Biography, Book Club, History, Non-Fiction, Travel

The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Another Nonfiction Book Club selection, this one was selected for my new Antarctica-loving friend, Lenore!

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
It was 1928: a time of illicit booze, of Gatsby and Babe Ruth, of freewheeling fun. The Great War was over and American optimism was higher than the stock market. What better moment to launch an expedition to Antarctica, the planet’s final frontier?

Everyone wanted in on the adventure. Rockefellers and Vanderbilts begged to be taken along as mess boys, and newspapers across the globe covered the planning’s every stage. And then, the night before the expedition’s flagship set off, Billy Gawronski – a mischievous, first-generation New York City high schooler desperate to escape a dreary future in the family upholstery business – jumped into the Hudson River and snuck aboard. Could he get away with it?

From the soda shops of New York’s Lower East Side to the dance halls of sultry Francophone Tahiti, all the way to Antarctica’s blinding white and deadly freeze, Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway takes you on the unforgettable voyage of a plucky young stowaway who became a Jazz Age celebrity, a mascot for an up-by-your-bootstraps era.

Review

I was so excited to read The Stowaway – it sounded like such a fun adventure: kid stows away on a trip to Antarctica during the Jazz Age and Prohibition? Yes please! I love the 1920s, I love the flappers, I love everything about Gatsby-era NYC. But, as seems to be the case with my last few books and reviews, I found the synopsis just didn’t deliver as promised.

Don’t get me wrong, The Stowaway is a fun book – the story of our determined young man who doesn’t even think far enough ahead to bring a change of clothes when he swims to the frigid-water-bound-sailboat, would have been better suited to a long form article, perhaps in The Atlantic or another magazine structured for the form. At just about 200 pages, it felt like mostly filler of what was an otherwise unremarkable life (I’ve already forgotten our main subject’s name, Billy, I think?)

What promises to be an adventure of exploration is really only 25-30 pages in Antarctica, the rest of the book focuses on the journey (and the attractive and loose women encountered on said journey), and our wayward teenagers life before and after the expedition. While many of the others who sailed with Captain Byrd and were of note have already either a, written their tale, or b, been the subject of a biography, Billy’s story has ample material because of the detailed scrapbooks his mother kept throughout his life, as well as he correspondence with them from the journey.

The journey of one young man to Antarctica, who was kicked off of the expedition multiple times before finally being allowed to stay, has all the promise of a good book (and film material), but alas, I just don’t think there was enough to Billy’s life and story to warrant a full book about him and his singular act of rebellion and adventure.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Available for purchase with free international shipping from Book Depository.

Biography, Book Club, History, Non-Fiction

Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson

Picking out books with my nonfiction book club is such fun. Death in the Air is very similar to Devil in the White City, or so I’m told, and it was a good fit for the nonfiction book club!

Death in the Air

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
London was still recovering from the devastation of World War II when another disaster hit: for five long days in December 1952, a killer smog held the city firmly in its grip and refused to let go. But in the chaotic aftermath, another killer was stalking the streets. All across London, women were going missing – poor women, forgotten women. Their disappearances caused little alarm, but each of them had one thing in common: they had the misfortune of meeting a quiet, unassuming man, John Reginald Christie, who invited them back to his decrepit Notting Hill flat during that dark winter. They never left.

The Great Smog of 1952 remains the deadliest air pollution disaster in world history, and John Reginald Christie is still one of the most unfathomable murders of modern times. Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson braids these strands together into a taut and gripping true-crime thriller about a serial killer and an environmental catastrophe with implications that still echo today.

Review

Death in the Air really wants to be Devil in the White City according to my book club. I, on the other hand, have read many Eric Larson books (Isaac’s Storm, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts), but I have not yet read his best known work so I feel my assessment of it is not clouded by a previous read.

I was first introduced to the Great Smog through the Netflix series The Crown and was instantly intrigued. With all the discussion today of climate change and environmental disasters, its worthwhile to know that what we’re experiencing today truly is not a new, or even a unique, occurrence. Smog has been a regular characteristic of London and is featured or mentioned in numerous works of English literature. But the Great Smog of 1952 is unique.

Before reading Isaac’s Storm I wouldn’t have considered weather history a great interest of mine. But it never ceases to amaze me how destructive natural forces can be. And while the smog is trigger by the activity of men, it is, at it’s root, an environmental phenomenon. The best parts of the book are those where the author focuses on the smog and how it affected every day Londoners.

The serial killer side of things, however, felt mismatched. He wasn’t really active during the smog, but it was when his crimes were exposed. I got the feeling the two narratives just weren’t as compatible as the author would like us to believe. I found myself frequently skimming the chapters of murder and savoring the chapters detailing the natural disaster.

All in all, not a bad book, and definitely an informative read, but the narratives felt like they should have been two separate books.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.99 – 9780316506830 – 368 pages – originally published October 2017, this edition published November 2018 by Hachette Books – average Goodreads rating 3.50 out of 5 stars – read in April 2019

Book Club, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Travel

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

Another book club pick! I’m really enjoying having a book club again, particularly one that reads exclusively nonfiction! This book was originally recommended by a former book store coworker and I can’t wait to tell her what everyone else thought of the book.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Fascinated by our pervasive fear of dead bodies, mortician Caitlin Doughty embarks on a global expedition to discover how other cultures care for the dead. From Zoroastrian sky burials to wish-granting Bolivian skulls, she investigates the world’s funerary customs and expands our sense of what it means to treat the dead with dignity. Her account questions the rituals of the American funeral industry – especially chemical embalming – and suggests that the most effective traditions are those that allow mourners to personally attend to the body of the deceased. Exquisitely illustrated by artist Landis Blair, From Here to Eternity is an adventure into the morbid unknown, a fascinating tour through the unique ways people everywhere confront mortality.

Review

As someone who has lost their fair share of friends and family members, as well as pets, almost exclusively to cancer, I’ve never really come to terms with how we, in the US, process death. A friend, who is currently going to school to be a mortician/funeral director, introduced me to Caitlin Doughty, an L. A. based mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping people come to terms with their mortality and make decisions regarding the care and keeping of their body after they die.

These facts, when the book club picked it, made me a bit wary – I’m still not entirely at peace with my grandmother’s passing in the fall. I don’t like to talk about death. I don’t like to talk about dead bodies. I have difficulty with viewings and other death-related occasions. But, with an open mind, I started reading, with the hope that Caitlin would help me develop a better relationship one of the only facts about our lives on earth – they will end.

My husband often says he wants a Viking funeral, or a Tibetan Sky Burial, and each time he brings it up, I ask him to stop. I can’t stomach it. But Caitlin has gone all over the world, and her own country, exploring different cultures’ death rituals. And maybe it’s her writing, maybe it’s the distance, but it is absolutely fascinating! I really could not put From Here to Eternity – the travel aspect also helped me stomach the content. And at times, I cried, but for good reasons – Caitlin expertly goes back and forth between being detached and un-emotional, to feeling all the things when listening to her coworker recount the circumstances of the loss of her unborn son.

People die all the time, and she also goes into why cremation has become such a large part of the modern funeral industry, as well as the monopolies, corruption, and out-of-date laws that govern the industry in the US. To say I learned something would be a massive understatement. I was freaked out significantly less than I anticipated being while reading Packing for Mars last month.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.95 – 9780393356281 – 272 pages – originally published October 2017, this edition published October 2018 by W. W. Norton & Company – average Goodreads rating 4.29 out of 5 – read in June 2019

Book Club, History, Non-Fiction, STEM

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Packing for Mars = Book #3 for my new Nonfiction Book Club! One of the members, not me, is super into books about space and Antarctica so our May read and July reads have been picked by her. And while I am a person who is often freaked out and overwhelmed by the vast void of space, I, surprisingly, wasn’t too freaked out by Packing for Mars.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
The best-selling author of Stiff and Bonk explores the irresistibly strange universe of space travel and life without gravity. From the Space Shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule, Mary Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

Review

Admittedly, I’ve started reading/listening to 3 Mary Roach books prior to starting this one. And while I’ve enjoyed them all, for some reason I put each one down without coming back to it after reading about 50%. Bonk, Stiff, Gulp, each one fascinating, but I certainly haven’t finished them. And I really couldn’t put my finger on why until Packing for Mars.

Mary Roach has a near insatiable curiosity – she could probably ask questions endlessly. I thought I was curious, but she far surpasses my natural inclination to learn about the same topic for any significant amount of time. By the halfway mark, my curiosity regarding her chosen subject is pretty much fulfilled. However, because of her curiosity, I see her fulfilling a unique role to the film industry.

NASA has actual space travel mechanics to figure out – I trust the astrophysicists to figure out how we’re actually going to move off Earth and survive, though I hope this doesn’t have to happen until after my lifetime. But science fiction film and books don’t always have a direct link to the scientists of NASA – enter Mary Roach! If the filmmakers of The Martian didn’t take a look at Packing for Mars or any other additional source material for actually living on Mars, I’d be surprised.

With the ever increasing temperatures on earth, as well as other troubles, it’s no surprise off-world action adventure movies have become more and more popular. Originally I thought Packing for Mars would make the great basis for a movie, but I’ve now realized it can serve as a popular science companion to The Martian, Passengers, and a whole host of other off-world science fiction adventures.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.95 – 9780393339918 – 334 pages – originally published August 2010, this edition published April 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company – average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 – read May 2019

Book Club, History, Non-Fiction, STEM

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

After a few years of being without a book club to lead (I still participate in my former club), I felt the nagging urge to start one that better suited my current tastes, nonfiction! Below is my review for the inaugural book, Isaac’s Storm!

Nonfiction Book Club (2)

Synopsis

From the back cover:
September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged by a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over 6,000 people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history – and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy.

Using Cline’s own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man’s heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. Isaac’s Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the uncontrollable force of nature.

Review

So, I missed the first book club meeting of my own book club. I had to go to the Hudson Valley in New York for a book buyer’s retreat (which was a lot of fun) and so my coworker, Su, filled in for me. Three ladies showed up, a strong presence for a brand new club, and apparently they had a lively discussion. I absolutely cannot wait to join in for the next meeting – if you want to follow along with our reading from afar, check out our book club page here!

I have now read three works by Erik Larson, Dead Wake (my favorite), In the Garden of Beasts (my least favorite) and now Isaac’s Storm (my middle choice). Unlike the first two works I read, Isaac’s Storm focuses on one main storyline, that of Isaac and the town of Galveston before, during, and after the storm. Other people and places make brief appearances, but the primary narrative sticks to the Texan Gulf coast.

As one of Erik’s earliest works, it is not surprising that what we think of as his trademark storytelling style, epitomized in Devil in the White City according to my coworkers, is not present in Isaac’s Storm. It is still an enjoyable book and a fascinating portrait of the early days of the American weather service. It is also difficult to fathom that Erik wrote this book before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast. The bureaucracy involved in getting word out to the area that a storm was coming is laughable, but still in place today.

Unfortunately, I walked away from Isaac’s Storm without much more than a “I’m glad I didn’t live in turn of the century Galveston.” I didn’t particularly care for Isaac and I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the townspeople mentioned throughout, they just didn’t stick with me the way the people in his other books did. It wasn’t a bad read, just not Erik’s strongest (also not surprising, at it is one of his earliest works).

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9780375708275 • 336 pages • originally published August 1999, this edition published July 2000 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in March 2019

Isaac's Storm