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.)

Why I love Brene Brown

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown

3 words: narrative, thoughtful, engaging

Oh my goodness. Brene Brown.

I seriously can’t say enough good things.

When I want to feel both encouraged and challenged, she’s my go-to writer. For me, she appeared out of nowhere just when I needed her research to help me out.

And life just keeps offering ways to use the ideas she puts out there.

When she spoke at the American Library Association conference, she talked about and directly demonstrated the concepts in Braving the Wilderness, and she brought us along with her:

“People are hard to hate close up. Move in.

Speak truth to BS. Be civil.

Hold hands. With strangers.

Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.”

We were all singing together and it was beautiful as all heck.

So she’s walking the walk and inspiring others to do the same. It’s hard work, y’all. (I sometimes slip into Brene Brown speak when I’m thinking about her.)

But there’s such warmth and humor here, too. This part made me smile out loud:

“After fifteen years of this work, I can confidently say that stories of pain and courage almost always include two things: praying and cussing. Sometimes at the exact same time.”  (pp. 24-25)

She spoke about that at ALA, too — the fact that some organizations ask her not to cuss, and others ask her not to mention God. But she’s gonna do both, doggone it.

It’s hard stuff, this living a good and decent life. And she makes us realize that to do it really, really well is super hard and super rewarding.

Give this book a whirl if you like…books that explain society and challenge us to be our best selves, reconnecting with yourself and others, cultivating integrity, showing up as our true selves

What book or author showed up in your life just when you needed them most?

 

 

 

 

News of the World: the news is good

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

3 words: thoughtful, direct, touching

The book I keep recommending to everyone I see? It’s this one.

The primary reason is: characters. The two main characters are fascinating, decent, complex humans, and their developing friendship completely absorbed me.

We’re looking at historical fiction here, with a touch of Western. One character is an elderly widower who travels around Texas, reading the news of the day to audiences. And the other is a 10 year old girl, abducted by the Kiowa four years earlier and now being returned to her family against her will.

And they hit the road together.

There are relatively few pages here (it’s only 240 pages long), but there’s so much story.

It’s quiet, it’s dramatic; there’s introspection, there’s action.

A perfect gem of a book. Get near me, and I’m handing you a copy.

Give this book a whirl if you like… intergenerational friendships, well-chosen words, 19th-century America, intersection of cultures, journalism, Native American culture, widowers, Civil War veterans

What book is making you borderline obnoxious these days?

Her hard-working honor

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

3 words: smart, introspective, revealing

I’m in serious audiobook withdrawal these days. I just finished listening to Sonia Sotomayor’s marvelous memoir, and I completely fell into it.

Way back in my pre-blogging days, I read Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day, and it had a similar effect. Though, as I recall that book, it focused primarily on Sandra Day O’Connor’s youth.

Sotomayor’s book covers her childhood, but it also brings her story into her middle adult years, concluding shortly after she became a judge. And, as in Jill Ker Conway’s first two books (The Road from Coorain and True North), I loved reading about the arc of her life and education. I’m a total sucker for that kind of story.

But the thing I loved most about Sotomayor’s memoir was her honesty. And also her humanity.

Here she is, having risen from a childhood in the projects to a seat on the high court, and she’s comfortable enough with herself to reveal the self-doubt she feels whenever she tackles something new. It makes her so relatable, even though her extraordinary work ethic makes her seem super-human.

And she describes how those two things go hand in hand: her insecurity about her ability to perform well drives her to work even harder to make sure she’s prepared.

It’s a heck of an effective formula.

When I read reviews of this book earlier, I focused on the hard parts: her alcoholic father’s death when she was young, her childhood diagnosis of diabetes, and her family’s financial hardship. And I thought: sad.

And she’s candid about all of these things, but people, she turns them into a triumph.

And she’s so darn likeable while she’s doing so. Oh my gosh.

Thank you — very much! — to JoAnn of Lakeside Musing for recommending this book in her Nonfiction November Supreme Court reading list. Your suggestion spurred me to read this book, and I am seriously hugely grateful.

So my friends… What’s the most inspiring true story you’ve read this year?