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
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
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!)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Amidst the book geek’s ravings, this post also includes 3 quizzes. Here’s the first…
Quiz 1: Name these Mercury 7 astronauts.
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.
It was 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
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.
OK, time for 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 2nd photo below.
So let’s try one more…
Quiz 3: Name this astronaut.
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 10 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 answer— John Glenn, after being picked up by the USS Noa after splashdown in Friendship 7
If you named ’em all, you
have earned serious bragging rights. Truly. Also: Welcome to my club; you’re a
certified space geek.