Back Issues

Volume 14, Issue 1: Ex Libris


Skipping Christmas
John Grisham
Doubleday, 2001
Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13
James Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
Houghton Mifflin, 1994
Reviewed by Woelke Leithart

In more ways than one, America is a rather schizophrenic country, and in no place is this more evident than in the Christmas season, the one just past being no exception. There are endless comic strips, TV specials, and inspirational books which tell us the "true meaning of Christmas" and bemoan the ceaseless commercialism. At the same time, Christmas decorations begin earlier every year; this year they appeared in our local stores in mid-October.

John Grisham's latest effort, Skipping Christmas, is no exception to this pattern. I've been a fan of John Grisham for several years, and not merely for his ability to weave plots that are intriguing. It's certainly not great literature and never will be, but it's always good to see a professing Christian holding his own in the secular market. Grisham's books don't get relegated to the "Christian" section of the bookstore, not because they are never preachy or never involve explicitly Christian ideas and themes, but because he isn't writing only for Christians. He's writing to tell a good story, and that's what makes him a good writer.
Skipping Christmas is another change from Grisham's usual law-related books. With few attorneys present and not a courtroom in sight, the book tells the tale of Luther and Nora Krank (one of several names in the book which are a little too obvious), an older couple who decide to skip Christmas. After Luther, an accountant, totals up the money that they spent last Christmas on such things as gifts, cards, parties, and decorations, he discovers that they could spend less money and have a less stressful holiday if he and his wife took a vacation instead. And so they book a cruise in the Caribbean. The catch, of course, is that they can't spend that same money on their normal Christmas paraphernalia.
The story is set in the stereotypical suburban neighborhood, and so of course the neighbors notice. At first, they consider it a joke but then are indignant at the decision the Kranks make for the simple reason that the street they live on, Hemlock Street (another painful name), will no longer win the city's coveted Best Decorated Street award. And thus the peer-pressure sets in.
The rest of the book is taken up with the various antics of the Kranks to avoid having to celebrate Christmas. They have nothing against it, of course, but not this year. And definitely no decorations.
The book is well written and enjoyable to read. At the beginning, it almost pokes enough fun at the way America celebrates Christmas to make it a satire. But, sadly, Grisham cannot fully escape Christmas in his book. Try as he might (and perhaps it wasn't his intention to try), he cannot avoid making this book into another holiday feel-good story. As you no doubt can guess, the moral of the story is not "Skipping Christmas is a good thing." That's true; it's not. But the ending nevertheless manages to become the very thing it seemed to be satirizing—a celebration of the way that Americans celebrate Christmas. If anything needs skipping, it's the end.
Verdict: If you enjoy Grisham's style of writing, don't bother to buy this one, though it's a good read. For one thing, at 177 pages it hardly qualifies as the "novel" it claims to be. If you're interested, check it out of the library.

Lost Moon

President Kennedy's famous proclamation that America would win the space race began a long love affair between America and that short stretch between us and the moon. From the beginning, with the cramped Gemini spacecraft to the modern-day space shuttles, America has always been enchanted with the space program. The excitement peaked in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon itself. The Apollo program continued on until 1972, sending another five missions to walk on its surface.

Not every Apollo mission involved the glorious event of a moon walk. There was one mission which, in spite of its original flight plan, was unable to land on the surface of the moon. As many know from the movie a few years back, this was the "unlucky" Apollo 13. Due to an internal problem in the spaceship, the originally planned moon landing was aborted, and the crew returned home with nothing to show for their ordeal but the pictures they took of the Moon landscape as they passed by.
Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 was written by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger and published it in 1994. It tells the story of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert, the three astronauts whose spacecraft nearly became a permanent satellite. As the title implies, they lost their only chance to land on the Moon and walk where few have ever walked.
Apollo 13 was launched on April 11, 1970. After two successful days of traveling on course, a routine stir of the oxygen tanks caused a decidedly non-routine explosion. With the loss of power, the crew was forced to evacuate the larger command-module of the spacecraft in order to take advantage of the lunar module which was still working. Using the engine of the lunar module, which was originally designed to land on the Moon itself, to make certain they were on course for a return for earth, the crew was able to turn themselves toward Earth. Within four days of the explosion, an eternity in the vacuum of space, the crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on April 17, 1970, decidedly shaken but, with the exception of Fred Haise, who was running a slight fever, none the worse for wear.
In their book, Lovell and Kluger succeed admirably in their two purposes, first to show that Apollo 13 was a harrowing and dangerous mission. Time and time again, the astronauts are faced with a serious problem, such as the loss of their oxygen as it slowly converts into carbon dioxide. As soon as they fix this problem, however, another serious problem emerges. The fact that the vacuum of space is literally only inches away from where they are breathing and fighting for their lives only adds to the danger.
Related to the first, the second point the authors make in Lost Moon is that the astronauts were fortunate to live through their experiences. The number of problems that they had to overcome in order to return home safely is staggering. Without the hard work of the men on the ground in Houston, who took the tired astronauts through every step of the procedures they needed to go through in order to return in one piece, it is impossible to imagine that the three men could have returned at all. At the close of the book, the authors spend most of the epilogue explaining what went wrong with the spacecraft. The number of things which combined together to cause the explosion in the oxygen tank are mind-boggling. By simply looking at the bare data, one wonders how they made it home at all. They were indeed fortunate.
As a book, Lost Moon has many strengths. Perhaps its greatest strength is the fact that it is a true story. Apollo 13 was an actual spacecraft that really had problems hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth. Jim Lovell was a real person who almost didn't make it home from outer space. Unlike so many exciting stories written today, the events recounted in the pages of Lost Moon really did happen. The fact that one of the authors of the book was one of those who was actually on board Apollo 13 adds a sense of realism to the story.
Unlike many books of its kind, Lost Moon is also a completely riveting book. Authors Lovell and Kluger are excellent writers who know what they are talking about. They are able to write about the events taking place inside a spacecraft and make it seem real. Part of this is due to the fact that Lovell was actually there, but it's also because of the way they write. Another strength of this book is its happy ending. Stories with happy endings really are more fun to read. Had Apollo 13 ended in disaster with the crew losing their lives, books would certainly have been published on the event. But reading the conversations of the crew, which the authors took directly from tapes provided by NASA, would then become a rather morbid occupation of reading the words of men who died shortly thereafter, rather than the fascination that results from the knowledge that the crew arrives home alive.
The most noticeable thing about the book is its attention to detail. Details of how space flight works are strewn throughout the book. There are numbers galore, but they are not really very distracting; they simply tell the story precisely. Many books are overwhelmed by details and numbers, but Lost Moon is not one of them. Even while it fills the pages with details, Lovell and Kluger have not made them up. They recount in an appendix the steps they took in order to ensure that what they were recounting was an accurate rendition of those four terrifying days in 1970. They interviewed the people involved, they listened to hours of NASA tapes, they read hundreds of pages of NASA documents, and they used Lovell's own experience and memories.
But Lost Moon has its shortcomings too. One of the most obvious is the book's focus on Lovell. While the book is written in the third person in order to emphasize the fact that more people were involved, it remains the case that this is a book about Lovell. There is nothing wrong with this; after all, he co-wrote it. But the stories of how Lovell goes through the Naval Academy, while interesting, divert the reader from the principle subject at hand. It is rather distracting to have a chapter about how Lovell first entered NASA in the middle of two chapters about the crisis aboard Apollo 13. Again, these diversions are interesting, but distract from the main focus of the story.
Of course, Lovell isn't perfect. As one of those saved by the hard work of NASA and its employees, he is hardly critical of the agency. While it is certainly possible that, had NASA performed more stringent tests and inspections of the Apollo 13 spacecraft before its launch, the disaster could have been averted, Lovell nowhere mentions this. Nowhere in the book is a critical tone adopted toward NASA. Perhaps they don't deserve it, but either way Lovell appears reluctant to criticize the agency that saved his life. This is understandable, but exposes one of his biases.
In spite of the shortcomings of this book, it can be heartily recommended for telling the story of one of the most harrowing chapters in space exploration in a manner that is not at all difficult to follow or comprehend. Lost Moon may not be the best book ever written by someone who was actually involved in a crisis, but it certainly is one of the most fun to read.
Verdict: An excellent story, largely because, like all the good stories, it's true. If you can find a copy of this, it's worth buying.

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