Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Monday, July 2, 2012
Buy it if: You can't help yourself. A good story is a good story, no matter how ridiculous the premise.
Don't Buy it if: You were a history major or history teacher who finds historical fiction that masquerades as historical fact repugnant.
I know you’re thinking at least one of the following things about this book:
Friday, April 20, 2012
In paperback from Amazon for $11.20
Buy it if: National politics is your bag, but you’re sick of partisan offerings a la Mark Levin
Don’t buy it if: You want the bare-knuckles, down-in-dirt-version of the of the movie. They are largely the same with regard to the Sarah Palin storyline.
I know what you’re probably thinking: You watched “Game Change” on HBO and it sure seemed like it was true. Crazy, but true. After all, much of the mostly unbelievable dialogue was nothing more than a direct lift from actual interviews, so is it really possible that the stuff from behind closed doors was just as accurate? If you’re like me, your instinct is telling you that the picture painted by in the film is disturbingly on target.
So who wouldn’t want to get the book and observe the veracity of the facts? Especially if there’s even more that simply didn’t make the cut…
Well, for those searching for a ‘director’s cut’ amount of Sarah Palin gaffs and foibles, I’m sorry to say the movie has already delivered most of the salient details. It’s fairly reassuring (or completely distressing, depending upon how you look at it) to read that most everything played out on HBO’s small screen was verified by multiple sources or outright recorded and transcribed. Even the staunchest Palin defender would have to have their head fairly deep in the sand to question the accuracy of the authors’ writing, especially given the deep context and sources to which they were privy.
However, purchasing the book for the Palin drama alone would be a mistake. All told, there are fewer than 80 pages about McCain’s erstwhile running mate. The majority of the writing contained within has do with showdown between Obama and Clinton in the primaries and McCain’s come from behind campaign leading up to his own nomination. Indeed, the authors, to their credit, focused on things that have had and will have a major impact on how the US chooses the executive branch of the government in the years to come. I haven’t read such a compelling take on the process in a long time and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject will be certain to enjoy their long peek behind the curtain that often obscures the dirty (though not as much as you think) machinery of national politics.
You may come to see just how nuts things really got on the McCain/Palin ticket, but you’ll surely end up equally – if not more – fascinated by what really went into choosing the president in 2008.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
$6.00 in paperback from Amazon.com
Buy it if: The terms MMU, EVA, JSC, MECO and CAPCOM mean anything to you…
Don’t Buy if if: Space, shcmace, earth has enough problems, why go looking for more?
I’m going to make a broad generalization: To those in their late 20s or early 30s, the Space Shuttle is a fascinating, complex machine defined by two things: The Challenger explosion that seared itself into our early childhood memories and its ubiquity in our everyday lives. For those older, it very well may have paled in comparison to the grainy images transmitted from the first lunar lander in the summer of Woodstock. To those younger, orbital space may already be just another route that Virgin America airlines are waiting to book.
As with most things, perspective makes all the difference. For the first class of shuttle astronauts (the group’s nickname, “Thirty Five New Guys”, showed about as much nomenclative ingenuity as the “Mercury Seven”) who grew up - literally - in the shadow of Sputnik, the American space program moved fluidly between miraculous and humdrum. Mike Mullane’s memoir, Riding Rockets, captures life as an astronaut during his tenure at NASA with unprecedented candor, verve and honesty. Plainspoken to the point of reader fascination, Mullane’s book on his life and the lives of his fellow astronauts and NASA ground staff is easily one of the most captivating books on the space program I’ve ever held in my hands.
Riding Rockets contains one of the most interesting collisions of the mundane and fantastic in the non-fiction world. By his own account, Mullane was no Neil Armstrong. He wasn’t the first to pilot the shuttle, nor the first to fly post-Challenger. His one claim to fame might be as the first Air Force ‘backseater’ (non-pilot combat flyer) to make it to space, but even the author himself is dubious of this distinction’s historical cache. But he IS an astronaut, and there’s something fascinating about what entails an ordinary day for someone who’s prime professional goal is strapping a rocket to their ass and hurling themselves beyond earth’s atmosphere at 18,000 MPH.
And unlike other such bios, Mullane doesn’t pull the punches. Not on on himself or anyone else. The level of candor he brings to the ‘hero biography’ is simply astonishing. Not to mention refreshing. From the office politics of shuttle flight assignments, to the sheer terror of engine start, to the incredible sadness that defines a final evening with a spouse before liftoff, the memoir is all the more compelling for a look at the good and bad of space travel. “The Right Stuff” style braggadocio is still very much a part of the astronaut corps, but Mullane is surprisingly adept in laying plain the truth beyond the stern façade. He’s seen close friends die before his eyes doing what they love and has an incredible take on how an astronaut’s ambition can easily skew their own perspective on risk.
Even with such straightforward emotion, the author includes a very good-humored look at space travel, the book’s greatest draw by far. From mid-flight pranks with an experimental skull to methods used to prevent urine splashback in zero gravity, Mullane imparts a perfect amount of levity into nearly every anecdote, often with himself as the butt of the joke. It’s a wonderful reminder that the even those men and women who push the envelope of aerospace performance daily are nothing more than extraordinarily capable human beings.
All told, Riding Rockets is a deft look at the space program from the inside, during a period of time when shuttle astronauts were every bit the brave heroes that the Apollo men were, with only a fraction of the of the recognition the latter received. Even poorly written, this would have made a fascinating tale. With the addition of engaging writing and a unique voice, it’s taking all the strength of a solid rocket booster to keep me dropping the worst joke in the history of these reviews and telling you this book is ‘out of this world!’ Don’t worry. I wouldn’t do that to you…
Monday, October 10, 2011
$9.23 in paperback from amazon.com
Buy it if: You’re a trivia buff. Words that turn you on include “quirky,” “random,” and “idiosyncratic.”
Don’t buy it if: You’re a hardcore space nerd interested in debating launch trajectories and the political governance of the ISS. This book talks about pooping in space.
God knows there have been more than enough articles, books and columns entitled “Everything you ever wanted to know about (blank), but were afraid to ask.” From STDs to Scientology, the world has no shortage of forbidden topics. And, let’s be honest, even those subjects are still going to have more than a few items that make them off-limits for the Barnes & Noble “Features” table. But perennial foot-noter Mary Roach turns this notion on its head. Forget the questions you’re afraid to ask, she’s focused on the ones you didn’t even know you existed.
As such, Packing for Mars is really just the next step down the line for the author of Bonk, Stiff and Spook. * The woman who once questioned what became of medical cadavers after their ‘service’ was complete has moved on to equally fascinating questions like: How do you poop in space?** There’s a good deal more to her writing than sophomoric Q&A with the world’s space explorers, but icky stuff will keep you entertained no matter how little you care for the little bit of science thrown your way as well.
Stylistically, Roach can be a tough nut to crack if you prefer your science writing to be presented with an orderly, methodical approach. At first glance, the writing will feel stream-of-conscience,*** but I’m now convinced that the book’s organization is more of a calculated chaos than it feels. That’s a good thing. Rarely do the chapters lose their luster. If they do, it’s usually only a few pages more before you’re on to something new. (Though always with a very pithy segue!)
If you’re already Roach fan, you’ll be pleased to know that Packing for Mars is closest to Stiff in both style and substance. Its balance of humor with fact is spot on. You’ll giggle to yourself while reading, but still have enough pieces of knowledge to chime in ceaselessly should cocktail conversation ever turn to the subject of NASA, the moon or Tang. If you’re not a regular reader, but are up for a quirky take on the great beyond that reads a bit like Monty Python meets a Tom Hanks miniseries in literary form, you may want to make ‘space’ on your bookshelf.
*Brava, Mary, on you first multi-syllabic title!
**Until now, I never really thought about just how many simple parts of our lives really are governed by gravity. Roach provides us with examples that would make Newton blush.
***This is not helped by the author’s rampant footnoting. Ironically, the footnotes are at least as interesting as the main narrative. Unfortunately, there are times a reader may find themselves wishing that the bottom of the pages were less crowded. The overlong asides can prove to be quite a distraction from the main text. Like this one.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Still in hardcover only from Amazon.com - $17.06
Buy it if: You want to pick up where Scott Tinley left off. And you actually know who Scott Tinley is.
Don’t buy it if: To you triathlon is three times as stupid for having three times the ways to exhaust oneself.
Triathletes are a dime a dozen, trust me. Throw a rock in any corporate setting and you’re likely to hit at least two or three on your first go. By its very nature the sport caters to the Type-A personality, the type of person that thrives on extra complication. But that’s triathlon for mortals. At the pointy, Olympic end, are a few very gifted, very focused outliers doing things with three sports that most people wouldn’t dream of doing with one. Chris McCormack is the one of these athletes, a man so at the edge of the triathlon bell curve it’s doubtful you could slide a toothpick in past him.
McCormack is also one of the sport’s most divisive figures, cutting a wide swath of opinion through competitors of all abilities. As such, it’s no surprise that his upset win at the 2010 Ironman World Championships was all the impetus the cagey athlete would need to put his story (up to this point) down on paper for the endurance junkies of the world to snap up from their local bookseller. If his book is to be believed, he’s a man who always prefers to bet on himself. The publication of I’m Here to Win maintains this leitmotif.
Interestingly, for all of its marketing as a guide for improving a reader’s own mental gamesmanship, it’s real strength is actually the ‘simpler’ portion: the autobiography itself. McCormack has had a fascinating athletic life and his own take on accomplishments and disappointments is incredibly honest. From his start, racing the continental and World Cup sprint series, to his most recent wins on the long course circuit, the man has included a collection of sports and personal stories that would rival any self-penned athletic tome in your collection. With a career that spans a good portion of his sport’s entire history, I’m Here to Win is also a fascinating look inside the very sparsely populated world of pro triathletes.
Refreshingly, for a book purporting to be an athletic guide to avoiding psychological pitfalls, the author takes quite a few very hard looks at his own performances and history before delivering advice that his younger self may have found difficult to take. That being said, there’s not going to be a lot advice here that can’t be gleaned from the myriad of coaching/training/racing manuals already available: Train your weaknesses. Analyze and correct you tactical mistakes. Rest properly. Learn to interpret your body’s signals.
None of it is groundbreaking. The unique slant offered here is McCormack’s own insistence that simplicity and common sense are the keys. If the messenger has succeeded, it’s certainly a lot easier to trust the message.
All in all, if you’re a fan of the sport or the athlete, the racer’s writing will be welcome on your shelf. Apart from a few stylistic missteps (repeating a sentence in bold and with break lines around it does NOT constitute a bullet point) it’s a decent read. If you’re looking for a training guide, your money should be spent baking your endurance cake elsewhere. I’m Here to Win is only the icing.
Monday, July 25, 2011
$10.82 in paperback from Amazon.com
Buy it if: You subscribe to VeloNews, use chamois cream or get extra psyched when EuroSport shows the entire Fleche Wallone race
Don’t Buy it if: So, there are more races than the Tour de France? But doesn’t Lance Armstrong win all of them?
Tour de Lance (already a winner in the ‘Most Obvious, yet Surprisingly Unused Title’ category) is an inside track version of Lance’s most recent ‘unretirement,’ dubbed ‘Comeback 2.0’ by those with a vested corporate interest in him. And, being written as it was by Bicycling Magazine’s Editor-at-Large, I wouldn’t have been shocked to find a book that focused on the positive aspects of cycling and skimmed over the darker side. Fortunately, author Bill Strickland has obviously embraced the most crucial aspects of journalistic integrity and Tour de Lance offers one of the most captivating looks at a cycling icon, and the sport in general, that has been available for a long time.
When Lance Armstrong stated his intention to come out of retirement in search of an 8th Tour de France title, it was met with a few different reactions, all of them passionate. The cynics believed it was a return to the old guard of doped up cyclists, the believers held faith that he could win again, as unblemished as ever, and the general race fans were thrilled at the prospect of excitement after the relatively lackluster 2008 edition. But no athletic story is ever so simple as the headlines allow. To really understand the details of a sport as complex as professional cycling requires not only a massive amount of knowledge, but also near unprecedented access to the one of the most guarded athletes in a sport that has long used the word ‘omerta’ (Mafioso for ‘silence’) to describe its policies.
Yet Strickland, co-author of Armstrong confidant/team director Johan Bruyneel’s autobiography, found himself at exactly this journalistic crossroads in late 2008. With a deep well of knowledge and the trust of those around the cyclist, he set off on a year-long journey following Lance’s attempt at a cycling rebirth. In addition to the drama already inherent to the well-known Armstrong legacy, 2009 added the twist of sharing a team with the most recent Tour champion, his first ever major injury, a newly accessible personality that was on display via Twitter, and his first visit to the professional ranks since a host of new doping accusations had surfaced following his last retirement. In short, the cycling world was reaching its dramatic zenith and Strickland was fly-on-the-wall close.
Of course, anyone with a passing interest in cycling need only do a quick Google search to learn that ‘Comeback 2.0’ resulted in a 3rd place finish at Le Tour. But that’s not the story, not here. Instead, this may be the most ‘inside’ book on Lance ever written with his authorization. (Though he may have thought twice about his cooperation given Strickland’s most recent Bicycling editorial stating his belief that Armstrong did, indeed, dope) The book will find its most avid fans amongst those whom are already cycling aficionados. If you’re not, the pages will still certainly hold your interest. But if you are, it’s amazing at how much of the whole story is held within. Allusions to truths and whispered confessions line this book with depths of realism that pierce much of the ‘omerta.’ The author is quite honest about holding back some of what he knows, yet offers far more than I would have ever hoped.
Overall, this is a fascinating piece that far exceeded my expectations and proved that in-depth journalism is still alive and breathing in the sports world. I do believe that the whole story is here, even if some of it exists between the lines. Tour de Lance might be the most substantiated true story you’ll read about Lance Armstrong for some time…