50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch

July 16 — the date of the Apollo 11 launch — is an anniversary I celebrate every year. And this year, it’s a big one.

 

I wasn’t even born when these three headed off to the moon, but I’ve read enough about them that I feel a strong sense of connection.

Now it’s been 50 years since the world watched them take off on July 16, and it doesn’t seem possible that it could’ve been that long ago.

 

Anyway… let’s talk Apollo 11 books.

Here, in my opinion, are the best of the bunch…

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins

Michael Collins is my favorite of all astronauts, and his book is far and away the best astronaut memoir I’ve ever read.

 

A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin

The basis for the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, and so wonderfully human-centric.

 

First on the Moon: A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. by Gene Farmer and Dora Jane Hamblin

An up close and personal account of the astronauts

 

 

 

So yes, there are big photographic retrospectives being published, and they’re so worth a look. But to find out who these people are… the wordy books are really the way to go.

So, my fellow space geeks (I know you’re out there!)… what are your favorite books about the Apollo program?

Nonfiction November: Nonfiction / Fiction Pairing

This week’s episode of Nonfiction November is hosted by Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves.

 

And this week’s topic is…

Pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

 

Knowing that I was going to read Beryl Markham’s memoir West with the Night for an upcoming book discussion, I first dove in to Circling the Sun by Paula McLain–an historical novel about Markham’s life.

 

And while both are lyrical in style, with vivid descriptions of Markham’s free-spirited, adventurous life, Circling the Sun delves into the complicated relationships of Markham’s life. If you read only West with the Night, you’d have no idea of the messy love triangle among Markham, Denys Finch Hatton, and Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen). The fictionalized account, based closely on the facts, takes a good, long look at the underbelly.

 

It’s a bit like reading an autobiography and a biography of the same person, and getting the glossy version from the person’s own pen, while the outside account lays it all bare. Only when the outside account is a novel, there’s also some judicious editing that creates a better story arc. And I’m OK with that.

 

I found the reading of West with the Night all the richer for having spent time with the fictionalized Markham in the pages of the novel. And I was struck again by the remarkable ways in which fiction, too, can speak truth.

Great book discussion book: West with the Night

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

3 words: lyrical, understated, adventurous

You know that thing when you re-read a book and it’s even better than you’d remembered? That happened with West with the Night.

I kept thinking: my high school self was reading some intensely good writing.

The writing, people. The writing.

Markham (or whoever wrote it — there’s a juicy authorship controversy) had some serious talent as an author. There are sentences like this:

“I never knew what their digging got them, if it got them anything, because, when I set my small biplane down on the narrow runway they had hacked out of the bush, it was night and there were fires of oil-soaked rags burning in bent chunks of tin to guide my landing.” (p. 4)

I mean, that’s some gorgeous writing, and that’s some serious romance.

And this paragraph that I remembered from my reading of the book in my teens*:

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep—leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.” (p. 131)

Lovely, right?

Not only is the writing lush, but the storytelling is incredible and nuanced and delightfully incomplete. (Memoir, you’re a book discussion’s best friend.)

Markham is attacked by a lion and nearly attacked by an elephant, she trains derby-winning horses from her teen years on, and she flew an open cockpit biplane in Africa. And she had multiple affairs (not alluded to in this book, but legendary).

It was not a typical life.

There’s just something enticing about stories of growing up in Africa. This book evoked Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

Except Markham’s book contained some allusions to race that made me frankly uncomfortable. We can see these comments as typical of the time the book was written (1942), but that doesn’t mean a modern reader won’t squirm a bit. And that’s yet another topic of discussion: how do the treatments of race and colonialism affect our reading of the book?

Well worth reading—for the writing, the stories, the discussibility.

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of a woman leading an unconventional life, the Golden Age of aviation, ex-pats in Africa in the early 20th century, reading about free spirits, sympathetic narratives about animals, tales of daring

What’s the book you re-read and found it better than you remembered?

*I might’ve even copied it into my Quotes notebook (such a dork)

Launch of Rocket Men

The Rocket Men book launch…

3 words: thrilled, awestruck, verklempt

A book launch that was a transcendent experience — these things don’t happen just every day. Robert Kurson released his latest book, Rocket Men, in the best of all possible ways: with the full crew of Apollo 8 participating in a panel discussion.

And we were there.

In the same room with Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders.

Of course I was beside myself with joy. The thing that was a revelation was the degree to which the Dear Man and my friend were exhilarated to be in the presence of those men.

It was truly an honor to be in the room with them. And such a delight to hear them interact with each other — there was jocular fondness, there was humor. They’re seriously likeable guys.

One of my favorite moments: Anders was describing the violence of takeoff, and he said they were shaking so hard, Borman took his hand off the abort handle, so he wouldn’t pull it by accident due to the way they were being thrashed around. “Just like any other fighter pilot, he’d rather be dead than screw up.”

Apollo 8 command module, Museum of Science & Industry

I love that.

I had the good fortune to read an advance copy of Rocket Men, which I adored

for all kinds of reasons. And the people brought to life in its pages were clearly recognizable in that room. Kurson really captures their essence.

So, the event is over. But the story lives on in the pages of Rocket Men, a book I truly love.

This one’s going down in my personal history as the best book event ever.

My fellow readers… Book launches can be amazing. Tell us about the best book event you’ve ever attended. What made it fantastic?

Best nonfiction book of 2018: Rocket Men by Robert Kurson

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon

3 words: lively, heroic, crisp

I’m a cautious soul by nature. But I have no problem declaring Rocket Men my favorite nonfiction book of 2018. Even though it’s still 2017.

When a book is this perfect, I know it’ll hold its own against all the others coming down the pike next year.

I’m one of the luckies (along with Andy Weir!) who got hold of an advance copy of Rocket Men, which drops on April 3, 2018*.

And while I’m an aviation/space fanatic who’s inclined to enjoy a book about astronauts, I’ve also read enough books on the subject to become fairly discerning. I’m a picky little thing when it comes to books on topics I love.

This book works for all kinds of reasons:

First: the writing style

Kurson’s writing is crisp and lively and compulsively readable. There’s exciting forward momentum throughout the book, yet he sneaks in each astronaut’s back story and details about 1968 America in a way that feels natural. The structure of the book is very satisfying. And even though we know the happy outcome of the mission from the start, there’s tension in this story. During the perilous Trans Earth Injection (when the spacecraft accelerated out of lunar orbit to return to Earth), my stomach got a little bit flippy when I read this section about the CapCom attempting to reach the astronauts:

“Mattingly writing a full eighteen seconds, then called again.

‘Apollo 8, Houston.’

Still no answer.

Susan Borman and Valerie Anders were silent. There was no sound in the Borman home but for the squawk box, and their husbands’ voices were not coming out of it” (p. 274)

People, that is intense.

And then, Lovell: “Houston, Apollo 8, over,” followed by “Please be informed—there is a Santa Claus.”

 

Second: the subject matter

Apollo 8 was humankind’s first trip to the Moon, and it was risky as all heck. In order to beat the Russians to the Moon, NASA decided to hurry up the timeline for the mission, so: even riskier. When they ran the idea past Frank Borman, Apollo 8 commander, he accepted on the spot, then headed back to tell crewmates Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. “Sometimes Borman used the T-38 to do aerobatics, looping and rolling to help clear the cobwebs after a hard day’s work. This time he flew level and fast, back to his crewmates in California in the straightest line a test pilot ever flew” (p. 38). Anyone else get goosebumps from that?

 

Third: the focus on the humans

This book brings these people to life: the astronauts, their wives, the flight controllers. We particularly get to know the personalities of the astronauts and their wives, who emerge as real people facing challenges with all the courage they had—and sometimes struggling. It makes them more impressive to know how difficult it was, and it also makes the true story more interesting and nuanced than the standard story of heroic triumph. Granted, these humans were not standard issue humans; this happened when they were on the launchpad: “And in a testament to the cool that runs through the bloodstream of fighter pilots, Anders fell asleep, ready to awaken when things got good” (p. 147).

But this wasn’t easy stuff, and the unsentimental heroism of these people made me weepy (lots of times: weepy). Plus, I love reading about the camaraderie of a crew, and this crew had it going on: they liked each other, and they worked smoothly together, and they did that beautiful reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve (which also makes me weepy every single time I hear it). There’s a fantastic human story here.

 

Fourth: the clear and informative scientific details

While the human story draws me in most, the science-y sections made me smarter without making me bored. I’m a serious skimmer when I get restless as a reader, and I did not skim anything here. I found myself marveling at how the author described the science in a way that held my attention. I’ve read a fair number of books about space and aviation, and this one stood out in the way the author presented the technological details in a way that made them compelling. I learned more than I’d ever learned before, and I enjoyed it.

 

Reading this book was a complete delight. It’s so good, I’ll be re-reading it with pleasure next year, so it can truly be the best book I read in 2018.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… space; tales of heroic daring; crisp, clear writing

 

Update from April 2018: Best book launch ever — with astronauts!!

 

*thanks to the author, with whom I’m acquainted (which in no way shades this review, since I’d say absolutely nothing if I didn’t like the book, and I’d write more modest praise if I merely liked it. It’s sheer good fortune on my part to know an author who can seriously write.)