Tag Archives: biography

Beyond

If you know me or have followed my blog for a while, you know that I am a big space enthusiast and I love reading the latest biographies and histories surrounding it. So when I saw that I could get an early copy of Stephen Walker’s Beyond: The Astonishing Journey of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space (what a title) I naturally snagged it pretty quickly.

I’ve read a lot about the early years of the U.S. space program, from NACA to NASA, but never much about the USSR program, except for bits and pieces. So to have a whole book mainly dedicated to looking at the Russian side was thoroughly interesting.

Russia only publicized their “space spectaculars” after missions had been successful, which covered their program in a shroud of secrecy during the 1960s, and even beyond. But though no one knew what they were doing, they were as active as the U.S. in training their cosmonauts and preparing the way for manned space flight. Yuri Gagarin, who would eventually be the first man in space, was one of six top cosmonaut hopefuls (eventually whittled down to three in the running for the first flight) who went through a training regimen equally as brutal as the one the U.S. put its astronauts through.

Walker’s book touches on some biography details of Gagarin’s life, but mainly focuses on the progress of the Russian program, similar to other books that chronicle the U.S. program. Where possible, Walker spoke with eye witnesses and descendants of key figures. Other information, finally declassified by the Russian government, was drawn from documents and archives.

Though I would have expected more biography on Gagarin, given the subtitle of the book, I was still very interested to read about the development of the Russian program and learn the names behind some of the men who made it happen.

And even though I knew what would happen (it’s history, after all), Walker did an excellent job putting the reader in the thick of the suspense of Gagarin’s first flight, creating a page-turner as readers breathlessly wait to see if Gagarin’s flight went as smoothly as we were always led to believe.

For history buffs and space enthusiasts, Beyond is a different take on the space race and one that is very worth the time to read.

Tisha

Let me save you the confusion by coming right out and saying there is no character in this book named Tisha. The name comes from the native Alaskans who pronounced “teacher” as “tisha.” Knowing that may help some people (like me) sink into the story instead of wondering who Tisha is and when she’ll make her debut.

Anne Hobbs is a young teacher of just 19 looking for an adventure. She has no real idea what she’s gotten into when she applies for and receives a teaching position in the Alaskan bush. Though nature and the environment will test her strength, it’s the prejudices of the people who will ultimately make or break her. Anne can’t understand the disdain the townsfolk have for the native Indians and Eskimos, and she soon finds herself constantly at odds with the whole town simply because she is willing to extend kindness and humanity to the Indians. With all the odds stacked against her, Anne has to see just how deep her convictions run, and whether they are strong enough to save her.

Tisha is a memoir, written by Robert Specht and based on Anne Hobbs’ own telling of her life’s story. Specht’s note in the beginning mentions a few creative liberties he took with the story, though no real explanation as to why he thought it was necessary (nor many particulars of where he embellished). However, the story moves at an exciting pace and pulls the adventurous spirit right in from the very first moment.

It’s got a little bit of everything, from adventure and conflict, drama, and romance. It’s a snapshot into life as it was, reminiscent of Christy by Catherine Marshall or even Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It’s a compelling story of a strong woman who is willing to do whatever it takes, to stand for what is right even when it literally means standing alone.

For the adventurers, history buffs, biography lovers, or those who love a good drama, Tisha is well worth the couple days it might take to read.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

After reading some of Maya Angelou’s poetry in February, I decided I needed to move her autobiography up on my TBR list. Now that I’ve finally made time for it, I was not disappointed.

DSC00752I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s story in her own words, starting as a young girl being raised by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Her life there is often defined in terms of black and white. When Angelou and her brother, Bailey, finally get the chance to live in St. Louis with their mother, an ache in their hearts is filled. Until young Angelou is sexually abused by an older man. The attack throws her young mind into chaos, and it takes many years for her to start to undo some of the damage and learn to live and love in her own skin.

Angelou’s writing is poignant and plain, told in a straightforward way that doesn’t seek to analyze or explain herself, simply to relay the story of her life. It’s gripping right from the beginning, and readers can easily lose themselves in the book. There are moments of heartbreak and moments of triumph, moments to laugh at and moments to cry at.

Her life story highlights perhaps one of her most powerful thoughts: “we are more alike than we are unalike.” She presents her life as ordinary, in a way. Reading it doesn’t feel like a, “look at all the extraordinary experiences I had and lived through,” but more of a, “here’s my story, what’s yours?” I can tell, it’s the kind of book you return to, after a time, and it feels like coming back to an old friend.

To the Greatest Heights

I love outdoor adventures, but where I’m at in life, I have to live vicariously through the biographies of others. So I downloaded an advance copy of Vanessa O’Brien’s biography.

img_1908To the Greatest Heights is truly a representative name for O’Brien’s journey, as she lays out climbing the world’s tallest mountains, as well as hitting both poles. O’Brien’s adventures began as something to fill her time after being laid off. A friend suggested climbing Mount Everest and she thought, “why not?”

In the process of training for Everest, O’Brien found she had a taste for the mountains. Though she didn’t set out to make any records or even climb the Seven Summits, nor bag the Adventurer’s Grand Slam, things just started falling into place.

O’Brien writes a very raw and honest memoir of climbing, weaving in the details of her life and childhood trauma, as well. Her story is one that highlights resilience and the search to build a family, that family is sometimes, maybe even often, more than blood. Be warned that this kind of writing usually includes a lot of swearing, and O’Brien’s memoir is no exclusion.

I’m sure I can’t be the only person who reads this book and suddenly wants to climb a few mountains or make a trek to the South Pole. It’s not even that O’Brien makes it sound like a picnic— she’s very honest about the challenges and brutality of these feats. It’s simply the draw of being out in nature, pushing your personal limits and simply answering some primal call that’s felt deep in the soul.

Yeager: An Autobiography

Every now and then, all I want to do is binge read biographies and other nonfiction books relating to space and flight. While not quite an astronaut, the autobiography of Chuck Yeager fit the bill enough to get me excited.

Yeager is most well-known for being the first man to break the sound-barrier (though to be honest, I don’t know if that’s really common knowledge anymore). But his story began quite some time before his flight in the X-1. Yeager got his start as a pilot during World War II, where he quickly became an Ace, even after being shot down himself and having to escape through France into Spain. After World War II, Yeager became a test pilot at what would become Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he eventually became the pilot to break the sound barrier. He would go on to serve overseas in Germany, Vietnam, and Korea.

Told in his own words and including sections from his wife and close friends, Yeager’s autobiography is a wild ride, showing the kind of unique dangers that come with the job, as well as a snapshot into the mind of a pilot who loves flying more than anything else.

Co-written by Leo Janos (I’m guessing compiled and/or edited), I think I can hear Yeager’s voice throughout the book, despite obviously not knowing the man. It’s written in such a way that you can just imagine sitting at the bar with him, being regaled with hair-raising stories of war, close calls, and dumb choices. It reads much like John Glenn’s biography, only a little more wild.

If you love history, flying, and/or biographies, it’s worth the read. And while you may not want you loved ones taking too much after Yeager, he does have some nuggets of wisdom to share with the next generation.

High Infatuation

Since our trip to Bishop in February/March, my friend Jen has been encouraging me to read some of Steph Davis’ books on climbing and mountaineering. So when an unexpected Amazon package showed up around my birthday and Steph Davis’ book High Infatuation was inside, I knew exactly who it was from.

High Infatuation is a different kind of book. In some ways, it feels almost like a collection of poems, except it’s not really poetry. It’s a collection of her thoughts on life, mixed in with some detailed accounts of defining trips and ascents in her career as a climber, a mixture of basic biography and personal diary. But it makes for great reading.

Davis is a professional climber who got a late start at it, never having climbed before her freshman year in college. But once she tried it, she was hooked. Davis has largely taken a fearless approach to climbing. If she has a knowledgeable partner she trusts, she’ll try just about anything, learning as she goes along.

Her snapshot glimpses into the adventurous dirtbag life certainly ignite if not wanderlust, an intense desire to get out and climb. Davis talks about working part-time jobs to afford to keep climbing, and to take trips to places including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Baffin Island, although after a few cursory mentions of waitressing to earn money for her bills, she doesn’t really mention it again, which makes me wonder how she could afford to climb year-round later on. I guess maybe sponsorship money, although she doesn’t talk about sponsors at all.

High Infatuation feels like a very personal read. As I went through it, several times I got the feeling that, as Davis was writing, she must have also been using it as a way to make sense of things and reflect on herself and her life, where she is and where she’s come from. Getting to read that makes her story very real, even if the book does leave you needing to do a little more research on her professional career (assuming you haven’t already followed it).

I love reading these kinds of books, but every time I do, it makes me want to push my computer away (and push the book away too) and get out there and live it for myself. Instead of reading or writing about other people’s adventures, I want to be out there myself. And with Yosemite not that far away from me… maybe I need to develop some new friendships…

John Glenn: A Memoir

I’ll admit, I was interested in this book, not because I knew who John Glenn was, but because I’d looked it up for a customer at work and saw that it was a biography on an astronaut. Sometimes I think that if I could go back, knowing what I know about myself now, I probably would have pursued a career in science, and maybe even my dreams of being an astronaut. But, on to the book review.

The book is an autobiography that explores John Glenn’s life from childhood during the Great Depression, to his joining the military and becoming a fighter pilot during World War II, all the way through his two trips to space–the last when he was 77 years old (maybe it’s not too late for me!).

Glenn writes in a very plain way, unassuming. You get the feeling he is just telling his story, not trying to brag about anything he’s done or reap glory for being an American icon and hero. It feels very much like sitting down and listening to your grandfather regale you with stories from his life. Sometimes you can almost here the laugh that goes along with a funny anecdote.

Glenn’s biography is encouraging and inspiring too, a representation of chasing dreams and making a difference through hard and dedicated work. Not to mention just cool to see how much history this guy lived through.

Overall, it was a fun and pretty fast read, considering it’s more than 500 pages. If you like history, science, airplanes or politics, it’s the read for you.

Elon Musk

A few weeks ago (OK, maybe a month) I stared watching Mars on the National Geographic channel. I have only watched the first episode, but it was enough to get me interested in the person of Elon Musk.

I knew the name, knew he was linked with Tessa and SpaceX, but I was curious to know more.

In her book called “Elon Musk” journalist Ashlee Vance provides a detailed look at Musk’s life. He fee up in South Africa and always dreamed of making it to America. Once he did, he found himself constantly partaking in a variety of start-up companies.

In addition to SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, Musk was involved in Zip2, a kind of MapQuest meets Yelp, as well as PayPal.

It is quite interesting to read and get a peek inside the man who has his finger in so many different but related fields of engineering and technology. You get a feel from Vance’s writing that Musk has two speeds: stop and go, and he doesn’t usually stop, even when every rational indication is saying to.

It’s also easy to read about him and big into his big dreams. Somehow, after reading Musk’s history, a colony on Mars doesn’t feel like a sci-fi story anymore.

In her reporting and writing, Vance speaks to a variety of people, and gives voice to all their opinions, good or bad. She does not paint a picture of Musk one way or the other, she shares her observations and the comments of Musk and others.

Overall, reading the book, one gets a sense of thorough research and evenness. And though Musk deals in very technical fields, the book is not bogged down by either jargon nor lengthy explanations.

For anyone interested in Musk or any of his companies, I think it’s an interesting read. It’s almost a case study of how hard work and dedication can allow for the seeming impossible to become a reality.