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on June 17, 2004
My boss lent me this book in about 1982. He also had just invited me to become a member of the Southern California Soaring Club (gliders). For me, it was the most important and inspiring book of its decade. As a kid, the astronauts were, to me, mythic figures who risked their lives to prove what we were worth as Americans. Several of them died in the process. The space race was not some society social. These guys embodied what President Kennedy said, that "...We do not do these things because they are easy. We do them because they are hard." That, to me, epitomizes the meaning of the term, The Right Stuff. Kennedy's statement resonated with me at the age of nine. Tom Wolfe's book brought me down from the clouds right to ground zero. All the faults and foibles of the astronauts, and the process of becoming one, grabbed me as incredibly real and authentic. It also convinced me that heroes often don't have names like Smith and Jones. And they all don't look like Gregory Peck. And that their wives sacrificed so much, and kept their best face forward, where others would have collapsed under the weight. It is also an incredibly funny book (the red boots, and other anecdoetes).
This is inspiring nonfiction of the highest order. It was the near prospect of imminent death that brought it all together. They were modern samurai. It was a huge gamble, and we all went for it. Other reviewers have commented elequently on Tom Wofle's prodigious writing talent, so I will leave it there. Bottom line, you can count on one hand novels that captured the full depth and breadth of intense emotion that surrounded the space race of the 1960s. Particularly in the late 70s and early 80s. Jim Lovell's Lost Moon is a good example.
Those were heady years, and I wish to God we could have them again, today. Compared with today, the years of the space race were the best years of our lives. And Wolfe captured all those emotions brilliantly. For me, it was America's finest hour. When we sat around the kitchen table and watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, it was, for me at least, the crowning achievement of the human race. I am thankful to have witnessed it, live. I will treasure that memory forever.
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on June 18, 2003
Tom Wolfe gives a brilliantly entertaining and inspirational book about one of the most colorful chapters in recent American history -- from the first supersonic piloted flight up to the early Sixties, when astronauts completed the beginning of America's space program. Wolfe writes about "the right stuff--" a blend of correct judgment, coolness, and the ability to get the job done, no matter what the danger. Wolfe rarely depends on technical stuff, so the book will appeal to those who know or care little about aviation or space, and there's little to deter the squeamish, ither. The author shows the period's bright side (the accomplishments in spite of the danger, the dopamine-flowing release after a job well-done, the intense exhilaration of it all) , and the dark side (the fears of the families, the tragic deaths from minor lapses in luck or judgment, the tedious egomania of many involved in the programs).
This book epitomizes the bright and dark side of Wolfe's school of writing, too. Above all, Wolfe can be as riveting and as entertaining as you'll find -- "truth can be funnier than fiction." I have heard how Wolfe caught the essence of what someone wanted to say even better than the one who said it, and he sure puts you into the thick of the action. The author gives a legitimate and interesting perspective. Nevertheless, this style plays heavily on your emotions, with all the problems that can involve, and the book is not terribly objective -- a purely entertaining incident can assume more importance than it should. Since Wolfe's storytelling style can blur the distinction between fact and conjecture, it "stretches the envelope" of truthtelling, so if another storyteller doesn't have basic integrity (and many authors and journalists regrettably do not), this style of writing can be misleading or deceptive. Character development and depth are questionable; those who have "the right stuff" in the face of danger are portrayed as almost superhuman, and those who don't are made into buffoons (no matter how significant their contributions to the mission). This "tyranny of the cool" can get a bit annoying after a while.
In short, I think Wolfe's book gives a grand idea of the spirit of the times, and of life's entertainment value, but it is rightly considered a novel rather than history. I easily gave it five stars because it is SUCH an inspirational and delightful read, but I would approach it with a bit of light-hearted skepticism.
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on December 11, 2002
Tom Wolfe's rollicking style (exclamation points!) can take a little getting used to, but once you settle in, you'll find that this is not just a fun-to-read book, but a well-written one too.
First, Wolfe clearly did his research, filling the story with details and facts which prove illuminating (I do wish he included dates more frequently; sometimes it's hard to tell when an event is taking place). His detailed descriptions of the flights of Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Chuck Yeager practically put you in the pilot's seat.
Second, he manages to capture the emotions and feelings of the time, showing the competitive nature that drove the astronauts, how their wives wanted respect, and how the public adored their new space heroes.
Finally, he ties it all together with some good philosophical insights. The Right Stuff! Single Warrior Combat!
My only lament about the book is that Tom Wolfe makes it look so easy. Too many writers since then have tried to imitate his style -- but without doing the fundamental research that makes a good story. The result can be tedious and superficial writing.
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This non-fiction tells more than the story of America's race for space - but actually tells a deeper story: of America's push into the next frontier and how it discarded the heroes and heroism that led the way. Beginning with the early years of the jet age - when jets were prone to disintegrate at transonic speeds if they didn't just fail, Wolfe charts the conquest of the sonic barrier by Chuck Yeager. When the Russians jump the gun and pioneer the artificial satellite (and the nuclear-capable ICBM that lofted it into orbit) the US responds with its own programs - which fail miserably. The triumph of Gagarin's and Leonov's space flights spur the Americans to use unproven and flimsy hardware, and respond with apparently less success. (Unlike the first Soviet space flights which achieved orbit, the first American astronauts flew short suborbital missions; though superior technology allowed the west to loft satellites comparable to Sputnik but much smaller, conventional wisdom held the grapefruit-sized satellites as inferior). Though military test pilots had been flying (and dying) in virtual anonymity for years, those chosen to fly the American rockets become national heroes before the first launch. Wolfe parallels the civilian Mercury program that lofted the first Astronauts with the exotic but military X-15 program (which did not reach as high or as fast, but was at least flown by a pilot like an airplane) as if paralleling a more promising program with one that people were more interested in. The distinction is between the heroism that the Mercury astronauts stood for, and the heroism X-15 pilots (who snapped up no book deals) actually embodied.
"The Right Stuff" is a triumph. Though it doesn't tell the whole story of the space program, Wolfe sets up an ingenious theme. The pilots and astronauts of the day were heroes, like knights of the round table, and the cold war was there crusade. While this sense of the epic was an outgrowth of the end of WWII, the burgeoning missile and nuclear technologies meant it would soon become impossible to see the world in simplistic terms. Though technology improved, those who developed or relied on it matured as well, shedding their addiction to the epic - John Glenn (whom Wolfe paints as a sincere hero) clashes with NASA bigwigs and never flies again (until the late 1990's), while Chuck Yeager assumes command of test pilot school, only to confront Kennedy-era political correctness. The book ends on a bittersweet note - with Mercury giving way to Gemini, and the end of the X-15. Wolfe describes these events and others as hallmarks of the cold-war's end. No longer would American's fly in space solo like warriors of old, while the demise of the X-15 eliminated American warriors from spaceflight entirely. Paralleling this were the Cuban missile crisis and the DC-Kremlin hotline. There would still be a cold war but, divorced from its epic delusions, we would learn how to end it...eventually. So profound was this change in mentality that, JFK's assassination at the crosshairs of a pro-Castro militant did not raise red-scare hsyteria.
"The Right Stuff" also triumphs because of its unique perspective of the time which seems to parrot the hysteria of the day without actually condescending to it. Through the book we see the world marvel at the illusion of Russian ingenuity ("imagine, they kept a man alive up there a whole day!") while remaining fatalistic about American blunders ("our boys always screw up!" "Our rockets always explode!!") Wolfe inspired a new school of journalism and history, but none have come close to matching this feat.
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on November 26, 2001
Who is the true hero of the American space-race? Is it an astronaut that started in the space program? Or perhaps a man that we think of as 'a boy behind the rudder of America's self-esteem?' If you think you know, then you might be surprised by this book.
The story is that of the development of the space program that eventually becomes NASA. It is told in such a unique style and quasi hum-haw way that it keeps the reader gripping the pages and saying, "Holy Mackin-oly son. This is tense!"
But I bet if an english teacher ever picked up this book they'd cringe (i.e. 'and the pilots soared and came back down to earth in a charred ball and the rest of the pilots brought out their blue dress suits and went to the funeral and sighed.)
But hey! This is entertainment...mixed with a some serious history. So the level of enjoyment for the reader is up there. I read the book in three days and laughed, cried or did both multiple times.
I think what made the book interesting was the fact that it was basically told from the perspective of one of the astronaut's wives. Basically, but no wholely.
And who do you think the true hero is in this story? Alan Shepard? Neil Armstrong? Buzz Aldrin? How about another astronaut? Or could it possibly be a man who's never been in space but has directed some of the best pilots in the world and has done incredible feats with those sound busting rockets strapped to his behind. Could it be, Chuck Yeager? Naw! It couldn't be, could it? Read the book!
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on May 9, 2001
For a very long time "The Right Stuff" was my favorite book (excluding the Bible, which is unique). Even after reading Dante's "Divine Comedy," I'm not sure Wolfe's book has been dislodged from its position.
Wolfe begins to work his literary magic on the first page. A young, beautiful woman is worried about her husband, a Navy test pilot, having heard that there has been a plane crash. Space buffs like me reading the book are fascinated to realize that the woman is Jane Conrad, wife of Pete Conrad (which, incidentally, tells us that the bad news that day won't be about her husband). If this scene appeared in a different book about the space program, even one as superb as Andrew Chaikin's "A Man on the Moon" or Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger's "Apollo 13," the account of events, while exciting and suspenseful, would remain on a somewhat mundane plane of everyday reality. Wolfe's glittering, idiosyncratic literary style lifts events into a world of super-reality. We experience Jane Conrad's concern and dread as if we were Jane Conrad. Perhaps more than any other book I have read, "The Right Stuff" has caused me to remember the events it relates as if I lived through them rather than reading about them.
One noteworthy feature of Wolfe's style in this book is his nearly Wagnerian use of verbal "leitmotiven," key phrases which pop up over and over in the book and come to convey far more than the simple content of the words. Anyone who has read the book will remember for a long time Wolfe's use of such phrases as "bad streak," "Flying and Drinking and Drinking and Driving," "the Integral," "our rockets always blow up," "the Presbyterian Pilot," "single combat warrior," "ziggurat," and, of course, "the right stuff."
The book also contains the funniest set-piece in any book I have ever read, the description of the celebration when the astronauts and their families first visit Houston, including the fan dance by the ancient Sally Rand. Interestingly, in the excellent film version of the book this scene was transformed from a hilarious comedy sequence into something elegiac, intercut with the sequence of Chuck Yeager bailing out of a plane (which happened on a different day in reality and in the book) to create drama and suspense. In this radically different form the two sequences are just as effective in the movie as they are in the book.
"The Right Stuff" has sometimes been criticized for being overly fictionalized, or at least speculative. These criticisms probably have a great deal of validity, but they do not alter the fact that "The Right Stuff" is the definitive evocation of that brief era around 1960 when almost anything, good or bad, seemed possible. It is an unforgettable literary achievement.
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on November 5, 2000
What do you get when you mix an historian and a world-class writer? The Right Stuff. Tom Wolfe takes us back to a black and white time when America was apple pie and comic book heroes--at least in nostalgic hindsight. Amidst these glory years of the '50s and '60s there was trouble brewing, however. The Russians were winning the Space Race. Up to the plate step a group of true blue American heroes, men like John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, and Chuck Yeager, men with the Right Stuff. Together they overcame technical barriers, tragedy, and the limits of human endurance to prevent the Soviets from controlling Space, the high ground from which they could drop nukes on us at will.
This superbly told story brings history alive. We are brought into the lives and heads of these complex real-life characters, family men who risked 25% mortality rates to "press the envelope" first as test pilots and then as astronauts. We cheer as the records fall and mourn the loss of those who "crash and burn."
Full research, high use of language, insightful character analysis, and exciting drama. You can't go wrong with the Right Stuff. --Christopher Bonn Jonnes, author of Wake Up Dead.
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on October 21, 2000
As to just what this ineffable quality was. . .well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. . .any fool could do that. . . . No, the idea. . .seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment--and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests. . .a dizzy progression of steps and ledges. . .a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even--ultimately, God willing, one day--that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men's eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself. -Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff
I don't know whether Tom Wolfe invented New Journalism or merely noticed that it was aborning, even he would probably credit Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but he's certainly one of the greatest practitioners and The Right Stuff one of his greatest achievements. The essence of this "new" writing style was that non-fiction writers would write with a distinct authorial voice and would utilize the techniques of the novel. Most importantly, rather than having the story exist solely to convey facts, the facts were to serve the story. This allowed the writer some license to play with reality a little, as long as the story remained "true" and it allowed the writer to aim for telling big truths, those which would frequently lie beyond the perspective of a conventional story.
All of these innovations are brilliantly on display here. Every paragraph of the book reeks of Tom Wolfe, from the capitalization of certain concepts (it not just the right stuff, it's The Right Stuff) to the snarky jabs at myriad puffed up targets. By using the structure of a novel, he gives the story a conceptual coherence that straight reportage might not have offered--thus, he starts with Yeager and the first supersonic jets, then presents the story of the Mercury program, then returns to Yeager and the end of the effort to build jets that would actually have traveled into space. All of this seems uniquely suited to satire or parody or simply viscious attack, indeed, Wolfe has used the stylistic conventions of New Journalism for just these purposes in books like "Radical Chic" and "Bauhaus to Our House" to brilliant effect. But an interesting thing happens in The Right Stuff. Even though we hear that snide voice trying to speak out periodically, Wolfe is so smitten by the jet pilots and astronauts and their wives that he writes about, that these devices are turned on their collective head and they become the accouterments of a kind of conscious, but unabashed, myth making.
In the end, the book becomes a sort of American Ring of the Nibelungen or Iliad. I remember when Philip Kaufman's movie version came out, people were a little disconcerted by the stylized story-telling, but it seemed to me that he had handled the material exactly right, like the libretto for a Grand Opera. As a newish country and a fairly secular one, we don't have many myths or fables (with the notable exception of the Western), but what Tom Wolfe serves up here, is a quintessential American epic, complete with archetypes and leitmotifs and the lot. By looking back at the "real" events through the lens of his book, we can actually penetrate to truths about our culture and our national character that would not have been apparent in a straightforward history of the Space Program.
This is a great book and Wolfe is one of our greatest writers.
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on July 28, 2000
The Right Stuff is a facinating and accurate depiction of the saga of the Mercury astronauts. Tom Wolfe really does a wonderful job of making both an interesting factual presentation of history as well as a colorful portrayal of the lives of those directly involved. The stress on the wives of the pilots for example gives one the untainted look at these incredible ladies composure and character that is seldon captured in other historical novels. The astronauts and pilots themselves who were regarded as more than human by the press of the period, are also portrayed very artfully in this often candid expose' on their often carefree regard for the dangerous jobs they constantly undertook. These men and women truly had the 'Right Stuff' at a very unpredictable period in US history: the dawn of the space race. High pressure situations continually kept all those involved on constant edge. This book carries you from the testing flight testing years at Edwards airforce base where Yeager is the king, through the Sputnik challenge and the American failed rocket testing early on, and finally arriving at the eventual successful space flights themselves. Throughout the book is the ongoing weave of eager and relentless reporters, a clamoring nation of people demanding immediate success, as well as the political pressure through three presidential administrations all piled on the shoulders of those connected with the program. The pressure cooker builds as the story progresses, and the explosion of success takes everyone involved by surprise including the astronauts themselves. This is an incredibly unique period in US history depicting the first astronauts who were idolized in a time when the nation truly needed heroes for its own personal pride. These men restored patriotism at a time when the feeling was considered lost. Additionally Wolfe covers the early years of the space programs development, including the Air Forces success with the X-15 project which was over-shadowed by the popularity of the Mercury program. The Mercury program's success sparked the later Apollo and Gemini programs almost immediately after the first flight with Alan Shepard. The sudden success of the NASA space program created a silent upheaval in the national brotherhood of pilots that is brilliantly detailed by the author giving a a full picture to the reader. One really gets the full practical viewpoint and daredevil gallantry of the test pilots in this book that is seldom touched elsewhere. In addition to that the author describes the beginning of the space program and the early positioning of power within that reveals an almost complete upheaval at times by its early architects (scientists, engineers, pilots, and all) and finally settling into a sensable orderly structure in the later years. This book truly sheds light on the early years of the NASA space program and gives one the candid look behind all the fanfare showing what really was happening outside of the public eye. Tom Wolfe completes a very tasteful coverage of the lives of the people involved and the evolution of the exploration of the new frontier with this exciting work. I found the later movie that followed the book to be very much in keeping, however there are many details that are left out of the movie that are covered in the book. This alone makes it a must to read. parts of the story that were unable to make it to the big screen was the flight of Wally Shirra and Scott Carpenter. These two flights alone had a great deal to do with setting the future direction of the space program. This is one you will enjoy as it will capture you interest from the beginning and leave you with a sense of national pride at the bravery and true pioneer spirit of all the people involved. You will be amazed as I was at the out-pouring of affection these men generated on America during this period. A stunning portrayal of a unique period in American history. All in all a great book to read and enjoy. I am very grateful to Tom Wolfe for having written such a novel, as this was a story that needed to be told.
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on January 22, 2000
Some pee in their space suits, others catch some zee's, a few might think about home and family. Such is the earthy fare of space heroes, suited up, strapped down, ready to be zootered into orbit. Such are the revelations in Tom Wolfe's classic best seller on the early years of the U.S. space program.
We love the stories of Wolfe's titillating disrobing of Astronaut's egos, enemas, and Konakai cookies. There's also the mocking irreverence as technology goes bust. Remember the unmanned Redstone rocket fiasco at Cape Carnaveral in 1960. The great beast on the launch pad, embers stirring ..5..4..3..2..then..pop. In a little fizzle the escape tower launches leaving behind a rocket, the assembled dignitaries and other stunned guests. Most of whom look on bemused, confused, and silent as the one act play takes its course. Oh yes, and then there is all that fun with the "no see 'im bugs", Pete Conrad's jalapeno "gift", Chuck Yeager's drawl, Edwards, Panchos, and the Chief Designer, Builder of the Integral!
Let's stay with the Builder of the Integral for a moment. Mr Wolfe writes that just as the Americans were about to seek some space triumph the Russian Chief Designer would spoil the show, putting satellites, dogs and men of the Red Sickle in space before the U.S. Does the Chief Designer's spirit live on? Can we question Mr Wolfe's treatment of his subject, spoiling the the "electrifying best seller"? Is Tom guilty of a few porkies here and there, a touch too much creativity...hmm? More informed readers are perhaps best placed to judge, but an example throws a questioning shadow.
Tom makes much of the competitive instincts of the original seven Mercury astronauts with John Glenn, "the Deacon", the "apple-pie" hero, coming in for extra special treatment. Tom writes of Glenn's over-the-top performance at the 1959 Dolly Madison press conference that announced the Original Seven to the world. When they were asked how many of them expected to return safely to earth, Wolfe records that Glenn, "one couldn't help noticing", had both hands up in the air. The others, he suggested, could barely raise one. What perhaps has gone unnoticed is a photograph of the event (one appears in Time-Life's "Life in Space" book) that shows Wally Schirra, too, had both hands up! This is hardly an earth shattering revelation but suggests Mr Wolfe has a case to answer for over-exuberance. How many of Tom's other tales suffer the same fate?
The book, we should not forget, is a great read. Just how many wrong stunts go into the "The Right Stuff" is something we should ponder.
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