I need my space

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Evidence of a benevolent universe: I picked this book for the Read-a-Thon. First book of the day, and it just plain blissed me out.
Yes, I’m a confirmed space geek.
But I’m here to tell you, you don’t gotta be that wild about space to really like this book. It’s got those intangibles that make a nonfiction book loveable even for people who don’t care about the subject matter. I’ll name one of those intangibles: intelligent good humor. There are authors out there, people, who lack this variety of Right Stuff. But Roach has it in spades.
Speaking of the Right Stuff, Roach describes the way that Stuff has changed over the years. She writes that, “America’s first astronauts were selected by balls and charisma” (p. 28), but these days they gotta be sensitive team players who ooze empathy.
These two sentences had me busting a gut: “Today’s space agency doesn’t want guts and swagger. They want Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe.” (p. 32)
This probably explains why I get all swept away by the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts, but feel pretty darn iggis about the astronauts of today. I like some swagger in my astronauts. I just do.
There’s also entertaining stuff here about what the astronauts eat, and also about what happens once they’re done digesting it.
And Roach got to ride on the Vomit Comet!
Which brings us to other gross biological stuff, like nausea in space and BO. But… it almost sounds like boredom, isolation, and confined spaces are more insidious enemies to today’s astronauts. It ain’t very glamorous up there.
But it sure as hell is entertaining to read about.

Ranch love

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels—A Love Story by Ree Drummond
Since I’ve got this recurring fantasy/nightmare of living on a ranch*, this story is, for me, a combo of a fairy tale and cautionary tale. And it’s funny as hell.
Ree Drummond (aka Pioneer Woman) had posted the beginnings of this book on her blog some while back, and I gulped it down one weekend when I barely left the computer because I wanted to find out what happened Next.
And—pleased to report—the published book is Even Better.
Ree’s story is a dramatic and wonderful romance, except that it’s real life. With cow manure.
She was a city gal all set to move to Chicago when she met a gorgeous hunk of a cowboy (Marlboro Man, who also is kind and decent–and can such a paragon of such goodness really exist?), and mere weeks later, they were full-on in love and she wasn’t going nowhere (except to the ranch).
The good news about this whole thing is this: Ree’s voice is lively, and she doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at herself. I like that in a person.
And besides that, she is, as I mentioned, funny as hell. I laughed for 5 minutes straight (unusual reading behavior) when reading about her sweat gland attack while attending a wedding with Marlboro Man.
And the delightful thing is that a person isn’t left stranded after the book ends, because her blog rages on.
This book. I loved it.

*All I have to do is remind myself that a ranch ain’t nothing but a farm with a fancy name, and I sober up fast from those rosy dreams. Farms are hard work. And farm animals, they are odiferous. And libraries full of books are far, far away from farms. And ranches.

Sometimes I feel like the luckiest reader ever

The Fiddler in the Subway: The True Story of What Happened When a World-Class Violinist Played for Handouts… and Other Virtuosic Performances by America’s Foremost Feature Writer by Gene Weingarten
If you were to be within, say, 20 feet of me this fall, here’s what would happen: Within 5 minutes, I’d’ve finagled a mention of this great book I’ve been reading. And then I’d’ve started to rave.
I might even have whipped out the book and read aloud to provide proof. (Actually, only two of my nearest/dearest have been so afflicted. But they thanked me for it. I think.)
Before I begin doing the raving thing here, a disclaimer: Yes, I made the conscious choice to select the deadly, utterly pukey combination of “Laughed Out Loud” and “Made Me Cry” when tagging this sucker. It almost makes me recoil. But I’m telling you the truth here. (Prepare to disengage the gag reflex. Here it comes…) I laughed. I cried. Sometimes during the same blasted article. (“Yankee Doodle Danny”—I’m looking at you.)
Gene Weingarten is a writer for the Washington Post, and he rocks my world.
And here’s one more ginormous reason to love the Post: They’ve got lots of his articles available on their web site. (Thank you!)
Including the title article from this collection (which includes a recording of Joshua Bell’s subway performance, which makes me love the Post even more today than yesterday).

Weingarten’s writing is simply brilliant. By which I mean: simple and brilliant. While these articles are easy to read, it’s because each word is perfectly selected.
And besides that, Weingarten seems to truly like people. And this makes him a delightful companion as he visits the town designated “The Armpit of America,” when he accompanies a man who is a beloved performer at children’s parties, and when he writes about the man who wrote the Hardy Boys mysteries. (I confess: He had me on page v, in the 2nd paragraph of the Acknowledgments, in which he includes “Franklin W. Dixon” among the authors he thanks.)
If you want to test out the “laugh/cry” thing in this book–or just plain read something perfect–I recommend turning to page 155: “If You Go Chasing Rabbits…” This is one of those things I read and know that I’ll always remember. Can’t stop thinking about it, and don’t really want to.

Laughed out loud. Repeated as necessary.

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

There’s no reason this book should be funny. There’s every reason it shouldn’t be: Judd’s father has just died, his wife has just left him for his boss, he’s (therefore) jobless, and his entire family is dysfunctional as all heck.

And now I’ve just explained why this book is so blasted hilarious.
Judd’s father’s last wish was for his family to sit shiva. So Judd, wry sister Wendy, bitter older brother Paul, and lovable loser of a little brother Phillip return to their childhood home to be penned up with their larger-than-life therapist mother for seven days. All of them have complicated love lives, and everyone except Judd has a spouse or girlfriend who creates their own special drama—as if there weren’t enough already.
This book’s got it all: fistfights, grown men smoking in the boys’ room (and setting off the fire alarm), marital infidelity, darling children learning how to swear without saying the words, romantic confusion all over the place, and people sitting on the roof (and falling off it).
Through it all, Judd’s straight-man narration and dry sense of humor make the whole thing terribly funny, even when it’s terribly serious.
These people are so imperfect, a near-perfect book was practically guaranteed.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Thank You, Mr. President: A White House Notebook by A. Merriman Smith

Merriman Smith—what a voice! He had such a light touch; how often do you hear that about a White House correspondent? He was clever, he was funny, his phrasing makes me laugh out loud.

So, of course, for Merriman Smith, things ended badly. Doggone it.

Anyway, back to our story… Here Smith focuses on the presidencies of FDR and Truman, and we get a vivid look at the life of a correspondent during those (rather wild) days, back when average old citizens had access to the White House without having to request a tour 6 months in advance from their senator or representative. And it sounds like liquid lunches were just as common then as in the Mad Men days…

The chapter titled “The Boss” is a terrific portrait of FDR, which acknowledges that the man truly was inscrutable, but then proceeds to convey a clear picture of how Smith perceived him. And Smith was a keen observer of humans, so this character study is a fascinating thing to read.

Smith’s description of the day FDR died is gripping. It’s also strikingly incomplete.

First, the gripping part—Before even hearing the announcement, Smith had grabbed a phone because he knew, having been summoned to the Warm Springs Foundation, that the news was going to be big. His dialogue, calling Washington D.C., to report the news, is interspersed with William Hassett’s announcement of FDR’s death. When Smith screams, “Flash!” into the phone, it’s perfectly shocking. (I am grateful that journalists do what they do. And that they have the fortitude to do this work.)

Here’s the incomplete part—Nowhere does Smith mention that Lucy Mercer was in Warm Springs with FDR when he died. Smith was of that generation of journalists.

Smith is frank about his reaction to Truman’s assuming the presidency—stating that he found it difficult to think of him as the president at first. But he seems to have developed a true appreciation for him. He says that the biggest difference between Roosevelt and Truman could be summed up like this: “Franklin D. Roosevelt was for the people. Harry S. Truman is of the people.” (p. 218) I like that.

Smith went on to be one of the reporters present when JFK was assassinated.

Smith wrote another grand book called Merriman Smith’s Book of the Presidents, which is simply a splendid thing: behind-the-scenes and light in tone.

More Spies

Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy by Lindsay Moran

In stark contrast to Valerie Plame Wilson’s book Fair Game, with its somber tone, Blowing My Cover is a lighthearted romp. In Wilson’s book, she comments that she is surprised that Moran was able to include so much detail about CIA training in Blowing My Cover. I confess that I felt pleased (and, yes, a small bit smug) to think that I already had Moran’s book in my pile of books to read—and opened it the minute I finished Wilson’s book (which had consumed my full attention while I was reading it—this is a rare situation for me, so kudos to Wilson.)

Again, in contrast to Wilson’s story, Moran’s account of her days in the CIA had me laughing out loud occasionally. Moran is not shy about poking fun at herself, and there are many ridiculous situations there she recounts with great humor. Some of the scenes at the Farm, during her training, are downright hilarious. But she also describes the loneliness of keeping secrets, being separated from family and friends, and lying to protect her cover. A startlingly frank account of a remarkable young woman’s experience as a spy.

In honor of the inauguration this week

Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation’s Capital by Christopher Buckley

A pure delight. That’s what this book is. A delight. And if you watched the inauguration coverage this week, you saw some of the terrain it covers.

I listened to this book—it’s a little thing, only 3 CDs in length—and it’s nothing but good. I’ve actually listened to it three times now: once just for fun, once in preparation for a trip to Washington D.C., and one more time just because. Buckley confesses to being no expert on D.C., but he gathers the good stuff from the various books about the city and its history, and he wraps it up in the nicest little gift-wrapping and presents it to us. The book is set up as a guide to a few walking tours, and I found that I could “walk” along with him in my head, both before and after my recent trip to Washington. The “walking tour” format is really actually only a device that allows Buckley to string together the interesting facts and anecdotes related to various Washington sites—including some anecdotes about his days working in the OEOB, facts about the Capitol, the story of the building of the Washington Monument (and why it took so long), and the story of Pierre L’Enfant.

The only down side I found is that Buckley is, of course, a partisan, and he occasionally lapses into a brief, snarky comment about the left—which was out-of-step with the light tone of the rest of the book. It’s a minor thing, though, given his wonderful sense of humor and the joy he takes in his adopted city. He loves Washington, D.C.; I love Washington, D.C.; how can you not love Washington, D.C.?

Smart and Funny

Jackie by Josie by Caroline Preston

Josie is a young-ish mother whose work on her thesis has stalled out. Meanwhile, her husband Peter’s academic career is skyrocketing, and he appears to be on the verge of canoodling with a colleague. So Josie’s life is beginning a downward spiral when she seizes the opportunity to work as the researcher for a celebrity biographer who is preparing to write about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. While Peter is away due to his work, Josie and their adorable young son Henry move in with her mother. Since the new man in her mother’s life is a newly released felon, Josie has one more worry to add to her list. But when she begins her research, Josie discovers some surprising similarities between her life and that of Jackie Kennedy – and she is inspired by Jackie’s grace. If you like Elinor Lipman and Jeanne Ray, give Caroline Preston a try. This book stands out because of its light tone, charm, and occasional hilarious moments.

Who Knew Australia Was Hilarious?

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud, and this audiobook had me roaring on multiple occasions. My land, Bill Bryson can tell a tale; and my land, he can turn a phrase. I’m not a fan of the travelogue, so this book was a departure for me – and I’m so glad I went. Bryson’s good-spirited story of his travels in Australia is a hoot and a holler. The author reads the book himself, and his droll tone and occasional ecstatic exclamations add to the glory of this book. I’ve read and listened to other works by Bryson, but this one is my favorite.