Monday 7 August 2023

Post on a holiday Monday morning...

It’s a foggy, humid, overcast day, with thunderstorms expected to begin this afternoon, but I’m ok with that, as we’ve planned to go to a matinee showing of “Oppenheimer”, not a very uplifting movie, and quite long, too, but perfect to watch on a rainy long weekend afternoon.  

My book club met on Friday to discuss Meg Howrey’s book, The Wanderers, and I wanted to give you some of our discussion highlights.  I’ve read this book before, so here’s the summary from March 2022:

“I was looking on my bookshelves after book club last week to find an adult book to read, as I had only children’s books in the stack from the library.  I tried a couple of books, but they didn’t grab me or suit my mood, so I put them back and grabbed a couple more. One of these was The Wanderers by Meg Howrey, which turned out to be quietly mind-blowing!  This novel tells the story of three astronauts, Helen Kane, Yoshihiro Tanaka and Sergei Kuznetsov, who have been chosen to participate in the Prime Space Systems' MarsNOW project, a manned mission to, you guessed it, Mars.  But before they can begin the mission, they must undergo eighteen months of training, a shortened simulation of the actual mission, which will take them to the deserts of Utah, an operation known as Eidolon.  During this operation, their physical, mental and psychological data will be collected and measured by the ground crew at Prime to track their suitability for the mission.  Helen, Yoshi and Sergei are an ideal team of engineers who have been on space missions before, and their personalities, strengths and expertise make them something of a “dream team”.  Helen is an American woman in the latter stages of her career, and this mission is pretty much her last shot at going up into space, so she is thrilled to have been chosen.  She leaves behind her adult daughter Mirielle, a struggling actress who has long ago acknowledged that her mother has always put her career first.  Russian astronaut Sergei has left his family so that his wife can marry someone who will be around all the time for her and their teenaged sons, in particular Dmitri, the one he worries about.  Yoshi, a Japanese engineer, is married to Madoka and they make up a seemingly happy couple in a decidedly understated way.  They are as yet childless and quite undecided on this issue, but both travel so much that they are rarely together.  Madoka is restless and seems to be searching for… something.  While they are part of Eidolon, the astronauts and their families must pretend that they are on the deep-space mission. The astronauts must do more than pretend:  they must also convince themselves and really believe that this is the real thing in order to present with the correct responses for the data collection.  They all know that they must do well during the training in order to continue on to the actual mission, which they refer to as “Gofer”, short for “go for real”, and, based on this novel, that’s harder than you’d think.  Told in alternating chapters by Helen, Mirielle, Sergei, Dmitri, Yoshi and Madoka, as well as Luke, one of the members of the ground crew at Prime who is tasked with data collection as well as liaising with the families, this novel explores the enormous personal cost of space exploration.  This literary novel was so subtle, yet so engrossing, that I absolutely could not put it down.  And it may seem like there were too many narrators and points of view, but they were all connected so it all made sense and gave a fuller, richer, deeper picture of the situation, the losses and the ultimate costs.  Howrey was brilliant at using often poetic language to describe thoughts, insights and crises of conscience, which made this novel so thought-provoking.  It also had a fair bit of humour, which helped lighten the mood at just the right moments, making this novel what I feel safe in calling a modern-day masterpiece.  I don’t know how to praise this enough, but I’ll just say that once I reached the last page, I was at a loss as to what to read next, sure that anything I picked up would not just pale in comparison but would be almost a mockery of it.  I had to give myself a short break from reading in order to “come down” from this book, which, in fairness, was pretty intense: I would not actually want to follow with another like it immediately.  I think that just about anyone who enjoys character- and language-driven novels would get caught up in this “lyrical and subtle space opera” (”

On second reading, having some knowledge of the story, I think I enjoyed this book even more than the first time.  It really was “mind-blowing”, so thought-provoking and intense that I can’t think of anything that would compare.  Only two book club members could come on Friday, and they were not as “wow-ed” by the book as I was, but it was still a good discussion.  They both found it slow to start and somewhat confusing until the astronauts got onto the simulated space vehicle.  We all agreed that it was fascinating to learn about the life of an astronaut, and the discipline they must have to train and then to actually go on a mission.  We wondered if Helen was on the spectrum, and if they really, actually went to Mars.  We noted that they hid a lot from Mission Control, that they were very sensitive to each other’s moods, and were supportive of one another.  We talked about the commitment they had to their careers, and the fact that they cared about their family members, but not enough to turn down an opportunity to go on this mission. Their main criticism was that the book seemed to lack a plot or story, which is true to some extent, and we all agreed that the chapters told by the family members and Luke were more interesting and easier to read and follow than those told by the astronauts.  Overall, we decided that this novel gave us lots of things to think about regarding the life of an astronaut and space travel, and I would still highly recommend this book, as it was a great discussion, even if they didn’t love it.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the long weekend!  Stay cool and dry!

Bye for now…

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