Friday, January 31, 2014

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Title: The Right Stuff
Author: Tom Wolfe
Publisher:  Bantam Books (1979)

  It's a brand new year, and time for Michael and me to come back from the holiday break to restart our books-into-films fun. I am definitely looking forward to it as this is a movie that I haven't seen. As soon as I'm done here, I'm off to watch what Hollywood has to say about America's first astronauts. But first, the book. While reading I had Many Thoughts and had even sketched out two separate (but complimentary) posts in my mind for this month's selection. Then beautiful weather struck and I was outside in all my spare moments enjoying sunshine and horses so I'm falling back on AW's trusty review format to try and include an abbreviated version of my conflicting thoughts on The Right Stuff.
For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Right Stuff

From the author's website: "Men first flew into space in 1961, but until The Right Stuff was first published in 1979 few people had a sense of the most engrossing side of that adventure: namely, the perceptions and goals of the astronauts themselves, aloft and during certain remarkable odysseys on earth.

It is this, the inner world of the early astronauts, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and their confreres, that Tom Wolfe describes with his extraordinary powers of empathy. He shows us the bidden olympus to which all ambitious combat and test pilots aspired, the top of the pyramid of the right stuff. And we learn the nature of the ineffable pilot's grace without which all else meant nothing."

It was either this or Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving.
(Or, when this book brings out my more cynical side, The White Manly Stuff.)

What Works:
Well, the subject, obviously! What can be more exciting than scientific, engineering and human limits being tested? Tom Wolfe was specifically interested in the personality of pilots who, with a 23% chance of catastrophic accident, "were willing - willing? delighted! - to take on such odds in this, an era literary people had long since characterized as the age of the anti-hero." Wolfe, for all the sarcastic language he employs, clearly fans out for what he describes as the right stuff. I wasn't quite so into this aspect of Wolfe's fascination but there's no doubt these pilots were on the technological edge and it makes for gripping reading.

Even so, why was the press aroused to create instant heroes out of these seven men? ... The forgotten term, left behind in the superstitious past, was single combat.

The single combat warrior analogy was brilliant. As a reader of historical fiction, I've had ample opportunity to mull over the absurdity of single combat determinism and applying this very old tradition to the space race hit the nail on the head perfectly. Also, it's nice to know the press has a tradition of insta-history. I thought it was a new thing but apparently there is nothing new under the sun.

The details Wolfe was able to include really add to the intimate portrayal of how the first seven came to be astronauts, and just what they had to go through along the path to space travel and, no pun intended, beyond. Seeing how personalities clashed and clicked can be just as engaging as descriptions of the progressively more advanced space capsules ships. (Equally fascinating but very depressing were details of the training the chimpanzees received for the first test flights.) These details also, accidentally I think, led Wolfe to the minor but crucial difference between test pilots and astronauts. If I had to summarize it, test pilots need more freedom to break stuff (and I don't just mean aircraft:).

What Doesn't:
This book reads a heck of a lot like a second draft. Apologies to Wolfe (and authors everywhere really) as writing a book (and certainly one of this magnitude) is a huge undertaking but the writing was just off at times. New people would show up like you ought to know who they are and what they've done (and sometimes they would disappear as quickly with no explanation) but there was no set up for them. Certain phrases and themes were so over-used I started to feel brain bludgeoned by them (and holy shit does this man love italics). The book finishes rather than ends. I read that the original plan was to write the story up until the moon landing but then Wolfe changed his mind. It reads a lot like he changed his mind right in the middle of writing. And speaking of that finish, it was badly done. The note it finishes on highlights one of the biggest problems I had with this book.

To Wolfe, "the right stuff" is an amalgam of stamina, guts, fast neural synapses and old-fashioned hell raising."

Wolfe goes on (and on and on) about the right stuff.

Yet there it was. Manliness, manhood, manly courage... there was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff...

...manly courage in the face of physical danger. When they met someone who had it, they wanted to establish a relationship with that righteous stuff.

They knew it had to do with the presence, the aura, the radiation of the right stuff, the same vital force of manhood that had made millions vibrate and resonate thirty-five years before to Lindbergh...

I think you see where I'm going here. I found it embarrassing for Wolfe that he would write a book specifically about the type of people who would be willing (willing? delighted!) to participate in such extreme limits but didn't include anything about opportunity. There's your basic opportunity-stuff like smarts, good health, good eyesight etc. but there's no doubt that being an astronaut did not rely only on Wolfe's right stuff. These astronauts were going to be white males because test pilots were white males.

Much was made about combat being a part of the right stuff and not getting left behind. Combat was a proving ground and some pilots even despaired of coming out of their training when opportunities for combat were not available. It's no secret how hard Black American pilots had to lobby just to be able to serve their country during WWII and women weren't even allowed in combat until after 1991. This post can't begin to address the number of groups who are full of people with the right stuff but most certainly without the opportunity to prove it in the 50s and 60s.

Wolfe briefly mentions that a couple of the wives featured in the novel were pilots (might they have had the right stuff?) but women were just as often encapsulated by such lovely anecdotes as "the most marvelous lively young cookies were materializing also, and they were just there, waiting beside the motel pools, when one arrived, young juicy girls with stand-up jugs and full-sprung thighs and conformations so taut..." Sorry, I had to stop typing. Cuz, really? Yuck! That's women, folks. Part of the United Home Front or Have Jugs Will Juice.

But the crowning moment for Wolfe's blind spot comes during the book's finale where he heavily implies that Yeager was obsessed with a particular test craft because he was just so fucking fed up with affirmative action. Yeager, who, lest we forget, is set up from the very beginning of this book as the test pilot's test pilot. Up for anything, will fly with broken ribs, the essence of the right stuff. Yeah, it's so surprising he'd be excited for a new aircraft to try out. It so happens that test flight in this craft led to a nasty accident after which he never tried to break another record. Just what are you implying, Wolfe?

On the upper reaches of the great ziggurat the subject of race had never been introduced before. The unspoken premise was that you either had the right stuff or you didn't, no other variables mattered.

Within the same paragraph that that quote is pulled Wolfe goes on to try for some sort of explanation about how the astronauts all just happened to be white.

It was typical of career military officers generally. Throughout the world, for that matter, career officers came from "native" or "old settler" stock.

I'm not even sure what this means. Is he trying to imply that American Whites of northern European descent were native to the US but not other Americans? The pilot featured in this section was of African descent. The first Africans came to the eastern US in the early 17th century. How Wolfe can imply that this does not qualify as "old settler" stock completely escapes me.

And, by the way, the subject of race had come up: one of the first seven astronauts had an entire stand-up routine about a "Cowardly Astronaut" which was a vile and racist portrayal of a Mexican immigrant (Technically, some more "old settlers" as obviously white Europeans were not the only "settlers" and vast swaths of the western US used to be Mexico.).

The idea that the first seven astronauts just happened to be white males is a statement that can only be made by someone willfully ignorant of US history.

This book is a fascinating look at the creation of the space program and astronauts. There will be times at which you can't stop turning pages and you will just yearn to be racing down a beach in a fast car or sitting in a capsule waiting for the countdown (but hopefully not peeing in your suit:). However, there will be times you want to throw the book at the wall. Going in with eyes wide open will make for a much better reading experience.

So about the movie...  don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Sabermetrics: not just for baseball anymore...

Compiling a few totals for that Reading Report inspired me to finally update my BooksRead file. And I should say a quick thank you to goodreads because if their year end list could have been viewed by anyone I might have abandoned the file for good. But I'm so glad I didn't because you never know what you'll get when you mix this scientist with a spreadsheet/database. Perhaps a four year reading comparison expressed graphically??? How did you guess?

Random notes:

  • I wish I had not included mystery/thriller within 'fiction.'
  • I seem to jump all over my genre designations from year to year.
  • I very rarely read memoirs, poetry, short stories, or travel books.
  • If I had managed to finish the Janet Frame book of short stories I started last year I would have had 10 different genres in my reading list for every year (2013 had only 9).
  • I define 'historical fantasy' as fantasy stories set in recognizable locales and time points in history.
  • It's pretty clear that I think most books I read are average (or 3 stars).

Whilst updating, compiling, and bar graphing I decided to create a reading metric.
And that metric is Good over Bad or GoB. It reflects the ratio of above average to below average books I read in a year. So, the higher the GoB the fewer bad books I had to slog through to get to the really good ones.

Now, the interesting thing about this (yes, I did just type that with a straight face) is that if you had asked me before I started working on this to name the worst reading year I've had in the last four I would have emphatically answered 2013. Much to my surprise, GoB clearly shows that 2011 was my worst reading year in the last four. As I'm sure you can see from the data, GoB's weakness is that it doesn't take into account that a reader might feel it's worth it to slog through a lot of crap to experience more good books. 2012 shows just that situation. GoB-wise, it looks like the second weakest year, but it was the year I had the highest percentage of above average books as compared to total books read.

What's the lesson in all this?
(Besides don't leave sgwordy alone too long with a spreadsheet.)
If your year gets back loaded with crap books (as mine did in 2013) you just might think it's been a bad year for reading but, on the whole, you might have had more reading fun than you thought.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reading Report

I think I'm in the midst of the longest reading slump of recent memory (my recent memory, not general world living memory or anything). Here are some stats:

24 - Books started in the last three months
 8  - Of those 24 books not worth finishing
 3  - Of those 24 I would describe as good but pretty forgettable*
 2 - Of those 24 I would describe as very good but deeply flawed
 3 - Of those 24 I enjoyed enough to actually recommend but one with reservations (see previous deeply flawed bit)
 2 - Of those 24 I quite enjoyed but they were re-reads

*we've all been there. you're reading/watching something, totally content, but 2 days later (hell, sometimes even 2 hours) you can't manage to dredge up the title.

So I'm sitting here after 3 months with 3 out of 22 books that were new reads for which I will actually remember the titles and am likely to recommend to other readers. Shown another way, that's 13.6% books read and enjoyed. Maybe I should call this a reading fail rather than a reading slump. I just want out already! Any suggestions?

Equal Parts Fascinating and Creepy

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Top 10 Xbox360 Games in 2013

The Wordy One recently posted her choices for favoritebooks/movies/etc. she experienced in 2013. She asked me to come up with a top 10 list of games, and who am I to decline? To be clear, these are games I started playing in 2013, not necessarily games released in 2013. Clear?  Great!

[Ed. Note: The only game I played this year was swtor but I did see much of Dr Musacha's game play so I will be playing the role of peanut gallery. Ye be warned!]

#10 - Dead Island
Combining all of the originality of first person shooters and zombies, Dead Island doesn’t make a great first impression. The game also has balance issues (some characters are much stronger than others) and suffers from a number of glitches.  On the other hand, it’s a new property (tired of sequels/prequels/reboots in the movie theater?  Try gaming!), it features some solid quest and character building mechanics, and the entire campaign can be completed with friends. Plus if you squint hard you can just make out a hint of a social commentary about the ills of vapid consumerism (though George Romero this is not).

[Ed. Note: Everything is a weapon in this game. And I mean EVERYTHING!]

#9 - Limbo
No, this is not a party game for the Kinect.  It’s actually a small independently-produced platformer that features some interesting physics based puzzles.  What really caught my attention here was the minimalist black-and-white art style that complements the idea of a person caught in a never-ending state of “limbo.”

[Ed. Note: The art style is so interesting that this game is oodles of fun to watch even if you don't know what the shit is going on.]

#8 - Dragon Age II
This title didn’t get a lot of critical praise and it definitely isn’t up to the standard of the original. Of particular annoyance is the way it recycles indoor environments, making the entire world feel like one big “copy-paste” application.  But I have to admit that I found the story pretty compelling, with overarching themes exploring how far a society should go to protect itself from people born with potentially deadly power but who have not committed any wrong-doing.  It’s one of those “no easy answers” stories that inspires additional consideration even after I’m finished.

[Ed. Note: No mention of Nicholas Boulton???? WTF????]

#7 - Bioshock 2
This game got even less critical praise than the previous entry, and I can certainly understand why.  The original Bioshock combined novel gameplay mechanics with an eerie, fully-developed setting and layered the entire work with an interesting story that examined what might happen if a society was founded on the principles of “Ayn Rand”ian objectivism (spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well).  The sequel is exactly the same as the original, except it turns its focus to Karl Marx instead (spoiler alert: it still doesn’t end well).  So it’s not terribly original, but it’s still a polished and enjoyable game with a few new innovations to set it apart from the original.

#6 - Dishonored
“Revenge solves everything!” That’s the tagline of Dishonored, and it’s purposely misleading.  You play Corvo, the royal bodyguard (and heavily implied consort) of the empress, who is murdered in the opening scene.  The perpetrators kidnap her daughter Emily and frame you for both crimes, seizing power over the empire for themselves.  After escaping prison, you end up embroiled in a political conspiracy to overthrow the traitors and rescue Emily, returning her to the throne.  But what kind of empress will she be?  Emily may grow to be a compassionate or tyrannical ruler, depending on how you take your revenge.  What’s really interesting about Dishonored is that the game gives you a lot of methods to exact bloody, violent revenge against your enemies (example, you can summon packs of ravenous rats to devour people), but if you want the game to end well you need to AVOID using all those fun toys and instead accomplish your missions with stealth and non-violent solutions.  Do you want Emily to lead a good life in a peaceful kingdom, or do you want REVENGE?


#5 - Sleeping Dogs
This feels like cheating because I’m not totally done with this one, so maybe it will end terribly.  But so far I’m a big fan of Sleeping Dogs.  At first blush, it looks like a Grand Theft Auto clone (blech).  However, it quickly breaks the mold of that series and many other games by taking advantage of a unique setting (Hong Kong) and protagonist (My gosh! Not a white American male- how will I identify with this person?).  The main character, Wei Shen, is an undercover police officer infiltrating a criminal organization to gather evidence.  As Wei gets deeper and deeper into his cover, though, he starts to lose his objectivity and sympathize with the criminals that have accepted him like family.  Sleeping Dogs is a fascinating look into the dynamics that attract young people to gangs and criminal behavior, and I found some of the scripted scenes to be gut-wrenching to watch.

[Ed. Note: I love how every time Wei is fighting I keep mistaking it for a tournament. His opponents so kindly wait in a circle for him to dispatch them one by one.]

#4 - Bastion
Another little independent game that I really enjoyed, Bastion looks for all the world like a simple hack and slash game with an odd gimmick - the game is narrated to you as you’re playing it. But beneath the surface, Bastion is a game about regret and negative cycles.  It essentially asks the question: is there value in doing something over again even if you already know that inevitably it will turn out terribly?  It’s a short game with well-balanced gameplay, and while I found the ending decision a bit abrupt, I still enjoyed Bastion.

[Ed. Note: This game was played in my house? I must have been out riding horses or reading on the couch instead of in my recliner.]

#3 - Saints Row the Third
Saints Row is just a bizarre series.  While so many games try to be serious and meaningful, Saints Row is trying to be over the top wacky and fun.  And I have to admit, this game succeeds.  It’s incoherent, its story is totally superfluous to the gameplay, and more than one person would probably find it offensive, but it’s certainly entertaining!

[Ed. Note: But what is more entertaining? The 'sex appeal' option when personalizing your character or the helicopter physics?]

#2 - XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I loved the XCOM games when they were PC titles a decade ago, and Firaxis did a first class job of bringing the series into the new console era.  The basic idea of XCOM is that you’re running a secret international agency that investigates hostile alien activity on Earth.  It’s a strategy game, in which you need to capture aliens for study, research and design new equipment, and engage in tactical combat with invading alien forces.  With a slow pace that’s more reminiscent of chess than a standard shooter, it won’t be everyone’s favorite.  But in 2013 it was almost mine…

[Ed. Note: As a hater of tactics style games even I was really caught up in this little gem.]

#1 -  Spec Ops: The Line
…if it wasn’t for this game.  
One of the new realities of video games is that we’re starting to understand that games don’t need to be “fun” to be worthwhile experiences.  Games (like movies, books, etc.) can be fun, but they can also be scary, or moving, or educational, or a lot of other possibilities.  Spec Ops: The Line is NOT fun.  It is anti-fun.  I would call it “harrowing.”  It starts as a paint-by-numbers shooter - you’re leading a small team of soldiers into a foreign city in turmoil to gather intelligence.  But that’s just a ruse, a trick to draw you in so the game can catch you off guard.  I won’t spoil what follows, but I will say that Spec Ops: The Line represents a harsh condemnation on the entire genre of military shooters.  This game holds up a mirror to those rah-rah, kill the bad guys, 'hooray for democracy' style games (and to those that play them) and shows you just how twisted and ugly the reflection can be.  I don’t know that I’ve ever been as tense and agitated playing a game as I was with this one.  Spec Ops: The Line was not fun, but it was definitely the best game I played in 2013.

[Ed. Note: No mention of the taunting? :) This game was actually pretty affecting even for a passive viewer. One of its subtle choices was the physical transformation of Walker over the course of the game. Very cool to see.]

And the worst game I played in 2013 - Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
I couldn’t even begin to detail the number of ways this game is flawed. [Ed. Note: Actually,  he's about to do just that.]  It’s boring.  It’s badly animated. The environments are nothing but identical narrow corridors (the Wordy One asked at one point if I was still in the same room even though a half hour had passed…no, they just all look the same!).  The story is based on a terrible comic book movie (ok, I should have expected that).  The game will only save your progress if you fully complete an Act, meaning that if you have to quit early you lose all of your progress (hope you don’t have anything else going on in your life!).  It’s often unclear what you’re supposed to be doing to progress, or even which direction to go. [Ed. Note: See? Told ya!]
Just terrible, this is one of the worst games I’ve ever experienced.  


Thanks so much for the contribution, Dr Musacha! May 2014 bring you many more hours of gaming fun (or anti-fun, since that seems to be your thing:) and not too many contenders for worst game of the year.



Thursday, January 2, 2014

Interesting Read

In support of those who speak up.

hat tip: Dr M