Shelf Control #74: Riding Rockets

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!


My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: Riding Rockets
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.”

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

2010 or thereabouts.

Why I want to read it:

I have a soft spot for a good space exploration story! I read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars when it came out, and thought it was hilarious — and I’m pretty sure I either read or heard her recommending this book. Memoirs by people involved in NASA and the space race and the science of space exploration are just so fascinating to me. I really do need to make a point of reading this one!


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 #57: Firehouse

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!


My Shelf Control pick this week is:

firehouseTitle: Firehouse
Author: David Halberstam
Published: 2003
Length: 208 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“In the firehouse, the men not only live and eat with each other, they play sports together, go off to drink together, help repair one another’s houses, and, most important, share terrifying risks; their loyalties to each other must, by the demands of the dangers they face, be instinctive and absolute.”

So writes David Halberstam, one of America’s most distinguished reporters and historians, in this stunning New York Times bestselling book about Engine 40, Ladder 35, located on the West Side of Manhattan near Lincoln Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two rigs carrying thirteen men set out from this firehouse: twelve of them would never return.

Firehouse takes us to the epicenter of the tragedy. Through the kind of intimate portraits that are Halberstam’s trademark, we watch the day unfold–the men called to duty while their families wait anxiously for news of them. In addition, we come to understand the culture of the firehouse itself: why gifted men do this; why, in so many instances, they are eager to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and serve in so dangerous a profession; and why, more than anything else, it is not just a job, but a calling.

This is journalism-as-history at its best, the story of what happens when one small institution gets caught in an apocalyptic day. Firehouse is a book that will move readers as few others have in our time.

How I got it:

I found it at a library sale.

When I got it:

About 3 – 4 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

To be honest, the cover caught my eye while I was browsing the sale. At the time, I didn’t realize this book was focusing on 9/11 — I saw Halberstam’s name, and remembering reading one of his books during college, so I picked it up. I’m not usually much of a non-fiction reader, but given the subject matter, the author, and the relatively short length of the book, this is one that I think I really do need to make time to read, and soon.


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 below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control



Following up: Reviews, news, and some HP too!

I’ve come across bits and pieces of information related to two different books I’ve read recently, and thought I’d take a moment to share some links of interest. Plus, a smidge of Harry Potter, because Harry Potter is always worth talking about!


Immortal LifeFirst, some follow-up regarding The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot:

When I wrote about the audiobook of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks earlier this month (review), I focused just on the book content — what I enjoyed and what I didn’t, my overall impressions, etc. What I didn’t do at that point was to look for information about what has happened since with the family of Henrietta Lacks, the HeLa cell lines and their use in research, and the author of the book, Rebecca Skloot.

One of my questions while listening to the book had to do with the Lacks family. While the book discusses the sad situation of many of the family members, their financial struggles, and their inability to afford health coverage, it was not clear to me whether any of the book’s profits would be benefiting the family. A commenter on my blog was kind enough to mention that the author had started a foundation in honor of Henrietta Lacks, and that made me realize that I should share some of the information I came across here as a follow-up to my review.

First of all, Rebecca Skloot has established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, to benefit the family of Henrietta Lacks as well as others in need. Ms. Skloot is the president of the foundation’s board of directors, and contributes a portion of her royalties and speaking fees to the foundation as well.

There have also been additional developments in the scientific community in regard to the HeLa genome, the family’s privacy rights in regard to their genetic data, and the ongoing use of HeLa in research.

Some reading links:

Henrietta Lacks Foundation:

New York Times article about the foundation:

The Lacks Family website:
(includes information on speaking engagements, pictures and videos, and a link for making donations)

Rebecca Skloot’s FAQ page:
(includes detailed answers to questions about HeLa research, new developments since the book’s publication, the impact on the story, her writing process, and more)

New York Times op-ed piece by Rebecca Skloot (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel”):

There’s a lot more information out there and tons of articles that come up with a simple Google search for “Henrietta Lacks” or “HeLa”. I’m glad that I followed up and learned more, and I hope these links are helpful for those of you who are interested!


The StorytellerNext, regarding The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult:

The Storyteller (review) is a work of fiction, but its depiction of Holocaust survivors and the narration of one particular survivor’s experiences seem all too real. The book raises a question about guilt and regret; whether evil acts can be outweighed — or at least, counterbalanced — by a life dedicated to helping others. In The Storyteller, a 95-year-old man confesses to a young friend that he was once an SS officer who oversaw the treatment of prisoners at Auschwitz. The friend seeks help from a prosecutor who works to hunt down Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice. In the book, the characters discuss the difficulty of bringing elderly suspects to trial, especially as there are fewer and fewer witnesses still living with each passing year.

I was reminded all over again of the relevance of the issues raised in The Storyteller when I saw an article in the newspaper this week about the trial just getting under way in Germany. The defendent is a 94-year-old man who was a guard at Auschwitz, and is being accused of being an accessory to the murders of 170,000 people.

You can read more about the trial here:

It will be interesting to follow the course of the trial and see the outcome, particularly as there are several similar cases still pending in Germany. I was particularly struck by this fact included in the article: “Of 6,500 SS members who are known to have served at Auschwitz, only 29 were ever brought to trial in Germany. ”

If you haven’t had a chance to read The Storyteller yet, by all means do!


A final note:

After two serious subjects, I thought I’d end with something completely unrelated and totally upbeat: By now, I’m sure everyone has heard, but just in case…


Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is being released in book form! *happy dance*

This is NOT another Harry Potter novel, but rather the script from the London stage production. The book will be released on Harry’s birthday (July 31st, for the Muggles out there), and is available for preorder now!

Some news pieces about the book:

From the BBC:

From EW — a clarification from J. K. Rowling about what the book is and isn’t:

And the Pottermore announcement:

I’d still prefer a trip to the theater in London, of course — but since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I’m tickled pink about the book! Who else is counting the days until July 31st?

Audiobook Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Immortal Life

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells–taken without her knowledge in 1951–became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book I’d been hearing about for years, but as I rarely pick up non-fiction, I’d never gotten around to actually reading it. Finally, I decided to give the audiobook a try.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman with five children who was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer in the early 1950s, before finally dying of the disease in 1951. Doctors treating Henrietta removed samples of her tumor during her treatments, and these cells grew in culture at an unprecedented rate, becoming the first immortal cells ever created in medical history.

In the years since, HeLa cells have been used worldwide for medical research, and it is said that without the HeLa line, many of our current medical advances and treatments would not exist.

In The Immortal Life, author Rebecca Skloot explores both the scientific journey of Henrietta’s cells and their impact on modern medicine, and the lives of the family that Henrietta left behind. Amazingly, while HeLa was incredibly important and famous among the scientific community since the early 1950s, it was not until decades later that Henrietta’s family had any inkling that her cells had been preserved and were still being used for scientific advancement.

The author describes Henrietta’s early life and marriage, the birth of her children, and her suspicion around age 30 that something was wrong with her, leading to her treatment at Hopkins and ultimately, her death from a particularly virulent strain of cervical cancer. Henrietta is portrayed as an energetic, spirited woman and a devoted mother, who never fully understood her condition or her treatment.

Henrietta’s treatment at the time was probably not unusual, and there’s no indication that the medical care she received was not up to the standards of the 1950s. Henrietta was not asked for permission to take her cells for study, but again, that was not the practice at the time.

The book has many chapters describing the scientific impact of the HeLa cells, their use, their impact, and their study over the years. The book also covers topics concerning medical ethics, questions still under debate today, such as who “owns” the tissues removed from patients and who can and should profit from their commercialization. Some interesting examples are given, such as cases where millions of dollars in profit are made by the medical industry while the donor patient receives nothing.

Along those lines, we spend quite a bit of time with the Lacks family, most particularly with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. Deborah becomes Rebecca Skloot’s companion in her quest to understand Henrietta’s life and death, and her spirit and energy infuse much of the book. The author traces their travels together to the family’s rural home and through the bits and pieces of medical records which they manage to uncover. It’s clear that the family received little information about HeLa or what the cells actually were, so that Deborah often referred to them as being parts of her mother still alive, imagining her mother being experimented upon, and becoming agitated over the types of experiments conducted — describing at various times that parts of her mother were shot into space, used to test nuclear bombs, and infected with AIDS (all actually types of scientific work done using HeLa cells).

There’s a lot of fascinating information in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but overall, something about this book didn’t quite fit together for me. There are at least two distinct pieces here — the scientific elements related to the HeLa cell line, the use of tissue cultures, and the biomedical ethical issues; and the story of the Lacks family, their hardships, and the impact upon them of the fame of HeLa and the resultant loss of privacy for the family.

The author, in the book’s afterword, states that one of her purposes in writing this book was to bring to life the woman behind the cells, to make it clear to the world that HeLa is more than just nameless cells, but rather the living remnants that once were part of a real woman who had a name, a life and a family. I think the book absolutely succeeds in this regard.

Still, I couldn’t quite decide what the ultimate point was, or what we are to conclude about the scientific and ethical issues raised here. Was it wrong to use Henrietta’s cells for research? I really can’t believe that. Should patients have control over what happens to their tissues? Should patients have a monetary stake in research involving their tissues? What would that mean for ongoing research? These are big issues, but I felt that the nuances became a little muddy when mixed with the story of the Lacks family. It’s wonderful that Henrietta herself is finally getting recognition, but I’m not sure that this case proves anything when it comes to the confusing, often contradictory elements of the bioethical issues.

Regarding the audiobook itself, I question some of the production decisions made regarding the narration. Most of the narration is a straightforward read of the book, but quotes are read by a different narrator, with ethnic accents and dramatization. It’s not just the Lacks family that gets this treatment — a doctor of Chinese descent is read with a heavy Chinese accent, and there are a few others as well. This is a work of non-fiction, and adding this interpretive treatment of the text felt unnecessary to me, and ultimately, it was distracting.

The book itself is organized in a way that feels muddled and confusing. The chapters jump from present to past, from science to personal, and the transitions are quite abrupt. Particularly via audiobook, this jumping around makes the narrative hard to follow, and the logical sequence is occasionally lost.

I did find much of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quite interesting, and I was moved by the family’s story, particularly Deborah’s. Still, the combination of the two halves of the story didn’t quite gel for me, and the book as a whole wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be.


The details:

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: February 2, 2010
Audiobook length: 12 hours, 30 minutes
Printed book length: 370 pages
Genre: Non-fiction (science/biography)
Source: Library (Overdrive)

Audiobook Review: The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the BoatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics tells the inspirational true story of the US men’s rowing team who won gold, against all odds, in what was then one of the most popular sports world-wide.

The book follows one of the team members, Joe Rantz, from his childhood during the Depression through his years of college rowing, culminating in the victory in Berlin. Joe came from a poor family, with a stepmother who disliked him so intensely that he was abandoned at a young age and left to fend for himself. From an incredible inner core of strength, Joe made it to college at the University of Washington and joined the freshman crew program.

At that time, Washington was in hot competition with the Cal crew to dominate not just the West Coast, but all of the US colleges in national regattas, and from the start, Joe’s freshman boat showed remarkable promise. As they won their freshman races and then competed for the varsity seats, Joe and the boys in his boat faced ongoing struggles with financial hardships, family complications, and the sheer bodily torture that is needed to persevere and make it as a rower.

Rowing is a sport of skill and strength, and The Boys in the Boat shows us step by step what it takes to train, to master the physical requirements, and to gain the mental focus and determination to excel. By following Joe and his teammates, we see boys of a variety of backgrounds, mostly working class and struggling to get by, throw themselves into a punishing sport and come together to overcome every obstacle.

team photo

Early on, in the prologue, the author describes meeting Joe Rantz as an old man. Joe tells him of his childhood and family, and about memories of the Olympics in Berlin:

It was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

He goes on to define what so moved Joe:

Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both — it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience — a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

The Boys in the Boat captures beautifully the open-hearted nature of the boys, their essential earnestness and deep friendship, and their passion for the boat, their school, their coaches, and their shared goals.

Woven throughout are chilling sections describing the Nazi rise to power and the role of Nazi propaganda in the 1936 Olympics, showing how Germany used the games to present a whitewashed version of the Nazi regime to a global audience. It’s truly disturbing to hear or read the parts of the book that describe the gleaming stadiums, the omnipresent swastikas, and the fates of those driven out or disposed of in order to present a pretty picture to the world.

I should pause for a moment to note that I am not at all a sports fan, and I never would have suspected that a book about a rowing team could grab my attention the way it did. Granted, I learned a lot more about rowing that I ever thought I’d need to know, and occasionally the narrative goes so deeply into times, techniques, strokes, and boat-building methods that I got a littly antsy waiting for the action to continue. However, the author does such a terrific job of intercutting the personal stories of the boys and the happenings of the greater world into the narrative of the sport that the whole is simply fascinating.

The audiobook is narrated by Edward Herrmann, whose narration I loved when I listened to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand last year. (In fact, it tickled me when Louis Zamperini gets a one-sentence mention in this book.)  Edward Herrmann’s deep voice has a folksy rhythm to it as he narrates The Boys in the Boat, so that I often felt like I was sitting around listening to a good-humored old gent telling me stories. (I have no idea about the narrator’s age or personality, but listening, I couldn’t help but envision a grandfatherly type, wearing a sweater, sitting in an armchair by a fireplace. I guess I need visuals when I listen to an audiobook!)

In reading or listening to a work centered on historical events, it’s no secret what the outcome will be. Just look at the cover and you’ll know that the boys did in fact win gold. You might expect there to be a lack of drama, knowing the end result, but in The Boys in the Boat, that’s simply not the case. The writing is so well-crafted that by the time I got to the actual Olympic race toward the end of the book, I had to remind myself to keep breathing while listening to the detailed description of how the US boat made it from start to finish, detailing practically every stroke along the way.

The epilogue is quite touching as well, covering the experiences of each of the team members immediately after Berlin, their war experiences in the years that followed, and what happened to each over the course of his lifetime. Perhaps most moving is the fact that the nine teammates came together and kept their connection alive for the rest of their lives, even doing anniversary rows together every ten years until they were all in their seventies.

I can’t say enough about how wonderful this book is, whether in print or via audio. The story is truly inspirational, and I’ve found myself unable or unwilling to shake off the images of this group of strong, determined athletes and what their boat meant to them. I strongly recommend this book — and no, you do not have to be a sports fan or rowing enthusiast to enjoy it.

A quick suggestion for those who listen to the audiobook: If possible, keep a copy of the physical book or e-book on hand as well, as you won’t want to miss the photos that go with the story. For some reason, the author’s notes at the end of the book are not included in the audiobook, so be sure to read those as well.

A final note: There are quite a few different videos available about the US Olympic rowing team, including footage filmed by Nazi propagandist and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Here’s a video that gives a great overview of the achievement of this remarkable nine-man crew from Washington:


The details:

Title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Author: Daniel James Brown
Narrator: Edward Herrmann
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: June 4, 2013
Audiobook length: 14 hours, 25 minutes
Printed book length: 416 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/history
Source: Audible

Audiobook Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes


(via Goodreads)

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

My Thoughts:

Unfamiliar Fishes has been on my to-read list for a few years now. I’m fascinated by Hawaiian history, and have heard all sorts of good things about the author, Sarah Vowell. Since I’m rarely in the mood to sit down with a non-fiction book when there are ALL THE NOVELS to be read, I thought the idea of listening to the audiobook was rather brilliant on my part.

Sadly, the audiobook was a big disappointment, in several ways.

First of all, the content: Unfamiliar Fishes can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be history, social commentary, or personal travelogue. The historical facts and interpretations are there, sure, but mixed in are the author’s narrative of hikes, visits to Hawaii with her nephew, and other random observations. The history is presented chronologically — except when it’s not. So, for example, we may learn about a school founded by missionaries, then jump to President Obama’s school days and quotes from his memoir, before hearing from a modern-day descendant of native Hawaiians on her thoughts about the school, before returning to the historical record.

The narrative jumps from King Kamehameha to the last queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliʻuokalani — a jump of at least 80 years. When a section about the whaling industry and its impact on Hawaii gets underway, we have all sorts of digressions about Herman Melville and Moby Dick, as well as a visit to the Melville museums and tourist attractions in Massachusetts.

The story is all over the place, and particularly in an audiobook, this makes it hard to follow. Without being able to flip back to the last place where the history left off in pursuit of other digressions, it’s practically impossible to keep track of the various missionaries, chiefs, and Hawaiian royalty.

Second, the narration of the audiobook: Most of the audiobook is read by Sarah Vowell herself. To say that she has an odd voice is putting it mildly. Her voice is quirky and sounds as though every line is expected to produce a reaction, so that it’s hard to take it entirely seriously, even when dealing with serious matters. (Of course, some will love this kind of thing. I found it hard to listen to.)

What was even harder for me, and rather puzzling, was the use of some big-name comedians and actors to read sections of the books where there are quotes. According to the audiobook description, narrators include Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery. Impressive? Well, not if their voices are unrecognizable. Listening to the book, it just sounded like random people. Not all quotes were read by these folks — some are just done by Sarah Vowell as part of her narration. But every once in a while, when there’s a quote from a missionary’s memoir or a document written by some other historical feature, one of these random voices pops in to read it. It makes for a very weird and disjointed listening experience, and is distracting too. I found myself losing focus on the context and thinking instead, “Should I know who’s speaking right now?”

Having these people as the voice of the missionaries also seems to imply that we should view everything the missionaries wrote as funny or mock-worthy, and I’m not convinced that the actual content of their writing supports that interpretation. It’s certainly an odd approach to historical documents.

True confession time: I didn’t finish this audiobook. By about the 50% mark, I knew I was struggling. I tried to force myself to continue — I even took the advice of a Twitter friend who suggested listening at 1.5x speed to get through it faster! (Believe me, the higher speed did nothing for the quality of the narration.) Finally, I quit at about 67%. I wasn’t enjoying it, I was fighting to pay attention, and it just wasn’t working.

This was a sad DNF for me. As I mentioned, I do really enjoy learning about Hawaii, but this experience taught me very little except that I should find myself a more traditional history of the islands to read. Unfamiliar Fishes couldn’t seem to decide if it was serious or snarky, and in the end, it ends up somewhere in the muddy middle, not successfully achieving either.

I’ve heard from friends that two other books by Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, are worth checking out. Based on my experience with Unfamiliar Fishes, I’m not inclined to read more by this author — but if you’ve have a positive experience with her books, please tell me so!


The details:

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes
Author: Sarah Vowell
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: March 22, 2011
Audiobook length: 7 hours, 28 minutes
Printed book length: 258 pages
Genre: History/social commentary (non-fiction)
Source: Library (audio download)

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Fabulous Non-Fiction Favorites

Top 10 Tuesday new

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week is a Freebie — we each pick our own topic. After much debate and a few false starts, I thought I’d write about my favorite non-fiction books. I really don’t read much non-fiction, but I’ve read enough over the years to be able to choose some real stand-outs.

My top 10 non-fiction favorites are:

Ice Bound

1) Ice Bound by Dr. Jerri Nielsen: The late Dr. Nielsen writes about her winter at the South Pole, her personal journey, and her battle with breast cancer with unflinching honesty and remarkable courage.

Poisoners Handbook

2) The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum: A fascinating look at the early days of forensics during Probition.

Don't Let's Go

3) Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller: A startling and disturbing memoir of a childhood in Africa.


4) If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende: I go a bit overboard for anything connected to Alaska, and I really enjoyed this slice-of-life book about a woman raising a family in an Alaskan small town.


5) Life by Keith Richards: KEITH! What is there to say about this book? Amazing. My only complaint was that I’d wished it came with a soundtrack.

Packing for Mars

6) Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach: If you like your science packed with humor, then you really can’t go wrong with any of Mary Roach’s books. This is the one I’ve read most recently, but I also loved Stiff, which taught me that it’s possible to laugh hysterically while reading about cadavers.

Fear and Loathing Campaign

7) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson: Everyone should read Hunter S. Thompson at some point in his/her life, and this is the one I’d choose above all others. It just has to be experienced — no point in further explanation.

Blind Side

8) The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis: This is the book that made me run around my house shouting, “Look, I’m reading a football book!” I am not a sports fan, and have never read another football book in my life… but this one was just so gripping, I couldn’t stop myself.

Devil's Teeh

9) The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey: A brilliant account of the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, the great white sharks that fill the waters there, and the scientists who study them.

Krakauer collage

10) It’s a toss-up between two very different books by Jon Krakauer: Into Thin Air, his classic tale of a disastrous Everest expedition, or Under the Banner of Heaven, a history of the Mormon church and exposé of Mormon Fundamentalist communities.

As I started working on this list, I kept jotting down more and more non-fiction books that I’ve read and loved. I was reminded that I went through a Vietnam War obsession phase and a weird neurology phase, and then there’s my need to read off-beat personal stories and adventures. In other words, although my reading definitely skews heavily toward all fiction, all the time, I’ve actually read more non-fiction than I’d realized.

Do you have a favorite non-fiction book that you recommend?

I’d love to know what everyone else picked for a top 10 freebie topic! Share your link, and I’ll come check out your list.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following Bookshelf Fantasies! And don’t forget to check out my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables. Happy reading!


Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Thursday Quotables: Bad Feminist


Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!


bad feminist

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
(published August 5, 2014)

I haven’t gotten very far, but so far I’m really enjoying these entertaining and thought-provoking essays. Here’s a little sample:

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying — trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

And another:

Even from a young age I understood that when a girl is unlikable, a girl is a problem. I also understood that I wasn’t being intentionally mean. I was being honest (admittedly, without tact), and I was being human. It is either a blessing or a curse that those are rarely likable qualities in a woman.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (, if you’d be so kind!
  • Leave your link in the comments — or, if you have a quote to share but not a blog post, you can leave your quote in the comments too!
  • Visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Family Reading Time! A Book Recommendation.


I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History’s Strangest Cures by Carlyn Beccia
(published 2010)

After seeing this book mentioned recently by another blogger (thank you, Bookish!), I just knew I had to grab a copy at my local library.

What a treat!

In I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat, author Carlyn Beccia takes us through the wild and wacky history of medicine by offering a quiz of sorts, complete with hilarious illustrations.

Which of the following helped cure coughs — caterpillar fungus, frog soup, or cherry bark? For a series of different ailments, we get a choice of cures, and then turn the page to see how they were used, by whom and when, and whether they worked a little, a lot, or not at all.

Can mummy powder help a wound to heal? How about maggots? Or maybe some puppy kisses? The answers might surprise you.

This book is a real multi-generational treat. I happened to bring it home from the library on a day when we had a full house. Before I knew it, I was reading this book, game show style, with various family members ranging from age 12 to 70. We giggled, we got grossed out, and we also learned something!

By the way, I was proud to show off my mad healing skills, thanks to my devoted (some might say obsessive) reading of the Outlander series. Thanks to Claire Fraser, I know all about uses of moldy bread, leeches, and spider webs!

If you have kids around the house — or even if you don’t — check out this book for some fun facts and silly learning.

Flashback Friday: Last Chance To See

NOTE: Flashback Friday will be taking a little pause over the holidays! Look for my next Flashback Friday post on Friday, January 10th.

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight — and you’re invited to join in!

Here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My Flashback Friday for this week:

Last Chance to See

Last Chance To See
by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
(published 1990)

Synopsis (Amazon):

Join bestselling author Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine as they take off around the world in search of exotic, endangered creatures. Hilarious and poignant – as only Douglas Adams can be – LAST CHANCE TO SEE is an entertaining and arresting odyssey through the Earth’s magnificent wildlife galaxy.

I am so glad that I stumbled cross this non-fiction book by the extraordinary Douglas Adams a couple of years ago. We all know and love Douglas Adams for his incredibly inventive and humorous works of fiction (I mean, does anyone NOT like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy??), but this work of non-fiction is just as funny and entertaining, even in its more serious moments and while delivering not terribly optimistic messages about the fate of the natural world.

The book Last Chance To See grew out of a BBC production in which Douglas Adams traveled with zoologist Mark Carwardine to all sorts of far-flung points around the globe. Their goal was to see, understand, and document the plight of animals so endangered as to be all but assured of extinction. Among the animals visited were komodo dragons, northern white rhinoceroses, mountain gorillas, and more. In each instance, Adams describes the plight of the species and how they got to that point, what’s being done to protect them, and what the future may hold.

It’s often a sad journey, but with Adams’s quirky and wonderful writing, Last Chance To See manages to entertain and challenge the reader. It’s witty, it’s gritty, and it’s just a pleasure to read. I highly recommend Last Chance To See for anyone who enjoys Douglas Adams, as well as for anyone who’d like a fresh take on humanity’s footprint on the animal kingdom and its habitats.


Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!