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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl's Book Reviews for 8/22/2009

Jeremy Richards

To imagine a place you've never been, you have to rely on the witness of other travelers. They might describe a place and time in history, or reveal an entire continent in a new light. Today, local author and librarian Nancy Pearl joins us with two books that offer a fresh perspective of popular topics — NASA's space training and traveling in Africa. Nancy Pearl talks with KUOW's Jeremy Richards.

I would bet that very few Americans today — of any age — will recognize the names of Jerrie Cobb or Jane Hart. They were, in fact, 2 of the 13 trailblazing women who, in 1959, began the same grueling battery of psychological and physical tests that the men trying to become members of the first cadre of astronauts did, hoping to prove that a woman or two should be among that first group (in fact, in some cases the tests the women were given were more difficult than those the men took; the women were placed in sensory deprivation tanks, an ordeal the men never had to go through). Now, in "Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream", Tanya Lee Stone attempts to give these women their due. Although the book is aimed at young readers (10 to 14), I found it fascinating and suspect many adults will as well. Stone covers all the important aspects of the women's fight to be taken seriously as possible astronauts, including describing their backgrounds as test pilots; their superior test scores; the discussion among their (few) supporters within NASA and outside the space agency, and those who were leagued against them, including then Vice–President Lyndon Johnson, President Kennedy's liaison to NASA. It's sobering to read Stone's account of the Congressional hearing in which Hart and Cobb made their case for equal treatment for the women. This is a stirring, and ultimately sad, story of hopes dashed and talent wasted. But in the end, I suppose, it's more helpful to view Cobb, Hart, and the others as setting the stage for all the women who came after them, including Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American women in space.

Although Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar" is one of my all–time favorite books, I stopped reading him when he fell into what seemed to me to be an interminable bad mood — somewhat ironically, along about "Happy Isles of Oceania" in 1993, so it's been quite a while since I picked up a Theroux travel narrative. But a friend recommended his "Dark Star Safari", and, ever trusting (and, as always, looking for a good book to read), I tried it, and was immediately hooked. It begins, "All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre–and–earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again." I'm a sucker for an opening line like that. There are sentences on every page of this engrossing book that you just want to write down and share with others. Theroux seems to have recovered his emotional equilibrium and shed most of his grumpiness and petulance; all of his talent for discovering the unusual in the ordinary people he meets and places he visits is in evidence on every page of this tale of his trip overland from Cairo to Cape Town. Here's another wonderful line, also from the first chapter: "I was heading south, in my usual traveling mood: hoping for the picturesque, expecting misery, braced for the appalling. Happiness was unthinkable, for although happiness is desirable, it is a banal subject for travel. Therefore, Africa seemed perfect for a long journey." Along the way, he celebrates his 60th birthday, revisits Uganda, where he once taught at Makerere University, and offers his opinion (not high) on the efficacy of foreign aid. He travels by nearly every sort of conveyance you can imagine: a variety of trucks, a ferry, train, bus, and dugout canoe (a particularly fascinating section) and talks to a diverse group of people from all walks of life, both Africans and others, such as missionaries, tourists and aid workers from Western countries, which gives him (and us) a well–rounded portrait of a continent struggling to find itself. Incidentally, there's also a very funny joke on page 123 of the paperback edition.

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