Book Review
Sunday, July 7, 2013
True Travel Tales From Some Great Fiction Writers

"Better Than Fiction" edited by Don George (Lonely Planet Publications, $15.99)

Not usually one to gush, I nevertheless believe that exceptional efforts deserve exceptional responses. "Better Than Fiction" is the sixth anthology edited by Don George for Lonely Planet Publications and it's a doozy. Don George is a dedicated world trekker who's been global travel editor for the indispensable Lonely Planet Guide Book series. His winning concept here is to have noted fiction writers "describe their most meaningful nonfictional journeys." His stable of writers is a Who's Who of literary A-listers. Jan Morris, Peter Matthiessen, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Ho Davies, Frances Mayes, Pico Iyer and others contribute their estimable talent to this anthology.

Readers who enjoy first-rate writing will bliss out on these surprising, often poignant, tales. If travel is your thing, you're in luck. But if not, you'll still be inspired by marvelous stories spun by a distinguished cadre. "Better Than Fiction" contains a sufficiency of gems to satisfy the most discriminating reader. Redemption, loss, self-discovery (a recurring topic), revelation and disillusion are explored with insightful clarity and unguarded honesty.

Inspired by Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters, Kurt Anderson's "Going South" recalls his youthful visit to Mexico with his buddies in an old yellow school bus. Anderson and company wander into a pickup soccer game in a Mexico City barrio where they're fed and feted by the entire neighborhood. Years later, he has lost touch with his friends -- "we happy few, we band of brothers"-- through death and drift. In Mexico 30 years later, he experiences a trenchant moment of "you can't go home again" as he watches a schoolyard soccer game from his window.

Years before her love affair with Tuscany, Frances Mayes experienced a nonconsummated flirtation with Carlos, a dashing Nicaraguan who occupied a nearby Princeton graduate apartment. Mayes, young, exuberant and then-married to Frank, a Princeton math and computer science major, was smitten with the mysterious, multi-lingual Carlos who quoted Yeats, Neruda, Garcia Lorca, wore "overstitched" tailor-made Italian suits, and arrived with his wife, daughter and daughter's nanny in tow. The other wives (Princeton was still all-male at the time) quickly dubbed him "Prince of the Realm."

His advances to Mayes were subtle, a slight touch, a brush of the lips against the back of her neck. A dutiful wife, Frances did not reciprocate. A self-styled revolutionary, Carlos shared his plan to return to Nicaragua and overthrow the Somoza government. He disappeared in the revolution years later. Wonders Mayes: "Did he take the last plane out? Run across the weedy tarmac with a satchel of filched money? Is he in Miami, working in a lamp store?"

My favorite Goth (she was a Goth long before the Western world's disillusioned youth claimed it as their own), Joyce Carol Oates leads us on a macabre visit to San Quentin. She was the reluctant member of a guided tour scheduled for young women graduate students and their professor from a criminology course. No one can establish a dark mood as effectively as Oates, or as quickly. Her opening sentence is subtly foreboding: "We came to San Quentin on a chill sunny morning in April 2011." The chill deepens. Once inside the prison's courtyard, the guide points out the flagpole: "The flag always flies at half-mast here." From the courtyard, the group, now subdued, skirts the Yard, filled with prisoners who give the impression of "rippling, seething, pulsing energy and restlessness..." In Cell-Block C, "the air was tense as the air before an electrical storm." Her darkest and most surprising observations are reserved for the execution chamber. It's a bathysphere painted robin's-egg blue. The deep-sea diving bell, used when execution was by cyanide gas, was "airproof and efficient." After exiting the prison, Oates vowed "Never again!"

Something for everyone!

-- Reviewed by George Fontana

"Near Earth Objects" by Donald H. Yeomans (Princeton University Press, $24.95)

Our daughter Aimee lives in Cali-fornia and has an interest in space, specifically through a nonprofit organization, the Society for Planetary Defense. A recent fundraiser for this group brought in Donald Yeomans for a book signing of his latest publication, "Near Earth Objects." Our daughter sent us a copy of the book, which we must admit was not on a topic we were familiar with. However, after reading "Near Earth Objects" we have gained significant knowledge while enjoying a thought-provoking read.

It is comprehensively researched, documented and very well written. Donald Yeomans is a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he is manager of NASA's Near Earth Object Programs Office and supervisor of the Solar System Dynamics Group. He also wrote "Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth and Folklore."

Of all the natural disasters that may occur on Earth, only an impact by a large comet or asteroid has the potential to end civilization in a single blow. But this book was not written to strike terror or stimulate fear. Yeomans simply takes readers behind the scenes of today's efforts to find, track and study near-Earth objects.

One of the author's main objectives is to inform the reader of NASA's goals to discover and then monitor the vast majority of relatively large near-Earth asteroids and comets that may be capable of threatening us. If found early enough, NASA has the technology to deal with them. One way is to direct a spacecraft to purposely slam into an Earth-threatening asteroid to slow it down and alter its trajectory enough to keep it from hitting the Earth. Yeomans points out that the dinosaurs became extinct only because they didn't have a space program to protect them.

In addition to covering near-Earth objects that have already hit us and the catastrophic or minimal damage that occurred, the book identifies potential future threats. The rating of these potential threats, their identities and location make for a fascinating read. This is the reality of our universe today, substantiated by technology that also brings us methods to mitigate the threat of comets and asteroids.

Such near-Earth objects are leftover bits and pieces from early solar-system formation processes and they are among the least-changed members of that system. Yeomans stresses the importance of developing future space resources to defend our planet from horrific disaster. His information instills some degree of comfort in the reader that technology can prevail and will maintain a balance and bring safety to Earth

-- Reviewed by David and Nancy Beckwith, authors of the Will and Betsy Black adventure series