.” In this second section, the audience receives up-close encounters of all planets slated for the Grand Tour. Pyne gives his readers the chance to see what Voyager saw. And in part three, titled “Beyond the Utmost Bond,” Pyne steers his audience into Voyager’s interstellar exploration. In looking at something as complex as the Voyager’s birth and over three-decade-long-life, an audience could get lost, but with Pyne’s orderly structure, he leads them through the thicket coherently, to current events.

And Pyne doesn’t stop with this elegantly structured dual-narrative.

For those of his audience who love to see images and illustrations, Pyne includes eight pages of photographs and diagrams in the middle of his work. And for those of his audience who want further information or clarification on the Voyager and its exploration, the book also contains an eleven-page appendix, twenty-eight pages of endnotes and seven pages of source material. It’s evident that Pyne is stoked about exploration, along with the Voyager mission, and he wants his audience to know and share in that same passion.

Because of the cover, when I picked up the book, I thought I’d be set out to read 400 pages about the launch and Grand Tours of Voyagers 1 and 2. But what I got was something much more. “Voyager is not the text I set out to write,” Pyne confesses in the Acknowledgements section of the book. He continues, “What intrigued me about the Voyager mission…was its long history, which is to say, a lengthy and complex narrative that I thought might braid with a general chronicle of geographic discovery by Western civilization.” And this is what I got when I read Voyager. I not only learned that most of what we know about the solar system came from these two spacecrafts, but I learned how vehemently our species gravitates toward exploration. We, as humans, must continuously search, seek, and discover. It’s in our DNA. And because of Pyne’s profound insightfulness, I highly recommend this book. So, explore your local book-store at the end of this month for Pyne’s Voyager. You won’t be disappointed.

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