Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin

Moonwalker. Innovator. Alcoholic.

A brutally honest autobiography of Aldrin’s life, reflecting on not only the stellar parts of his career, but the parts which have shrouded him in despair and embarrassment.

Many Americans view Buzz Aldrin as a national icon; a hero. Part of Apollo 11, the space mission which cemented him in history as the second man to ever walk on the Moon, Aldrin certainly is extraordinary. But there are other sections of his life that define him, too. Like when he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war, an author of novels or when he spent most his days slumped beneath bedsheets, due to the overwhelming depression he suffered. Most people aren’t aware of this side, and Magnificent Desolation explains what precisely Aldrin went through following his Moon Landing; it turns out that the physical side effects were the least of his worries, and that he was psychologically underprepared for the fame that would ensue.

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This book, despite being co-written by Ken Abraham, was definitely written by Aldrin. The words had bitter edges on certain topics (like when discussing his failures in his post-astronaut military career, or when discussing conspiracy theorists) and at other times would appear as if he was desperately trying to seem complementary, as if through the publication of this book he was wary of any outstanding offences he could cause.

Also, occasionally Aldrin would start to build up an event as if it had massive significance in the grand scheme of his life, and as a reader I would wonder what this event would foreshadow. More often than not it turned out to be completely irrelevant and not tie into anything else in the book:

“One overly zealous reporter planted himself in front of our car, refused to budge while snapping photos of me through the windshield. In exasperation, I raised my hand and gave him the finger. As soon as I saw the flash go off, I knew that I had made a gigantic mistake. When we got back to the hotel, my first call was to the attache at the embassy to see if he could quash the picture. He must have successful, because the photo never showed up”

It’s just utterly frustrating. If it turned out that the image had been leaked and had started to give Aldrin an awful reputation which affected his speaking career, then it would have been understandable. But nothing came of it- so why waste a paragraph mentioning  an irrelevant event that is not tied onto anything else in the book? This happened so many times throughout and frankly I found myself exasperated.

What I did enjoy though was when Aldrin started to discuss how in his later career he continued to develop ideas for space exploration. His words sounded so resolute and hopeful for the future- how by 2030 we should have people living on Mars, and his grand plans for a Mars Shuttle System. Above all I found that part fascinating, because it offered me an insight into the future of space. He spoke a lot about space tourism too; it seems like a plausible concept and he discusses it at length because he had devoted plenty of time to ensuring that it became as intrinsic to the American economy as ordinary tourism. We’re not quite there yet, but time can only tell!

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I would recommend this autobiography to those  who have an interest in space history and astronauts, as it does not only offer a valuable insight to Aldrin’s life, but also into the future of space in our society. It is not a necessarily a relaxing read as most of the information is presented quite factually and straightforwardly, but nevertheless I’m glad I gave it go!

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The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan September Book of the Month

marrr“Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead.” wrote Anne Fadiman, her university professor, “She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”

But she isn’t good. Marina is phenomenal. Her fiction stories, each no longer than twenty pages long, are delicately composed featuring wildly different plots and characters. One is set in the sandy planes of Iraq, relocating Iraqi families and written purely in letter form. Another, prose, revolved around a theatre-set in Cape Cod, paragraphs littered with late night drinks and angst. And so it goes on. They are unique, seemingly revolving in their own literary sphere, untouchable. But there are ties: these characters are not built of marble, they are fallible. Keegan has portrayed them as real people, with true problems, refreshing as, unfortunately, despite it being an important rule of fiction, you often find unrealistic, overly successful characters . As a reader you could sympathise with their fears, relate to their worries. The stories were all ideal lengths too: even if they were only a few pages long, you seeped into the characters’ mindset seamlessly, and I never felt bored or disengaged with the narrative. Fresh, too, with Keegan’s voice gleaming from under the printed words.

‘”Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina. It’s inexcusable. Everyone is so successful, and I hate them.” and “I’m so jealous. Laughable jealousies, of everyone who might get a chance to speak from the dead…I worship the potential for own tangible trace. How presumptuous! To assume specialness in the first place.”

I won’t tell you how Marina Keegan wrote this incredible collection of short stories and essays as part of her graduation piece, and how, only five days after she graduated from Yale in 2012, she died in a car crash. I won’t mention how she was only twenty two, or how she had acted in and wrote numerous plays, was the President of the Yale College Democrats and had already secured her ideal job for her life after Yale. Because, instead I told you how inspiring her collection is. Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.

 

August- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The device, or computer you’re looking at, is stoically emitting a soft electric light, and my words, mere dark pixels in a sea of white, make a message. And then the email  from Peter flashes at the top your screen, briefly dragging your attention away as you connect with the words of a person miles away, without any physical strain. In Station Eleven, the human population is scarred by a pandemic, the horrific Georgia Flu. Those who remain, do not waste their breath on trying to maintain the internet. Or electricity. and running water. They simply can’t: when 99% of the human race is decaying, the chances are that the people who do know how to harness the wind turbines, or restart the grid, are dead. And everyone who is left, is battling for survival.

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This was an incredible novel, because it made you start to appreciate what a miraculous world we live in. Yes, you’re reading this whilst stuck in the airport because your plane was delayed, but isn’t the mere thought of heavy panels of metal levitating into the sky and transporting us wherever we want to go in the world, in an under an day, fantastic? When the world is put into a context where all of these modern inventions are suddenly taken away, the luxury of our society suddenly becomes apparent, especially when St. John Mandel returns to a thread of storyline set before the disease, which creates a sharp contrast. I liked that part of the novel because it followed a famous actor Arthur Leander. His life was portrayed in a way that was fascinating because I felt that at times, it was genuinely similar to the alien lifestyle of a modern day celebrity. There were however, parts which I thought were not realistic, like his recklessness in interviews where the  PR manager let him spill his secrets to a random journalist.

Do not be fooled into thinking this novel is a glittery tale about middle aged actor trying to pull himself together; the other part of the plot is dark and thrilling. We are twenty years into the future, in a world desolated by the flu, and we follow the Shakespearean actress Kirsten on her journey travelling around settlements in America, as part of the Travelling Symphony. In a world where there are no laws and no one to enforce justice except leaders of the small societies, the desperation that many people face in the wilderness takes threat and danger to a completely different level.

I absolutely loved this novel, the writing style was surprisingly beautiful and eloquent, and variance between the cruel reality of Kirsten’s world on the road, and the puzzle of the glamorous Arthur Leander’s life worked perfectly. Definitely put this on your TBR list, especially if you’re interested in young adult, fantasy or science fiction.

Chris Hadfield- An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

We were all bombarded by the same question. It came up frequently throughout
childhood, and our answers would probably amuse us today. What do you want to do when you’re older? It started off mostly with cowboys, firemen and pirates, and then as we grew so did our knowledge; it moved onto doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. In my case, the answer was nearly always an author, but to start off with, among with the millions of other children, I fantasised about being an astronaut. Didn’t you, once? I thought yes! Let’s jump onto that rocket, clomp around on the Moon for a bit, fly home, and job done. What fun! I left that particular dream at that, thankfully.

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On the other hand, when Chris Hadfield was nine, he witnessed the Moon landing. It ignited a passion; overnight he wanted to be an astronaut, and it turned out this wasn’t a fleeting aspiration. This book is an insightful glimpse into how Hadfield went from dreaming about space, to achieving a job at NASA, to becoming Canada’s most celebrated astronaut and logging nearly 4,000 hours in space. Through charismatic wit and an
abundance of humour, Hadfield relays his incredible past, offering an unique insight into the profession of an astronaut, what life is truly like in space, and the importance having chilli sachets on a rocket. It is an unconventional autobiography though; it’s also littered with bubbles of wisdom that are ultimate life lessons. Hadfield has not achieved his various monumental feats through sheer luck; there were over 5,300 people applying to be an astronaut, and he was one of the 4 victorious applicants. No, he has simple formulas to success, which are easily accessible and are illustrated with unbelievable anecdotes from Hadfield’s own history. (Can you believe he once had to fight a live snake whilst piloting a plane?) Thankfully this isn’t a book which preaches about inner peace, or has complicated flow charts. Nor it is a dull account of the thermodynamics lessons that are essential to space training. Instead, this book is written with a flair, and what Hadfield has learnt during his 21 year career is surprisingly relatable to our grounded lives.

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A rare insight into one of the world’s most difficult careers, this is definitely a book to read. There are galaxies of things we as readers can learn from, whether it’s the power of negative thinking, how to be an effective leader, to the one question every astronaut always asks themselves in space. It’s honest and genuine; if anything, it’s reignited the nation’s dwindling interest in space.

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

We are all avid readers. We have all discussed, at one point or another, that topical debate. What is your preference: the rising E-book or classic paper tome? Why is it that we are so obsessed, so comforted by the thin pages, when faced with the bold technological alternative? Everyday we are surrounded by this material, whether it is in our note paper, train tickets, toilet paper or bank notes. So it is not a surprise, perhaps, that we are unwilling to let it drift away from society. After all, it is what we have grown up with, yet fundamentally this marvellous invention, one which has been utilised by generations, is largely a subject of ignorance.

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For example, why are ancient pages honoured with a musk of yellow, and why are long-forgotten  receipts faded?

Thankfully, I have found a novel which can satisfy these inquisitive questions, one which dutifully gives us an insight into 10 common materials. It thrusts them into the limelight for a chapter, primarily focusing on their composition, how they were created, and their role in society today. Does that sound technical. A bit too educational for your liking? It shouldn’t. Because along the way we learn about why razors blunt, that concrete never drys out (at least it doesn’t set in the way we perceive it to) and how it is conceivable that the lightest solid in the world is 99.8% air. Miodownik has ambitiously turned a subject which could be lined with boredom into one which is delightful and captivating.
Today, we are constantly, ironically, being pestered by mindfulness fanatics to live in the moment and to appreciate everything around us. That can be difficult when there is tumultuous rain, and you have just missed your train to an important meeting, but no said it was easy. But, it would be easier if we understood what we were appreciating. These materials make up our lives, and the manipulation of these materials could arguably be what isolates the human race from all other species. Yet do you know how plastic is made? Did the fascinating nature, the mere possibility, of surgical implants ever grip you? I profess now; none of these questions applied to me until I read this book. Each chapter is brimming with mind-blowing, quirky information, interspersed among rich anecdotes and charming writing that manages to make even the most mundane materials a source of thrill.

This book has reignited my dwindling faith in non-fiction writing, and I think that one is ever trying to understand society better (because these things are so fundamental to it), appreciate life more (start with the small things) or is simply curious, then this is a brilliant place to start. It was a concise too, which meant that although the information at times was detailed and scientific, it wasn’t winding on for eons, leaving me bored half a chapter away. A surprising yet gratifying holiday read!

Who should judge YA awards?

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The Alex Award, the Carnegie Medal, Michael L. Printz Award and the Bookseller YA Book prize. Just a few of the most prestigious YA awards on Earth, prestigious to such an extent that if any young adult author was bestowed one, happiness and pride would be positively emanating from their being. Yet who should be on that committee: who truly deserves to have the right to decide which authors can smugly plaster ‘award stickers’ across their novel’s front covers, and others be content with the trudge to the longlist? When the award is related to Young Adults, there are many controversies as to who should be in charge of making the final decisions.


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Who makes up the actual audience of YA books? 

When considering who should be the judges of a YA book award, it is essential to consider the intended audience, because what appeals to elderly women will probably not coincide with the interest of teenage boys. Of course, young adult books are read by a vast amount of teenagers, but that isn’t the full extent of it; ultimately the actual audience must be taken into consideration, as the novels must be judged against the suitability for the audience. Yet today more adults from across the age spectrum are immersing themselves into the genre too- does that mean that having adults as adjudicators is wrong though? Because if they aren’t the direct target audience, then the novels aren’t aiming to please them, and shouldn’t their opinions then be ignored? Definitely not! If there are enough people from a certain catergory interested and engaged in that type of novel, then what they think is just as important as young adults.

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Who is judging YA awards right now, and why?

Right now, the vast majority of prizes are awarded by a committee of adults. This irritates me, because surely it should be the reverse: that most of them should be awarded by adolescents, with only a sparse number of adults on each judging board? Generally what appeals to teens, regarding their experiences and perspective on the world, will be different from that of an adult- this can affect what aspects of novels engage and please them.I only mention this, because for example, toddlers can’t decide who wins picture book prizes, as they are not objective enough yet. This situation is not similar, and is  unique because of the entire intended vs. actual audience dilemma, and which would be the better in terms of decision making.

As for the why, well I feel that all we need to do is look at the YA Bookseller award’s committee: the judges are embellished with impressive titles, like Director of World Book Day, Director of the Hay festival and columnists from famous newspapers like the
Guardian Weekend. The point is, these people are leading industry figures, and thus have a certain type of status- something which appeal to some people as it can warrant their final decision as more reasonable, if any dispute should come of it like it did with the book that won the Carnegie, The Bunker, a few years ago. Even if the choice is controversial, it is widely accepted because they have these fool-proof CVs. This is most likely intended because when comparing the judgement of a  person with an accolade of impressive experience that of a student, unfortunately people are often prejudiced to vote against the student.

Naturally this is merely a hypothesis, but I think that teenagers are being excluded from judging committees because they aren’t renowned in literary circles and haven’t built a name for themselves. (I must mention that with this particular prize, teens themselves are involved with the final standings, but I am referring to prizes in general, not the YA Bookseller prize in particular). The frustrating element is that this doesn’t mean young adults can’t spot a decent novel, just because they haven’t personally edited 25 themselves! Similarly, despite the unescapable fact that most young adults haven’t been a senior librarian for over 5 years, it doesn’t mean that they are any less adept and useful as part of the judges board. As a whole, young adults cannot gain the qualifications to become “renowned enough” to be a judge and have these various required occupations (such as librarian) that are after sought after if you would like to apply, because they are actually previously engaged with a marvellous pastime called school.

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What am I suggesting as a solution?

I suggest that more teenagers become involved on judging panels, and that their view is represented fairly with the majority of awards. This is not disrespecting the previous outcomes of awards in the past, because it is clear to see that amazing novels have been shortlisted previously, but I believe that introducing a contrast in age on the committee will involve in offering differing perspectives, the younger generation’s perspective, and will change the outcome these honours for the better. I think that we can initiate this change by nominating adolescents with a keen passion for reading to be on the these boards, and perhaps one day our point will get through!

So what do you think of this idea? Do you think that more young adults should participate in judging the winners of prestigious YA awards, or are you satisfied with the current state of affairs?

There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake

The title is correct; I can certify that this novel does involve lies. A plethora of them, in fact. And all these lies revolve around a deaf teenage, Shelby, who lives with a bolshy, and strangely overprotective mother. Shelby is harshly restricted by the strict rules and precautions that she is entitled to follow- but she understands that Shaylene just wants her to be safe. However, once Shelby is admitted into hospital, following a horrendous car crash, her previously sheltered life begins to reveal the seemingly implausible lies that have clung to her throughout her life. And each layer of deceit is peeled away, Shelby’s world is spun ever faster into the oblivion of the astonishing.

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I thought that this novel was relatively engaging, although I thought that there wasn’t enough momentum to motivate me as a reader in the first half of the novel. There was a delightful contrast between the whimsical magical world called “the Dreaming” and the harsh, terrifying world that Shelby predominately inhabits. However, I was more drawn to the magic orientated world: I found myself impatiently waiting for the reality chapters to be finished, hurriedly reading them, so that I could reach the more appealing thread of storyline.

The characters were arresting, but were not particularly relatable or appealing to my sense of affection. Shelby’s mother is frankly psychotic for incredibly poor reasons, and also is brimming with confusing character inconsistencies. Shelby was courageous and smart, yet occasionally I perceived her to be over emotional, and that she made several times some peculiar decisions that I would question. It must be admitted though, that the ending was wildly unpredictable, and that it wouldn’t have ended so unanticipated if it wasn’t for characters’ bizarre motives.

There Will Be Lies is a devious type of novel; riddled with mystery and erupting with twists, you are guaranteed to surprised, if not only by portrayal of a deaf protagonist. Have you read There Will Be Lies- do you think it deserved to win the Carnegie Medal?

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

A playful, charming, yet striking anti-war novel on the lives of children growing up during the war.

This novel is a follow-through sequel to a prized and beloved trilogy; it is so highly regarded it’s practically a national treasure. Can you guess the novel yet? I’ll offer one word; the Psammead. No? Alright a few more; grumpy, sand fairy and wishes. Yes, that is correct. The Five Children on The Western Front tells us what takes place after all the children from Five Children and It have morphed away from their adolescent selves and are fully fledged adults. Anthea is no longer a naive little girl; she’s at art college, Jane is a nurse, Cyril’s off tending to that awfully impractical First World War and Robert is (a scholar) at Cambridge. The Lamb is no longer a sweet chubby baby, but a mischievous 11 year old, who is always keeping his younger sister, Edith, in check. The two youngest miss their other siblings’ company, especially the magical stories about the queer Psammead, that they were often told.

Except suddenly he is no longer merely the figurehead of far-fetched tales: he surprisingly reappears in their sand pit. It is the perfect excuse to distract the siblings from the gloomy war, yet it turns out that the Psammead is no longer a wish dispensing machine, and he actually has a vaguely serious purpose behind his resurrection in their lives.

I have mixed feelings about the Psammead; sometimes he is a moaning, whining creature, which can get tiresome, whilst on other occasions he is veritably sweet and charming. He has a complex character to say the least; a lot of attitude from such a small being that’s for sure. Through the Psammead, the Lamb and Edith are introduced to the brutal nature of war; they experience it from every point of view- soldiers in trenches, nurses, those left in the country and more. But soon it becomes apparent that the youngest siblings don’t require these adventures to experience the impact of war. Eventually it wriggles it’s talons into the Pemberton’s lives, and brings the reek of sadness with it.

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I admit it. I haven’t read Five Children and It. Yes, it is utterly frustrating, and I really ought to have read it before hand, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. So…despite this slight setback, I loved this novel. I wholeheartedly adored it, for so many different reasons; it preliminarily was simultaneously light hearted, making it an enjoyable fun novel, whilst having also having more serious undertones. I have been enveloped with heavy, hard hitting novels that scream about the outrage of society in general recently, and so it was massively relaxing to be enjoy a more vivacious novel. Having said that, when I was feeling in a more receptive mood, I appreciated the anti-war cries and the solemn messages about character that were being emanated. So this novel essentially can bend itself to your emotional needs. Importantly, it displays a touching account of the war, that is made hugely personal through our connection to not only one, but actually nearly all the characters. Not an easy feat to carry, so I applaud you Saunders. Also, it was impressive to see the story undertake metamorphosis; at first it is bursting with innocence and naivety but soon experience crawls in and before you know it we are struck with aching issues like the cruelty of war. We reach a point that none of the children can return from, not with without shedding the blinds of the innocent. This was executed masterfully; I was so easily engrossed in the story (I read this novel in a day) and I felt like the storyline was unforced and flowed beautifully.

So take a chance, pick up this novel and enjoy a comedic, memorable and above all heart-warming wartime novel. Have any of you read Five Children and It- what are your thoughts on the novel? Have you in fact read that novel and Five Children on the Western Front- which one did you think was better?

Lies we tell ourselves by Robin Talley

An eloquent, impressive and poignant novel about the integration of black students into the previously segregated Jefferson High, Virginia, 1959.

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Sarah is one of the ten black students starting at Jefferson High this year; after years of persistent battling in court, she’s finally going to get the best education possible. But the abuse she and her friends receive when they start is overwhelming, and they all feel a wave of despair when it doesn’t even start to cease. And then Lindsay Hairston catches Sarah’s eye. The daughter of the state’s most influential pro-segregation journalist, and Sarah can’t stop thinking about her. And now Sarah isn’t only afraid of what society will think of this aching desire, as tendrils of disgust and fear are already writhing around her own heart. Because not only is she afraid of everyone’s opinion, but startlingly, she’s frightened of what she is feeling, too.

Firstly, this is a novel which admirably recreates and explores the racial tension that society strongly felt at the time. It is an arduous topic to write about, especially to such high standard, so that Talley deserves credit for that. But occasionally I felt that the plot became slightly flat because Talley got so caught up in the issues she was writing about, that there was less of a drive in certain parts of the novel. It is told from the alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Lindsay, which enhanced the novel because it was useful to see the contrast between the two characters’ lives.

Sarah, the protagonist, is a resilient, intelligent and kind character, which is fortunate for her, because everyday at school she faces physical and mental abuse. In fact, soon after you pick up the novel, you will find yourself cheering for Sarah as she starts to forge her own destiny out the prejudices she faces.

The title is smart; it relates to the rest of the novel because every chapter title is a lie; the lies the various characters tell themselves. I thought that this was a clever touch because often the title of a novel is seemingly irrelevant, detached to the actual content of the novel that follows. On the other hand, there was one major fault; eventually, the chapter names became increasingly similar, to the point of sharing the same meaning with previous titles i.e ‘Lie no. 11 If I keep pretending everything will be alright’ and ‘Lie no. 15 Pretending will make this go away’ or “lie no. 17 I give up” compared with “Lie no.19 There’s no use fighting”. I understand that at one point there will only be a limited amount of options, but I doubt that it is not so limited that there is a lack of variation in this when performing this smart idea.

The themes in this novel are obviously racial tension and violence, (as there are several aggressive episodes in towns and public places throughout the novel where the black and white students are locked in confrontation), and then, there is LGBT+, as Sarah finds herself falling in love with Linda. Truth be told, I was disappointed with this aspect of the novel; admitted, there were instances when thoughts were uncovered showing that they both had feelings for each other, but there were only a few romantic moments, and most of the romance was lost in the  violence towards the end, or two characters lamenting about how sinful and evil they both apparently felt they were. I wasn’t convinced in the end that they were going to become an interracial lesbian couple because there were only a few instances where they honestly faced their feelings.

This novel is great if you have an interest in civil rights, or historical YA fiction. This topical novel is definitely one to watch, and overall is a great debut! Also, please note that this appeared first on the Guardian’s site. So have you read this novel? What did you think of it?

 

One by Sarah Crossan- May BOM

This beautiful novel, comprised of lyrical free verse, will make you reconsider everything you knew about friendship, sacrifice and freedom.

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Tippi and Grace are sixteen, and after a lifetime of homeschooling, they’re going to an elite private school, with their space paid for by the government. They’re grateful; they come from a suffering family who can barely afford to pay for all their medication. They’re are lucky too; this new opportunity would not be possible if they couldn’t only take up one space at the school. Some people might marvel them, other shrink away in disgust. But one thing is clear; these two twins are beyond the group of ordinary they desire to be in. Tippi and Grace are conjoined.

I absolutely loved this novel, and the way it is written in free verse so that it resembles a trail of thought. I think that this is a very effective way of writing because it shows the reader that the two girls are in fact separate entities, each with their individual desires despite their shared body. Also, because of this original style of writing it is more striking and memorable, and because not many author care to experiment with forms of verse anymore and stick only to conventional prose.

I thought that the plot was well executed; Crossan immediately makes us engage through pathos, as we see from the start the sacrifices each girl makes for the other in order to have a happy, compromised life, and that, in turn if something effects one person, there is a knock on effect for the other. I have only ever heard of one other book about conjoined twins, but it seemed to serious and heavy for my liking. Here, Crossan deals with delicate issues too, but she makes them as relatable as they can be. For example, Tippi and Grace go to school for the first time; high school. Everyone can remember that in one form or another, and can relate to that daunting experience even if they didn’t have the issue of being the centre of attention. Also, Crossan does not weaken the plot at any point in order to make it more bearable on the reader’s behalf; it is extremely emotional as we see their family battle against poverty, suffer with an alcoholic father and bear the injuries of given to them through the public eye.

This is an amazing book; I would definitely recommend it because it is short and concise, without babbling on at all! It investigates such an unusual crazy condition perfectly and has an utterly breathtaking story. Tell me now; why wouldn’t make this book of the month?