I have spent the past ten weeks writing a book. (More on that in a later post.) Now we are about to take a family holiday which means I am on the hunt for some good holiday reads. Do you have any? Six books I won’t be taking with me – since I have just finished reading them – are the books you see below. None of them have anything to do with grace but if you’re at a beach or up a mountain or on a rocket to Mars and are looking for something stimulating to read, I recommend these:
Space, by James Michener
Yes, I’m a fan. I read Michener’s books by the pound. This year I read Caravans for the first time and Space for the second. If you have any interest in rockets or space, you will love this blend of fact and fiction that charts the development of the US space program. Michener is so good at explaining the technological developments behind the space race that you will actually come away talking like a rocket scientist. (There’s nothing like a detailed explanation of the thermal properties of ablative shields to kill a conversation!) But, as always with Michener, this is a personal story. It’s the story of four men and four women and the universal urge to explore the unknown. I was sad when the book ended after just 832 pages. I wanted more!
Lost Moon, by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
You finish one space book and you want another. Lost Moon is the story of Apollo 13 – the explosion and the drama that unfolded as the world watched to see if the three astronauts on Nasa’s fifth mission to the moon would make it safely back to earth. This is definitely one of those times where the book is better than the film and this is because the story is told by the man who was there. Jim Lovell was the only astronaut to fly into space on four missions. His last mission was both a failure and NASA’s finest hour. This superbly researched book reveals more than the movie ever could. It records the incredible effort put in by hundreds of engineers on the ground to figure out solutions to the problems that were developing out in space. In hindsight, they did everything right. But at the time they were in the dark. They had to solve problems no one had ever seen or imagined. And they did it while the whole world was watching. Riveting stuff!
Seal Team Six, by Howard Wasdin
Seal Team Six is a counterterrorism unit within the US Navy. These are the guys who emerged from the darkness to kill Osama Bin Laden last year. This book, co-written by former ST6 member Howard Wasdin, is a rare look into the clandestine world of the Navy Seals. There isn’t much in the book on the Bin Laden assassination, but if you are a fan of Black Hawk Down, well Wasdin was very much in the thick of that one. In fact, it was in the Battle of Mogadishu that his military career came to an end.
This is not a book that glorifies war; this is a book about overcoming adversity. You have probably seen movies about how hard it is to be selected into the special forces. Well the Hell Week experience Wasdin underwent during the ST6 selection process seemed minor in comparison with the challenges he overcame as a young man. After his military career ended, Wasdin had to deal with post traumatic stress as he adjusted to civilian life. If you have pegged the author as some kind of Rambo you’d be wrong. He’s a Christian who sometimes didn’t know whether he wanted to shoot or hug targets! One of my favorite stories in the book is how he and two others disobeyed orders not to get involved with a teenage boy living next to their safe house in Somalia. The boy had a gangrenous leg that needed treatment but the demands of their surveillance op meant they could do nothing to reveal themselves. So wearing balaclavas they did a hard entry, flexicuffed the family, and treated the boy in front of the astonished family. Like angels of the night they returned several times in a similar fashion to see how the boy was progressing. On one visit the family went meekly to the wall waiting to be flexicuffed while the aunty offered the intruding Seals a cup of tea! And that’s just one of many good stories in this book. I also enjoyed “goat lab” and learning about drown-proofing. Seal Team Six is an absolutely gripping read that kept me up late for several nights.
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
Steve Jobs was adopted as a new-born baby. Later in life he decided he wanted to meet his biological mother “mostly to see if she was okay and to thank her, because I’m glad I didn’t end up as an abortion.” I think many of us are grateful that Jobs wasn’t aborted because his influence on the technology that we live with has arguably been greater than any other man. Through the company he co-founded, Apple, he has fundamentally changed the way the world works and plays. It started with a computer and has since spread to an ecology that possibly covers your entire digital life. Jobs’ influence can be seen in personal computing, mobile computing, phones, music, and animation.
Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography is more than the tale of a marketing genius. It is the story of the rise of the computer industry and its effect on everything from telecommunications to movie-making. Jobs had a knack for knowing what you and I would want long before we did. I can remember unpacking a brand new iMac about ten years ago and being mystified at the absence of a floppy drive. What was I going to do with all my three and a half inch disks? Get rid of them, said Jobs. You won’t need them anymore. And he was right. However, my favorite chapter in the story of his life is about how Jobs guessed wrong but got lucky when he bought a fledgling animation unit from George Lucas called Pixar. He bought Pixar because he thought they made nice computers. It wasn’t until later that he discovered they also did great animation. By all accounts, Steve Jobs was not a particularly nice man or an outstanding father. He is no role model to me. But the world he shaped was the world I grew up in and reading Isaacson’s book has helped me understand that world better.
The Pixar Touch, by David Price
This is a story about story-tellers; Lasseter, Stanton, Bird, and the other creative geniuses who have together made Pixar the most consistently successful producer of animated feature films of recent times. Well, 26 Academy Awards can’t be wrong. After reading the Jobs biography I wanted to learn more about Pixar and David Price’s book is an excellent chronicle.
Pixar’s history is becoming the stuff of business legend. You may have heard how John Lasseter, a former Jungle Cruise boat captain, was dumped as a junior Disney animator only to be invited back years later to take over as chief creative officer for Disney’s Animation Studios. And you may have heard how Pixar saved Disney’s animating bacon by making Toy Story and several other hits all in a row. But what I didn’t know before I read this book, was how instrumental Disney was in making Pixar the success it has become. I was of the view that Pixar had the talent, Disney had the money, and that Disney had ridden the wave of Pixar’s success. The truth is that Pixar owes much of its success to Disney. Take Toy Story for example. In Pixar’s creative but inexperienced hands, this film was a disaster in the making. At several points in the development of the story seasoned Disney vets stepped in and made vital changes. Do you like Sherriff Woody? Well you can thank Disney for that. Pixar had originally decided that he would be an arrogant toy who lorded it over the others. It was also Disney’s idea to make Toy Story a buddy film. Enter one Buzz Lightyear.
There is no doubt that the Pixarians have become great storytellers – the best in the world – but they would not have got there without help. In his book Price explains how a bunch of guys working in a garage learned how to tell good stories and ended up creating one of the world’s coolest and most influential companies.
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Since the passing of Ray Bradbury a few weeks ago, I have been renewing my childhood interest in sci-fi lit. I grew up reading the A, B, C’s of sci-fi and if you don’t know who those letters refer to, you’re not a true fan. (I’ll give you a hint – the B stands for Bradbury.) Yet somewhere in my youth I neglected to read The Martian Chronicles. I’m glad I did because reading these stories now for the first time has been a delight.
The Chronicles are a collection of vignettes written some 20 years before man went to the moon. They are not full of physics and what-might-it-be-like-in-space sorts of questions. Rather they are stories of the hopes and fears that we all face when dealing with the strange and unfamiliar. If you need a theme then it’s the colonization of America retold in space. You have explorers encountering strange people, natives being wiped out by chickenpox, and women leaving home and family to join husbands on the frontier. And yet there are original flights of fancy as well. I nearly woke Camilla last night to tell her the ending to “The Silent Towns.” Just brilliant! In Bradbury three of my favorite authorial attributes come together: simple writing, grand ideas, and authentic originality.
In hindsight I can see I have been on a bit of a space and technology kick lately. My apologies if that is not your cup of tea. Perhaps you would like to tell us what book you would take to read on holiday? Since I’m leaving for my holiday tomorrow morning, I’m keen to hear your suggestions.