Friday, December 9, 2016

David Leaver Shares His Views On Dylan and the Nobel Prize from "Across the Pond"

Don't Look Back
This past two months have been more than a little interesting for Dylan fans, not only those here in the Northland but from all over the world. One of these is a Mr. David Leaver whom I met five years ago at the Ochre Ghost Gallery where there was an exhibition of Dylan-themed art. Appropriately, my painting "Don't Look Back" was one of the pieces, the title pilfered from D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Dylan documentary featuring Dylan's 1965 tour of England. Mr. Leaver entered the small space where we were introduced to one another and I learned his was an Englishman who lived for most of his childhood in a small town near Blackburn Lancashire made famous by the Beatles’ "A Day in the Life." It's been a great delight getting to know him better since that first meeting. Here's David Leaver's story.

EN: Can you share a bit about yourself and how you came to be such a dyed-in-the-wool Dylan fan?

David Leaver: My mother died when I was one and my dad when I was 13. My Dad’s last job was as a gravedigger. I lived with foster parents for three years but then lived with my two older brothers after the age of 16. At 18, I went to Oxford University to study Geography. My college was Christ Church, which is Oxford’s grandest college with 13 British Prime Ministers (out of 27 in total from Oxford). ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was written there and its current claim to fame was that much of the early Harry Potter films was shot there. I played for the College soccer team and my teammates included the nephew of a Prime Minister; the son of the Lord Chancellor and a future Field Marshall. Michael Dobbs creator of ‘House of Cards’ was a contemporary. It was certainly a different world to the one I had grown up in.

One of my courses at university was ‘The Economic Geography of Eastern Canada’, which gave some insights into the Great Lakes.

After University, I travelled working on a kibbutz in the winter of 1971-2; a cartographer in Dubai 1972-3; soccer coach University of Liberia 1973-4. I married a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia and went to live in Chicago 1975–6. I worked as a store manager for Woolworth's, which meant I could watch the Cubs on my days off. One cold winter had me going back to England. In England I worked for P+G on brands such as Ivory Snow and had a further 15 years in marketing with various companies.

In 1992, I switched careers and became a University lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, one of the UK’s largest with 36,000 students. I teach Brand Management, and Sports Branding. Both involve thinking about how brands and organizations use emotion and social media to connect with consumers and fans. My children now live in the USA: one in Seattle and the other in Kansas City. I visit them regularly.

Becoming a Dylan Fan

My earliest musical interest was Buddy Holly and then The Beatles, Stones and Kinks. Dylan was slightly peripheral and it was cover versions from Peter Paul and Mary, The Byrds and even Sonny and Cher that got me interested in him. The trilogy Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde was the real start. I particularly liked ‘Sad eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ and on vinyl you could play it on repeat as it was side 4 of Blonde. I liked how he described things and his unusual phrasing.

EN: How many times have you seen Dylan live?

DL: Dylan played the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1969. Unfortunately, the week before I had gone travelling in Europe for the summer so missed my first real opportunity to see him. I have seen him 7 times. My most memorable were 1984 in the open air at Newcastle. Santana was on the bill and Mick Taylor (ex-Rolling Stones) on lead. Beautiful balmy summer evening and some of it is on Real Live. My other favourite was in Kansas City. When he sang "He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine" from "High Water (For Charley Patton)" the crowd went nuts.

Visiting the Northlands

EN: You visited us here in Duluth and went to Hibbing's Dylan Days a few years ago. What did you enjoy most about that trip?

DL: I have been to Hibbing four times and Duluth once. As a Geographer, I was always fascinated by ‘place’, which can be characterised as a ‘meaningful location’. I was just curious about how place might have influenced Dylan as he does reference place in many of his songs. I am also interested in the notion of Dérive. For me this means ‘wandering about’ trying to get a sense of what makes a particular place. In Hibbing it is easy to do this as it is relatively contained and has such contrasts as the High School, the mines, and is the birthplace of Greyhound. For a small town it has a lot going on; but the locals seem so matter of fact about it, all which adds to the charm. Meeting Mr Rolfzen, Bob’s English teacher was fantastic; having afternoon tea in Bob’s boyhood home (thanks Greg French) were a couple of standouts. And of course the Dylan Days stalwarts: Linda Stroback-Hocking and Bob Hocking, and Aaron Brown. In Duluth it was nice to see his first home (and what a great job Bill Pagel has done with the restoration) has done there; and being taken to the Armory to stand on the stage Buddy Holly stood on (thanks to Zane Bail).

The Nobel Prize

Avignon, France, 1981
EN: Were you surprised by Dylan's being honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature?

DL: I was surprised but I think it is deserved. The book setting out his lyrics shows his range and Chronicles is a delight. I am sure a lot of dynamite has been used in Hibbing’s mines, too.

EN: Do you have a favorite period in Dylan's career or favorite album? I realize this is difficult as he has produced so much great material.

DL: At present I really enjoy the Bootleg Series. Slightly rough and ragged. But the real treasures are on YouTube looking at his stuff from the 1990s and early 2000s. Of all of them, a version of Hard Rain backed by a full orchestra is my favourite. Passion and a mature reflectiveness. (Embedded below.)

A Word for American fans of Dylan

EN: Is there anything you would like to say to American Dylan fans from England?

I met briefly LeRoy Hoikkala who played drums with Golden Chords with Bob in the 1950s. At 14 he told LeRoy, "Believe in yourself and never give up." A good way to go about things.

* * * *
Tomorrow Patti Smith is slated to read Mr. Dylan's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. As part of the ceremony she will also sing A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, one of the great songs from a Dylan's abundant catalog. Here's one of the most powerful performances of that powerful song that will continue to echo down the corridors of time in ways we cannot yet fathom.



TOMORROW there is a gathering in Hibbing to celebrate tomorrow's event. The Hibbing Dylan Project is inviting friends and fans to the Nobel Prize Reception Celebration at the Historic Androy Hotel in Hibbing. The party begins at 5:00 p.m. Details here on Facebook. Will I see you there?

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Get into it.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Six Minutes with Native Artist Leah Yellowbird

I'm uncertain as to when I first saw Leah Yellowbird's but it was most likely at an exhibition at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO). The AICHO has been strongly supportive of the arts in various ways, and I've attended as many events as possible in the past beginning with Al Hunter's poetry reading, Beautiful Razor in 2013.

Ms. Yellowbird's beadwork was not only striking in its beauty, the rich meaning behind the work was even more profound. Most recently she has begun working in acrylic paint, but with a near-stipple technique that emulates the beadwork. It breaks new territory, as I have never seen anything like it. Her painting titled Otters earned an honorable mention in this year's Duluth Art Institute Biennial.

EN: Your painting of otters in the DAI Biennial is astonishing for its detail. Even more remarkable is how it initially appears to be actual beads. What prompted you to work in acrylics these past several years after decades of bead-work?

Leah Yellowbird: We went away for the winter and I didn't want to drag all my beads with me and when we arrived in Arizona I was lost without the beads... beads are so expensive.. so paint was the alternative.. and once I started I couldn't stop. I took over the living room in our rental and I haven't stopped.

EN: You clearly honor your native roots. What are some of the things that you have drawn from your First Nations heritage?

LY: I can't say it's one thing more then another... it's an inner feeling that is not explainable for me ...and I'm ok with that. The ancestors have really blessed me and keep blessing me.

EN: I can't help but think that doing bead-work for a few decades would teach you patience and attention to detail. What other qualities come from that discipline and experience that you apply to your current work?


LY: To trust my instincts with color combinations... If I like looking at it then I go with it.. I don't really look at the painting as a whole.. each component stands alone. Each being in the painting has the same value: a plant, a flower, a frog. It's harmony from my eyes

EN: Do peoples' reactions to your work surprise you?

LY: Yes.. very much. I'm never sure if I should call myself an artist. What does that really mean? I do enjoy watching the reactions of people when being told that they can touch the paintings.. it's part of the interaction of understanding of each painting. Without that touch I think you lose an integral part of what the ancestors are saying.

EN: I understand that some of your pieces are available as giclee reproductions. How did that come about?



LY: AICHO and Michelle Lebeau. Without the support from the organization and Michelle, I would be a beader who painted one winter, not a beader and a painter etc...

With Michelle's help and encouragement and the AICHO community I felt brave enough to try painting number two, then three.... etc.

EN: How long does it take to produce a painting like Otters? What do you call this technique, which appears to be a form of pointillism? How do you make each point so perfect?

LY: The Otters is a smaller painting. It took about a month of working on it everyday. Some days I paint for 12 hours ..I get in a zone n it's like it just flows out of me. Bead painting pointillism... maybe it's called history... I have an incredible sense of urgency to get it out. I feel like I need to keep working as hard as I can to honor what the ancestors are giving me.. I feel like if I let up even a little they may stop. I'm a conduit, nothing else. The real magic lives all around us.

EN: Where can people see more of your work, or purchase prints?

LY: AICHO is my home.. and that's the place where all the prints or originals can be bought and seen.

* * * *
If you are out and about Friday evening for the Friday Night Art Crawl here in the Twin Ports, be sure to visit the AICHO-hosted Standing Strong for Our Precious Water, an art opening and benefit concert. Ask someone on staff to show you Leah Yellowbird's paintings there. Engage deeply.

To purchase prints of Leah Yellowbird's work, visit leahyellowbird.com.

* * * *
REMINDER: Tonight is the Brian Barber opening reception for his new "Wild Kingdom" on display at Beaner's Central this month. Woodblind is on the docket for a fab backdrop.  And the opening reception for Chris Monroe's 'north of Superior" will be on Monday at the Zeitgeist. Details here.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Get into it.





Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Countdown to Saturday: Nobel Prize Stirs Northland Dylan Fans

One thing Dylan's Nobel Prize selection has done is provide alternative subject matter to the recent election pyrotechnics. First there was ink spilled regarding the selection itself, which included stories about purportedly "worthier" candidates. Then there were all the stories (nearly 2 weeks' worth) questioning why Mr. Dylan did not respond immediately. This was followed by analysis of his cryptic response once he did reply, stating he "would be there... if able." This past week the word on the street is that Patti Smith will be the one to receive the award on his behalf and will read his acceptance speech. She will also sing "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," one of the great songs of all time. (EdNote: I did not say, "one of the great Dylan songs of all time." This is, I believe, one of the greatest songs ever written. Period. No hyperbole, which I tend to be fond of on occasion.)

In the Northland, the big event that regional Dylan fans are looking forward to is a December 10 gathering of the Hibbing Dylan Project at the Androy Hotel in Hibbing, where young Robert Zimmerman famously came of age, so to speak. What originally began as a discussion about how to raise money to build a statue to honor the hometown boy who made good has evolved. When Craig Hattam and the organizers learned from Dylan's management team that Bob wouldn't want a statue it was quickly nixed. He'd rather have any money raised go to helping people in some way.

A meeting was then announced for his Saturday, the day the prize will be awarded, to discuss what the local community might be able to do. But even this is evolving. Governor Mark Dayton is using the occasion to declare December 10 "Bob Dylan Day" in Minnesota. I cannot attest to the depth of Governor Dayton's fandom, but I will say that his handlers are wise to encourage his participation here this weekend.

Today I saw a pair of stories on Flipboard pertaining to Dyan's influence. The first, an article from Rolling Stone in which Stephen King defended the Nobel Prize committee's selection. Kudos to King, who said rather pointedly,"People complaining about his Nobel either don't understand or it's just a plain old case of sour grapes." The second, was an article in which former vice president Al Gore cited Dylan's influence on his own social consciousness.

A friend from Chicago sent me a link to this weekend's Chicago Tribune story about Dylan's roots in northern Minnesota. The article includes a nice photo of the tip of Lake Superior kissing the Duluth shoreline with our skyline as a backdrop.  And speaking of Duluth, the News Tribune did a nice tribute on its editorial page this Sunday.

Then there's the Wall Street Journal story by Gabriel Rubin, a Chicago-based WSJ journalist, who made the trek up here early in the week before to feel the pulse as we proceed toward the day.

And then there's this piece from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I think the photo at the top says it all. Dylan's having fun, here, and whatever happens this really is a very special moment for the man.

Whether you're planning to attend or following from afar, the best way to stay current is to tap into The Hibbing Dylan Project on Facebook.

* * * *
How big is a Nobel Prize? No question it's a tremendous honor that is bestowed with gravity and acknowledged by many to be "the biggest award on earth." That's why as a young writer I made the Prize a facet of the story "Liz Mills," which appears in my volume of short stories Newmanesque.

Meantime, life goes on.... all around you. Will I see you in Hibbing?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Visit With Judge Mark Munger To Talk About The Writing Life

Mark Munger is a life-long resident of Minnesota; born in St. Paul, and raised here in Duluth. He spent the first 20 years of his career practicing trial law before becoming a District Court Judge in 1998 where he now serves a four county region of Northeastern Minnesota. Mark, his wife Rene’, and their four sons live along the banks of the wild and scenic Cloquet River north of Duluth.

Judge Munger's work has been published in Writer’s Journal and his essay “Leaving Mayo” was a finalist for the 2000 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Writing Award. I first became aware that our sitting judge was also a writer through Mike Savage whose Savage Press published his first novel. Today, his books are brought public by means of his own publishing house, Cloquet River Press.

EN: What prompted you to become an author?

Mark Munger: I've always been an avid reader and I had a desire to emulate the writers I read at a very early age. I still have my first novel, a picture book I wrote in 1st grade. It's buried in my closest in a scrapbook in a closet somewhere in the house. The title of that modest effort was The Piratas and the Two Man (The Pirates and the Two Men). Hopefully both my storytelling and my spelling have improved with age! I was also inspired by my maternal grandmother who was a teacher and who died when I was very young. My mom had three black, leather bound journals on the bookshelf at home. Each one was filled with poems written by my grandmother or poems written by others that inspired her. I have those journals at my house and it's funny: in going through them the other day, I found a few of my own poems I'd crammed into the margins as a kid! Bad poems, to be sure, but attempts at writing none-the-less. Then, in 8th grade, a wonderful English teacher, Miss Infelise (now Judy Bonovetz) challenged me to write something over summer break. When I came back to school for 9th grade, I presented her with an entire children's picture book, complete with color illustrations. Fast forward to life after college and law school. I was facing a lower back fusion and my wife knew that I'd need a project to fill the time I was off work. Again, I was challenged to write. That's when I began work on my first adult novel, The Legacy. It took three years to write and wasn't published for a decade but that's where it all started: Being inspired and challenged by the women in my life. Being a bit OCD also helps!

EN: Are all your novels legal courtroom types of stories on the order of Grisham and Erle Stanley Gardner?

MM: Not at all. I wrote my first novel, The Legacy, during a time when Grisham's The Firm and A Time to Kill were both on the NYT's bestseller list. But being that I'd been a practicing lawyer by that time for about a decade, I wanted to exercise the non-legal part of my brain. So, I chose a topic that interested me: WW II Yugoslavia (I'm 1/4 Slovenian). I coupled historical fiction with the contemporary murder of two old men to create a past/present story that seemed to do well with both readers and critics. My second novel, Pigs, a Trial Lawyer's Story is a morality play set against the backdrop of the courtroom. I've drawn upon my legal expertise in other novels and short stories, including my newest novel, Boomtown. But in between the legal "stuff", I've written contemporary first-person fiction in a woman's voice (Esther's Race), historical fiction (Suomalaiset and Sukulaiset), and contemporary murder mystery/thrillers (Laman's River). I love being self-published because it gives me a chance to explore genres and topics and settings that I might not be able to dabble in if a publisher was driving the bus.

EN: Your latest is Boomtown. When and where does the story take place and what's the book's real aim?

MM: Boomtown is a present-day story set in Ely, Grand Marais, and Duluth. It reprises many characters from past novels, but, because it is a legal thriller/mystery, it draws most heavily upon actors who appeared in Laman's River and Pigs. Set slightly in the future, when copper/nickel mines are actually operating in NE Minnesota, two young workers die at a mining site. Is it murder or an accident? I'm not trying to be preachy or make a statement about mining. Instead, I'm drawing from a real life tragedy that, as a trial lawyer, I was involved with as an attorney, to tell a story. The emotions, legal wrangling, and scenery are real: the story is completely fiction.

EN: What's your favorite part of writing a novel? I enjoy creating characters and naming them.

MM: Yes, I agree. Getting to know the fictional folks who populate my books is likely the most satisfying part of writing novels and short stories. I also enjoy the learning that goes with taking on a subject or topic or location that requires research. For example, I'm beginning work on my third Finnish-themed historical novel. Being that I am not Finnish and not an expert in Finnish history, getting deep into the "whys" and "whats" of that interesting nation's past is very satisfying and broadens my understanding of the world and its people.

EN: How many books have you published and as a sitting St. Louis County judge, but are a husband, father and avid outdoorsman, how do you find time to write?

MM: I have ten books in print. 7 novels, 1 short story collection, 1 collection of outdoor essays, and a mammoth biography (Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story). My writing protocol is to get up (like today!) at 5:00 a.m., put on the coffee, fire up the iMac, and begin. You can't write if you don't put your butt in the chair! And because I am so active in my family and personal and recreational life, it gives me more material to draw upon when I am working on a fictional scene or character. Let's face it. There are very few (I think something like 10%) folks who claim writing as a full-time vocation. Most folks who write have other jobs. Many are teachers in MFA programs but there have always been doctors and lawyers and farmers and tradesmen and women who've written during their "off" hours.

EN: What advice would you give to others who feel they have a great story inside them but have never written a book before?

MM: Every month I put a new quote up on my white board in my writing studio, The board has a brief listing of all the events I'm slated to attend during the month. It's very functional and is a back up to a paper calendar I keep on another wall in the same space, the calendar on my blog (www.cloquetriverpress.com) where all my readers can see what I am up to, and of course, my iPhone. But the quote of the month might be the most important thing on the white board because it's meant to rev me up and get me motivated. This month, it's Stephen King leading me on: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time (or the tools) to write." So that's where it starts. You can't write anything of value, be it fiction or nonfiction, if you don't read the great writing that's gone before you. Then, it's time. Butt in the chair time; fingers to the keyboard time. Folks often come up to me at events and ask the same question you asked above, "where do you find the time?" Simply put, you make it. Thanks for the questions. Edit as you see fit.

* * * *
Lots of great information here, Mark. The only thing I would quibble with is the number of full-time writers. Seems a bit high. There are a million books a year being produced, but even these are not all full-time writers.

The net net is that it makes me want to find and dig into some of your books. Thank you for sharing.

* * * *
Meanitme... life goes on all around us. What's your story?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Local Art Seen: Jeffrey T. Larson's Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art

This weekend I stopped to visit the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art to see how things were unfolding. Earlier this year I went to hear founder and classical impressionist Jeffrey T. Larson give an artist talk at the Tweed and came away thoroughly impressed as well as honored that of all places in North America he chose Duluth to call home. The facility he selected was a former Catholic church up the hill on West Third Street.

I arrived to find the building abuzz with all kinds of activity. Students were on a break for lunch, but carpenters and others were active in the back stairwell and downstairs. Mr. Larson gave me a quick tour and explained his vision in terms of how the space would be used. "An apartment will be here, a bathroom will go over there..." The former sanctuary is where the students will be drawing and painting. All about the room there were various workstations set up displaying works-in-progress.

The photos here show first year students mastering the art of drawing. Drawing is one of the essential skills, though not the essential skill. Once students master black and white, they will progress to color. The program aims at teaching the full toolkit of essential skills. As I walked about it gave me a feeling akin to the Renaissance school with activity going on in every direction and everyone very seriously engaged in what they were doing.

Follow this link to learn more about the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art.

To purchase giclee reproductions of Jeffrey T. Larson's original paintings, visit CPL Imaging. All proceeds go to the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art.

Architectural drawings serve as a roadmap to where the building itself is going.
It all starts with learning how to see.
Only the beginning...

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Get into it.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Mandela Effect: Is There Another You in a Parallel Universe?

This weekend a friend of mine asked if I noticed that "something has changed." I didn't understand the question. He went on to state that the world has changed in some very subtle ways and that if you weren't attuned to it you might not notice. He referred to it as The Mandela Effect.

Naturally I was curious. Google has answers for everything, so I inquired because inquiring minds want to know. Here's the first link I found, with twenty examples of the phenomenon.

Reading about The Mandela Effect brought to mind our seemingly eternal fascination with things inexplicable, from the Great Pyramids to flying saucers and UFOs. When I was young I was drawn to books like Frank Edwards' Stranger Than Science, and its sequels. The universe does have some rather baffling features, so it's only natural that our curiosity attracts us to that which appears inexplicable.

Films like The Matrix provide lingo with which we're able to talk about these things. When someone suggests that there's been "a glitch in the matrix" we have a mutual understanding of the concept that doesn't require any further explanation.

Magicians and mentalists have long known about the tricks our brain plays on us, hence they are able to pull sleights of mind that manipulate memory and sometimes unsettle us. In recent years neuroscience is just now catching up to what these mesmerizing professionals have been tapping into for ages.

So where did the term "Mandela Effect" come from? Obviously it could not have preceded Nelson Mandela so it's of fairly recent vintage as an name or title of a concept. It turns out that the relatively new tag originated with a blogger named Fiona Broome. She described the phenomenon as "what happens when someone has a clear memory of something that never happened in this reality." Ms. Broome proposes that it's not our memories that are faulty here. Rather, she suggests that there are alternate realities, parallel histories, and that our minds are crossing over through tears in the veil. For some, the Mandela Effect is a curiosity, and for others it's apparently becoming a quest.

Philosophers and mystics have long grappled with the nature of reality. How much of these current currents are just mind games? According to this article in The Sun, there are even scientists exploring the possibilities of parallel universes.

If you enjoy this kind of speculation, you might enjoy my story An Unremembered History of the World, which is the centerpiece of my book of short stories titled Unremembered Histories.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Maybe even more than you realize.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Three Thoughts In Response to Mary Roach's Packing For Mars

The full title of this book is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. I listened to the audio version of the book while commuting this past eight or ten days. I picked up the book because the topic of a manned mission to Mars has gained a lot of interest in recent years, inspired in part by Buzz Aldrin's passion along these lines and Elon Musk's enthusiasm for this project. Films like The Martian have not diminished the dream either.

But having read more than a few books about the astronaut program over the years, I've repeatedly wondered who in their right mind would want to undertake such a trip? Mary Roach's painstakingly researched collage of details regarding all that is involved with regard to eating, peeing, pooping, bathing and sleeping only serve to affirm what I've intuited all along. It just feels like a most horrid adventure from the outset.

The aim of today's blog post is to share three conclusions I've deduced from reading this book.

First, is Mary Roach's aim in writing Packing For Mars to inform us of the challenges or to dissuade us from actually imagining this is a worthwhile undertaking?

Second, did David Foster Wallace create a new mania for footnotes?
This past month I read Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom of Speech and I couldn't help but notice the preponderance of footnotes in the text. I had never noticed this in Wolfe's work before, having read The Painted WordElectric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff as well as Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.  Ms. Roach has an absolute ball with her footnotes, and it makes me wonder if David Foster Wallace really did pull a Hemingway on modern lit. That is, he's certainly appeared to have left some fingerprints. Check out his essay on cruise ships, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. More than 130 footnotes in a single essay. It's a stylistic coup.

Third, I couldn't help but wonder, is our discomfort in talking or joking about body functions a particularly American thing. I've read and heard that more primitive cultures have no qualms about making jokes about passing gas and other topics that tend to make us squeamish. Mary Roach holds nothing back. When you look at the subject matter of her other books, you might conclude she's building a reputation on this "insolence."

The Amazon.com book description reads as follows:
Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk?

Many of the reviews are five stars, but this one by Rex Xala seemed to more accurately coincide with my personal feelings about this exploration:

Combine equal parts of Sylvia Branzei's 'Grossology' and the Bathroom Readers' Institute's 'Uncle John's Bathroom Reader' series, make mention of something coming out of (or going into) the anus in nearly every chapter, add a thin pretext of future Mars expeditions, then glaze it over with stories of Astro-chimp masturbation and prehensile dolphin penises - Voila! - You now have an idea of what to expect from Mary Roach's 'Packing for Mars.' (Be sure to wash it all down with a nice chilled glass of charcoal filtered urine - Ms. Roach describes this beverage as "sweet...restorative and surprisingly drinkable" - Yum).

Xala does soften his edge with this follow up statement:

Do you believe we will one day be colonizing Mars?
Okay...perhaps the aforementioned description of 'Packing for Mars' is hyperbolic and a little bit unfair. To her credit, Ms. Roach seems to have put forth painstaking efforts in her research (she also includes long, ancillary foot notes on almost every page of her book). Moreover, through her emails and interviews with cosmonauts, astronauts, NASA personnel, etc., she manages to coax some rather candid information about seldom discussed issues/problems associated with space travel (e.g., personal hygiene, lavatory practices, sexual activity, etc.) Parts of this book were truly insightful, and from that perspective, I say "kudos" to Ms. Roach for her efforts.

This latter paragraph does a good job of indicating how anal Ms. Roach can be about her devotion to detail. If you are a writer, you will readily grasp that she has done an immense amount of research here. She clearly found ways to gain access to things most people would never have attempted to find, such as logs of all the astronauts conversations. She didn't stop there. Her sleuthing through cosmonaut history proved equally enlightening. Why did NASA first send monkeys into space whereas the Russians sent dogs? Ms. Roach answers this question and many others that you may have never thought to ask.

At the end of the day I appreciated the information packed into this well-researched volume. In the event that my friends or children of friends become mesmerized with the notion of planting their feet on Mars one day, I will feed them this dose of reality. At least they will know what they're getting into. It won't be pretty, though it will undoubtedly be historic.

Meantime, life goes on....