Shelf Control #175: SPACE!!

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngSwitching things up a bit this week, I thought I’d include THREE books on one theme: SPACE! I’ve always loved reading about space exploration and the development of the space program (and don’t even get me started on all the variety of fiction — historical, science fiction, contemporary fiction, even horror — set in the context of space). In terms of non-fiction space books, I’ve read a bunch, and I seem to keep accumulating them! Here are three from my shelves that I’ve picked up over the years, but still haven’t read.

Title: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Author: Chris Hadfield
Published: 2013
Length: 295 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Colonel Chris Hadfield has spent decades training as an astronaut and has logged nearly 4000 hours in space. During this time he has broken into a Space Station with a Swiss army knife, disposed of a live snake while piloting a plane, and been temporarily blinded while clinging to the exterior of an orbiting spacecraft. The secret to Col. Hadfield’s success-and survival-is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: prepare for the worst-and enjoy every moment of it.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Col. Hadfield takes readers deep into his years of training and space exploration to show how to make the impossible possible. Through eye-opening, entertaining stories filled with the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of spacewalks, and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises, he explains how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement-and happiness. His own extraordinary education in space has taught him some counterintuitive lessons: don’t visualize success, do care what others think, and always sweat the small stuff.

You might never be able to build a robot, pilot a spacecraft, make a music video or perform basic surgery in zero gravity like Col. Hadfield. But his vivid and refreshing insights will teach you how to think like an astronaut, and will change, completely, the way you view life on Earth-especially your own.

 

Title: Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
Author: Mike Mullane
Published: 2006
Length: 382 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On February 1, 1978, the first group of space shuttle astronauts, twenty-nine men and six women, were introduced to the world. Among them would be history makers, including the first American woman and the first African American in space. This assembly of astronauts would carry NASA through the most tumultuous years of the space shuttle program. Four would die on Challenger.

USAF Colonel Mike Mullane was a member of this astronaut class, and Riding Rockets is his story — told with a candor never before seen in an astronaut’s memoir. Mullane strips the heroic veneer from the astronaut corps and paints them as they are — human. His tales of arrested development among military flyboys working with feminist pioneers and post-doc scientists are sometimes bawdy, often hilarious, and always entertaining.

Mullane vividly portrays every aspect of the astronaut experience — from telling a female technician which urine-collection condom size is a fit; to walking along a Florida beach in a last, tearful goodbye with a spouse; to a wild, intoxicating, terrifying ride into space; to hearing “Taps” played over a friend’s grave. Mullane is brutally honest in his criticism of a NASA leadership whose bungling would precipitate the Challenger disaster.

Riding Rockets is a story of life in all its fateful uncertainty, of the impact of a family tragedy on a nine-year-old boy, of the revelatory effect of a machine called Sputnik, and of the life-steering powers of lust, love, and marriage. It is a story of the human experience that will resonate long after the call of “Wheel stop.”

 

Title: Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon
Author: Craig Nelson
Published: 2009
Length: 404 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A richly detailed and dramatic account of one of the greatest achievements of humankind

At 9:32 A.M. on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 rocket launched in the presence of more than a million spectators who had gathered to witness a truly historic event. It carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the last frontier of human imagination: the moon.

Rocket Men is the thrilling story of the moon mission, and it restores the mystery and majesty to an event that may have become too familiar for most people to realize what a stunning achievement it represented in planning, technology, and execution.

Through interviews, twenty-three thousand pages of NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA documents on the space race, Craig Nelson re-creates a vivid and detailed account of the Apollo 11 mission. From the quotidian to the scientific to the magical, readers are taken right into the cockpit with Aldrin and Armstrong and behind the scenes at Mission Control.

Rocket Men is the story of a twentieth-century pilgrimage; a voyage into the unknown motivated by politics, faith, science, and wonder that changed the course of history.

Other great space reads:

Since I’m talking space, I thought I’d mention three terrific books I’ve read on the subject, one long ago and two others more recently:

  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe: A modern classic. If you want to know more, check out Barbara’s recent post at Book Club Mom!
  • Packing for Mars by Mary Roach: The science of space travel, presented in (sometimes) gross detail, with tons of hilarity.
  • Spaceman by Mike Massimino: A terrific memoir, both inspiring and moving.

Do you have any great non-fiction books about space to recommend? Inquiring minds want to know!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #174: Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Here If You Need Me
Author: Kate Braestrup
Published: 2007
Length: 211 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

When the oldest of Kate Braestrup’s four children was ten years old, her husband, a Maine state trooper, was killed in a car accident. Stunned and grieving, she decided to pursue her husband’s dream of becoming a Unitarian minister, and eventually began working with the Maine Game Warden Service, which conducts the state’s search and rescue operations when people go missing in the wilderness.

Whether she is with parents whose 6-year-old daughter has wandered into the woods, or wardens as they search for a snowmobile rider gone under ice, or a man whose sister left an infant seat and a suicide note in her car by the side of the road, Braestrup provides solace, comfort, and spiritual guidance when it’s needed most. And she comes to discover that giving comfort is both a high calling and a precious gift.

In her account of her own life and the events of her unusual job, sometimes joyful, sometimes heartbreaking, Braestrup is warm, unsentimental (“No one is immune to the Plucky Widow story!” she acknowledges), and generous. Here If You Need Me is a funny, frank, and deeply moving story of faith and hope.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy, ages and ages ago.

Why I want to read it:

I don’t read a ton of non-fiction, but I do find myself drawn from time to time to real-life stories of courageous women. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard about this book, but I do know that I read a blurb about it soon after it was released and felt really interested in learning more about the author’s experiences. It sounds like such an inspiring, lovely book. Once again, I’m happy that I went prowling my shelves for a Shelf Control book and stumbled across one that I’m really eager to finally read!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

The Monday Check-In ~ 6/10/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner: Powerful historical fiction. My review is here.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn: A truly beautiful and powerful memoir. My review is here.

Recursion by Blake Crouch: So much mind-f*ckery. Just finished reading this Sunday night; review to follow. (Loved it.)

Fresh Catch:

No new books — although I did pick up a paperback edition of The Salt Path to complement listening to the audiobook!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Bouncing around between different books right now:

A graphic novel, an ARC of a recent release, and a re-read of a book whose sequel comes out later this month — between these three, I should be able to keep myself busy for the next several days!

Now playing via audiobook:

Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery: Back to Anne! I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time earlier this year, and have been wanting to continue with the series. I’m only a little way into the book, but it’s charming so far.

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group reads at the moment:

  • A Fugitive Green by Diana Gabaldon, from the Seven Stones To Stand or Fall collection.
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection.

So many books, so little time…

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Audiobook Review: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn


SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA BOOK AWARD 

The true story of a couple who lost everything and embarked on a transformative journey walking the South West Coast Path in England

Just days after Raynor Winn learns that Moth, her husband of thirty-two years, is terminally ill, their house and farm are taken away, along with their livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they make the brave and impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.

Carrying only the essentials for survival on their backs, they live wild in the ancient, weathered landscape of cliffs, sea, and sky. Yet through every step, every encounter, and every test along the way, their walk becomes a remarkable and life-affirming journey. Powerfully written and unflinchingly honest, The Salt Path is ultimately a portrayal of home–how it can be lost, rebuilt, and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways.

I feel like I could just make a list of relevant adjectives and leave my review at that:

Powerful.

Beautiful.

Moving.

Inspiring.

Courageous.

Not enough? Okay, here goes, with a bit more commentary.

I remember hearing something about The Salt Path when it was released, but didn’t really know what the book would focus on or whether it was really for me. Having just finished the audiobook, I can emphatically state that yes, this IS a book for me, and I suspect for many others too.

In The Salt Path, author Raynor Winn shares the painful story of how she and her husband Moth lost their family farm after a lengthy legal battle stemming from an investment with a friend. While not all that much detail is given about the case itself, it sounds as though this long-term friend was fairly shady and went after Ray and Moth to cover his expenses when the project tanked. Not able to afford counsel in the drawn-out court case, the couple had no choice but to represent themselves, and ultimately ended up losing everything on what seemed to be a technicality.

Given a week to vacate their home, Ray and Moth are thrown into despair, compounded by a visit that week to a doctor who confirms that Moth suffers from a degenerative neurological disease that will kill him after a painful decline at some point in the near future. If this were fiction, a reader might be tempted to protest the melodrama of having characters lose their homes and livelihood AND get a terminal diagnosis all in the same week, but this is real life, and it really happened this way.

The choices available to the couple are slim. They’re left with public benefts that amount to about $60 a week, and can go on the wait list for public housing — but because Moth’s illness isn’t in end stages just yet, they don’t have priority. They can stay with family and friends temporarily, but are afraid of becoming burdens and outstaying their welcomes. And then a strange whim occurs to them as they’re sorting through the remains of their old life — why not just walk? Now in their 50s, Moth and Ray haven’t done any serious outdoor adventuring in many, many years, but the idea of walking the South West Coast Path grabs hold of them as a way of being somewhere, with a purpose, rather than completely buckling under the weight of their bad luck and inauspicious prospects.

And so, they gather gear, put most of their belongings into storage with friends, and set out to walk the Coast Path. It’s not easy. Moth’s illness is painful, to the point that he can barely get out of bed some days. And yet, they’re determined to walk rather than sit still. As they move forward, they face ongoing shortages of food, scraping by on their meager weekly allowance (and eating lots of noodles), camping wild wherever they can find a spot to pitch the tent, and slowly, mile by mile, falling into a rhythm that has a beauty all its own.

Ray and Moth have a marriage that the rest of us can only envy. Together since their teens, the love between the couple is strong and unbreakable, shining through Ray’s writing on every single page. It’s heart-breaking to hear Ray’s thoughts on how much this man means to her, and what the future might hold for both of them as his disease progresses.

Meanwhile, each chapter brings fresh insights and wonders. Parts of the book read like an ode to the natural beauty of the landscapes and seascapes they see on their journey. It really sounds spectacular. There’s also sorrow and harsh realities — the author includes statistics and background information on homelessness in the UK, and shows how the official numbers are only a small representation of the true homeless population.

Homeless themselves, Ray and Moth again and again face the general dislike and fear that most people seem to feel toward the homeless. They meet many people along the path — fellow hikers, local residents, random strangers. When seen as older backpackers with presumably enough wealth to take weeks away from the world to walk the path, they’re applauded and warmly greeted. But when Moth explains to previously friendly people that they’re homeless, the others shrink away from them and can’t seem to distance themselves fast enough.

The writing is simply beautiful. Ray shares her pain and her sorrows, but also reveals the growing sense of belonging that she finds through the path:

The country towered above me, a blank empty space containing nothing for us. Only one thing was real, more real to me now than the past that we’d lost or the future we didn’t have: if I put one foot in front of the other, the path would move me forward and a strip of dirt, often no more than a foot wide, had become home. It wasn’t just the chill in the air, the lowering of the sun’s horizon, the heaviness of the dew or the lack of urgency in the birds’ calls, but something in me was changing season too. I was no longer striving, fighting to change the unchangeable, not clenching in anxiety at the life we’d been unable to hold on to, or angry at an authoritarian system too bureaucratic to see the truth. A new season had crept into me, a softer season of acceptance. Burned in by the sun, driven in by the storm. I could feel the sky, the earth, the water and revel in being part of the elements without a chasm of pain opening at the thought of the loss of our place within it all. I was a part of the whole. I didn’t need to own a patch of land to make that so. I could stand in the wind and I was the wind, the rain, the sea; it was all me, and I was nothing within it. The core of me wasn’t lost. Translucent, elusive, but there and grown stronger with every headland.

A note on the audiobook: Narrator Anne Reid is lovely, making the story feel alive and vibrant, capturing the emotion of Ray’s first-person narration in a way that makes it feel like a friend telling you a story. Really a treat to listen to.

There’s so much to love about The Salt Path. I found Ray and Moth’s journey and their devotion to one another so inspirational. And, this book really made me want to get out and walk a long path some day!

Don’t miss this book. It’s a beautiful work, and is worth taking the time to savor.

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The details:

Title: The Salt Path
Author: Raynor Winn
Narrated by: Anne Reid
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: March 22, 2018
Length (print): 288 pages
Length (audiobook): 11 hours, 2 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased

Audiobook Review: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro


The acclaimed and beloved author of Hourglass now gives us a new memoir about identity, paternity, and family secrets—a real-time exploration of the staggering discovery she recently made about her father, and her struggle to piece together the hidden story of her own life.

What makes us who we are? What combination of memory, history, biology, experience, and that ineffable thing called the soul defines us?

In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history—the life she had lived—crumbled beneath her.

Inheritance is a book about secrets—secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman’s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in—a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover.

Timely and unforgettable, Dani Shapiro’s memoir is a gripping, gut-wrenching exploration of genealogy, paternity, and love.

I picked up Inheritance on a whim, after a book group friend mentioned plans to attend a talk by the author at an upcoming event. The little bit I heard sounded interesting enough to make me want to know more: The author, raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, discovers through DNA testing that the man who raised her wasn’t actually her biological father.

With the proliferation of inexpensive testing resources like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, anyone can learn a little bit about their genetic background. Author Dani Shapiro’s half-sister had done DNA testing, and Dani decided to do it as well. But when she got her results back, she was startled: According to the data, she was only 52% Ashkenazi Jewish, not the 100% she was certain was her correct heritage. She’d been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, and her father’s lineage in particular was practically a who’s who of important people in the Orthodox world. She and her half-sister shared a father, but when she compared their results, it turns out that the two women were not actually biologically related at all.

The author was in her mid-50’s at this point, and both her parents were already deceased. She began to follow the scanty available clues, among them memories of her mother stating that she’d been conceived thanks to a medical institute in Philadelphia, and within days, made the discovery that her parents had turned to a fertility center that relied on donor sperm to help infertile couples have children. With only the most preliminary attempts at sleuthing, the author was able to trace connections and find her biological father, a man who was a sperm donor for a period of time as a medical student in Philadelphia in the 1960s.

The book focuses on Dani Shapiro’s search for both the facts of her heritage and conception, and the bigger truth about her identity. Much of Inheritance is spend on understanding the essential question: Who am I? The author, in discovering that the facts of her entire life were false, found herself unmoored and in desperate need of answers. Did her parents truly understand the treatment they sought? Did they know that donor sperm would be used? If they truly knew, how could they hide the truth from her for her entire life? Does this truth change her history, her understanding of her parents’ marriage, her place in the family history?

The author narrates the audiobook, which lends it greater immediacy and emotion. When she describes her soul-searching and her moments of pain and shock, it feels genuine — as though the author was allowing us a peek inside herself, letting us see the turmoil she experienced.

I must admit that there were sections that made me feel very impatient. The degree of shock and dislocation experienced by the author was hard for me to fully understand. I mean, I get being shocked by learning in midlife that there’s a big family secret that was hidden all this time — but the extreme questioning about whether she was still herself and whether she still belonged to her family struck me as over the top. What about people who’ve been adopted? What about all the other people out there whose parents used assisted reproductive technologies involving donor sperm or donor eggs? Why should the use of donor sperm in conception mean that the father who raised her wasn’t really her father?

As a whole, Inheritance spends a great deal of time on introspection and the search for meaning. Which I guess is the point of a memoir, so maybe I’m just not a particularly good memoir reader? In any case, I was much more interested in the unraveling of clues, the discussion of the medical ethics, and the research into fertility approaches in the 1960s than in the contemplative sections on identity and belonging.

That being said, I did find Inheritance quite fascinating as a whole. It’s a relatively quick listen, with lots of food for thought, and elements focused on the author’s Jewish upbringing and how that carries through to her current life particularly resonated for me.

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The details:

Title: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
Author: Dani Shapiro
Narrated by: Dani Shapiro
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Length (print): 272 pages
Length (audiobook): 6 hours, 44 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased

Shelf Control #132: Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Boys in the Trees
Author: Carly Simon
Published: 2015
Length: 384 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Rock Star. Composer and Lyricist. Feminist Icon. Survivor.

Simon’s memoir reveals her remarkable life, beginning with her storied childhood as the third daughter of Richard L. Simon, the co-founder of publishing giant Simon & Schuster, her musical debut as half of The Simon Sisters performing folk songs with her sister Lucy in Greenwich Village, to a meteoric solo career that would result in 13 top 40 hits, including the #1 song “You’re So Vain.” She was the first artist in history to win a Grammy Award, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award, for her song “Let the River Run” from the movie Working Girl.

The memoir recalls a childhood enriched by music and culture, but also one shrouded in secrets that would eventually tear her family apart. Simon brilliantly captures moments of creative inspiration, the sparks of songs, and the stories behind writing “Anticipation” and “We Have No Secrets” among many others. Romantic entanglements with some of the most famous men of the day fueled her confessional lyrics, as well as the unraveling of her storybook marriage to James Taylor.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy in 2017 when I saw it was a Kindle Daily Deal.

Why I want to read it:

I feel like Carly Simon is one of the chief components of the soundtrack of my college years. My roommates and I listened to her greatest hits non-stop, and her voice still gives me chills. I don’t actually know much about her life beyond the headlines, but I’ve always admired her incredible talent. Here’s my chance to learn more!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Audiobook Review: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots


The instant New York Times bestselling memoir of a young Jewish woman’s escape from a religious sect, in the tradition of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel and Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, featuring a new epilogue by the author.

The Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism is as mysterious as it is intriguing to outsiders. In this arresting memoir, Deborah Feldman reveals what life is like trapped within a religious tradition that values silence and suffering over individual freedoms.

Deborah grew up under a code of relentlessly enforced customs governing everything from what she could wear and to whom she could speak to what she was allowed to read. It was stolen moments spent with the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott that helped her to imagine an alternative way of life. Trapped as a teenager in a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional marriage to a man she barely knew, the tension between Deborah’s desires and her responsibilities as a good Satmar girl grew more explosive until she gave birth at nineteen and realized that, for the sake of herself and her son, she had to escape.

Unorthodox is a fascinating look into a world that’s largely unknown and hidden. The insular Satmar Hasidic community in which Deborah was raised has no tolerance for outside influence or interference, and at the same time, leaves no room for individuality or privacy.

All aspects of life are strictly governed, from what to wear to how to speak to what to eat to when to have sex with your husband. As a child, Deborah’s world revolved around family — the grandparents who raised her, the strict aunt who dictated every step of Deborah’s upbringing and education. Even so, Deborah was different, which can be unforgiveable among the Satmar — her father was either “crazy” or “retarded”, depending on who you asked, and her mother left the Satmar world when she left her unhappy marriage, leaving young Deborah behind.

As Deborah grows, she follows the rules carefully, always fearful of the contant watchful eyes and incessant gossip in their close-knit community, yet also yearning to expand her horizons. She sneaks forbidden books from a library from a different neighborhood, hiding Harry Potter and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn under her mattress, and takes the subway into Manhattan to be dazzled by the glimpse of another kind of life.

Still, Deborah does what is expected of her, married at age 17 to a groom she barely knows, enjoying the trappings of being a bride even while the horrible reality of her situation is driven home. The chapter on Deborah’s introduction to marriage is horrifying. Prior to the wedding, Deborah takes the mandatory “bride classes” that all Satmar girls take, learning essential requirements about going to the mikveh (ritual bath), about being unclean for two weeks due to her period (and the ridiculous steps women have to take before being considered clean enough to resume marital relations), how to run a good Jewish home, and then finally, in the last lesson, what sex is and what’s expected of her.

The sex talk Deborah gets is less than informative:

A man and a woman’s bodies were created like two interlocking puzzle pieces, she says. I hear her describe a hallway with walls, leading to a little door, which open to a womb, the mekor, she calls it, “the source.” I can’t imagine where an entire system like that could be positioned. She tries to tell me about the passageway that leads to “the source,” how this passageway is entered, demonstrating with her forefinger inserted into the ring of the thumb and forefinger of her other hand, and making ridiculous thrusting motions. I’m guessing that that motion is referring to the part where they click into place. Still, I can’t see where that spot, that entryway, can exist on my own body. As far as I know, the place where the pee comes out isn’t that stretchy. I finally stop her.

“Um, I don’t have that,” I say, giggling nervously.

The girls of the community are kept so utterly ignorant of their own bodies that she has no comprehension of having a vagina! Things go from bad to worse, as the couple is unable to consummate their marriage for a full year, as clumsy fumbling leads to frustration, which leads to deep anxiety and tension on Deborah’s part, making her physically unable to relax enough to permit her husband to complete the act. It’s horrible to hear the suffering that this young girl endures, with emotional damage heaped on top of physical suffering.

Finally, after becoming a mother at age 19, Deborah begins to secretly seek an outlet for her unfulfilled yearning for independence and knowledge, enrolling in classes, learning to drive, and venturing outside of her community and its heavy expectations. The more she encounters of the outside world, the more strongly she’s convinced that her future lies elsewhere. Ultimately, she finds a way to start a new life for herself and her young son, and finds the freedom she’s longed for all her life.

The narrative is intimate and informative, as Deborah walks us through the phases of a girl’s life, from early education through puberty and into young adulthood, when the entire focus becomes making a good match. We see the structures in place to enforce obedience and strict adherence to the religious rules that govern all aspects of life. The imbalance between the sexes is laughable — a woman’s life has as its purpose creating a home for her husband and raising children. There’s no room for individuality, and people with other interests are either shunned or, like Deborah and her mother before her, must leave entirely in order to have a life that feels true.

The audiobook, narrated by Rachel Botchan, captures the dialogue and the patterns of conversations quite well, as well as conveying the Yiddish terms that are peppered throughout the book. The narration flows nicely, and gives the listener a real sense of Deborah’s inner life, moods, and emotional struggles.

Quibbles:

While I found the story overall quite powerful, there are a few aspects that stuck out and were problems for me.

  • While talking about how unhappy she is in her marriage, Deborah states that she’d never be able to leave without leaving her son behind, because the rabbinical courts would never allow a Satmar woman to leave and take a child with her. Yet in the end, Deborah and her husband decide to divorce, and Deborah leaves with their son. How? Why was she allowed to take the child? What was the legal process? Was there some sort of agreement put into place? There’s no explanation offered, and considering that she pointed this out as a reason for her feeling trapped in her marriage, I needed to get some of information about why this worked out for her.
  • The author has a tendency to ascribe emotions to people based on her interactions with them, and this often rings false. When she goes to the mikveh for the first time in preparation for her wedding, she decides that the attendant “thinks she is better than I am” based on the tone of her voice, and later, when she feels embarrassed during the highly personal inspection that’s entailed, she says:

The attendant’s face is stern, but there is a faint whiff of triumph about her movements… She’s baiting me.

It all comes across as a big case of projection, as far as I can tell. Yes, the ritual is invasive and scary for a young woman who’s never been naked in front of others before and who has no knowledge of her own body, but the author presents the attendant’s feelings as facts, rather than showing that it’s her interpretation of what she sees. And this comes across in several places in the book — Deborah makes assumptions about other’s feelings and motivations, but we have no reason to think that she’s actually right.

  • I would have liked more explanation about Deborah and her husband Eli’s financial situation, as she describes them struggling to afford the basics, and yet they spend an enormous amount of time (and, I assume, money) visiting doctors and therapists and other specialists regarding their sexual difficulties, and later, for prenatal treatment once the pregnancy becomes high-risk. I assume the families support the couple, but it would have been good to have a better understanding of where the money they spent came from.

 

Wrapping it all up:

Unorthodox is a powerful story that provides a startling look into a world that must seem utterly alien to anyone with a secular upbringing. While there are areas that could use more factual grounding and additional information, overall this book provides quite a lot of detail into what constitutes childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in the Satmar community. It’s easy to understand how an intelligent girl who questions everything and thirsts for knowledge would feel stifled, and perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the author survived in this world for as long as she did.

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The details:

Title: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
Author: Deborah Feldman
Narrator: Rachel Botchan
Publisher: Simon Schuster
Publication date: October 2, 2012
Length (print): 272 pages
Length (audiobook): 10 hours, 31 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies

In this evocative and gorgeously wrought memoir reminiscent of Rob Sheffield’s Love Is a Mixtape and George Hodgman’s Bettyville, Michael Ausiello—a respected TV columnist and co-founder of TVLine.com—remembers his late husband, and the lessons, love, and laughter that they shared throughout their fourteen years together.

For the past decade, TV fans of all stripes have counted upon Michael Ausiello’s insider knowledge to get the scoop on their favorite shows and stars. From his time at Soaps in Depth and Entertainment Tonight to his influential stints at TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly to his current role as co-founder of the wildly popular website TVLine.com, Michael has established himself as the go-to expert when it comes to our most popular form of entertainment.

What many of his fans don’t know, however, is that while his professional life was in full swing, Michael had to endure the greatest of personal tragedies: his longtime boyfriend, Kit Cowan, was diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive form of neuroendrocrine cancer. Over the course of eleven months, Kit and Michael did their best to combat the deadly disease, but Kit succumbed to his illness in February 2015.

In this heartbreaking and darkly hilarious memoir, Michael tells the story of his harrowing and challenging last year with Kit while revisiting the thirteen years that preceded it, and how the undeniably powerful bond between him and Kit carried them through all manner of difficulty—always with laughter front and center in their relationship. Instead of a tale of sadness and loss, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies is an unforgettable, inspiring, and beautiful testament to the resilience and strength of true love.

As an occasionally obsessed TV fan, I’ve been familiar with Michael Ausiello’s writing career for years. I avidly followed his “Ausiello Report” for scoops and spoilers on my favorite shows, enjoyed his fanboy goofiness and funny interludes, his Smurf obsessions, and his super witty writing style. When I saw that he had a book coming out this fall, I naturally assumed this might be a collection of his TV writing.

Spoiler alert: It’s not.

Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies is a personal, painful, inspiring, heart-warming, and heart-breaking love story — Ausiello’s up-close memoir of the loss of his husband Kit after a short and intense battle with a devastating form of cancer.

Michael and Kit spent 13 years of their lives together, but this isn’t a sugar-coated fairy-tale version of perfect love and romance. Instead, it’s a warts-and-all look at a real relationship, filled with ups and downs, anger, laughter, challenges, and almost-breakups. It’s clear that Michael and Kit had an instant chemistry and loved each other deeply and passionately, but Ausiello doesn’t shy away from describing the less euphoric points of their relationship as well, such as Kit’s infidelities and Michael’s drinking.

Kit goes from strong, healthy and vital to a cancer patient in practically the blink of an eye. It’s wrenching to see Kit’s discomfort as it grows into pain, to see Michael’s helplessness at not being able to rescue the person he loves most in the world, and the growing realization that Kit is facing a death sentence, and quickly. And yet, there are moments of joy and beauty. Although they’d never considered marriage for themselves before, they practically turn the city upside down in a quest to get married before Kit starts chemo, and it’s funny and sweet and lovely.

I can’t say enough good things about this book, although I suppose I should warn readers that you’ll need heaps of Kleenex at the ready. The book has a lot of humor, for a book about cancer, and Michael and Kit themselves are funny people. I loved reading about their romance, their pet names for one another, all the silly little things that make up a life, and cried myself into a messy puddle as Kit weakened and they prepared themselves for loss.

Michael and Kit clearly had something special, and I appreciate how much of himself Michael was willing to share in putting together this lovely tribute to the man he loved. It’s practically a cliché to describe a book as a love letter to a person or place — but it’s just so apt in this case. Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies is absolutely a love letter to Kit — funny, sweet, and utterly romantic, and so very tragic.

I so admire Michael Ausiello’s honesty and emotional openness in writing this book, and although I didn’t previously know anything about him except his professional persona, I do feel invested now in wishing him a life of happiness. Kit was clearly an incredibly special person, and I’m happy to have gotten to know him through this book.

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The details:

Title: Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies
Author: Michael Ausiello
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: September 12, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Memoir
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Audiobook Review: Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

 

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to find yourself strapped to a giant rocket that’s about to go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour? Or to look back on the earth from outer space and see the surprisingly precise line between day and night? Or to stand in front of the Hubble telescope, wondering if the emergency repair you’re about to make will inadvertently ruin humankind’s chance to unlock the universe’s secrets? Mike Massimino has been there, and in Spaceman he puts you inside the suit, with all the zip and buoyancy of life in microgravity.

Massimino’s childhood space dreams were born the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but his journey to realizing those dreams was as unlikely as it is captivating. Growing up in a working-class Long Island family, Massimino catapulted himself to Columbia and then MIT, only to flunk his qualifying exams and be rejected twice by NASA before making it to the final round of astronaut selection—where he was told his poor eyesight meant he’d never make the cut. But even that couldn’t stop him from finally earning his wings, making the jump to training in T-38 Air Force jets and preparing his body—and soul—for the journey to the cosmos.

Taking us through the surreal wonder and beauty of his first spacewalk, the tragedy of losing friends in the Columbia shuttle accident, and the development of his enduring love for the Hubble telescope—which he’d be tasked with saving on his final mission— Massimino has written an ode to never giving up and the power of teamwork to make anything possible. Spaceman invites us into a rare, wonderful world where the nerdiest science meets the most thrilling adventure, and pulls back a curtain on just what having “the right stuff” really means.

I’ve always had a fascination with the space program, and I’ve loved both fiction and non-fiction books about the early days of NASA and the astronaut program, as well as more humorous (but still informative) works like Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. I came across Spaceman purely by chance, and my first thought was, “Hey! It’s that guy who played an astronaut on The Big Bang Theory!”

Well, that’s true, but Mike Massimino is much more than some dude who had a cameo on a sit-com. Massimino embodies the “right stuff”, the true core of what makes an astronaut special. And I’m delighted that I took the time to listen to his audiobook and experience his story.

In Spaceman, Massimino takes us through his New York childhood, his education, his repeated attempts to overcome hideously difficult challenges — oh, for example, fixing his eyesight in order to meet NASA standards — and his determination to one day be a real astronaut.

Through it all, we get an intimate view of the US space program and its triumphs and tragedies, as well as one man’s dedication to achieving his life’s goals.

Massimino presents it all with humility and with humor. For a man who is startlingly intelligent and talented, he’s incredibly self-deprecating throughout the book, and does not shy away from discussing his shortcomings. His repeated message is about sticking with things, even when they seem impossible or out of reach.

Massimino himself narrates the audiobook, which is a wonderful thing. He’s got a gruff, deep voice, and it’s perfect for conveying his own story. Listening to him narrate his first space flight or his father’s illness or his sorrow over lost colleagues, you get the sense that his feelings are real and true, and there’s a sense of immediacy and intimacy in hearing him speak his own words.

There are a few truly beautiful things about Spaceman. One is the portrayal of friendship and goodness that Massimino presents as he speaks about his colleagues in the space program. He describes the dedication, the support, and the sacrifice that they all bring. Through his narrative, the picture emerges of people dedicating their lives to a higher cause, who genuinely believe in what they’re doing and that they’re making a difference in the lives of humankind.

Second is the devotion to one another among the people involved in NASA. When personal needs or crises emerge, the team is there for the individuals and their families, and it’s real. It goes way beyond sending flowers to a bereaved coworker — these people really care and give of themselves in thousands of ways.

Third, Massimino’s descriptions of what it feels like to fly, to spacewalk, and to see the Earth from a distance of 350 miles — just gorgeous. For a scientist, he’s practically a poet.

Finally, I couldn’t help thinking that Massimino himself is just a really nice guy. He says good things about EVERYONE. There’s not a single person he mentions in this book that he doesn’t praise or offer gratitude toward, and he’s quick to point out the talents of just about everyone he’s worked with. Some memoirs focus on the guilty secrets; in Spaceman, we only see the good. Quite impressive.

Sections of Spaceman are particularly moving, but none more so than when Massimino tells of the Columbia shuttle tragedy. He knew all of the lost crewmembers personally, and makes the disaster feel all the more tangible through the descriptions of the terrible events and human loss.

I highly recommend Spaceman — definitely for those who enjoy reading about space exploration, but also for anyone who appreciates a straightforward tale of one person’s journey toward his goals, told by someone who appreciates every opportunity he’s had to pursue and live his dreams.

A reading note: While I loved listening to the audiobook and hearing Massimino narrate his own story, I found it helpful to have a print copy (thank you, public library) on hand as well, both for going back and checking earlier chapters, and in order to be able to view the photos that go along with the story.

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The details:

Title: Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Mike Massimino
Publisher: Crown Archetype
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Length (print): 320 pages
Length (audiobook): 10 hours, 57 minutes
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #81: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland
Author: Patton Oswalt
Published: 2011
Length: 191 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Prepare yourself for a journey through the world of Patton Oswalt, one of the most creative, insightful, and hysterical voices on the entertain­ment scene today. Widely known for his roles in the films Big Fan and Ratatouille, as well as the television hit The King of Queens, Patton Oswalt—a staple of Comedy Central—has been amusing audiences for decades. Now, with Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, he offers a fascinating look into his most unusual, and lovable, mindscape.

Oswalt combines memoir with uproarious humor, from snow forts to Dungeons & Dragons to gifts from Grandma that had to be explained. He remem­bers his teen summers spent working in a movie Cineplex and his early years doing stand-up. Readers are also treated to several graphic elements, includ­ing a vampire tale for the rest of us and some greeting cards with a special touch. Then there’s the book’s centerpiece, which posits that before all young creative minds have anything to write about, they will home in on one of three story lines: zom­bies, spaceships, or wastelands.

Oswalt chose wastelands, and ever since he has been mining our society’s wasteland for perversion and excess, pop culture and fatty foods, indie rock and single-malt scotch. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is an inventive account of the evolution of Patton Oswalt’s wildly insightful worldview, sure to indulge his legion of fans and lure many new admirers to his very entertaining “wasteland.”

How I got it:

I bought a used copy online.

When I got it:

No idea. A couple of years ago… maybe?

Why I want to read it:

I think Patton Oswalt is hilarious, and so, so talented. I’m not usually big on celebrity memoirs, but I do love a good geek-out, and this seems like it should be oodles of fun.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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