Book Review: “Circe” by Madeline Miller

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Once upon a time, I had to act out The Odyssey with a group of friends for my high school English class. I was cast as Circe, the temptress witch that turns men into pigs. This was my first introduction to a much-studied literary character.

Circe by Madeline Miller dives deeper into Circe’s origin story, exploring how she discovered her powers, her tumultuous upbringing, and her interest in mortals.

What Circe gets right: Circe is a goddess who does what she can with what she has. She’s not the strongest, wisest, or most beautiful, but she is definitely the most resourceful. Time and again, even after she makes terrible mistakes and the other gods punish her, she bounces back to try something new. She’s willing to help others, even when she has no one to help herself.

Madeline Miller made a mythological goddess into a relatable character. That’s the power of this novel. The setting and customs are foreign to modern people (and to mortals), but we can relate to Circe as an underdog of sorts.

What Circe gets wrong: Circe definitely has the unreliable perspective that she is a good person (or, at least, a reasonable person), while pretty much all of the other gods and goddesses are immoral. In reality, I’m sure that the others have their reasons for what they have done, just as Circe has hers. She slowly learns more and gains a clearer perspective as she ages.

Circe’s limited narration doesn’t make the book a bad one, but it can be frustrating when she can’t- or won’t- see the whole picture.

Who should read Circe: Anyone who wants a better understanding of Greek mythology. The Titans and Olympians are fleshed-out and more accessible in this narrative than others I’ve read. Readers who don’t like Odysseus, like me (this book exposes his flaws and his crimes after returning to Ithaca).

Who shouldn’t read Circe: Readers who aren’t interested in Greek mythology or fantasy. It does help to have at least a vague understanding of Greek mythology to read this book- maybe read The Odyssey first if you haven’t already.

 

Circe is available in the Recreational Reading section of the library.

Content note: language; violence; suggestive scenes that, while not described in detail, include some pretty wild events (remember that this is Greek mythology).

Most book reviews on this blog are written by Olivia Chin and reflect her personal opinions of the books, not the library’s view as a whole.

Top 5 Novels About College Students

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Long nights spent studying, laughing with friends over lunch in the cafeteria, fighting your roommate for the remote control, writing papers in the library: these are some typical college experiences. For most people, college is a short but profoundly impactful time in their lives. Whether you’re in college now or not, reading about college students and their adventures can be a fun pastime.  Take a look at these 5 books that capture different and intriguing college stories.

*Book descriptions are by the publishers c/o the library website.

 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality, their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill. Read Olivia Chin’s review here.

 

Nada by Carmen Laforet

In Barcelona, in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, Andrea, a young university student, moves into a strange, gothic house inhabited by a volatile array of aunts and uncles in order to attend college.

 

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath, being a fan is her life–and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, immersed themselves in the series when they were kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Her sister has grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told her she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone, and can’t stop worrying about her dad. Can she do this? Read Olivia Chin’s review here.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school football team, while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers–one they are determined to conceal. A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.

 

This Side Of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This Side Of Paradise recounts the story of Amory Blaine as he grows from pampered childhood to young adulthood and learns to know himself better. At Princeton he becomes a literary aesthete and makes friends with other aspiring writers. As he moves out into the world and tries to find his true direction, he falls in love with a succession of beautiful young women. Youthful exuberance and immaturity give way to disillusion and disappointment as Amory confronts the realities of life.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway

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I was in eighth grade when I fell violently and happily into Ernest Hemingway’s writing. We were reading his famous novella, The Old Man and The Sea, and I remember everyone in my class hating it. I loved it, though. Here we were, reading what I understood as literature, and not only was it about an interesting subject (a washed-up fisherman trying desperately to catch and keep a giant fish alone in the open ocean), but it was accessible. My eyes flew over the pages, and I couldn’t stop myself from getting lost in the words.

Authors have been trying to write like Hemingway for years for a reason: his writing is legible. You can understand what he’s trying to say. It’s that brilliant writing that not only says something worthwhile or meaningful but says it in a way that you can grasp without having to open up a dictionary.

Hemingway was my favorite author until I became a feminist and started reading Haruki Murakami (who is not a feminist, either, but I still like him). Hemingway isn’t known for writing well about women, and he wasn’t always the best in his relationships with women in real life. Still, I come back to his books because they have something to say, even if it isn’t always my favorite way of saying it. Plus, it’s a joy to read stories that are well-written but still easy on my tired eyes and blessedly not that long. That’s why I decided to re-read The Sun Also Rises during quarantine.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Sun Also Rises gets right: I’ve read this book maybe twice, when I was in high school and wanted to read everything Hemingway had ever written. I’ve got to say that reading it as an adult was very different. Suddenly all of the subtext made sense to me, and not really in a good way. For example, one of the main characters, Brett, is impulsive and promiscuous, hurting every man in her path. However, when we learn about her background as a victim of domestic abuse, her current actions seem like coping mechanisms instead of just selfishness. Hers is a sad story- in fact, most of the characters in this book are sad due to their physical and emotional scars from past problems. That’s why they treat one another so badly.

Although it made for a sad read, it was good to learn more about each character and put two-and-two together about the hints that Hemingway left in this book. The main themes are unrequited love, struggling with feelings of uselessness, dealing with alcohol addiction, and the thrills of traveling and experiencing other cultures. You will feel like you, too, are in Spain with this wild group of people- for better or for worse.

 

What The Sun Also Rises gets wrong: This book is infamous for the characters’ anti-Semitic views. Even if it is an accurate representation of the time, it’s still not fun to read about the slurs and racism shown toward the Jewish character, Robert Cohn.

There are a few minor characters who are black, but they are more stereotypical caricatures than real people, and this “casual” racism will make you squirm. A racial slur is used to reference the black characters.

 

Who should read The Sun Also Rises: Fans of crisp writing, weird characters that are loosely based on real people, lots of drama, and the 1920s.

 

Who shouldn’t read The Sun Also Rises: If you didn’t like F. Scott Fizgerald’s The Great Gatsby, don’t read this one. It’s similar to Gatsby in that it’s about a group of people with annoying habits and problems that they don’t communicate well about. It’s an examination of a generation that people now don’t know much about personally- we only really know them and their struggles through books like this.

 

The Sun Also Rises is available at the library.

Content note: violence (in particular, bullfighting), racism, some suggestive scenes (which are mostly inferred or referenced in conversation), language, substance abuse.

Book Review: “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

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Donna Tartt is the bestselling author of The Goldfinch, The Little Friend, and The Secret History. Each of these novels involves suspense and intense character studies.

The Secret History is about an eclectic group of college students who find themselves in a lot of trouble as close-kept secrets are revealed.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Secret History gets right: Terrible people doing terrible things? Check. Secrets, murder, drugs, and pagan rituals? Check. An engrossing setting, to the point that you feel like you are actually in the book? Check.

Donna Tartt is excellent at drawing you in to the world that she’s created. Right away, you are introduced to a bizarre crime, and the rest of the book has you scrambling to figure out how the story ends up there.

Any book with an unreliable narrator is going to have your brain spinning, but few books do this quite so well as The Secret History. A lot of the book’s events and character development is seen through the eyes of someone who slowly begins to realize that he doesn’t really know that much about anything after all. This allows the reader to piece together the puzzle, and guess what? Some of it is entirely up to your imagination! I guessed several twists accurately throughout the book, but there were a few that weren’t fully explained (such as the characters’ true motivations and feelings).

Reading about Richard, the story’s narrator, and his university experiences in Hampden reminded me of both my own time in college and the college students that I manage at work. I loved seeing the dichotomy between Richard and his friends’ great intellect and their terrible decision-making and lifestyle habits. How can they be so intelligent as to speak to each other in Latin one minute and then try to live in a freezing warehouse in the middle of a Vermont winter the next? Honestly, this dichotomy is pretty realistic for what I recall of myself and my friends in that stage of life.

Richard wanting to be a part of the strange but exotic Greek students group is a relatable feeling. It can be hard to find your place in a new environment; however, you don’t want to pick the wrong group of people that everyone else warns you about (as Richard inevitably does). Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Bunny are in turns fascinating, terrifying, hilarious, and deeply disturbing people; as Richard gets sucked further and further into their sordid lives, so do we.

In spite of the sometimes flowery prose and the pretentious characters who are spouting Greek one moment and stoned out of their minds the next, I couldn’t put this book down. It’s a testament to Donna Tartt’s writing that she made such unlikable characters and their various crimes so intriguing and their college, despite its obvious flaws, so nostalgic.

What The Secret History gets wrong: Most of the characters in this book are unlikable. It’s kind of like a modern The Great Gatsby in that way- still a great story, but you may get annoyed by how pretentious and selfish the characters are. (Side note: the main character’s favorite book is The Great Gatsby because he identifies with Jay Gatsby, which is hilarious because he is totally a Nick Carraway instead.)

Who should read The Secret History: Readers who enjoy academia, mythology, suspense, crime, and literary writing.

Who shouldn’t read The Secret History: Readers who are looking for a shorter, faster-paced story. It’s easy to get lost in the world of The Secret History, but the plot does take a while to develop. This is a dark story that explores the evil in human nature, so if you’re looking for a light read, don’t pick this one up yet.

 

The Secret History is available in our Recreational Reading section at the library.

Content note: violence; sexual content (most of which happens off-screen); moments of racism, homophobia, and sexism from a few characters; lots of substance abuse; pagan rituals. Reader discretion is advised.

Book Review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

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Normal People by Sally Rooney is the bestselling story of the ups and downs of an Irish millennial couple’s relationship. Since its publication in 2018, Normal People has been adapted into a popular TV show on Hulu.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Normal People gets right: The writing in Normal People is simple, direct, and poignant; I flew through this book because it was easy to read and understand without oversimplifying its subject matter. Likewise, the characters are believable- they have flaws and virtues that constantly pop up alongside each other. Connell worries about what others think and wants to be a “nice” person; yet he is at his best when he allows himself to be vulnerable and to stand up for others. In contrast, Marianne feels different from everyone else and is not afraid to express her opinions, but she is burdened with her abusive family and fear of close relationships.

As someone the same age as the main characters, I found most of their interactions and cultural references relatable (albeit some of their political conversations were specific to  Ireland and I needed to look them up).

What Normal People gets wrong: There’s definitely some moments that will make you cringe. I was genuinely worried about both Connell and Marianne at times. It’s impressive that the book can get such a strong emotional reaction out of its readers, but at the same time, it’s not a fun book to read.

I also wasn’t a fan of the open-ended conclusion. I am usually fine with open endings, but I really thought this book was moving in a clear direction and the plot just didn’t end up there. I expected more personal growth out of the characters than how they were acting on the last few pages.

Who should read Normal People: Readers who enjoy books about relationships, recent history, and mental health awareness.

Who shouldn’t read Normal People: This is a sad one, guys. If you, like me, occasionally like to read something that will make you cringe and maybe even cry, then pick this one up. But if you’d rather read to escape, or if you don’t want to read about abusive situations, just skip this one. Readers who like linear plots and strong conclusions will not like Normal People, either.

 

Normal People is available in the Recreational Reading section at the library.

Content note: suggestive scenes, language, substance abuse, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse. Reader discretion is advised.

Book Review: “The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires” by Grady Hendrix

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Have you ever read the title of a book and thought: “This was made for me?” That’s what happened when I saw The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires on a list of new books coming out in 2020. I was pretty sure that author Grady Hendrix had been watching me as I binged Buffy The Vampire Slayer, read any of Anne Rices’ vampire chronicles I could get through Interlibrary Loan, and attended my library team’s book club in a Southern state. In other words, I felt attacked.

Because apparently clever titles make me open my wallet, I bought The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires as soon as it came back in stock (it was sold out instantly on indie bookstore websites). I waited two days with the book sitting on my desk at home because you’re supposed to quarantine books in case of COVID-19 traces. Finally, I curled up on the couch by my husband, cracked open the spine, and settled in. A few hours later, I slammed the book shut dramatically and told my husband everything about it. I don’t usually read books in one sitting unless I absolutely can’t put them down, and this was one of those special stories that actually lived up to its title and cover.

Spoiler-free summary before you read further: this novel is about exactly what the title says it’s about.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires gets right: This is one of those rare books where a man author actually wrote from the perspective of amazing women characters with understanding, wit, and great empathy. The main character, Patricia, was so relatable and heartbreaking as she shouldered all of the emotional labor (and literal physical security) for her household that I was pleasantly shocked to find out that the author was a man. Her sense of guilt that she’s not doing enough for everyone in her life was palpable. Yet as Patricia slowly makes strong friendships with the women in her book club and in her own home, she begins to emerge as a fiercely driven, free-thinking character that still has plenty of flaws. For a fictional character in a horror novel, she’s pretty real.

Patricia’s characterization shines against the foil of her husband, Carter, who acts as if Patricia is crazy, cheats on her repeatedly, and snuggles up to the main villain of the story just because he makes a lot of money. It’s frustrating to read about, but don’t worry- there is some justice. I’ll give Carter this- he made me hate him more than the actual vampire in this book; Carter is like the Umbridge of this novel.

This is not just a book about Southern true crime-loving women, although that part is definitely awesome and I 100% want to talk with them about Helter Skelter. This book tackles gentrification, racial injustice, sexism, gaslighting, and vampires all in one story, and it does this flawlessly. You will be thrilled, shocked, and horrified all at once. I certainly was.

What The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires gets wrong: There are a few moments that seem a little tone-deaf. Racism thrives in the town’s community, and while it is addressed and called out as wrong, it is disappointing how the main black character, Mrs. Greene, has to save herself and the white women again and again without any help while her neighborhood suffers. There’s a big message here about acting like you can’t see the problems of others as long as you and your family are safe.

Who should read The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires: If you’re a Southern lady in a book club with a bent for true crime, obviously pick this one up. However, men and non-Southern women will also enjoy this novel if they are fans of horror, suspense, vampires, and humor.

Who shouldn’t read The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires: This novel is best for mature audiences.

 

The library doesn’t currently have this book, but you can request it through Interlibrary Loan once it is safe to do so, or you can check for it at your local library.

Content note: language, brief sexual scenes, emotional abuse, violence, racism, sexual assault, attempted suicide. Reader discretion is advised.

People’s Choice Book Review: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

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Recently, I asked the Union community via Instagram to pick a book for me to review (these are the kind of fun shenanigans I’ve been up to while working from home). The choices were Race Matters, The Sun Also Rises, and The Handmaid’s Tale.  Each of these books are available at the library, so patrons can read the review and then pick out the book. The votes came in, and The Handmaid’s Tale was chosen!

Spoiler-free description of The Handmaid’s Tale: a woman in a dogmatic society, the Republic of Gilead, must play the hated role of a Handmaid while grappling with memories of a past life.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale a year or two ago. I’d heard of it before, and as the show based on the book gained more media attention, the buzz put the book back on my radar (although I still haven’t watched the show). I remember reading The Handmaid’s Tale as fast as my eyes could skim the words- the story was so engrossing and equal parts mind-numbingly sad and frustrating. As soon as I finished, I handed the book over to my husband, and he also read it blazingly fast. I strongly believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is a book by women, for women (and it attracts a largely female audience because it’s talking about female experiences, and boys don’t read “girl” books starting at an early age). But this story is also very much for men, too. In fact, I wish more men would read The Handmaid’s Tale.

Let’s get one thing straight about The Handmaid’s Tale before we dive in to the review: this is a book about a very messed up society. If you’ve kept up with author Margaret Atwood at all, then you know that she is obviously not promoting the mistreatment of women with this book. She is fighting against it in real life by showing how terrible it is in fiction. This is one of those books where some really rough acts and crimes are committed, but that doesn’t mean that the book is promoting this kind of behavior- it’s actually the exact opposite. Yet, The Handmaid’s Tale still winds up on banned book lists because people are afraid to read about real problems (that’s just my opinion there, but hey, this is a book review, so most of this is my opinion).

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Handmaid’s Tale gets right: This is a very insulated story. It’s told from one woman’s perspective, and since she’s been subjected to brainwashing and abuse, sometimes her perspective is shocking. A lot of books about crazy government regimes focus on the politics or the activists, but this book zeroes in on one Handmaid’s story. I love that. It’s so much more personal and relatable than if we had 300+ pages about every terrible law that Gilead passed.

The Handmaid’s Tale is fictional. Some might call it satire, but it’s also a warning to the real world. Sometimes you can reach a wider audience by instilling your values and fears into fiction, and Atwood does this beautifully in The Handmaid’s Tale. A very paraphrased and basic version of her message is this: women are equal to men, but a lot of societies don’t treat them this way; biological differences are often used by those in power to subjugate women; and systemic oppression is wrong. As a feminist, I appreciate these messages being brought to the general public in the form of a story- this makes hard facts and opinions more accessible to everyone.

What The Handmaid’s Tale gets wrong: There are some slower parts to the book, but honestly you probably won’t notice. You’ll be too caught up in how awful Gilead is. Also, there’s a cliffhanger and we had to wait over 30 years for a sequel. So, if you’re just now picking up this book, you will be excited to know that you can read The Testaments right after (and you can read my review of The Testaments here).

Who should read The Handmaid’s Tale: Readers who enjoy dystopian books, feminist literature, and finally knowing what all of the hype is about.

Who shouldn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale: Younger audiences should wait until they are mature enough for the heavy content.

The Handmaid’s Tale is available as a print book at the library.

Content note: there are scenes of rape and abuse all throughout the book. Reader discretion is advised.

Top 5 Fiction eBooks To Read At Home

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You’re at home, practicing social distancing, and you really need something new to read. Maybe you’ve read all of the books on your shelf, or maybe you just want to read something on a screen. Have no fear: the library has thousands of eBooks for Union students and employees to access while at home. Here are just a few of our fiction eBooks for you to start reading!

 

*book descriptions are from the publishers c/o the library website

 

Chronicles of Avolea by L.M. Montgomery

Twelve tales of some very special people living on Prince Edward Island in the early days of the 20th century.

 

Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

After climbing through a mirror, Alice enters a world similar to a chess board, where she experiences many curious adventures with its fantastic inhabitants.

 

Emma by Jane Austen

Handsome, clever, and rich, Emma Woodhouse seems blessed with every gift that kind fortune can bestow on a proper young Englishwoman. But at one-and-twenty, Emma still has lessons to learn about human nature and the mysteries of the heart. Jane Austen’s masterpiece paints a charming portrait of English village society and of a heroine as delightful as she is infuriating.

 

The Handsome Monk And Other Stories by Tsering Döndrup

Tsering Döndrup is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed authors writing in Tibetan today. The Handsome Monk and Other Stories brings together short stories from across Tsering Döndrup’s career to create a panorama of Tibetan society.

 

Freeman: A Novel by Leonard Pitts

A compelling, important, page-turning historical novel set at the end of the Civil War, in which an escaped slave first returns to his old plantation and then walks across the ravaged South in search of his lost wife.

 

Reading List: Science Fiction

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Space, experiments, artificial intelligence, aliens, genetics: science fiction is a fascinating genre where almost anything can happen. We have both science fiction classics (like Jurassic Park) and new science fiction (like The Martian) available at the library. Skim through this list to find your next sci-fi read!

*book descriptions are from the library website and/or the publishers

 

2001, A Space Odyssey by Arthur Clarke

This allegory about humanity’s exploration of the universe and the universe’s reaction to humanity was the basis for director Stanley Kubrick’s immortal film, and lives on as a landmark achievement in storytelling.

 

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Through journal entries, sixteen-year-old Miranda describes her family’s struggle to survive after a meteor hits the moon, causing worldwide tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

 

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

For twelve thousand years, the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Sheldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future–to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years.

 

Contact by Carl Sagan

Astrophysicist Rebecca Blake deciphers long-awaited signals from space, persuades world leaders to construct a machine that many consider a Trojan Horse, and journeys into space for an epochal encounter.

 

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Timeline by Michael Crichton

A Yale history professor travels back in time to 15th century France and gets stuck, unable to return to the present. His colleagues organize a rescue and upon landing in France become involved in the Hundred Years War.

 

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South.

 

Double Helix by Nancy Werlin

Eighteen-year-old Eli discovers a shocking secret about his life and his family while working for a Nobel Prize-winning scientist whose specialty is genetic engineering.

 

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Charlie, realizing his intelligence is not what it should be, ponders over the possibility of an operation, similar to one making a mouse into a genius.

 

Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien

In a future world baked dry by the sun and divided into those who live inside the wall and those who live outside it, sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone is forced into a difficult choice when her parents are arrested and taken into the city.

 

To find more science fiction books and movies, explore the “science fiction” subject through our library catalog.

Top 5 Books To Read On A Rainy Day

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In 2018, Jackson had the wettest year on record with a whopping 77 inches of rainfall. With all of the rain that we so often experience here, it’s nice to curl up inside with a good book and look out at the weather from a dry distance. Here are 5 cozy books that you can get lost in on a rainy day.

*book descriptions provided by the publishers c/o the library catalog

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, a stunningly ambitious and beautiful novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Ten-year-old Mary comes to live in a lonely house on the Yorkshire moors and discovers an invalid cousin and the mysteries of a locked garden.

 

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Like the blues- sweet, sad, and full of truth- this masterful work of fiction rocks us with powerful emotions. In it are anger and pain, but above all, love: the affirmative love of a woman for her man, the sustaining love of the black family.

 

Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

Caught up in the danger at an inn of evil repute, Mary must survive murder, mystery, storms, and smugglers before she can build a life with Jem.

 

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

In the first book of C.S. Lewis’s legendary science fiction trilogy, Dr. Ransom is kidnapped and spirited by spaceship to the mysterious red planet of Malandra. He escapes and goes on the run, jeopardizing both his chances of ever returning to Earth and his very life.