Rita Kohn & David Hoppe

Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut

By Ray E. Boomhower

Indiana Historical Society Press; $19.95

Delivering events in the terse and taciturn Gus Grissom style, Ray Boomhower point-by-point disputes Tom Wolfe's deconstruction of the U.S. space program in general and the contributions of Mitchell, Ind., native Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, in particular. "His story is one worth telling to a new generation that knows little about his illustrious career ... To this Hoosier, Gus Grissom has always been a full-blooded American hero. To some, however, Grissom is not now remembered as such. Both Tom Wolfe's best-selling The Right Stuff [1979], and the movie of the same name based on that book have implied that Grissom panicked ... at the end of his approximately 15-minute Mercury spaceflight." No one really knows why the hatch blew during splash-down on July 21, 1961, but the mishap of the hatch dogged Grissom throughout his significant career with the space program. That he died in another seemingly "freak" accident during testing for the first manned Apollo mission, on Jan. 27, 1967, began to underscore Grissom's "bad luck" image. Boomhower surrounds Grissom's personal, and space program, exploits with just enough national and international politics to help readers understand why and how the space program became a priority that lost its sizzle within three generations. Starting in the late 1950s, following the USSR's heralded conquest of space, Project Mercury, with the original seven astronauts, was bent upon "winning the space war" by rocketing one man into space and bringing him back. Gemini pushed the two-man space probe higher and faster with nine new recruits. With 14 additional astronauts, Project Apollo zeroed in for a two-week voyage to the moon and return to Earth, by a manned crew of three. Boomhower doesn't avoid the stories of heroes with "feet of clay," but he puts matters in context. Astronauts, though lionized, are human beings who aren't any more or less "moral" or "perfect" than the population as a whole. During a brief interview, Boomhower pointed out his personal reasons for wanting to set the record straight. Grissom's story inspired two full generations of young Hoosiers to dare to aspire beyond the confines of their small town existence. While this Grissom ripple effect continues, few now can tell you its origin. Boomhower wants to bring credit where it is due. One major flaw exists in this otherwise well-researched, highly readable book: absence of an index. - Rita Kohn

The New Work of Dogs

Jon Katz Random House; $13.95

If the recent election is any indicator, American life is so not working for people these days it seems that everyone is turning to religion - or, as this book by Jon Katz argues, dogs. Although you'll find The New Work of Dogs shelved in the bookstore or library with the other titles on pets, this book is really about the people otherwise known as "American Society." Katz, a kind of canine shaman who, by his own admission, prefers living in the country with his border collies to living day-in, day-out with his wife, makes the case here that we've become so alienated, lonely and otherwise out of sorts that more and more of us are turning to dogs for the companionship and unconditional love we can't get from other people. This, Katz observes, is generally good for us. Not so good for the dogs. "Moving and powerful examples abound of dogs working hard and profoundly helping the humans they live with," Katz writes. "Like almost everybody else, however, I've also seen dogs placed in impossible, even disturbing, situations, overwhelmed by the pressure put on them to fill complex emotional roles in their owners' lives." Katz profiles a number of dog owners who live in Montclair, N.J., a suburb across the river from Manhattan. Montclair is an upscale community, yet socially complicated enough to allow Katz to find a decent cross-section of folks to hang with. So we meet a variety of cases, including a black teen-ager who routinely abuses his pitbull in order to enhance his image in the 'hood, an old widower whose kids are flown and whose little, rescued mutt, Penny, is his only real company, an attorney who can't bear to discipline his lab retriever and a woman, stricken with cancer and abandoned by her husband, whose corgi sees her through her final days. In almost every case, the dogs fulfill the needs of their owners. The problem is that these needs are often temporary. As soon as the owners sort things out, their dogs are redundant. Katz's tone throughout is alternately melancholy and stern. Dogs for him aren't just a responsibility, they're a calling that, in his view, most people aren't up to dealing with. Indeed, if dogs were as difficult and strange to live with as Katz insists they are, they wouldn't be so prevalent. On the other hand, it's useful to be reminded - as Katz so frequently does - of all the ways in which we and these four-legged friends of ours differ. But dogs aren't the real subject here. The New Work of Dogs is really about what we are doing to ourselves. - David Hoppe

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