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.

Huge buzz, decent book

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of
the Lusitania
by
Erik Larson
3 words:
immediate, tragic, anecdotal
I’ve
lived my entire life as a Lusitania ignoramus.
If
you’d’ve asked me what I could tell you about it, I’d’ve said “British ship
sunk by the Germans during World War I. Americans on board, so the U.S. entered
the war.”
Yeah,
sort of right. Partial credit. Actually, it took 2 more years for the U.S. to
declare war. (Who knew?!)
So this
is an Erik Larson book, which often means we’re gonna have dual narratives.
This one’s no exception. Except: Wait—there’s more!
Here
we’re on board the Lusitania; on
board the U-boat that sunk the ship; hanging out in the code-breaking room in
England; and eavesdropping on President Wilson, who’s wooing his second wife. And
there are some side trips to shipping offices, too.
But the
main storyline is, as expected, onboard the Lusitania,
which (didn’t know this, either) had an unusually large number of children and
babies aboard during its last voyage. (Sad, guys. This stuff is sad.)
Larson
did some fine research, so we get to hear the story from several of the
survivors. He paints a detailed picture of life on the ship.
Now,
maybe this is just me, but one thing I expected from this book—since it’s
tragedy and it’s true, and I love that stuff—didn’t actually happen. I thought
I’d become slightly obsessed with the topic, Googling and YouTubing and looking
up other books about the Lusitania
But I find that this book is enough. And I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m not
the ideal audience [pretty sure I am] or because Larson’s narrative didn’t completely
pull me in to the story. Unlike every time I’ve read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, the classic
account of the sinking of the Titanic,
Dead Wake didn’t make me feel like I
was there. I’m beginning to think there’s something about Larson’s style that just doesn’t
jibe with me. 
This is
a fine book in many ways, and I liked it rather much. But I really wanted to
love it.

More doom. More gloom.

Five Days in November by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin
This was a positive reading
experience, guys, even though the book is sad. I picked up this book before
bedtime one night, and ended up reading way later (way later) than I’d planned.
Though, as I’ve said
before, I know this story.  
I mean, for
goodness’ sake, we all do.  

(photo courtesy of the John F. Kennedy
Presidential Library and Museum)
I’d read Clint
Hill’s other book Mrs. Kennedy and Me and loved it. So I
wondered if this book would feel redundant. But its focus is quite different.
While the first book dealt with his working relationship with Jacqueline
Kennedy, this book is all about the trip to Texas in November 1963. And it’s filled with
photos, many of which I’d never seen.
While I’ve read a
lot of books about JFK, I tend not to focus on those days in November. Other
than William Manchester’s remarkable The Death of a President, I’ve focused on the president’s life rather than his
death.  
But the way Clint
Hill’s book brings the behind-the-scenes perspective to the story makes this
book different. It feels like someone describing a death in the family. 

And it’s heartbreaking. 

Anne Frank walking tour

Before my fabulous friend’s
and my recent visit to Amsterdam,
a Dear Man told me about two amazing things that greatly enhanced the
experience. 

First, he alerted me to this remarkable site, which contains photos
of (and related to) Anne Frank, blended with current photos of the same sites.
Looking at these photos left me speechless.

  
Then he found the
Anne’s Amsterdam app, which allows a person in Amsterdam
to do the same thing, only in real life. For true!
So my friend and I
trekked around Amsterdam with the app, and she (who can navigate, unlike some
of us) located these sites for us to visit. 

At some of these locations, I did gasping and standing still and staring wide-eyed. Actually, I mostly did that the entire time. 

 

The school Margot attended

         A statue of Anne Frank, on the site 
          where the next photo was taken…

Anne Frank (on right)
(photo courtesy of Anne Frank Stichting,
Amsterdam)

The Frank family’s home, 
where the following footage was filmed

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this, but it’s lots.

The bookstore where Otto Frank bought Anne her diary

The Van Pels family’s home
The thing that was interesting, too, was that the Frank family’s home didn’t bear a plaque. It appears to be just any other home in Amsterdam, and it looks like people live there. For some reason, this surprised me. You could be walking down the street, and you wouldn’t know you were looking at a place that was so significant. It’s a bit strange. 
Amsterdam is an amazing city for so many reasons, but the absolute highlight was seeing the Anne Frank House and visiting these other sites. 
It was one of the best things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do.  

Visiting the Anne Frank House

Anne Frank House: A Museum with a Story published by Anne Frank House
Back when I first
read Anne Frank’s diary, I dreamt of visiting the house where she and her
family and the others were in hiding. And I swore that when I first went
overseas, that would be my destination. And then I wondered whether it ever
would really happen.
A decade or two
passed (or maybe three) and finally the opportunity presented itself. And I
kept repeating to myself, “Lucky, lucky, lucky…” because really: how many of us
get to actually realize a childhood dream?
And then I thought
of how Anne’s childhood dream—of publishing her story—came true, but how it
happened only after her much-too-young, much-too-terrible death. And then I
felt that awful sick feeling that comes over me when it hits me that that was
really real.
So when I visited
the Anne Frank House recently, the experience was very real and also surreal.
And when I saw the swinging bookcase, I stopped in my tracks and blinked a
whole bunch to keep from crying.
People, it’s an
emotional experience to visit that place. 
The good people at
the Anne Frank House museum have put together a remarkable website that allows virtual visits.  
But there’s nothing
that really compares to being in that space. My God. Anne’s movie star pictures
are still on the walls of her room, and one of the doorways still contains the
marks the Franks made to record their daughters’ growth in height
It’s devastatingly
moving.
The museum’s book, Anne Frank House: A Museum with a Story,
is a wonderful companion. It provides photos of the spaces with the furniture
in place, so you can get a sense of what it was like when the Frank family, Van
Pels family, and Fritz Pfeffer lived there. (The rooms are now devoid of
furniture.)
At the end of the
book, there are pages about the fate of each of the occupants of the secret
annex. And it was in this section that I struggled to keep it together.
A small book, but
an important one.

Anne Frank: The Diary

(photo credit: Anne Frank Stichting, Amsterdam)
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
When I was in 6th
grade, I read a book that captivated and devastated me. And those feelings have
remained the same ever since.
The first time I
read Anne Frank’s writing, I experienced shock and amazement and horror and
wonder. Marveling that a girl my own age could write the way she wrote. Horrified
at the hatred that caused her death.
And when my book
club read her diary earlier this year, those feelings returned tenfold. Because
reading her words and her ideas as an adult reader, I realized from a
completely new perspective how remarkable she was.
And then I said
some really strong curse words because she was killed.
When I read her
diary earlier in life (all those times I re-read it), I was reading the edited
version. The first time I’d read The
Definitive Edition
was this year, and I kept wondering if the reading
experience was different only because I was now an adult, or whether reading
the longer edition made that big a difference. I’ll never know. I’d’ve had to
have read the edited version this year, followed by the definitive edition, to
have gotten a good sense.

But these two
things kept making me pause and feel a sense of admiration: her insightful
commentary on herself and her situation, and her marvelous prose style. That
girl could write
The only saving grace is that her diary was salvaged and published. When a book becomes a stronger work upon re-reading it, you know you’re reading something of enormous power. 
The Anne Frank website states these words, and they fill me with hope for humanity: 
“Otto often concludes his letters with the words: ‘I hope Anne’s book will have an effect on the rest of your life so that insofar as it is possible in your own circumstances, you will work for unity and peace.'”
Yes.

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.)

The war is over

A House Reunited:
How America
Survived the Civil War
by Jay Winik
It really doesn’t get any better than this. Cruising in the car
(OK, commuting) and listening to a
born storyteller talk about a topic you find fascinating. Truly, this is good.
Many years back, I went through a Civil War phase that eventually
waned. But occasionally I have a flare-up of the old condition, and this series
of lectures about the Civil War’s final months was just the ticket.
(The Modern Scholar series: Why am I late to the party on this?
I’ve known about them for years, and yet it’s only now that I dive in. I can be
a strange creature.)
Winik is the author of the book April 1865: The Month That Saved America, which made a good-sized
splash when it was released. And he’s one heck of a good lecturer. He’s got an almost
preacherly cadence (preacherly, meaning: lyrical, not didactic) that drew me
right in. Also, he does this thing where he says, “Picture this scene if you
will…” and then he’ll describe the situation so clearly that you can indeed
visualize it. It’s a good tactic.
So this audio series is all about the way the end of the Civil War
was kind of a mini-miracle—that things worked out as well as they did (given
how horrible things were), and how close things were to not working out at all. It’s actually a bit chilling.
I mean, most of us know the story of the Lee’s surrender to Grant
at Appomattox.
And then shortly thereafter, Lincoln
was assassinated. We all know that. But the thing I sure didn’t realize was
that the South was considering launching into guerrilla warfare when they
realized they could no longer win a conventional war. Yikes, guys. It coulda
happened that way.
And if Lincoln
hadn’t been all “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” we likely
would’ve ended up with a country that never came back together fully.
Here’s a quote from Robert E. Lee that I really think will stick
with me: “I surrendered as much to Lincoln’s
goodness as I did to Grant’s armies.”
It really hits a person that so much depends on the decisions and
the character and the temperament of a few key historic figures, and if any of
those variables had been different, things could’ve gone so very wrong.
Seriously, thank goodness for those humans and their wisdom. 

Little Rock

Elizabeth and
Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock
by David Margolick
If this book were a novel, I wouldn’t’ve believed the plausibility
of the story. But instead, it’s true, so you really have to accept the twists and turns. And this book has plenty of
that stuff going on.
Many of us recognize the famous photo. It’s one of those things
you wish weren’t real, but it is, and it’s important that we face it. Here it
is:

(photo credit: Will Counts; Indiana University Archives)

So this book is the story of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little
Rock Nine who integrated Central High School, and Hazel Bryan Massery, the girl
jeering Elizabeth
in the photo.
It’s clear from the start that somehow they meet again later in
life, and it seems like there was some sort of reconciliation.
And when I got to that part of the book—as older adults, they were
chatty friends who attended flower shows together!—it really seemed too good to
be true.
And, of course, it was.
The friendship lasted several months, and then things got
uncomfortable and tense, and they stopped speaking.  
Much about this book was sad and sobering.
I really thought Elizabeth Eckford would turn out to have a great
life—becoming a professor or something like that. She was bookish as a girl. But
it turns out her life served up a whole bunch of bad stuff to her, and that
takes its toll, and her life was rather rocky.
And then there’s Hazel. She apologized to Elizabeth
later in life, but that didn’t actually make things better in the end, and it’s
unclear whether she ever completely understood how she had hurt Elizabeth all those years
ago.
More complex and nuanced than it appears at first glance. 
On the Vanity Fair website, you can read Margolick’s fine article about the two women.

At Home. That’s one magical title.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
Yup, I’m fancying up the nest here at Casa Unruly. So this book was an appropriate choice, I s’pose.
Also, I’m pretty sure Bill Bryson could make anything entertaining.
For those of us who are history geeks who also are addicted to HGTV (seriously: I’m hooked, and I don’t even have cable [thank you, Hulu!]), this book is the sort of thing we just feast on.
Now. A book about the history of private life sounds like it would be rather cozy, doesn’t it? I kinda thought so. Which is why it was a bit shocking that I had to fast-forward (the audiobook) through one part about disease. I was driving the car and getting woozy (oh, yes…. I’m a fainter), and that is not exactly a winning combination.
Also, there’s rats and mice in this book. You’ve been warned.
That having been said, this is also the kind of book that makes a person wildly annoying, because there are factoids here that simply Must Be Shared. For example: Jefferson had window screens at Monticello. And, brick buildings came into vogue in England because they could handle the horrible coal smoke pollution better than stone buildings, which discolored. And, we really should appreciate staircases more than we do; apparently it’s pretty darn easy to build a screwed-up staircase that’s more likely to trip people up or down the stairs.
Yes, some of it was too gross for me, and some of it was a bit dull. But the overall effect: quite pleasing.
The audiobook:
16.5 hours; read by the author (whose voice you either like, or you don’t)