A Space Odyssey: Reading Charles Fishman’s “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon”

On July 20, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.  In 1969, the odyssey of Apollo 11 seemed to some of us the realization of the American dream. I have a joyful remembrance of watching the grainy TV footage, and nowadays I feel a deep sadness that NASA’s space shuttle program was canceled. I will attend a  Moon Landing theme party on July 20, where we will play Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” on vinyl; make a batch of imitation Space Food Sticks (a predecessor of energy bars); and play a round of Moon Trivial Pursuit (we all bring trivia cards).

And let me recommend Charles Fishman’s new book, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, a meticulously researched history entwined with vivid details that tell a fast-paced story. Fishman begins by telling us the moon has a smell. After walking on the moon, the astronauts, Neil Armstrong and and Buzz Aldrin, noticed the dust they had tracked in smelled “like wet ashes,” or like “a firecracker” that had gone off.

Did you know that John F. Kennedy was, in some respects, responsible for the moon landing? In 1961 he told reporters at a press conference that Americans would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In part, this was a reaction to the Cold War space race: Russians had just sent the first man into space, and Europeans were mocking the Americans.  Kennedy’s advisors and NASA scientists had first confirmed to him that putting a man on the moon was the only way to beat the Russians.

This was an incredible achievement. In 1961 NASA had not done even the preliminary researh for travel to the moon, so hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, MIT geniuses, seamstresses, computer whizzes, craftsmen, and builders worked together. The craftsmanship was prodigious. The spaceship was built by hand, women were hired to knit the wires for the computer by hand, the Playtex bra company designed the space suits and women sewed them by hand , and the parachutes were also sewed by hand.  And eight years the first men landed on the moon.

Fishman stresses that the Apollo missions had a revolutionary effect on the culture of the ‘60s, which simultaneously embraced rock music, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s movement, the environmental movement, protests against the war in Vietnam, science, science fiction, popular TV shows like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and  Laugh-in.  It was a time of daring and boldness, as well as a time of the terrible tragedies of the assassinations of JFK, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

And  NASA drove the computer chip business, which powered the space shuttle computers and drove the price of chips way down,  which drove the market for home computers eventually.  The chips began to be used in electronic appliances.  Before Apollo 11, transistors were cheaper.

The trip to the moon was hailed by some as thrilling and necessary, by others a waste of money. But Fishman points out that the money spent on Apollo 11 would never have gone to the fighting of poverty and other important issues anyway.

Did you approve of putting men on the moon, or resent it because you thought the funds would be better-spent elsewhere?

I learned so much from Fishman’s book.  An excellent page-turner!

A Weekend Giveaway! Simenon, Jane Bowles, Leonora Carrington, Christopher Tilghman, & H. R. Cross

Happy Weekend!  It’s warm, but not too warm, and I hope you’re enjoying the garden or sitting in front of the fan with a good book.  It’s giveaway time!   I can affirm the first four books are worth reading; the other two are unsolicited review copies, which I don’t have time to read.

Pick one  or all six and I’ll put your name in the hopper! Leave a comment or email me at mirabiledictu.org@gmail. com

Here are the six books:

Simenon’s Maigret Bides His Time.  Everybody likes a fast-paced Simenon.  In this one, Maigret investigates the apparent suicide of a Corsican immigrant.

Jane Bowles’s Everything Is Nice, a collection of stories, plays, sketches and letters.  Although I prefer her husband Paul Bowles’s books, Jane Bowles is an accomplished writer in her own right, and this is a beautiful edition.

Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet.  Virago hails this posthumously-published novel by the surrealist painter and writer  a masterpiece.

Eleanor Dark’s The Little Company, an Australian novel set during World War II (Virago).

Christopher Tilghman’s Thomas and Beal in the Midi. Here’s the Goodreads blurb:  A young interracial couple escapes from Maryland to France in 1892, living first among artists in the vibrant Latin Quarter of Paris, and then beginning a new life as winemakers in the rugged countryside of the Languedoc.  An unsolicited review copy.

H. S. Cross’s Grievous seems to be about a secret society at a school.   A  blurb by Jen Baker compares the book to C. P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending.  It is an unsolicited review copy.

Do We Need War Memorials? Cicero Honors the Dead


As a pacifist, I take a dim view of the war culture. Military holidays and war memorials celebrate death and killing. If you’re a lucky warrior, you return unmaimed but with PTSD; if you’re unlucky, you are metamorphosed into a name on a war memorial.  (Dead civilians are overlooked.)

And yet I wonder:  Why do I read war literature?  Am I a hypocrite to prefer Homer’s Iliad to the Odyssey (I think the Iliad is the better poem); to love Tolstoy’s War and Peace; think Virgil’s Aeneid is the best poem ever written; and realize that Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War may be more informative than Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II, which I once read during a long illness?

Oddly, it is Cicero the orator who has compelled me to appreciate the value of the war memorial. I recently read his Fourteenth Philippic, the last of a series of fourteen orations against Antony (the Roman general who fell in love with Cleopatra). In this speech to the senate in 43 B.C., Cicero proposed that a war memorial be established to honor the generals and legions who had recently—and temporarily—defeated Antony in three battles.  Cicero and Antony were bitter enemies.

The history of this time is complicated, so the following paragraph from Michael Grant’s excellent History of Rome can be your Who’s Who for  the Philippics.

After Caesar’s murder, his right-hand man Antony, consul in 44 B.C., used a variety of methods, including the falsification of the dead man’s papers, to gain control of events; and he took steps at the same time to arouse the people against the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, who before long retreated to the east. Yet for all the growing power and popularity of Antony, who in spite of a taste for riotous living was a politician and general of considerable gifts, Cicero, true to his distaste for autocrats large and small, attacked him fiercely in a series of brilliant speeches, the Philippics.

I was very moved by Cicero’s argument that the monuments comfort the families. And so I have translated a Latin paragraph into English for you.  Cicero is an elegant writer, but his sentences are very long, and he employs figures of speech that elucidate the Latin but seem incongruous in modern English. He often uses a  a figure called hendiadys (which means “one through two”) in which he uses two words to express one  idea.   The following paragraph is actually two very long, graceful Latin sentences;  the first is seven lines, the second ten tines.  And since Latin is concise, this English translation is longer than the original. Such a great writer!  But he is not read in English, because even the best writers cannot capture the effects.

Anyway, here’s my translation  of a paragraph of Cicero’s argument.

But since, O senators, the gift of glory is bestowed on the greatest and bravest citizens by the honor of a monument, let us comfort the dead men’s relatives, to whom this is the best consolation: their parents, who have given birth to these protectors of the republic; their children, who will have examples of courage in their family; their wives, who are deprived of men so brave that it is better to honor them than mourn them; and their brothers, who will realize that, just as they are similar in body, so they are in mind. And I wish that we could wipe away all tears by our ballots and votes; or publicly give these relatives such a speech, that they would put aside their grief and mourning. I wish they could rejoice instead: though many different kinds of death fall to men, the finest has befallen theirs. Their men are neither unburied nor deserted—and to die for one’s country is is not considered pitiable— nor were they cremated in a humble tomb with their ashes scattered, but they are covered by public gifts and works and a building which will be an altar of courage to hand down to the memory of  eternity.

A Revolutionary War Novel: “The Linwoods” by Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Sometimes we lose ourselves in old-fashioned  novels. We like to read about honor and manners of the kind Americans of the nineteenth century extolled. And so I enjoyed The Linwoods by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a little-known American writer whose peers were Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper. She wrote dramatic historical novels about American life and regional manners: her most famous is Hope Leslie, the story of a friendship between a Puritan woman and a Pequot Indian woman in the seventeenth century.

I confess my favorite is The Linwoods, her fast-paced fourth novel, published in 1835 and set during the Revolutionary War.  It  follows the fortunes of two families.  The wealthy Linwoods of New York cast out their son Herbert  when he joins the American rebel army, though his  sister Isabella attempts to mediate for him.  In New England, the Lees are a poor refined family who support the Revolutionary War; the widowed Mrs. Lee approves of her Harvard-educated son Eliot’s decision to join George Washington’s army.  And so he rides away on his horse, worried about leaving her alone to care for his fragile, pretty sister, Bessie, and the younger siblings.

Sedgwick is not a graceful stylist, but in The Linwoods, she skillfully interweaves scintillating dialogue, dexterous letters, and vivid chronological scenes. She begins with an unforgettable walk through New York City: Isabella Linwood, a strong heroine who could easily star in a George Eliot novel, and her younger friend Bessie Lee are walking through a bad neighborhood to a fortuneteller’s house. Bessie resists, due to religious reasons, and so does Jupe, the black slave who attends them, but Isabella is too strong-willed for them. And when they meet Herbert (Isabella’s brother) and his shallow, handsome friend Jasper, they tease Bessie mercilessly.  This smart set of young upper-class friends do not understand Bessie’s fragility and fervent morals.   Fortunetelling is fun for them, but almost traumatic for Bessie, who is visiting from the country.

Then there is a series of affecting letters between Bessie Lee and Isabella. Isabella’s boyfriend Jasper visits the Lees and flirts wildly with Bessie.  (He knows Eliot from Harvard.) He has not thought twice about “making love” to Bessie, but Bessie’s letters to Isabella reveal her pain and obsession.  “I can tell nothing but what I see, and I see so little! The outward world does not much interest me. It is what I feel that I think of and ponder over; but I know how much you detest what you call sentimental letters, so I try to avoid such subjects.”  But of course she cannot avoid writing about Jasper.

Jasper is the villain of the piece. When he receives a letter from his mother chiding him for the flirtation with Bessie, he returns to New York.   “His conscience was easy. He had not committed himself!”

And Bessie has a nervous breakdown.  These scenes are tragic and heartbreaking.  She reminds me of Ophelia, if Ophelia had had the energy to go on the road.

The war scenes are exciting, and the Rebels are always honorable: at one point, Eliot Lee gallops in the middle of the night to the aid of a widow with two blind children. She blows a loud horn three times when the “skinners” attempt to burgle her house (she has nothing) and abducts her daughter.

If you like historical novels, you will also be intrigued by the character of George Washington.  Biographers don’t seem to write about him anymore, but Sedgwick characterizes him as clear-minded and kind, if reserved and misunderstood because of that reserve.

You don’t read Sedgwick for the style but  for her portraits of women and portrayals of American frontier life.  She is an expert plotter, if not a brilliant writer,and her concern with American issues of race and gender influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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