Orbital: Welcome Aboard the ISS


Orbital (2023)

By Samantha Harvey

Grove Press, 209 pages.



Do you ever imagine yourself on a spaceship speeding through the universe at warp speed? If you've ever watched Star Trek or Star Wars, I suspect you have. The closest thing we have to that kind of experience today is service aboard the International Space Station (ISS). What would it be like to spend months floating 250 miles above the earth?


Samantha Harvey gives us as good of an idea of what all but a few will ever experience. Her book Orbital is officially a novel,  but it's a well-researched one that jives with accounts of what those who have been aboard the ISS say. Like the old TV show Dragnet used to proclaim, “only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”


Floating is the wrong word. The ISS streaks across the sky at a clip of 17,000 mph, though near-zero gravity inside makes it seem like a gentle drift. Orbital gets its name from the fact that each 24 hours those on the station witness16 different sunrises and 16 different sunsets.


Harvey's remarkable novel reads like an extended prose poem. I call it “remarkable” because in many ways, life aboard the ISS is one of repetition and tedium. Her invented crew consists of two Russians (Anton and Roman), two Americans (Sean and Nell), an Italian (Pietro), and a Japanese woman, Chie. Harvey imagines what goes on in their minds and how they cope with what happens back on earth as they orbit. For instance, Chie’s mother dies unexpectedly and her grief is magnified by not being able to attend her cremation. Sean and Nell engage in an ontological debate. When she looks out of the portal at the vastness of space it makes her doubt the intentionality of any sort of creator. When she asks Sean how he can still believe when he looks at what she sees he replies, “How can I not?” Another watches an enormous typhoon gathering in the Indian Ocean and worries if a kind fisherman he befriended can survive it.


Being aboard the ISS commands mental and physical courage as well as the ability to adjust levels of awe, desire, and acceptance. Imagine donning a spacesuit to exit the station to spend hours doing repairs while wearing thick gloves knowing that one wrong move or the tiniest piece of space debris could puncture your pressurized suit and asphyxiate you before you could be reeled back inside. Most are nonchalant about that possibility and speak of their willingness to die to advance science. They know also that returning to earth has its perils. There are more than 200 million pieces of space junk–lost tools, cameras, rocket stages, exhaust particles–orbiting our planet at 25,000 mph. Not to mention that the crew are, in many ways, dying for science. The toll of weightlessness ages their bodies 5 to 10 years for each six months they are on board, cancer risks rise dramatically, and muscles atrophy though they vigorously exercise.


Even the mundane challenges. They must recycle and treat their own urine for drinking water, tether themselves in order to sleep, and box their waste to send back to earth on resupply ships. Flying across the ship to fetch a dropped chopstick or spoon requires dexterity and there’s no real way to tell up from down.


My admiration for such brave men and women soared as I read Orbital. So too did my regard for Harvey; she made her novel heart-throbbing thrilling, though not much actually happens. Above all, it made me think humans better start taking care of the planet. Those board the ISS saw themselves as training for the possibility that humans might one day need to abandon earth. I don't think many of us could handle such a journey.


Rob Weir



Mark Twain and Fashion

Modesty Died When Clothes Were Born:

            Costume in the Life and Literature of Mark Twain

Catalogue by Lynne Bassett

Lincoln Financial Group Foundation, 64 pages.




I seldom review an exhibition catalogue, but I make exceptions when Samuel Clemens, aka/ Mark Twain, is concerned. In my mind he is the most “American” of all authors and Huckleberry Finn is the quintessential great American novel.


I won’t rehash his extensive biography except for a few spartan details. Clemens–always “Sam” to his family and friends–was born in Missouri to a father who churned through money, a harbinger of Twain’s own problems holding on to it.  As most know, he was a man of the frontier West for much of his youth. He acquired his pen name from his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, worked for several papers of minor renown, performed manual labor, dwelt in a cabin for a time, and lived up (or down) to the title of one of his earliest novels: Roughing It.


When he moved East, he fell in love with Olivia “Livy” Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and married her in 1870 after two years of determined courtship. Livy’s parents were not in favor of the match. They viewed him as uncouth, bombastic, and uncivilized. They were not entirely wrong! Sam promised Livy he’d wear decent clothing, and quit swearing, drinking, and smoking; he (mostly) managed three out of four. But not even Livy could tame Sam entirely. She adored him, but Sam had a positive knack for embarrassing her. Livy was a Victorian clotheshorse who loved fashion, new frocks, and all the trimmings. Sam fell into the category of you can dress him up, but you can’t make him take it seriously.


Bassett’s catalogue for a show at Hartford’s Mark Twain House is both a serious and mirthful look at fashion illustrated with photographs and several drawings of either actual dresses or types of dresses worn by Livy and daughters Suzy, Jean, and Clara, and accoutrements worn by Sam. (Some come from collections in Northampton.) Sam could put on airs, but his often unkempt red hair and sometimes unruly mustache betrayed him, as did the fact that his two favorite costumes were an Oxford academic robe awarded when he received an honorary degree and, of course, his famed white linen suits. 


Those interested in couture will enjoy reading about Victorian gowns, though they’re likely to cringe at what elite women had to go through to be fashionable–the bustles, corsets, layers, and changes of clothing up to four times a day. Livy was slight, but do you think she had a natural 18-inch waist?


Because Sam loved Livy he tried to show an interest in clothing, but this witticism pretty much sums up his attitude: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” That’s among the barbs you’ll find in this slim volume. He paid enough attention to be able to discourse on clothing and their particulars, but he could only go so far. Who but Twain could write of that “Miss C. wore an elegant Cheveaux de la Reine …and a Garibaldi shirt” set off by a head-dress “crowned with a graceful pomme de terre,” or assert that the Empress Eugenie “dresses in buckskin?” When wry comments failed him, he simply invented terms that presaged Dr. Seuss. One of my favorite puckish moments came when Livy berated his coarseness for calling upon neighbor Harriet Beecher Stowe without wearing a cravat. He promptly had a servant deliver a box containing a cravat to Stowe with a kind request that she pen a note acknowledging that she observed that he actually owned one. Stowe perhaps understood wily Sam better than Livy on this score, as she played along.


As noted, Twain had a complicated relationship with money. He liked having it, but managed to lose it in bad investments such as his own publishing house, a typesetter that never worked, and plasmon, a milk food product that by all accounts was awful. It must have been hard on Livy and the girls when he invested away a fortune and they could no longer afford luxuries. Suzy died in 1896 and Livy in 1904. In 1906, Sam donned white suits all year round simply because he wanted to. As the expression goes, pick up this charming book and read all about it.


Rob Weir


After Annie Explores How Individuals Deal with Grief





After Annie (2024)

By Anna Quindlen

Random House, 304 pages.



It’s not easy to pen a novel in which the protagonist is AWOL, but Anna Quindlen pulled it off with aplomb. The titular character of After Annie is Annie Fonzheimer Brown, a 37-year-old Pennsylvania “super” wife and mom to husband Bill and their offspring: Ali (Alexandra), Ant(hony), Benji, and Jamie. She is a natural organizer who orchestrates the chaos of living in the too-small house owned by her difficult (and often spiteful) mother-in-law Dora, provides care for residents at the nursing home at which she works, and birddogs her needy best friend Annemarie. But, one winter’s night right after dinner, Annie falls to the floor and dies of an aneurysm.  


In other words, Quindlen’s novel is exactly as its title implies: after Annie. It is a winter-to-winter tale that closely parallels the five stages of grief famously outlined by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The problem with such easy-to-comprehend formulae is that they fail to tell us how and when individuals manifest those stages. Quindlen appreciates the messy complexity of grief and that no two people experience it exactly the same way. Bill, for example, is an in-demand plumber who depended on Annie to keep the family and his business running smoothly. (He also never wanted four children!) His denial shows in his feelings of hopelessness and in his reliance on his barely teenaged daughter Ali to step into Annie’s shoes. Benji, though, maintains the fiction that his mother is in the hospital and will be home soon.


The stages of grief also fail to consider other external pressures­–like Bill’s imperious mother who dislikes pretty much anything and anybody that is contrary to her preferences and solipsism. This includes her older daughter-in-law Kathy, Annie alive and dead, and Annemarie. Bill isn’t too sure of Annmarie either. She and Annie have been bonded since girlhood, but in ways that only close friends understand or share. It would be safe to say that no one grieves for Annie more than Annemarie. Annie was literally her lifeline, the person who cut through her self-delusion, was the rock solid counterpart to Annemarie’s addictive personality, and wasn’t afraid to apply tough love when necessary. Even Annie’s patients who regularly observe death are shattered by her passing.


In a nutshell, the problem for the survivors of all ages is that a person as beloved as Annie seems irreplaceable. Quindlen subtly heightens the sense of loss via flashback conversations and present tense prose. Bill tries to disappear vocationally and emotionally, while Annemarie­­–who built a business of acting as a middle person in retailing and distributing Amish and Mennonite handicrafts–struggles to remain engaged in either her work or her marriage. Nor are the children thriving; Ant is angry, for instance, and Ali, though externally evolving to mirror her mother’s competence and physical features, has too much on her plate, including the gnawing fear that her best friend is hiding a dark secret.


How long does one grieve? There’s no magic formula for that, but tell it to the young widows, divorcees, and singles who see Bill as a hunky standup guy who would make a good partner. He certainly embodies those characteristics, but it’s safe to say that he also has unresolved issues. One of them involves the need to nurture his children, not just provide for them. Another is to redefine his life on his own terms, a process that entails accepting help without biting off more than he wishes to chew. Can he, for example, prevail upon realtor Liz Donahue to extricate him from Dora’s house without giving her false hopes? Ali faces similar pressures. She knows she needs support her father can’t give, but what could possibly be more problematic among peers in an insular town than speaking with a counselor? Especially Mena Cruz, a small Filipina woman who grew up in Puerto Rico. (Ali has to remind Grandmother Dora that Puerto Ricans are Americans!)


One could tag After Annie as five stages of grief in five seasons. But if you’re expecting any sort of conventional happy ending, Quindlen has written a tragic drama, not a fairy tale. Most people recover from loss, rather than overcome it. Put in Kübler-Ross’ terms, they come to acceptance, not amnesia. To reiterate, Annie Brown remains a living presence, even after death.


Rob Weir