Category: Book reviews


My 2018 “summer of reading” continues with, “Six Years In The Hanoi Hilton An Extraordinary Story Of Courage and Survival In Vietnam”.

Whether you are like me and grew up with the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement as a backdrop to your life or not, you will surely want to check out this book by Amy Shivley Hawk, step-daughter of U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, James Richard Shivley (1942 – 2006), who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 – and suffered the consequences. She did a great job of transcribing her Dad’s impressions into this book and her chronological approach is fittingly perfect for learning moments and doesn’t make us wait very long, before we get to the meat of the story of being shot down and captured.

I remember news journalists like Dan Rather referring to many of our servicemen as “never accounted for”, like they wrote about his colleague, Captain Joe Karins, whose plane continued to fly along side of Jim’s after he ejected follwing being hit by enemy fire. [pg. 48]

This is a primer about the horrific prison of war camp conditions our soldiers endured during capture in the Vietnam War. If it wasn’t true history, you might think it is a movie like “Deer Hunter”. To all of my fellow Baby Boomers and high school (eleventh grade and up) or college school history teachers, please use this book as an opportunity to educate!

Have you ever wondered, as I have, what really happened behind the scenes in North Vietnam, when one of our men was captured? Were the rumored extreme tortures they endured really fact? This book will tell you, in graphic detail. Many of us are familiar with the fact that Arizona Senator and former presidential candidate, John McCain was a POW in North Vietnam, but this is a story about the other men who, heretofore were nameless and faceless along side of the great Senator. It is culled from family accounts, Captain Shivley’s diaries, CD, tapes and our unique American perspectives on a war that we fought with “one hand tied behind our back”, as my own WWII veteran Dad said often. And that was true until President Nixon launched the B52s on Hanoi when Henry Kissinger’s peace talks were not yielding the desired results from Hanoi.

This book is the stuff from which solving the MIA/POW movement was made of, a look inside of the infamous network of prison camps in Hanoi under Chairman Ho Chi Min. This is no “Hogan’s Heroes” comedy, for sure. I marveled at the description of how the prisoners learned to communicate via a tapping code, and simultaneously cringed at the tortures described which affirmed that many of my generation are lucky not to have been drafted back then, because we surely would not have survived such an ordeal of capture, if not killed by bullets.

It seems my World History classes taught that the Japanese tortured our captured WWII servicemen similarly; the Asians have special knack for inventing gruesome treatment of prisoners of war, as compared to “waterboarding” of our current “terrorism” era.
The book is a reminder that war is hell, to cherish your own basic freedoms and like James’ slogan says, “Don’t sweat the small stuff – and it’s all small stuff.” (pg. 172) There are many more positive things I could write about this book, but I will let you alone to read and glean them for yourself.

From the ‘Special Notes to POWs’ to the Acknowledgements chapter and how he became a US Prosecutor, my rating is a no-doubt, Five-out-of-five Bronze Spokane stars

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I wasn’t looking for another space book to review, but when I returned “Endurance” to the library and then browsed the “New” section, this cover caught my eye:

The rocket men featured are astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders; the crew of Apollo 8.

“Rocket Men”, penned by Robert Kurson, is historical, educational, suspenseful. Those are but a few of the adjectives I can use to describe this incredible book, which is necessary reading at this juncture in American history, given the inexperience we have in the Oval Office currently which has the country in a similar snit as back in 1968. It reads almost like a novel, except it really happened!
Whether you grew up as an American with the “space race” and NASA by your side like I did, or (especially) not, this is a riveting must read!

Kurson had a great planned layout for this book. He gets right into it with the beginnings of the space race and builds some drama as the Russians leap way out in front. Then after he sets up the moon as a goal versus events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy getting assassinated, the ongoing unpopular Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination and the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he goes into the personal stories of Frank Borman, then back to NASA, Jim Lovell then back to NASA, Bill Anders and back to NASA and the strife of our country at that time. I found one of the most endearing qualities of this read to be how he wove the struggles and faith of the astronaut’s wives and families into the story of “Rocket Men”.

We are suddenly launching Apollo 8 before the middle color photo pages! You need to read how they got to that point. Twenty-four chapters, a great Epilogue and Acknowledgement section, plus easy to comprehend diagrams. I couldn’t put it down except to sleep, eat and do my own work.

Its the story of the space race between our USA and the Soviet Union (Russia) and the genius of NASA’s group of scientists, which eventually led to the Apollo space program more particularly. Feeling that we were losing the race, a bold president challenged the nation to be better and win. My favorite president, John F. Kennedy, is mentioned often, because if it were not for his famous gauntlet of words thrown down before the Congress of the United States in 1961, we would have lost the race to the Moon to the Russians. Ironically, within the genius brain-trust that made Apollo 8 a success was Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi Germany rocket scientist, who was responsible for Hitler’s V-2 campaign against London and other European countries, late in World War II. This brought to mind a movie my parents took me to called “Operation Crossbow”, which recounted Europe’s response to the V-2 Campaign. You never know who will become your helpful bedfellow in this life.

The improbable success of the Apollo 8 moon mission is the focus of the book and by the time you finish reading, you will feel, like I do, that its success was something that was “meant to be”. If you ever doubt there are such circumstances, this book will change your mind. Names from my youth like Yuri Gagarin, Sputnick (“fellow traveler”), Laika (Russian for ‘barker’) and Alan Shephard are revisited and for me, personally, all while I was a teenager learning how to become a young man.

Did you know that in all, twelve Americans walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972? I must have known this, but in truth, those mission almost became commonplace back then! Unbelievable that our men flying to the Moon became routine at that point in time! Since Apollo 17, though…we have never returned there. It is fifty years later.

Remembering the name, Chris Kraft (how can one forget such a unique and appropriate handle?) and his quote on page 323, “never more courage than on anything we ever did in the space program”, because they accelerated it in order to meet the, by then late, President Kennedy’s deadline challenge.

One of my favorite quotes from the book came from his mention of the deadline challenge our great President Kennedy threw down, “Only by attempting ‘the impossible’ would a nation truly find out who it is…”

Another one is from Borman’s wife, Susan, who after being criticized for showing emotion after her husband Frank’s first launch on Gemini 7 said, “But…I have come to realize you can’t be all things to all people. So I decided not to pretend and not to try to hide my feelings – I decided to be myself.” The Author equally writes about how Marilyn Lovell and Valerie Anders coped and showed strength and concern for the safety of the sudden mission – in different ways.

This book is real life history, which is so very worthy your time.

Earlier than half-way into the book, Kurson so aptly employs the description the lift-off of the troubled and slightly untested Saturn V booster rocket on that fateful morning in December, 1968, that I had to go find the video on YouTube!

Even the Epilogue is an epic as it reminds us of how Apollo 13 had an explosion which almost doomed the crew. Great job, OMG…

For me, as a personal “by-the-way”, this story reminisced these launches, which were on the news daily back in those days. My father insisted on us watching the evening Walter Cronkite CBS News at dinner time, because our dining together was mandatory; a good thing that I didn’t like then, which, in retrospect should be more emphasized in today’s American families. Space stories are reminders that our earthly “problems” are petty when viewed against the dark vastness of the universe, of which our planet is a beautiful, but tiny dot.

I give this book five-out-of-five Earths!

If you’ve never looked up into a dark clear night sky and wondered which, besides the moon, of those twinkling lights are planets and which are stars, or been curious about the cosmos, astronomy or manned human space travel, then you can stop reading right now – this book review is not for you.

On the other hand, if you look up into the night sky and wonder about our place in the universe, this book is a must-read for you and it might convince you to look up with a renewed understanding of our delicate, fragile place in the vastness of space!

I, and many of my “Baby Boomer” generation were fascinated and captivated by being included in every manned launch into space in the 1960s and ’70s. Being that there were only seven television channels of the day and three of them network (CBS, ABC and NBC), when there was a launch from Cape Canaveral (later to become Cape Kennedy and the Space Center), it was like a national address by The President (which we are sadly lacking these days also)!

Having recently finished another great book, who knows, maybe this will become another regular sub-category of this ole blog, until such time that I am reunited with my musical “children” and beyond. The name of this fantabulous tome is, “Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime of Discovery” by Scott Kelly.

He weaves in and out from personal to NASA professional stories, with believably weird dreams which sometimes draw back the curtain for the next scenes of his space play, in a way that made me think, “this guy must have kept a diary or has one helluva memory!” Truth be told, when you read the final acknowledgements, you realize the collaboration that it took to put these thoughts together in a readable, informative and entertaining fashion.

Pages 304 – 305 offer Kelly’s most profound critique of our behavior on earth, visa v random and unnecessary gun shootings, one of which touched his sister-in-law, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona and my favorite quote from the book. I love his call to us earthlings, “We have got to do better.” Major words of advice from a perspective which deserves our respect; too bad many of our bad actors (politicians included) cannot be shot up into space as a sentence in “zero-g” for a while to gain some humility!

To the above paragraph’s end, Kelly describes how well he and the cosmonauts from Russia work together at 17,500 mph (or the closets kmph) without the drama below, along with those from Japan, Italy and Great Britian (the “U.K.”). I like how he mentions learning how to curse in Russian in a jovial way, between “CQ”s (Crew Quarters) visits, describing it as “much more complex!” While different protocols exist, they all co-exist accurately, performing over 400 experiments, with the most important thing in-mind: survival. You will learn what it is like to ascend at the top of “a big bomb” and return through our planet’s protective atmosphere.

For Kelly and his brother Mark, Identical twins who were raised in West Orange, New Jersey, and who could hardly focus enough to study their grade school lessons and pass to the next grades, instead, wanting to “jump off of things”, to suddenly develop the discipline to achieve U.S. Navy fighter jet pilot flight school because of (in Scott’s case) reading the 1980 book by Tom Wolfe, “The Right Stuff”, is truly remarkable.

“Endurance…” Is full of accurate, informative insights about the nuances of becoming and being an astronaut (or cosmonaut) and what it is like to live and work on the International Space Station (ISS). He often refers to his long-time female companion, Amiko, who awaits his return; she too works for NASA!

I remember, as a boy of maybe nine years, when the Gemini project was first announced by NASA and I glued together a model of the spacecraft. Even then, the prospect of human space flight and survival that Mr. Kelly writes about was the stuff of science fiction movies like “2001, The Space Odyssey”! Its a reminder that I have lived to see ‘the future’ scientifically, if not sociologically.

We have come a long way from the late astronaut, Ed White’s first spacewalk during the Gemini IV mission, and NASA doesn’t publicize astronaut’s names like they did when I first started following their space exploration programs during Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, it seems. I wonder why? Maybe because they are a little leery after the Challenger and Columbia disasters, of the worst-case scenarios? These are bound to happen and may again on our way to Mars; another of the cool things about Scott Kelly’s book – he is always making the case that this is why he is making himself a human Guinea pig!

Being a huge fan of H2O, I think his best personal take from being on the ISS for so long is, “Nothing feels as amazing as water/Rain is a miracle.” File that one under ‘Reality Check’/things we take for-granted!

This book which reads three-hundred-and-sixty-five pages, while the actual number of days that Scott Kelly spent on the ISS in “zero g” is 340, it is close enough for me to give him a “year” if you add the wonderful, color photo pages. A great a read as this can only be blessed with five-out-of-five heavenly space shuttles!

As always, I will answer your spaced-out comments.

And now for something completely different for my blog: A Book Review!

First and personally, I am so proud to have finally found and tied into the public library here in the land of Spanish Moss. It always takes a while to humble myself again and do these things – maybe deep in my soul I should own a library! Oh I do, and it is just vinyl record albums. I digress again.

In the Autumn of 2017, I had three titles on my list of books to read and one of them was a no-brainer, when I heard about it, Maria Sharapova’s autobiography. I have always been one of her fans.
Why now? I knew I had to begin to read again because I was in a writer’s limbo, and you know that, as I stated in past blogs, in order to write well you have to read much. So let’s get to it!

I just finished reading Maria Sharapova’s first autobiography,“Unstoppable – My Life So Far” with Rich Cohen in record time (for me)! Masha (her real name in “Russian) weaves a compelling and enlightening story, with candid diary clips throughout that I could only put down to sleep, eat and run my own work errands. If you’ve ever wondered what life is like for a major player on the Women’s professional tennis tour as a girl becomes a woman, this autobiography is a must read and a real page turner.

It is the first sports autobiography I remember reading since The Roy Campanella story, as a teen, and more recently, “Namath” about my main New York Jets quarterback, whose style and ability I grew up admiring, although I must have read Mickey Mantle’s and others through the years.

I learned that we share admiration for Monica Seles, whose audible power release as she hit the ball (some call it a “grunt”, but it is more sexy than that to a man’s ears, believe me, I’ve had sex with many women who make the same sound when they orgasm) first turned my attention into women’s tennis back in the 1990s. Indeed, Ms. Seles’ story of rising as a teenager achieving stardom on one of the biggest stages in sport, the Pro tennis tour is similar to Ms. Sharapova’s!
The Author also emulates Lindsay Davenport, whose classy game I too came to admire and shows respect for another of my favorites to watch, Serbian, Jelena Jankovic`. We learn about her coaches and even a favorite brand of shoes in these pages.

She used what I call the “sandwich” format for this first part of telling about her life. Using this format allowed Ms. Sharapova to recount her life, so that the reader can get to know her better and it works. She started with the present unjust failed drug test scandal drama and then retraced how she got to this point, while setting up her feelings about going forward with her career and life. The major theme was to tell her side of the suspension story to help clear her name of being associated with doping and I commend her for that. Hell, the substance they flagged her for was not even on the list of illegals throughout 99% of her career, and something smells very fishy about how it was suddenly added. It is almost like the suspicion East Germans who were competing in the Olympics were under, back in the Cold War days.

There is a nice pictorial section mid-way through and I like how neutral her cover photo is and how she describes her relationship with her main motivator, Yuri, her father and their initial trek following the ugly Chernobyl, now part of Ukraine, melt-down, eventually into Sochi, Russia and on to Florida as unknowns when she was a little girl with a huge racket.

She speaks about what I have often wondered while following women’s tennis: her main nemesis, Serena Williams. Oddly, she only mentions her older sister, Venus once. I would have like to have read her comparison of their games.

My favorite quote is from her father, Yuri, who said, “When you let your brain overrule your gut, you screw up your life.” Wow, my mentor used that philosophy and so do I programming my radio shows and identifying hit music through the years! Even though I borrowed it from the library, I will gladly purchase it for my private hardcover collection once I move into my own home.
Nice job, tall lady!! Whatta twenty-first century Fox. You are a “hit” and I’d look up to you without insecurity, rating your book with five out of a possible 5 tennis rackets.

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