Book Review – Rocket Men

My brother recommended this book to me a couple of months ago and since I have a special interest in astronauts and the space program, I picked it up. Rocket Men by Robert Kurson tells the story of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to reach the moon (not land on it, but to orbit it).

Kurson also wrote Shadow Divers which I had ready many years ago while doing some wreck diving off the Jersey shore. I didn’t review that book, but it is a well-researched story of the discovery and identification of a sunken U-boat off the coast of New Jersey that inspired the television show Deep Sea Detectives.

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Here is the blurb:

By August 1968, the American space program was in danger of failing in its two most important objectives: to land a man on the Moon by President Kennedy’s end-of-decade deadline, and to triumph over the Soviets in space. With its back against the wall, NASA made an almost unimaginable leap: It would scrap its usual methodical approach and risk everything on a sudden launch, sending the first men in history to the Moon—in just four months. And it would all happen at Christmas.

In a year of historic violence and discord—the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—the Apollo 8 mission would be the boldest, riskiest test of America’s greatness under pressure. In this gripping insider account, Robert Kurson puts the focus on the three astronauts and their families: the commander, Frank Borman, a conflicted man on his final mission; idealistic Jim Lovell, who’d dreamed since boyhood of riding a rocket to the Moon; and Bill Anders, a young nuclear engineer and hotshot fighter pilot making his first space flight.

Drawn from hundreds of hours of one-on-one interviews with the astronauts, their loved ones, NASA personnel, and myriad experts, and filled with vivid and unforgettable detail, Rocket Men is the definitive account of one of America’s finest hours. In this real-life thriller, Kurson reveals the epic dangers involved, and the singular bravery it took, for mankind to leave Earth for the first time—and arrive at a new world.

This book told both the stories of the astronauts and their families, which was an approach I hadn’t seen before in similar non-fiction. The narrative jumps around a lot historically, weaving the imminent mission with the background of each astronaut. But this approach worked, and I never had trouble following the story.

While it would probably help to have some basic knowledge of the early space program before reading this book, it isn’t essential. I already knew the background of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Many of the names tossed around in the book were also already familiar to me, but maybe to someone less knowledgeable of the history, it might be confusing.

I enjoyed this book and found that it gave me a new appreciation for Apollo 8. I hadn’t realized how many obstacles had to be overcome to launch this flight and how it really was the mission that won the Russia/US space race more than the actual moon landing.

Have you read much non-fiction about the space program? Let me know in the comments above. Here are a couple of other books that I would recommend on the topic if you want to learn more: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz, and Red Moon Rising by Matthew Brzezinski.

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Book Review – Catch and Kill

When Harvey Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator amid the #MeToo movement, I had followed the news, of course, but I didn’t know the whole story. I don’t remember how I came across this book, but I am intrigued by stories of investigative journalism. Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow tells how the author went from working on a routine assignment to uncovering the stories of women who had been frightened into silence by an organized system of intimidation by those in power.

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Here is the blurb:

In 2017, a routine network television investigation led Ronan Farrow to a story only whispered about: one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers was a predator, protected by fear, wealth, and a conspiracy of silence. As Farrow drew closer to the truth, shadowy operatives, from high-priced lawyers to elite war-hardened spies, mounted a secret campaign of intimidation, threatening his career, following his every move and weaponizing an account of abuse in his own family.

All the while, Farrow and his producer faced a degree of resistance that could not be explained – until now. And a trail of clues revealed corruption and cover-ups from Hollywood, to Washington, and beyond.

This is the untold story of the exotic tactics of surveillance and intimidation deployed by wealthy and connected men to threaten journalists, evade accountability and silence victims of abuse – and it’s the story of the women who risked everything to expose the truth and spark a global movement.

Both a spy thriller and a meticulous work of investigative journalism, Catch and Kill breaks devastating new stories about the rampant abuse of power – and sheds far-reaching light on investigations that shook the culture.

In a dramatic account of violence and espionage, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Ronan Farrow exposes serial abusers and a cabal of powerful interests hell-bent on covering up the truth, at any cost.

I listened to this book in audio format, read by the author. He gives a thorough account of his journey to discover and document the widespread sexual harassment amid the movie and television industry, but that’s only part of the story. I was only halfway through the book when I thought that he had gathered plenty of information. What else could the book be about?

The second part tells about how his work was suppressed and how major networks shied away from running the story. After everything he went through, I’m actually surprised that he wasn’t scared off the story in the same manner that those in power suppressed the voices of any women who dared make accusations against them.

In the end, The New Yorker published the story and won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for Farrow’s reporting (shared with The New York Times).

Have you read much non-fiction or stories of investigative journalism? Let me know in the comments.

Read more of my book reviews here.

Book Review – Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

I don’t remember where I heard about this book, but I picked this up as part of my attempt to read non-fiction from time to time. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein is a fascinating look at how people learn and apply skills in fields stretching from chess to music to science. I listened to this as an audiobook, which seems to be my preference for non-fiction in particular.

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Here is the blurb:

What’s the most effective path to success in any domain? It’s not what you think.
Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. But a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule.

David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists. He discovered that in most fields–especially those that are complex and unpredictable–generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.

Provocative, rigorous, and engrossing, Range makes a compelling case for actively cultivating inefficiency. Failing a test is the best way to learn. Frequent quitters end up with the most fulfilling careers. The most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepening their knowledge in a single area. As experts silo themselves further while computers master more of the skills once reserved for highly focused humans, people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will increasingly thrive.

I enjoyed this book for both the concepts and the stories. The author has clearly done his research and I learned some fascinating history in this book, particularly in the section on music.

The variety of fields that the author explores is another reason why I enjoyed reading this book. He brings in examples from sports, music, chess, science, art, writing, medicine, and engineering, showing how people with a wider range of experiences can sometimes make the discoveries that a more narrowly-focused expert cannot see.

The audiobook was easy to listen to and nothing in this book is too dense for the audio format. This was an easy non-fiction book to follow and one of my favorite books so far this year.

Have you read anything by David Epstein? Please let me know in the comments.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Challenger: An American Tragedy: The Inside Story From Launch Control

I have trying to get back to my stack of space-themed non-fiction books recently. This one was a short read that I picked up on sale last year and I read it on my Kindle. Challenger: An American Tragedy: The Inside Story From Launch Control is written by Hugh Harris, a journalist who worked as “the voice of launch control” for NASA.

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Here is the blurb:

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Seventy-three seconds after launch, the fiery breach of a solid motor joint caused a rupture of the propellant tanks, and a stunned nation watched as flames engulfed the craft, killing all seven crew members on board. It was Hugh Harris, “the voice of launch control,” whom audiences across the country heard counting down to lift-off on that fateful day.

With over fifty years of experience with NASA’s missions, Harris presents the story of the Challenger tragedy as only an insider can. With by-the-second accounts of the spacecraft’s launch and a comprehensive overview of the ensuing investigation, Harris gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the devastating accident that grounded the shuttle fleet for over two years. This book tells the whole story of the Challenger’s tragic legacy.

While this book was short, it was also hard to read. I was one of many school children watching the launch live in my classroom when the tragedy unfolded. Up until that day I had wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. At only eight years old, I didn’t understand the risks of exploration and spaceflight. After the accident, I abandoned that dream (until later, but that’s a different tale).

The author gives a good overview of the events around the disaster and the investigations that followed. He doesn’t go into exhaustive detail, but just enough to relate the relevant information. The author focuses more on the dry details and less on the emotional side of the tragedy, so while those human aspects are all included, the way it was written made it easier to read than it might have been.

Next up in my space-themed non-fiction, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson. What other non-fiction books about space exploration have you read? Let me know in the comments!

Read more of my reviews here.

Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I read this book last year and it was one of my favorites for 2019. If you’re looking for something to read that discusses a medical subject that is not related to pandemics at all, then this might be a good one to pick up right now. You can help support this blog by clicking on my Amazon affiliate links.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a journalistic investigation into the origin of the HeLa cell line used in a wide range of medical and biological research.

This book relates the authors search for the origin of the cells and the person behind it. While attempts had previously been made, Skloot was able to finally reach an understanding with the remaining family members to discover the story behind the cells.

Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American women who worked as a tobacco farmer and sought help at Johns Hopkins when she developed cervical cancer. During the course of her treatment, a doctor took a sample of her cells and then proceeded to use them in ongoing research without her informed consent. Mrs. Lacks’ cells were the first that were able to be sustained and grown repeatedly and finally allowed cell culture technology to flourish, leading to numerous discoveries and therapies, even today.

This books delves into the ethics of medical research and informed consent and looks at how our current system for this research has developed. At the time when Henrietta’s cells were collected, these ethical concerns had never been considered. Part this story also concerns racism and how society took advantage of African Americans through medical research.

Henrietta’s remaining family finally learned that her cells had been propagated and sold by biological supply companies, earning a vast amount of profit for everyone except her family. This resentment made it difficult for the author to communicate with them, but she worked to overcome their fears and much of the book is about her relationship with them.

I listened to the audiobook version of this and it was a great book to read and one of my favorites from 2019.

Read more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Bad Blood

This book was not on my radar at all until I watched the Netflix documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. This was the first I had heard of Elizabeth Holmes and her start-up blood testing company, Theranos.

If you don’t know the story already, Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of college at Stanford and started her own company, Theranos. The premise behind the start-up was that they claimed to have a new technology that would allow patients to have multiple blood tests performed using only a finger-stick to procure a tiny amount of blood. No more scary needles!

It turns out that Holmes sold the idea to investors and to customers well before actually having that technology. John Carreyrou is the investigative journalist with the Wall Street Journal who uncovered and disclosed Theranos’ massive fraud.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou is the story of how Holmes built Theranos and how the company managed to lead on venture capitalists, board members, and customers such as Walgreens and Safeway for several years. I enjoyed this book and found the practices that Theranos engaged in to be shocking and despicable. Much of the information appears to have come from former employees who realized that the company wasn’t going about things the right way.

I did feel like the middle of the book became a bit too bogged down in names and tales from one employee after another, to the point that the details began to blur and felt unnecessary to repeat.

The final downfall of Theranos was fascinating and, given Holmes’ charisma and connections, it is somewhat surprising that she couldn’t continue the charade for even longer.

I listened to this book in audio format and found the narrator (Will Damron) to be easy to listen to and understand. If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary, this book is still worth a read, giving far more detail that it was possible to have in the movie. Even knowing how it ended, I found myself entranced by the company’s downfall. To pick up a copy, follow my Amazon affiliate link here.

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Book Review – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

This book is outside of my normal genre reads, but I picked it up on a whim one day last month. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo is a guide to help declutter and tidy your home. It has soared to prominence and recently inspired a Netflix series.

This book lays out a method to approach your belongings to help determine which ones to keep and how to organize them to have a more tidy living space. The concept is a simple one, but the author lays out her thoughts in a way that helps to focus the reader upon choosing which items to keep rather than which ones should be disposed of.

This was a particularly helpful way for me to look at my own things. I tend to accumulate items and I have trouble disposing of anything that may have a future use. I also like to make piles of papers and books which sit and accumulate dust while I tell myself I’ll sort and/or read them some day.

The author instructs you to hold each item and ask yourself whether it “sparks joy” or not. While this concept has been lambasted in cartoons and articles on social media, when you read the more nuanced descriptions of her process, it makes a lot of sense.

Part of the way to organized!

One of the other ways in which Kondo’s approach is helpful is that it divides your belongings into discrete categories, starting with clothing, then books, and progressing from there. This road map can keep you more focused and helps to see how much you already own in each category.

So does this process work?

Sort of. I began my tidying a few weeks ago, right after reading this book. The process can be as quick or as slow as you want, and the author even throws out a 6 month time frame as an average.

I began with clothing, but due to time constraints, I chose to break that category up into smaller sections (dresses, skirts, pants, etc.) so that it was manageable in short blocks of time. Oddly, the process was fun and I soon had whittled my clothing down by about 50%.

The second part of Kondo’s process is to organize what you have left by stacking items vertically as much as possible. She gives directions on how to fold clothing and guidelines on what should be hung up instead of stored in drawers.

So many bins for organizing!

I think that so far, the most challenging part of the process is figuring out what to do with the items that I have chosen to discard. I’m trying to donate much of it and while I’m waiting for my pickup date to roll around, the bags of clothing that I’ve set aside make my home feel more chaotic.

Overall I think it has been a helpful exercise to start, but I still have a long ways to go. I’m planning to read Kondo’s second book soon (Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up).

Have you read either of her books? Have you watched Tidying Up on Netflix? Let me know in the comments.

Find all my book reviews here.

How I Organize My Books to Read

We are well into 2019 and as the end of January approaches, hopefully you have started turning resolutions into habits. I’ve been blogging here consistently for the past few months, but I haven’t quite finished reading a book to review for this week, so I wanted to write a bit about how I pick which books to read for the year ahead.

Last year I realized that I am easily distracted by a new author, new release, or new series. I often enjoy the first book in a series, but then never go back to finish the rest.

One example of a shiny new series that I plan to read this year.

In an attempt to get to some of those books that I keep telling myself I want to read, I built a Google doc To-Be-Read (TBR) list. At the same time, I decided to alternate between a physical book and an e-book, with an audiobook going at the same time (a long-standing habit).

At first this was straight-forward, but then 2019 began and I decided join the Goodreads Reading Challenge where each member picks a number goal for books read for the year. I had failed at 50 books in the past. How many books did I truly think I could read?

I thought this through and settled on 36 for the year – one book every two weeks and an additional audiobook every month. That gives me three books a month x 12 months = 36 books! Simple, right?

Next I decided to lay out which books those would be. I used Goodreads and created a new shelf for the purpose. From there, it was easy to place my chosen books on the shelf. I couldn’t help myself and a few new series snuck in there. But for the most part, this plan would have me finishing several series this year, as well as keeping up on some of my favorite authors’ new releases.

I discovered that Goodreads also gives me the option to view my shelf by showing just the book covers. This made a nice graphic and let me see my goals all in one place.

My initial TBR shelf for 2019, using Goodreads.

After a few days, I realized that my list lacked any classics and was light on non-fiction, both genres that I do try to read. It was also heavily slanted toward fantasy, but I do enjoy science fiction also – anything from space opera to hard SF. I have added to this list since its creation and it’s at 45 books now.

Some of the books I’ve chosen will be quick reads, but I expect those to be balanced out by longer ones (notably GRRM’s Fire and Blood and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon).

I already own several of these books, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stick to my alternating physical book and e-book regimen. Only two of the authors on this list (and three of the books) are ones where I typically read the audiobook versions for their books. I may have to adjust my picks because I’m not going to get the audiobook version for any of these if I already own it in another format.

By doing book reviews, I’ll sometimes get specific requests to review a book, and my list also takes that into account. I may also pick up books unexpectedly that will need to be added.

Who knows? Maybe I will hit 50 books for the year! What are your reading goals? Do you use Goodreads? Let me know in the comments section.

See my book reviews here.

Book Review – How He-Man Mastered the Universe

This was a bit of an unusual read that I picked up through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. The book had actually been sitting on my Kindle for quite a while, but I’m trying to do better to catch up on my backlog of reading, so I picked it to read in the week leading up to New York Comic-Con.

HeManCover

I grew up watching the He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, so I thought that I might like How He-Man Mastered the Universe by Brian C. Baer, and I was certainly familiar enough with the cartoons and toys, even if I could no longer remember the names of every single character. This book was fun to read, but is probably only of interest to fans of the television show or toys, or to people who like to learn about film history, as a good portion of the book discusses the making of the 1987 movie, Masters of the Universe.

The first section of this non-fiction book was a little slow and repetitive, but I did learn that He-Man was a toy (with mini-comics) before he was a cartoon. Toy company Mattel developed the He-Man line of action figures in response to the success of the Star Wars toys by rival company Kenner. When the He-Man toys were a success, the television show was created and brought directly to local television networks at a time when Saturday morning cartoons were just starting up.

The book details several key episodes of the cartoon before delving into the history of the Masters of the Universe movie, produced by the notorious Cannon Films. I found this to be the most interesting part of the book, and I wish I had had time to go back to watch the movie recently, now that I know much more about how the casting, story development, and special effects were all created under the shadow of a failing production company.

HeManMovie

After the movie failed in the box office, a few additional cartoon spin-offs were released, but none of these ever achieved the same level of pop culture success as the original cartoon and toys. Overall, this was a reasonably fun non-fiction book to read, but the subject matter may limit its appeal to fans of He-Man.

 

Mini Book Reviews – October 2017

I haven’t had as much time as I would like to read and write reviews, so here’s just a quick attempt to summarize some of what I’ve read this past year:

Zero World by Jason M. Hough – part science fiction, part spy thriller, this book was a lot of fun. I particularly liked that I could never truly anticipate where the author was going with the plot. The twists were intriguing and the world set up by this novel holds a lot of potential for more. I can’t even describe it more without giving something away.

The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold – a historical fantasy novel by one of my favorite authors. This story is set in Renaissance Italy and follows a young woman’s plight when she witnesses the murder of the local ruler. Using the bits of metal-magic that her father taught her, she has to rid the city of evil. I listened to this as an audiobook and enjoyed it, like most of Bujold’s work. However, it took me two tries to get through it, mostly because I was too busy to listen regularly.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzog – I took a break from fiction to read this fascinating book about how people relate to animals in modern society. Even though I love the idea of non-fiction books, many are not written in a way that makes them easy to read. However, this book was engaging and allowed me to consider many new perspectives.

The Stand by Stephen King – It seems that this is considered one of King’s best works, but I did not enjoy it as much as some of his other books. I listened to this as an audiobook, and if I had read the physical book, I’m not sure that I would have made it through. I like the opening premise well enough: a deadly strain of flu escapes from a military research facility and kills most of the population. The spread of the flu and each character’s struggles as they deal with their friends and family dying, and the fall of most of civilization was a darkly fun read. However, most of the book then moves on to become a classic struggle of good versus evil with a lot of Christian mythologic overtones, which just isn’t very interesting to me. The antagonist is distant and never felt like enough of a threat, and the day-to-day activities of the characters dragged down the plot.

Codex Born (Magic Ex Libris #2) by Jim C. Hines – I started to read this series because I loved the concept of a class of magicians who could magically pull technology, monsters, swords, etc. from books. I listened to this as an audiobook and it went quickly. I found the narrator a little off-putting at first, but then grew used to him. The narrative sneaks in some backstory for one of the characters in small excerpts through the regular chapters. I couldn’t always follow the numerous rules about the magic, but the plot moved quickly and the characters are unique.

Here is what I’m currently reading:

Twelve Kings in Sharakai (The Song of the Shattered Sands #1) by Bradley P. Beaulieu – the first book in an epic fantasy series, set in a desert land with a well-developed mythos and world. I’m enjoying this one a lot so far, but I had to start from the beginning again when I had been too busy for several months.

Artemis by Andy Weir – I just snagged an ARC of this book by the author of The Martian at New York Comic-Con. It’s really good so far, and is the book I’ve been reaching for first this week.

Tongues of Serpents (Temeraire #6) by Naomi Novik – It’s been quite a while since I read any of this series, basically because there hadn’t been any more out yet at the time. It looks like Novik is up to nine books now, so I’m going to catch up. Dragons fight alongside human soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars. This volume sees our main character and his dragon sent to Australia after committing some treasonous acts in the previous volume.

How about you? Have you read any good books lately?

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