Tag Archives: history

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.

Clanlands

I can’t be the only person who tends to think of an actor as though he is actually the character he portrays. Although in my head I know he is his own person, not a fictional character, sometimes it’s really, really easy to sort of not really believe it. So when you get a book like Clanlands by Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish, it’s a chance to get to know the actors behind the characters, while also seeing how their personalities enhance who they play on screen.

Clanlands is part travel book, mostly history, and a little bit comical autobiography. Heughan and McTavish, co-stars in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, decide to take a bit of a road trip through Scotland to get more in touch with their roots. They explore several historic sites, sample lots of whiskey, and harass each other a lot.

While this book was fun and definitely gets one interested in a trip to Scotland, I found that I really wanted it to be a podcast more than a book (though, it serves as a great teaser to the show they were filming at the same time!). I’ll be curious to see if the show is a more detailed repetition of the book, or if it is significantly different. And while I would read more written work by either author, I’d like something a little different. In some ways, it really did feel like the transcript of a podcast or show script, which while fun, wasn’t quite what I wanted. If either of them writes a full autobiography or any kind of history book, I’ll definitely pick it up, though!

All in all, it’s a fun book and a pretty quick read. But we’ll have to see what their Men in Kilts show is like before a full judgment of the book makes sense.

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.

Phenomenal Physics

Do you ever get the urge to just pick up a book looking to learn about something, an impromptu, unofficial class on a given subject? No, just me? If I could be a professional student, I think I would.

I bought Isaac McPhee’s Phenomenal Physics last year on a whim (and a science book buying binge, but that’s a different topic). I wanted to learn more about physics, because I really didn’t know anything.

McPhee starts with the basic question, what is physics? Once he’s explained that physics is pretty much the study of everything (the simplest description might be something like, the study of how our universe works), he then takes readers through a crash course of physics, starting with ancients like Aristotle and Archimedes, and working his way through the eras of physics, up to modern day physics. McPhee includes brief profiles on some of physics’ scientific stars, as well as breakdowns of specific theories and ideas.

For the most part, I found McPhee’s breakdown easy to follow and understand. It wasn’t until we started to get into the quantum realm and quantum mechanics that I started to think I’d really need a degree to understand even the basics. Which is OK, because at the moment I’m not planning on making a career change into physics.

McPhee’s book by no means makes you an expert (and if you thought you could become one with only one book, and a 140-page book at that, you’re in for a surprise), but I think it does a good job of giving an overview of the topic and answering some general questions adults, or even kids, might have about our universe and why certain things happen. If you’re looking for a little something to whet your appetite for physics, McPhee’s book might be just the ticket.

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.

The Library Book

I think for most of us readers, we got our start at the local library as a child. Many of us probably drift away from the library as we grow up, either because we can afford our own books, we move toward eBooks, or we simply don’t read as much as we used to. But libraries still hold a special place in our hearts. And even if we don’t use them as much anymore, we recognize their importance and the role they play in our communities.

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, touches on this theme, looking at the role of libraries through the lens of the library fire in Los Angeles in 1986. The April morning in 1986 when the LA Central Library caught fire is where Orlean starts her book, but she draws readers back through the years, looking at the histories of libraries in general, before focusing in on the history of the LA Central Library and the various characters who have run it throughout the years. Woven throughout, Orlean also explores how the purpose of libraries have changed throughout the years, evolving from a place to read books into almost a kind of community center, offering outreach and help for a wide variety of things. And while the nature of books and reading might be changing, the necessity for libraries continues to endure, proving itself time and again as the librarians constantly find new ways to offer improvement to their communities.

Orlean’s book was fascinating to read, full of history and research and fun anecdotal stories about her time researching the people who ran the library and the fire itself. However, the layout could have been better, I think. While the book is supposed to be focused on the library fire and her research into it, it’s easy to lose focus on that, when the book is going chapter after chapter into the history of the library. Even as I enjoyed the information, I was wondering when the book was going to get back to the fire, and when we were going to get more information on the suspect behind it. Since the chapters of history and the chapters about the fire were all mixed together, I didn’t know how long I was going to have to wait for closure. Whereas, if the book was laid out more chronologically, I think I would have known the information would be toward the end, and I could have enjoyed the history a little more. It also would have helped keep the library employees straight, instead of trying to remember who was in charge during the fire, who was in charge when she started writing about it, and who was in charge during the period of history contained in a given chapter.

Overall, it was an enjoyable book, and one that has a lot that book lovers can relate to. But it’s maybe not a good book for someone who struggles to keep things straight when it’s not in chronological order.

Ross Poldark

This series has been on my radar for a while, since PBS picked it up for a tv show. But I didn’t really know anything about it. For example, I had no idea Winston Graham wrote it in the 1940s, though with a name like Winston I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Ross Poldark is the first book in a long series, set in post-Revolutionary War England. Ross has returned home to find everything he left behind in varying states of disarray. Somehow he must find a way to pick up the pieces and fashion a life for himself. But his choices seem to be pulling him farther from his own society, making him a sort of outcast and the subject of gossip.

I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction, particularly long series that I can get invested in. I was hoping for that from Poldark. But if I’m honest, I’m a little on the fence about it. It was a good book, but it wasn’t quite the gripping saga I’m looking for. Not to say I won’t keep reading the series, but I’ll add it to my library list for the time being, instead of collecting all the books.

As an older book, it gets off to a slow start, and has a sort of meandering story line. It’s not like stories we’re used to now, with very set plots that move from one point to the next. It’s the story of a man’s life, the day to day stuff that doesn’t necessarily stand out as exciting, but makes up the bulk of his life.

This first book in the Poldark series was, frankly, the kind of book you enjoy while you’re reading it, but sort of forget when you’re done. You’re not desperate for the next book in the series. So, maybe I’ll try some other series before I continue down the road with that one.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden

The name Lizzie Borden is one that rings a bell for probably just about everyone, but for some of us, including me, I couldn’t call up any details, just that she was connected to a murder.

When I saw an advanced copy of Cara Robertson’s upcoming book called The Trial of Lizzie Borden, I snagged it as a chance to learn a little bit more.

Robertson’s book began as a thesis paper and evolved eventually to become the book. The book begins on a quiet morning in 1892 that quickly went south when two brutal murders were discovered in a quiet home on Second Street.

Robertson walks her readers through the police interviews and the inquest, then spends most of the book going day by day through the trial, presenting the case for and against Lizzie Borden. Though written in what I’d consider classic history/research paper style, the book still provides readers with a good deal of courtroom drama.

The prosecution endeavored to prove that Lizzie Borden was the only person who could conceivably have killed her father and stepmother, but her defense team poked holes through the prosecution’s case, and the jury returned a not guilty verdict (no, thats’s not really a spoiler unless you know absolutely nothing about the name Lizzie Borden. Also, the book will kind of give that away before you even start it.).

Though Lizzie was acquitted, there were never any other leads or suspects, begging the question, was she actually guilty?

The book presents the information to readers plainly, for the perspective of the two sides of the courtroom. The reader then gets to decide what weight to put on the evidence, like a jury member would. As I read, I found myself at times agreeing with both sides.

Well written, if a bit textbookish, Robertson’s book will be a must-read for true crime and history buffs when it hits the shelves in March.

Code Girls

I had just been lamenting that the show Bletchley Circle was so short when Liza Mundy’s Code Girls came out. Code Girls is the untold and largely unknown story of the women who helped break German and Japanese codes during World War II.

Mundy begins by introducing several women whose lives the book will follow, showing how they received secret letters inviting them to secret meetings and were offered positions in code breaking. Many women, bored with teaching and anxious to contribute to the war effort, said yes.

Code breaking was used during World War I, but not to the same extend and to the same success in World War II, though the groundwork was laid for women to be involved, as some of the stars of World War I code breaking we’re female as well.

While not particularly the story of any one woman but a picture of the collective experience, Code Girls was a very interesting read. You really get a feel for the secrecy, for the pressure and importance of the work. Plus you get a little understanding of how code breaking is, and you see how hard it is.

It reminded me a little of Hidden Figures, and I could easily see this as a movie or even tv series.

All in all, it was a good book, and not a challenging read, as far as history books go.

The Book Thief

I’ll just come right out and say it, The Book Thief is a classic of our era. I don’t know how often I get kids coming in for it as part of their required reading for school.

Having now read it, I understand why. Not only is it an excellent story for exploring Workd War II history, but the writing style gives plenty of content for literary study.

The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, is the story of a young girl, Liesel Memminger, and her new life with her foster parents on Himmel Street. Though Germans, Liesel and her family don’t fit the standard mold. With her loyal friend by her side, Liesel finds herself addicted to a thievery, especially of books. Her story is narrated by Death, a mixture of observations from Death and knowledge gathered from Liesel’s own autobiography, which Death managed to obtain.

Liesel’s story revolves around books– the ones she’s given and the ones she takes. Each book is related to a scene or time of her life: her family harboring a Jew in the basement, war-time hardships making themselves known in Liesel’s house, Liesel growing up and forming her own opinions about the Fuhrer’s ideals.

Mixed in with the defining moments are the everyday habits of Liesel’s life, her adventures with Rudy, school, and growing up in general. Together, these form a powerful and heartbreaking narrative.

Zusak uses a unique style to tell Liesel’s story. Death, as could reasonably be expected, idea not always use the English language as humans are accustomed to. This allows for some interesting descriptions that provide a new way at looking at things, from the sunset to a feeling. But for this story, it works, creating a unique and memorable style that would be hard to match.

All in all, the book is worth the read, even if it makes you cry.