Friday, May 22, 2015

Flight the Wright way

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

3 words: triumphant, character-driven, family

David McCullough is one of my guys. Two of his books appear in my blog banner, which I realized only when I was reading his latest, about the Wright brothers.

(courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)
Me and Wilbur and Orville, we go back a ways, too. 

For years, I’ve gotten all misty-eyed and boring at cocktail parties* every December 17, because I regale anyone within earshot with the news that it’s the umpteenth anniversary of the first powered flight. 

I say the words “Kitty Hawk” and “Kill Devil Hills.” 

I say the words “muslin-covered wings” and “wind tunnel.” 

I speak in awestruck tones about seeing the Wright Flyer at the Air and Space Museum.

I’m seriously the life of any party.

So this book had me all in a flutter. The flutter was worth the while.

McCullough is a wonderfully comforting writer, who is a master of his craft. His sentences just flow.

The other thing that makes him comforting is that he tends to tell the heroic stories, in a tone that’s relatively wart-free. He’s not out to tell how the Wright’s competitors tried to make them out as mean-spirited moneygrubbers whose protection of their patents bordered on the obsessive.

No, this book is about their hard work and their triumph. And it’s very much about their personalities and their family.

Neither man married, and they lived with their father and sister. Which sounds kind of horrid, except that it sounds like they had rather a happy home life.

And they were quiet fellows who largely kept to themselves, at least until fame struck.

So there are quiet, wonderful moments like this one, when Wilbur was about to take off on a demo flight in France:
“Finally, at six-thirty, with dusk settling, Wilbur turned his cap backward, and to Berg, BolĂ©e, and the others said quietly, ‘Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.’” (p. 170)   

Reading those words made me stop and clap a hand against the center of my chest and do the heartstruck look.

So, yeah.

McCullough is a pleasant, talented author, and he’s writing about these quirky fellows whom he finds pleasant and talented himself, so it’s a whirlwind of goodness.

And despite the theme of flight, McCullough keeps it down to earth:
“Their nephew Milton, who as a boy was often hanging about the brothers, would one day write, “History was being made in their bicycle shop and in their home, but the making was so obscured by the commonplace that I did not recognize it until many years later.’” (p 113)

Warm, heroic, and stoic.

*I avoid cocktail parties like the plague. But anywhere else I am, I bore people with this December 17 business. Avoid me on that date.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Presidential library two-fer!

 3 words: thrilled, joyful, geeky

OK, so you know you’re a geek when your big trip of the year revolves around presidential libraries. 

Yes, that’s plural: we’re talking two of them! I know: it’s a bit too much to take.

The easiest place to accomplish the presidential library double header is southern California, where you can pick off both the Nixon and Reagan libraries in a single visit.

This is not for the faint of heart.

We’re talking about some seriously intense museum-going here, people.
Fortunately, I’m a seasoned presidential library goer and the Dear Man is both amiable and made of sturdy stuff.

We accepted the challenge because the goal is to collect all 13.

Here’s why you may want to go there, too.

We’ll start with Day One: The Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. 

OK, this place has it goin’ on.

First off, the setting is wicked beautiful—the prettiest presidential library location I’ve seen. 

And second, there’s a retired Air Force One on display, and you can walk through it.

I know.


I was all having a Hall and Oates moment, all day long*.

It was the most pleasant presidential library experience I’ve ever had. I laughed, I cried, I smiled, I became verklempt. 

And… this is going to sound blasphemous coming from a Kennedy fanatic, but… I liked Reagan’s library the best of the bunch. Somehow it evoked him more clearly as a human being. The Great Communicator’s library communicates greatly.

So you’d think that Day Two: The Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda might be disappointing after coming down off the Reagan heights. 

And it sort of was. 

Except that Nixon’s library is located next to his birthplace, which is one of the most charming little cottages on the planet. His dad built it from a kit in 1913, and it’s cuter than cute.


And then there’s the Watergate gallery. Holy Toledo, guys. 

(Need I say it? More overstimulation.)

So yeah. Totally worth the trip. 

If you're organized about it and don't mind overdosing on presidential history, you can actually do this thing in two consecutive days. 

And it's amazing. 

Plus, we saw all kinds of other good non-library stuff, and the whole everything exceeded my already high expectations. 

This traveling thing is pretty stinkin' fantastic, especially when conducted in the right company.  

*incorrect; the moment lasted during the entire vacation

Friday, May 8, 2015

Pirate treasure

When I was just 24 pages into the advance reader’s copy of Pirate Hunters—the forthcoming book by Robert Kurson—here’s what happened:

The Dear Man and I went out for breakfast and were seated next to a loud-talking couple who were very clearly on their first date. He and I did the delighted look at each other, because eavesdropping was unavoidable.  

Then we carried on our own conversation, but each with one ear open to the situation at the next table. I whispered to the Dear Man that I couldn’t wait to find out how they wrapped it up. Would there be a second date?

Then this happened:

I started telling him about the first 24 pages of Pirate Hunters. I pulled up the ARC on my iPhone so I could say, “Read the last paragraph on this page!” I did more raving about Robert Kurson’s writing style. I talked about how wonderful, how rare, how completely spectacular it is to be in the midst of reading such a book.

And… yeah.

I blew right on through the next table’s departure. I was yammering on, all excited, and the Dear Man was listening, all interested (he truly is dear), and… we missed it. The next table’s couple got up and left, and We Will Never Know if they ever saw each other again.

This is actually a moment I treasure.

So, you’ve been warned. On this book’s cover, there should be emblazoned a warning: Here There Be Distracting Delights.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Sparking joy all over the place

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Don’t worry—I’m not about to post a YouTube video of my perfectly re-folded sock drawer. (I haven’t gotten to that part yet.)
But I’m here to tell you, guys, this total non-hoarder just dispensed with 3 garbage bags full of clothes after reading this quick little book. And against all odds, I recently packed for a 5-day trip in a mere carry-on!
I am a changed woman.

And dang, it feels good.

So here’s why this book is sweeping the nation: Kondo’s theory is that we should keep only the things that spark joy. 

Everything else: out!

So she has you go through your home, touching each object (which I thought would be counter to de-cluttering, based on research that shows that once we touch an item in a store, we’re umpteen times more likely to buy it—but it actually helped me get rid of stuff) and deciding whether it brings joy. Then you toss out all the old stuff that no longer does it for you.

She suggests going through your home by category, starting with clothes. This also works. (Though I cheated and started weeding my library before I’d cleared all the closets. Book fanatic inevitability.)

So here’s what she suggests when it comes to the books: take all the books off the shelves, stack them on the floor, and then pick up each book and decide whether it gives you joy.

I might actually do that.

Then you go through everything else in your house, category by category.

Then you get to do the fun part and KonMari your clothes.

(This was my carry-on packing secret weapon.) 
So I’m all swept up in it, purging things like a wild woman in my meager free time. It’s become one of my treats.

I know. Sick.

But this place is looking darn spiffy, guys.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Free as a bird!

So you know I love reading, right?

So it sounds awful for me to say, Thank goodness all that dratted reading's done.

But because I love reading, I love the freedom to read freely.

And, boys... it's back!

I wrapped up my last assigned reading book (for now) a few days ago, and I'm feeling ridiculously happy about it.

 So what happens next is:

- all of my suspended holds at the library are slated to un-suspend themselves, and I'll be flooded with books

- I'll read some random thing just because I want to -- and it won't even count for Book Bingo! (the level of defiance in this post is really rather shocking)

So yeah, there're celebrations happening here. They're quiet and bookish, and they're my kind of party. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

So here's what happens

(photo from
Sometimes you love an author's work a whole lot.

And then that author dies.

And then you're sitting at work and trying not to cry when you read the news online.

It seems so innocent--book news. But sometimes it's a wicked-hard thing to take. It smacks you right in the face, and you're left blinking.

So that's what happened to me this week, when I read this brief article on EarlyWord, about the death of Ivan Doig.

I thought there'd be more time to read his books while he was still here.

I never knew him, but I miss him. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Huge buzz, decent book

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

3 words: immediate, tragic, anecdotal

I’ve lived my entire life as a Lusitania ignoramus.

If you’d’ve asked me what I could tell you about it, I’d’ve said “British ship sunk by the Germans during World War I. Americans on board, so the U.S. entered the war.”

Yeah, sort of right. Partial credit. Actually, it took 2 more years for the U.S. to declare war. (Who knew?!)

So this is an Erik Larson book, which often means we’re gonna have dual narratives. This one’s no exception. Except: Wait—there’s more!

Here we’re on board the Lusitania; on board the U-boat that sunk the ship; hanging out in the code-breaking room in England; and eavesdropping on President Wilson, who’s wooing his second wife. And there are some side trips to shipping offices, too.

But the main storyline is, as expected, onboard the Lusitania, which (didn’t know this, either) had an unusually large number of children and babies aboard during its last voyage. (Sad, guys. This stuff is sad.)

Larson did some fine research, so we get to hear the story from several of the survivors. He paints a detailed picture of life on the ship.

Now, maybe this is just me, but one thing I expected from this book—since it’s tragedy and it’s true, and I love that stuff—didn’t actually happen. I thought I’d become slightly obsessed with the topic, Googling and YouTubing and looking up other books about the Lusitania

But I find that this book is enough. And I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m not the ideal audience [pretty sure I am] or because Larson’s narrative didn’t completely pull me in to the story. Unlike every time I’ve read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, the classic account of the sinking of the Titanic, Dead Wake didn’t make me feel like I was there. I’m beginning to think there’s something about Larson's style that just doesn’t jibe with me. 

This is a fine book in many ways, and I liked it rather much. But I really wanted to love it.