August 16th, 2008

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 25

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  1. Dubus III, Andre — House of Sand and Fog (351 pages)
  2. Kurkov, Andrey — Penguin Lost (251 pages)
  3. Bradbury, Ray — Dandelion Wine (247 pages)
  4. Bradbury, Ray — Farewell Summer (209 pages)
  5. Doran, Jamie and Piers Bizony — Starman: The Truth behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin (241 pages)

Page count: 6294.

As every kid growing up in the past several decades, I was fascinated with the space program at an early age. With NASA celebrating its 50th anniversary, I felt I ought to do something. As luck would have it, Starman was sitting on my shelf, a gift from a previous employer, and it nicely combined my old interests in space with my more recent interests in Russian.

Starman is more than just a biography. It's a Russian The Right Stuff, describing the early Soviet space program and, more importantly, the people who made it happen. Gagarin is the most famous of them, of course, and this is his story, but his story is inseparable from that of the other first generation of cosmonauts, the engineers, the KGB escort, Khruschev, the barber, family, and others.

This book's genesis was as a BBC documentary on Soviet missile technologies. As part of his research, Doran uncovered much information about Gagarin and the cosmonaut program that was little known in the West and some that was unknown even in Russia until the 1990s. Somebody suggested that he should really turn his documentary into a book. However, coming from the film side of things, he didn't feel comfortable in his ability to turn his story into a book. Thus the collaboration with Piers Bizony. The two complemented each other well, bringing different interests and areas of expertise (the former, that of technology and the space race; the latter of all things Russian), and the result is quite an interesting book.

Just the chapter on Gagarin's successful mission in space is reason enough to read the book. Reading accounts of that day caused tears to well up in my eyes on the Tube during rush hour — pretty heady stuff! Political differences aside, it's hard not to root for the different characters in this book, especially Gagarin and his chief rocket engineer, Korolev. As was emphasized throughout the book, despite the politicization of the space programs by both Super Powers, they transcended nationality and were about ordinary hard-working people risking their lives to make dreams come true.