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?

Hamilton: the read-along

(photo credit: Steve Jurvetson, 
Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
3 words: lush, insider information, exuberant
Oh my land, guys. This book did nothing but bliss me out.
So, like half of America, I’m all hooked on Hamilton. The lyrics run through my head most of my waking hours. And I like it. 
This gorgeous book puts the lyrics on the page,and then accompanies them with gorgeous full-color, full-page photographs of the musical — of the actors on stage, and the actors offstage.
And there are notes along the sides of the pages by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who reveals some of his creative choices and inspirations. 
And even better, the pages of lyrics are interspersed with short essays about various aspects of the musical and its creation. This might’ve been my favorite part of all, because it was all about the collaboration and teamwork that went into creating this wonderful thing.
And I love me some serious teamwork.
There are few things that fill me with greater delight.
So…. this book is all kinds of things in one.
It looks like a coffee table book, but also like a serious tome.
And it’s lyrics, but also a paean to the creative process.
And it’s picture-packed, and the pages are nice and thick, so the experience of reading it… it’s luxurious.
I’m just sorry I finished reading it, ’cause I wish it’d gone on forever. 

So, my fellow Hamiltonheads, what lyrics are running through your head today?

A Gentleman in Moscow delights a lady in the U.S.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
3 words: gracious, engaging, triumphant

I was pretty sure I’d love this book, given the way I felt about Amor Towles’s debut novel, The Rules of Civility.

And then when I heard him speak about this new novel at BEA, that completely clinched it. (And I spoke to him, and he was gracious!)

So when I actually started reading, it shouldn’t have surprised me — but did — that I loved it so very much.
And all of these things happened despite the fact that I don’t like novels set in Russia. And I don’t like novels of political imprisonment. And I’m not all that very much into historical fiction, though I wish I were.
And this book is all of those things, but it won me over almost immediately.
Here’s how it did it…
Count Alexander Rostov is the central figure in this book, and the dude is witty, cultured, good-humored, and positive to a degree that’s seriously impressive.
If there’s anyone on earth who would not like this man, I hope I never meet that person.
So we have a delightful main character whose charm and humor and approach to life create an atmosphere that’s like breathing fresh air.
Then you plunk him down in a luxury hotel in Moscow, where he’s been ordered to live out his days. In a tiny attic room.
And so it begins…  this story of a man whose life has been turned into a miniaturized version of itself, who responds by expanding his world within those hotel walls and creating a family from those who work and stay there.
And then there’s the author’s writing style, which perfectly matches its subject. It’s sophisticated and wry and urbane and witty, and it’s smooth and smart and polished, and it makes a person feel very comfortable. The author is like a fine host who caters to his guests.
I read most of this book on the flight home from Reykjavik, and I truly felt like I was soaring. 
So now I’m doing that thing, where I dart around telling everyone about this book. (If I see you in person, prepare yourself. This book’s coming up in conversation.)
Fellow readers… what book are you pushing these days? 

Me & Ben improve ourselves (mostly he does that, while I listen)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

3 words: literary, straightforward, ambitious

Before listening to his autobiography, here’s what I could’ve told you about Benjamin Franklin:

  • That electricity thing with a kite
  • That quest for self-perfection
  • Philadelphia boy
  • Dude went to France
  • Poor Richard’s Almanack
  • That really bad hair


As I listened, though, I remembered what I’d known and forgotten:

  • Founded one of the first lending libraries in America
  • Worked as a printer
  • Known for his writing (oh, thank goodness!)
  • Self-made man


And I learned things I never knew:

  • Dude was a wise, wily politician
  • Not into church-going
  • Founded a fire department in Philadelphia


I found his autobiography a rather uplifting reading experience. Granted, his life could be considered a success, but he describes his mistakes with honesty and humility. He owns that crap.

And his writing is clean and surprisingly straightforward for its day. I was prepared for all kinds of flowery speech, but he preserved us from that fate. (This might be one of the reasons this book is still so widely read.)

My favorite section was the part where he describes his plan to become a better person by observing the 13 virtues he identified and worked on, one by one: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

Oh, I liked this part a lot.

I had all kinds of happy little flashbacks to reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Her formula for happiness is “being happier requires you to thinking about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

It appeals to me so strongly, that “atmosphere of growth” stuff. And Franklin’s life embodied that concept.

So hanging out with him while he told his life story was pretty darn inspiring. While I scrambled eggs, he described figuring out how to set up a fire department and save lives, all while living a life of frugal, tranquil sincerity.

So yeah, inspiring and enjoyable. Glad I read it.


Self-… what?

The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons fron
Extraordinary Lives
by Katie
OK, so here’s me,
reading any self-help book: “Profound! So simple, yet so meaningful…” 
Then, one week
later: “…What was that book about, again?”
So yeah. I’m
running true to form here.
I listened to the audiobook, and I liked it plenty. Couric contacted a whole passel of
famous people and asked them to write a short essay on the best advice they
ever received. 
And some of the essays are actually great. And a few of them I
had to fast-forward through because they were so self-congratulatory I wanted
to hurl. But most of them
contained some darn good advice.
Which I promptly
But here are the
few things that I jotted down in time, so they weren’t lost forever.
“Be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”—General David Petraeus 
[I’ll refrain from
commenting about his personal ethics, though I’m sorely tempted to do so.]
Basically, this one’s about learning new things and taking risks and being OK
with the discomfort of trying something unfamiliar. And I’ve been getting some practice in this realm, and I like it.     
This one made me
gasp: “Treat yourself as well as you treat others.”—Gloria Steinem. 
Yeah, some
of us have some work to do there.
And here’s my
favorite line, from Couric herself: “We have an obligation to find and give
joy.” As responsibilities go, that’s one I can happily embrace.

Definitely the Right Stuff

Amidst the book geek’s ravings, this post also includes 3 quizzes. Here’s the first…

Quiz 1: Name these Mercury 7 astronauts.*

(photo credit: NASA)

Recently I spent a weekend re-reading Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, forsaking all other books.

It was one of the best reading experiences of my adult life.

’Twas my second time reading The Right Stuff, and I think it was even better this time around. Last time I read it, it launched me (ha! space pun!) on a space reading kick that’s lasted ever since. But when I first read it, back in 2007, I didn’t know much about most of the people in the book. Pete Conrad, Gus Grissom… who were they?

Well, now I’ve read about those fellows, and I’ve read John Glenn’s autobiography (and I just bought a copy of Chuck Yeager’s, but I haven’t cracked it yet—thus bolstering one of Wolfe’s points about the astronauts getting all the glory while the other pilots were treated more or less like chopped liver) and lots of other space books.

But this one… this one is the Thing.
The first time I read it, and the second time I read it, this book had me at page 11. Here’s the sentence that just killed me: “And the bridge coats came out and they sang about those in peril in the air and the bridge coats were put away, and the little Indians remarked that the departed was a swell guy and a brilliant student of flying; a little too much of a student, in fact; he hadn’t bothered to look out the window at the real world soon enough.” (p. 11)
It’s the third time the bridge coats are evoked, and those fine bridge coats mean death. They’re funeral clothes, and the image of those young pilots hauling out their best uniform coats and then storing them again, then pulling them out again… it gets a person, you know?
Wolfe is a gorgeous stylist—an utter genius at putting together a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter. This book is a masterpiece.
And the thing is, it’s so darn readable!
Often, when people speak of a writer’s gorgeous writing, it seems they’re talking about writing that is all lush and overblown and complicated and hard to read. This book is not like that. It’s easy to read, it’s a pleasure to read, and it just flows. But it’s not at all simple
While the writing is stunning, the thing about this book that makes me love it is the sense of heroism. And the way the actual pilots and astronauts were horrified by such a word.
For example: After Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, journalists descended upon Muroc Field. “The real problem was that reporters violated the invisible walls of the fraternity. They blurted out questions and spoke boorish words about… all the unspoken things!—about fear and bravery (they would say the words!) and how you felt at such-and-such a moment! It was obscene!” (p. 47)
I love and adore this.
Quiz 2: Who is in the cockpit of the P-51 Mustang in the picture on the left? Hint: He’s the guy wearing the tan shirt and white cap in the picture on the right.**

(photo credit: My dad, who took the pictures because he’s hella tall. But I was there, too, back in 1992, and saw, with my very own eyes, Chuck Yeager flying an airplane and then riding down the flight line in a convertible!! I know: Lucky, right?)
(Oops. Just gave away the answer to Quiz 2 in its photo credit)
So we’ll try another one…

Quiz 3: The Mercury 7 again! Name ’em!***

(photo credit: NASA)
And now, just because he makes my heart throb:
Gratuitous photo of John Glenn, after being picked up by the USS Noa after splashdown in Friendship 7
(photo credit: NASA)
Wolfe also describes the way grown men—hardened men: police officers along the parade route—would weep upon seeing John Glenn after his successful Earth orbit. Wolfe (correctly, I think) chalks it up to the notion of the single combat warrior: the designation of a single man to represent his tribe in a fight to the death against a single warrior from another tribe. We simple beings tend to get overwhelmed by such things.

And I get it. I still get choked up every single time I hear Scott Carpenter say, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” as the countdown begins. (I actually can’t even think of those words without my face crumpling up.)

The only other things that can create the same feeling of ecstasy are visiting the National Air & Space Museum (where I have been known to do the following: a) stand with my mouth hanging open in sheer awe; b) blink rapidly and look at the floor in order to avoid embarrassing crying-for-joy episodes; and c) smile so broadly my face nearly cracks) and the spectacular documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (to which I am fully addicted. I’ve watched it at least 1o times, and I’ve only just begun.)

So, here it is. A book with that kind of power, it’s going on my Top 10 list. And now I own a copy, so I can rest easy, knowing it’s under my roof and available to re-read at a moment’s notice.
And in these ways, I know life is good. 

* Quiz 1 answers—Back row, l-r: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper; Front row, l-r: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter

** Quiz 2 answer—Just in case you missed the way I spoiled the quiz by answering it in the photo credit note, that dude is Chuck Yeager himself!

*** Quiz 3 answers—l-r: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton
If you named ’em all, you have earned serious bragging rights. Truly. Also: Welcome to my club; you’re now a certified space geek.

This book is not about astronauts.

Apollo: Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
This book = Triumph of the Geeks
There are hardly any astronauts in this book, which may seem weird. But.
There are tons and tons of engineers and such-like people. And they’re not nearly as exciting as astronauts, yet still this was a good book. So: happy days!
This is the book in which I first learned truly to appreciate Christ(opher Columbus) Kraft and Glynn Lunney. In most of the Apollo documentaries I’ve seen, Gene Kranz is the talking head representing the flight directors (the dudes referred to simply as “Flight” during a mission), and Glynn Lunney gets short shrift, poor fella. And Chris Kraft was the grand poobah, and here we get to know about him. And, speak of the devil, here he is:

(Oh, please note: Big news: John Glenn Himself introduces this segment, and he is cute as a button.)

(Ooo ooo oooo!! One more thing: The guys pictured in the frame right this very second are the Apollo 11 crew: Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. Armstrong is just to the right of the bearded fellow.)

In the first few pages of this book, I knew I would like it, because the writing is lovely: it doesn’t get in your way, and it just purrs along nicely. When this happens, I know the author knows what he/she is doing; I actually stop and notice—and I appreciate it.
So, even though the astronauts are sort of afterthoughts in this book (and I love those astronauts), this book really makes the guys (and the one or two women) on the ground seem heroic, too.

All Apollo, All the Time

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

While watching HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon on DVD (initial reaction: “Rats, it’s not a documentary!”—then, after one episode: “This is fantastic!”) I saw that the series was based in part on this book. So I hauled it home from the library and dove in. And stayed there a while—this book has 680 pages, if you count the appendices, notes, and index. And in this book’s case, 680 pages is a good thing.

One might think, “A 680-page tome on the Apollo missions… [yawn]” but boy, would one be wrong, Wrong, WRONG.

Chaikin talked with the astronauts, with their families, and with others at NASA, and the result is a book that focuses on the human experience of preparing to go to—and then actually visiting—the moon. While I have a certain appreciation for the technical whiz-bang wonders of getting humans into space and onto the lunar surface and returning them “safely to Earth” (as JFK put it), I confess I never crave the experience of reading a technical book on any subject. So this book, with its narrative tone and human-centric approach, was the right choice for me.

Though, speaking of technical manuals… While I was reading A Man on the Moon, this little news item, which includes three of my favorite things—libraries, the Smithsonian, and the space program—appeared on The Face*, and I got all excited. And then, shortly thereafter, this fine thing also appeared on The Face. But I digress…

Someone described A Man on the Moon as “picking up where The Right Stuff left off,” (Oh! It’s Pete Conrad, on the back cover of the book!) and I think that’s a fair statement. (Though do the Gemini missions get lost in the shuffle, perhaps? Those poor overlooked dudes.)

I shall conclude with an ode to Michael Collins, whom I believe to be a perfectly lovely human. He seems to glow with affection for all that surrounds him, and I just cannot resist that. Just a couple of Apollo 11 quotes from the man: “Beautiful burn, SPS, I love you, you are a jewel!” and “You cats take it easy on the lunar surface.” Of him, Chaikin writes, “To reporters faced with Armstrong’s inscrutability, Aldrin’s technical relentlessness, Collins was a breath of fresh air. He fielded their queries with good humor; his face seemed to say that yes, these are interesting questions.” (p. 175) What a beautiful human being. And if, 40 years after the big event, Michael Collins chooses to express an occasional burst of discontent with the world of celebrity, I’m impressed by how un-grumpy he remains. And how lucky he considers himself.

And I’ll complete my happy talk here by thanking Andrew Chaikin for writing this fine book. It’s a world unto itself, and I’m glad I spent so many happy hours there. I gave it one of them five-star reviews on Shelfari and Good Reads; that doesn’t happen every day.

*That’s how I call Facebook.

The Good Guys

Tilt a Whirl by Chris Grabenstein

I defy any woman to read this book and not fall in love with John Ceepak. But let’s back up a step— This fantabulous mystery debut is narrated by young Danny Boyle, a townie who assists with part-time summer policing. Ceepak, his partner, is the real deal: not only a full-time officer, but a man who lives by a Code. So when a young girl runs down the street, screaming that her father has been shot at the local amusement park, Ceepak is the natural lead officer on the case. Boyle, whose youthful, somewhat cynical, voice is a delight, shadows Ceepak and offers occasional insight that his hometown background provides. Theirs is a tourist town, and murder does not sit well with the city fathers. As the case becomes more complex, it also begins to reek of a conspiracy. And when it all comes together, it is even uglier than Ceepak, haunted by his past demons, could have imagined. I’m darting to the library to check out the next book.

He Was Underrated

Truman by David McCullough

I have no problem with biographers admiring their subject. McCullough clearly thinks the world of Harry S. Truman, and I can understand why. Truman was the real deal: a great politician who was also a great – and good – man. He worked hard, failed, succeeded, used great intelligence and common sense, and made tough choices. He loved his wife and considered her his sweetheart all his life. He inspired great devotion from his staff. And throughout everything, he remained cheerful! (Though he vented by writing very angry letters he never sent. Thank goodness he did something; otherwise he’d be a bit too good to be true.) When it comes to Truman, I think the more we know about him, the better we like him and the more we respect him. And here, McCullough gives us 1117 pages of Truman, so by the end, you can’t help but think well of him. He was, as they say, a very uncommon common man. If you cannot get enough of McCullough on Truman, or if you want the very brief version, check out the Truman Presidential Library’s podcast of a speech delivered by David McCullough on June 13, 2007.