My Top 10

Yikes! I own only 8 of them!
Ask any reader what her/his favorite book is, and you’ll likely get a panicked look. That is a hard question, people. 

But if someone asks me about my 10 favorite books, then I can get
all relaxed and happy and I start spooling them off. There’s so much less
pressure with a top 10 list.

… until I get to the last few titles, and then I have to really
start to think about it. Is this list balanced? Does this list represent me? (Is
it even actually meant to?) Why is there so much nonfiction? And so much testosterone? 
And a person can second-guess herself until the list-making
becomes a labored thing.
And I’m saying no, no, no to that.
So here’s my list, not completely thought through, and not
completely perfect. And very much a changing thing. (If you ask me tomorrow,
I’d make a substitution, sure as day).
In the order I thought of them:
Young Men and Fire
by Norman Maclean
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Run by Ann Patchett
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
The Beekeeper’s
by Laurie R. King
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
Anyone else a chronic list maker? If so, please list your top
10! (Or top 5. Or top 20…)

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.


The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
There’s something about Tim O’Brien’s books that makes me feel a very strong urge to re-read immediately. I think it’s all the ambiguity.
Plus, I believe him to be worthy of one of them MacArthur genius grants.
His books rock my world.
This is a book I’ve been avoiding for a very long time. I knew someday I’d read it… when I Was Ready. (Similarly, I once dodged Margaret Atwood for about a half-decade, until I determined I Was Ready.)
I’ve been thinking about Vietnam lately, for some reason—and my recent reading of War and viewing of Restrepo have had me thinking about war and soldiers—and so I figured now’s the time. I had the book already checked out from the library when I saw Sophisticated Dorkiness’s online book discussion announced, and I opened the book.
And, dear heaven, this book. This book.
This is a desert island book. It’s the kind of book a person can read and re-read and ponder and discuss and then return to it again.
Just reading the first chapter, also titled “The Things They Carried,” is enough to stop a person’s heart.
And “On the Rainy River” made me weep—the story of how the narrator nearly went to Canada to evade the draft, how he was helped by a stoic older man near the border who feigned ignorance of the younger man’s situation, and why he returned to his home so that he could be sent to war. The silence of those men. It gets me.
Then, the chapters “Speaking of Courage” and “Notes” stunned me so much I had to put the book down so I could let them sink in. (I just wandered around the house in a daze.) The first of those chapters seems like a gently melancholy soldier-returned-home story, and the latter pulls the rug out from under you. But in the fairest possible way. (Not all authors do that action fairly. This guy does.)
This book feels true. Even though I don’t know jack about war. But I trust O’Brien when he writes, even though he tells us that some of the stories are not precisely true—that they’re versions made more true by tweaking some of the details. And I get that. I do.
There are so many reasons this book is on track to be a classic.
But don’t listen to me. Here’s Julia Keller, who can actually tell it.
I swear to God, just reading her article about this book made me get weepy.
O’Brien’s book not only made me weepy, but it made me stand still and stare. I don’t do that so very often.

I cannot say enough good things…

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins

OK, so I already confessed a general admiration of Michael Collins.

That was before I read his book.

Now I am quite simply unbearably fond of him.

The man can write. He’s smart, he’s funny, he can turn a phrase, he’s an astronaut! Dear heaven.

And here he is (2nd from left), accompanied (from left) by Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and some jowly guy I don’t recognize.

(Photo credit: NASA)

I took this book on vacation, began reading it on the plane, and Could Not Stop. Then, did the unthinkable: bought a copy at the Air & Space gift shop. Even though I had a library copy with me on the trip! Even though I do not buy books; I borrow them!

Here’s why this book is fabulous and worth dropping $16 on:

First, of all, the writing is simply lovely. It’s conversational, easy, and smart.

Second, the tone is perfect: self-deprecating, humorous, and upbeat.

For example:
“It is perhaps a pity that my eyes have seen more than my brain has been able to assimilate or evaluate, but like the Druids at Stonehenge, I have attempted to bring order out of what I have observed, even if I have not understood it fully.

Unfortunately, my feelings cannot be conveyed by the clever arrangement of stone pillars. I am condemned to the use of words. I know, because after the flight of Gemini 10, I tried to use paint, and it was a total flop.” (p. 474)

And third, the subject matter can’t be beat. For the love of Mike (OK, pun intended), he was on the first mission to land humans on the moon! And before that, he was a test pilot. And in between, he flew on one of the Gemini missions. This book is packed with anecdotes and details that give us a window into the astronauts’ world.

But truly, it’s the man’s voice. It comes across, loud and clear. No, quiet and clear.

And so… a big event has just happened here. I’ve added this one to my “Top 10 Favorite Book” list.

And it ain’t just me: Harry Hurt III (author of the fine book For All Mankind) mentions Carrying the Fire as the most poetic book written by an astronaut.

S0 — here’s Michael Collins earlier this year, speaking at Air & Space (the museum where he served as director when the museum opened in 1976)…

Best Book I’ve Read So Far This Year

Run by Ann Patchett

I’ve been in a fiction drought for a bit, and this book was like fresh rain. It begins with a cherished family heirloom: a statue of a saint, which closely resembles Bernadette Doyle, wife of Boston mayor Bernard Doyle. The couple has one biological son, Sullivan, and two adopted sons, Tip and Teddy (yes, named for those famous Massachusetts politicians). The family is powerfully Irish Catholic, and they do not blink at adopting Tip and Teddy, who are African American. When the children are still young, Bernadette dies, leaving Bernard to raise the boys on his own. While Sullivan turns out to be quite a disappointment to the family(though they will not admit it), studious Tip attends Harvard and falls in love with the study of fish, and tenderhearted Teddy seems destined for the priesthood – following in the footsteps of an adored uncle (who may just be performing miracles from his nursing home bed). Then, one night after a political lecture, Tip is nearly run down by a car, and he is saved by a woman named Tennessee, who throws herself into harm’s way to keep him safe – and who is his biological mother. Tennessee and her young daughter Kenya have been benevolently stalking Tip and Teddy for years, it turns out. The family circle has just expanded in a most unexpected way… In the end, it is a book, very simply, about family love. I kept feeling surprised at the lushness of the detail Patchett includes in this story – it almost seemed like too much (she should save some of this good stuff for the next book!) – but then it turned out to be perfect. The title also makes a person think about the ways each character runs – whether they run as athletes, run for elected office, or run away… This is a book I’ll be re-reading for the sheer joy of it.

This One Stands the Test of Time

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

The Westing Game is, hands down, the book I’ve re-read the most often. Since age 10, I’m guessing I’ve re-read this book about once every 2 years. And it’s still magical. Plus, with every reading, I pick up on a new clue the author dropped very cleverly into the story. It’s a puzzle mystery of the finest sort. Here’s the set-up: A wonderfully diverse and quirky group of people receive invitations to move into a beautiful new high-rise building along the shores of Lake Michigan. While they appear to have little in common with one another, the 16 new residents all soon are summoned to the Westing mansion, where they learn they are all potential heirs to the Westing fortune… if they can solve the puzzle Sam Westing has devised for them. They are divided into unlikely-matched teams of two, and they tackle the clues they have been given. Young Turtle is perhaps the main character, and she’s the kind of person a reader can grow up with; she was a good friend when I was 10, and I still like her today. Why can’t all books be this good?

Watergate, 36 Years Later

All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Even for non-political-junkies, this is one thrilling book. It unfolds like a great detective novel. I’ve read it 4 times now at least, and each time I’m stunned by the addictiveness of the storytelling. Bernstein and Woodward narrate their investigation from its inception, when the Watergate break-in truly appeared to be nothing but a “third-rate burglary” – and the 2 reporters didn’t much like one another. Plus, the story of Deep Throat, sprinkled throughout the book, is tantalizing. When W. Mark Felt was revealed to be Deep Throat in 2005, it was almost sad to lose the sense of mystery. But Bob Woodward’s publication of The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat helped soothe the pain; it’s a great story.

This Mystery Novel Should Win Major Awards

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

When I come across a mystery this good, I feel like throwing a party. This is the first in a series narrated by Sheriff Walt Longmire, a gruff widower, Vietnam veteran, and good man. He’s just going through the motions in his life, when the murder of a high school student jolts him. The young man had been accused, along with some friends, of abusing a disabled girl. At the trial, they were dealt easy sentences and walked free. Now it appears that someone is out for revenge. Walt’s deputy is Vic, a smart, tough gal whom he knows he’s lucky to have hired. Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s lifelong best friend, becomes a suspect in the case, which introduces some unusual tension into their friendship. Even so, Henry sets out to wake Walt from his stupor, by starting him on an exercise program and attitude realignment. In this great debut, even the secondary characters leap off the page. I’m ready to move to Wyoming. The sheriff’s lovably curmudgeonly voice and wonderful dry wit make me want to spend more time with this fellow.

Cry, Cry, Cry

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

A heartbreaking, haunting book about smokejumpers’ deaths in a wildfire in Montana, written by a brilliant writer who knew he was nearing the end of his own life. This is the first book I began re-reading within days after reading it the first time. And it was equally devastating the second time around (and in subsequent re-readings). Maclean’s understated writing can make a person weep. For the full experience, listen to Richard Shindell’s definitive interpretation of James Keelaghan’s song “Cold Missouri Waters” on the CD Cry Cry Cry.