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

 

*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.)

Nonfiction November: Books about airplanes

Nonfiction November is my new favorite holiday.
This week, we’re hosted by Julie of JulzReads, who gives us this
topic:
Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert
Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more
books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert),
you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have
been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books
on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
I seriously love this “Be the Expert” assignment, because it lets
us fly our freak flags. And heaven knows we’ve got ’em. 
I had to decide among my obsessions: Presidents? Space? True
tragedy? The modern West?
It was a dilemma, guys.
But in the end, I went with: Aviation.  [happy sigh]
I’ve been reading about airplanes for years, and I love
airplane books
.
Here are two of my shelves.

And here’s me flying one of those puppies. 

Today we’re gonna look at the aviation books I’ve read in the past
several years and blogged about. 
We’ll start with…
The memoirs
I love a good aviation memoir, especially when the pilot/author
keeps it real. Here we’ve got two fine examples, one from a fighter pilot and
one from an airline pilot.

And here are two bonus memoirs, because I can’t resist. These
books don’t have blog posts about them, but they’re a couple of my favorites
from years past.
The Spirit of St. Louis by Charles Lindbergh
(3 words: lyrical, modest, triumphant)
The Fun of It by Amelia Earhart
(3 words: sprightly, forthright, conversational)
Next up: a wonderful book by a great nonfiction author, about one
of those days when things went wrong… 

Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson by William Langewiesche


If you’re more into history, check out these books about two guys with the Wright Stuff.
My favorite Wright brothers biography is this one:
For a different approach (ha! pilot pun!) give this one a whirl…


All of these books just make me happy. 
What
topic do you keep reading about, over and over again?

Flight the Wright way

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
3 words:
triumphant, character-driven, family
David
McCullough is one of my guys. Two of his books appear in my blog banner, which
I realized only when I was reading his latest, about the Wright brothers.
(courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)
Me and
Wilbur and Orville, we go back a ways, too. 
For
years, I’ve gotten all misty-eyed and boring at cocktail parties* every
December 17, because I regale anyone within earshot with the news that it’s the
umpteenth anniversary of the first powered flight. 
I say the words “Kitty Hawk”
and “Kill Devil Hills.” 
I say the words “muslin-covered wings” and “wind tunnel.” 
I speak in awestruck tones about seeing the Wright Flyer at the Air and Space Museum.
I’m seriously
the life of any party.
So this
book had me all in a flutter. The
flutter was worth the while.
McCullough
is a wonderfully comforting writer, who is a master of his craft. His sentences
just flow.
The
other thing that makes him comforting is that he tends to tell the heroic
stories, in a tone that’s relatively wart-free. He’s not out to tell how the
Wright’s competitors tried to make them out as mean-spirited moneygrubbers
whose protection of their patents bordered on the obsessive.
No, this
book is about their hard work and their triumph. And it’s very much about their
personalities and their family.
Neither
man married, and they lived with their father and sister. Which sounds kind of
horrid, except that it sounds like they had rather a happy home life.
And they
were quiet fellows who largely kept to themselves, at least until fame struck.
So there
are quiet, wonderful moments like this one, when Wilbur was about to take off
on a demo flight in France:
“Finally,
at six-thirty, with dusk settling, Wilbur turned his cap backward, and to Berg,
Bolée, and the others said quietly, ‘Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.’” (p.
170)   
Reading
those words made me stop and clap a hand against the center of my chest and do
the heartstruck look.
So,
yeah.
McCullough
is a pleasant, talented author, and he’s writing about these quirky fellows
whom he finds pleasant and talented himself, so it’s a whirlwind of goodness.
And
despite the theme of flight, McCullough keeps it down to earth:
“Their
nephew Milton, who as a boy was often hanging about the brothers, would one day
write, “History was being made in their bicycle shop and in their home, but the
making was so obscured by the commonplace that I did not recognize it until
many years later.’” (p 113)
Warm,
heroic, and stoic.
*I avoid
cocktail parties like the plague. But anywhere else I am, I bore people with
this December 17 business. Avoid me on that date.

Sometimes it sucks to be the wife

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
3
words: biographical, personal, lyrical
Since I
went through a spree of reading everything Anne Morrow Lindbergh ever published (except that horrid-sounding thing, The Wave of the Future) I approached
this fictional account of her life with a wary eye. There are so many ways a
novelist can get it wrong.

(photo: courtesy of the Library of Congress)
But
Melanie Benjamin has seriously impressed me here.
Yes,
this is a work of fiction, but yes, she has done the research and I feel like
she’s speaking in Anne’s voice in this book. That’s high praise from an AML
reader.
The
thing I didn’t expect was to come away from this book detesting Charles
Lindbergh.
Sure,
I already had pushed away from him once I learned of his anti-Semitic speeches
in the pre-WWII years. And then there were those other families of children he
fathered. Dude had some serious flaws. And big, unpardonable ones, too.  
But
this book put venom in my fangs.
I
think it’s because fiction did that thing it goes so well: it made things more
immediate, more personal, more felt.
Even AML’s diaries and letters, which were edited before publication (by both
AML and her husband) keep her at a greater distance.
So:
this book surprised me with the depth and honesty of its characterization, and by the loveliness of the writing. I went in, expecting to emerge partway through, shaking my head. Instead, I was sorry when it ended, and I’m shaking my head in admiration. 

Against type

(photo credit: Library of Congress)
Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson
Recently I broke a
solemn vow I’d made to myself.
You know those
horrid little Christmas-season books—usually novellas—that are published by
bestselling authors of series?
I detest those
things.
They’re a
combination of grotesque commercialism and sentimental tripe, and I can’t
stomach them.
Well, after
swearing I’d never read one, guess what?
Craig Johnson wrote
one of those things. 

And I read it

And, damn it, I liked it. 
But that’s only
because of Craig Johnson. This is not going to become a habit, this reading of
the Christmas-themed mini-books.
And I have to
acknowledge that even though nearly this entire book took place on a B-25
Mitchell, I still found the plot a bit thin. It was basically an adventure
story. Now I have no quarrel with that, but it didn’t result in quite the usual
Craig Johnson bliss attack I usually experience.
So the story is
that when Walt Longmire was a brand new sheriff, he needed to get a little girl
flown to the hospital in Denver
after a car accident. And the weather was ghastly and the only plane that
possibly could make the flight was this old warbird. And Lucian Connally, the
crusty old feller who was sheriff before him, had been a Doolittle Raider, so
the dude could handle that kind of aircraft. And off they go.
So there’s lots of
stuff to like there: Walt, Lucian, an airplane. And a female pilot in the right
seat. A happy (of course—it’s a Christmas book, for the love of Mike) ending. And
I liked it just fine.
Crow: eaten.*
*tasted like chicken

Unruly pilot

Fate Is the Hunter by Ernest Gann
Lucky? Yes. Yes, I am.
Case in point: My flight instructor, from my
flying days when I was but a girl, recently invited me to go flying. Hadn’t
seen the man in over 15 years, and here, just when my life could use something truly good, he invited me to fly an airplane again. 
moments before my second take-off,
which again would involve uncontrolled laughter

Seriously: lucky.

And I gotta tell you: that guy is brave. He
put that airplane in my hands, and man, was I rusty. The few skills that came
back… reemerged slowly.* I had us
flailing all over the Iowa
skies, laughing like a goon, and he didn’t even appear concerned. Nerves of
steel, those pilots.
And that’s what this book is about (the
nerves, not the laughing goon).
We had done some talking of books when we
were on the ground, and he said this book gives a really good sense of what
it’s like to fly on a crew. (He’s doing the airline thing these days.) And I’m
all about the workplace memoir, especially when an insider has vouched for its
veracity, so I scribbled down the title and placed a hold at my first
opportunity.
The fascinating thing about this book is
that it was published in 1961, but it still feels fresh today. Granted, the
aircraft and the methods are archaic (Yikes! At one point, they’re plotting
bearing fixes!) but the human dynamic rings true, and that’s the important part
of the book, anyway, in my opinion.
And Gann’s narrative voice is easy and
clever, and altogether a delight to read.
(Brief pause while we marvel at the fact
that some people who do their day job admirably also can write books!)
So this book is full of male jocularity (all
the airline pilots were male in those days [sad shake of the head]), and it’s
enormously fun to read. It really does give a sense of the camaraderie of a crew—those
that get along well, and those that are a bit less well-suited for each other.
And there are some funny moments here,
too. During Gann’s time as a military pilot, he and the others got sent to some
far reaches of the north Atlantic. Here’s their
introduction to the base:
“Boyd took my hand as if we had flown to the
moon and said, ‘Welcome to White Pigeon.’
And at once I was returned in thought to a
more tranquil period when I had served briefly as his co-pilot. We had found
ourselves flying a plane chartered from our line by a political team junketing
around the United States.
Our passengers displayed a constant and abnormal interest in their exact
location—information we seldom had ready at hand. And so we would assume a
solemn mien and point out a town, or village—any one visible would do—and we
would say, ‘That is White Pigeon.’”  (p.
177)
I’d heard of this book for years, and I
never would’ve picked it up if it hadn’t been for the personal recommendation I
received. Again, all I can say is: Lucky.
*Yeah, just before releasing the brakes and
hitting the throttle at the threshold of the runway, I thought to ask, “What’s
the rotate speed on this baby?” 

Fighter/writer pilot

Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by
Dan Hampton
If you’re all about adrenaline
and testosterone in your reading (which sometimes I am), this book will make
you very happy indeed.  
Hampton, a (now-retired) Air
Force Lieutenant Colonel, flew an F-16 as a Wild Weasel, which means that his
job was to intentionally draw enemy fire in order to locate the enemy and
destroy them. So: nervy flying.
And his book is filled with some
of the best fighter pilot writing I’ve ever read. He puts you right there with
him, and that’s a pretty spectacular feat.
Dude flew on 9/11 (scrambled and
told to take down any unidentified aircraft), in the Iraq war, and before that in the
Gulf. And some of the stories are just plain stunning. At one point, I gasped,
“No!” and nearly dropped the book into the bathtub. (Don’t worry: his wingman
didn’t actually die. It just looked really bad there for a few.)
And he gives a solid sense of
what life is like for would-be fighter pilots—the endless training and
opportunities to wash out. It’s really kind of a miracle anyone survives it and
then goes on to survive the kind of flying they do.
And this section, near the end
of the book, made me further look in awe upon their work:
     “Attacking a target in a modern fighter is
a bit like playing several musical instruments at the same time. My left hand
constantly adjusted the throttle. My left fingers worked the radar, fanned the
speed brakes, and managed my electronic countermeasures. I also changed radio
frequencies and accessed any of the hundred different functions of the up-front
control head with my left hand.
     I flew with my right hand. The F-16 has a
side stick mounted on the right side of the cockpit, not coming up from the
floor like older fighters. My right fingers danced along the Digital Management
and Target Management switches while I flew. I also dropped bombs, launched
missiles, and shot the cannon with my right hand. I really never needed to take
my hands off the controls to do anything. It was a very well-designed cockpit.
It had to be, for one pilot to keep up with five or six types of weapons, fly,
navigate, and fight.” (pp. 268-269)
Guys, all I can say is: Dang.
It’s hard enough to fly a
Cessna, for pete’s sake.
This guy? Not only can he fly,
but he can write.
Here’s the book trailer, delivered by the man himself:

We lost one today

Neil Armstrong
(Photo credit: NASA)
The world’s most laconic–yet perhaps most oft-quoted*–astronaut died today
And to me, it feels like this earth just grew duller. 
Although… this place, as they showed us, is pretty spectacular. 
Photo by Apollo 11 crew
(Photo credit: NASA)

 
* “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.” 
“That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.” 

Not so wild about the criminals

The Barefoot
Bandit: The True Tale of Colton
Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw
by
Bob Friel
Since I’m no fan of true crime (it freaks me out*) and since I disdain books that take the side of the
bad guys, there’s no way I’d’ve read this book if it hadn’t been our book club
pick.
That having been said, this book actually kinda worked for me.
And here’s why:
First off, Friel is quite a nice writer. He’s a journalist, and I
just love the way journalists write books. His tone is conversational, which
makes the book’s words just glide easily past one’s eyes.
And despite my concerns that Friel would glorify the Barefoot
Bandit, he really doesn’t. He’s clearly somewhat sympathetic, particularly when
he learns about the kid’s horrible upbringing (if we can even call it that) by
an alcoholic mom. But Friel lives on Orcas
Island, so for him, it
started to feel way more personal because this stuff was happening on his turf.
Orcas was one of the earliest places Colt burgled and pulled some of his Goldilocks/home-invasion
stunts.
And that’s the part where I started to get ticked.
The guy was breaking into people’s houses and living there while
they were out of town. He was sleeping in their beds and eating their cereal!
This really pushes my buttons.
And then, he did even worse things. He stole—and crashed—people’s
airplanes.
This is truly Not OK in
my worldview.
Sure, yeah, it was amazing that he could fly at all, given his
complete lack of flight training. And I empathize with his yearning to fly. But
still. I Am Honked Off that that guy ripped off people’s airplanes!
So, yeah. He violated two of the most sacred spaces one can claim:
home and aircraft. So I was like, yeah, go capture that guy and Lock.Him.Up.
So they did (the capture actually felt somewhat anti-climactic,
despite the fact that it happened onboard a boat in the Bahamas), and now he’s in jail
until he turns 26. Again, not very satisfying.
OK. So, the book. It started to feel a little bit too long, though
I honestly don’t know where to recommend any editing. I think the story just
dragged on too long, because the guy evaded capture for so long.
But overall, the story was surprisingly captivating. Back when
Colt was Bandit-ing, I didn’t pay too much attention, so most of the story was
news to me. And Friel’s writing style is sufficiently engaging that the book
was sometimes hard to put down.
For this true-crime-phobic reader, this book’s a success.

* I read this book only during daylight hours, and never after dinner.
Not because it’s a scary or freaky book, but because I am just that weirded out
about true crime.


Hellish heavens

Hell Above Earth:
The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot
Ordered to Kill Him
by Stephen Frater

OK, this story is nothing short of amazing. And the fact that it’s
true is just flipping me out.

Here’s the deal: #2 Nazi Hermann Goring’s nephew was an American
B-17 pilot. The young fellow was named Werner Goering, and he was born in the
States to parents who’d emigrated from Germany shortly before his birth.
(And the dude was a Mormon, which I think is also a little bit unexpected.)

So… the U.S.
government was a little bit weirded out about what would happen if:

– Young Werner’s plane went down and he got captured by the Nazis,
thus creating a huge p.r. coup for the bad guys, or
– Young Werner decided to join his uncle Hermann’s cause, mid-war,
in his highly valuable B-17.

So the government found a guy who’d agree to shoot Werner if
either thing were to happen. And this guy—Jack Rencher—became Werner’s best
friend.

Holy crap. That’s all
I’m saying.

So that whole story is downright unbelievable (except it’s true).

(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs)

And then add to the mix the B-17 lore the author tosses in for
good measure.

At the EAA Museum in Oshkosh,
there’s a B-17 you can walk through (actually: crouch through) and I
can tell you, those are some seriously tight quarters. Not only that, but they
were flying at 30,000 feet, and it was hella cold up there. And then they’d get
shot at, and lots of them went down in flames. Not great.

Those were some tough fellas.

So the book doesn’t stay on course, because the author deviates
plenty to tell all kinds of great B-17 stories. And for me, that really worked.
But if you’re wanting just the narrative of Werner and Jack and the rest of the
crew, you just might frustrated by the other tales that accompany their strange
story.

But if you’ve got the aviation bug, you’ll just marvel at the ways
people can survive (and the valiant way others died to save their buddies).

Of course, in the end, we learn that some of the story was indeed
too good to be true.

But still. I’m stunned by this book.

(If this sounds intriguing, you can cruise on over to Macmillan, where there’s an excerpt available.)