area 51

I borrowed the audio version of Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen from the library on a whim, for a road trip last year. I like learning about science, but I admit I can be intimidated beyond a cursory level sometimes. Of course I wanted to learn about secret aliens, though! Area 51 ended up being much more interesting and accessible than I anticipated. Edited from Goodreads:

It is the most famous military installation in the world. And it doesn’t exist. Located a mere seventy-five miles outside of Las Vegas in Nevada’s desert, the base has never been acknowledged by the U.S. government—but Area 51 has captivated imaginations for decades. […] Some claim it is home to aliens, underground tunnel systems, and nuclear facilities. Others believe that the lunar landing itself was filmed there. The prevalence of these rumors stems from the fact that no credible insider has ever divulged the truth about his time inside the base. Until now. In Area 51, Jacobsen shows us what has really gone on in the Nevada desert, from testing nuclear weapons to building super-secret, supersonic jets to pursuing the War on Terror. […] This is the first book based on interviews with eye witnesses to Area 51 history, which makes it the seminal work on the subject.

This was an excellent choice for a road trip. I wanted aliens, but what I got was so much more. In fact, aliens are the least interesting part of Area 51. The real meaty parts of the book that kept me most fascinated was the history of the military base and its black ops, rather than shaky conspiracy theories. Jacobsen does a fine job laying out previously unknown-to-the-public projects at the base about stolen and reverse-engineered technologies, nuclear weapons testing, the development of radar and stealth bombers, and more. There were many dangerous and catastrophic projects being carried out. I learned more about the Military Industrial Complex and corporations had their hands in the government, how compartmentalizing major secret projects is effective but complicates accountability, and how different factions of the military and intelligence community clashed over these projects. There are some insightful, respectful interviews with veterans who worked at Area 51 that add value to the book.

It’s too bad the final chapter, which finally ties in Roswell and aliens, was a letdown. Honestly I hardly even remember the details of this part compared to the rest of the book. Truth is definitely stranger (and more interesting) than fiction in the case of Area 51. This would be a great companion piece to Drift by Rachel Maddow.

Listened to audiobook in March 2016.

flags of our fathers

Staying on track for my TBR Pile Challenge, last month I read Flags of Our Fathers by James D. Bradley with Ron Powers. From Goodreads:

In this unforgettable chronicle of perhaps the most famous moment in American military history, James Bradley has captured the glory, the triumph, the heartbreak, and the legacy of the six men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Here is the true story behind the immortal photograph that has come to symbolize the courage and indomitable will of America.

In February 1945, American Marines plunged into the surf at Iwo Jima—and into history. Through a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire that left the beaches strewn with comrades, they battled to the island’s highest peak. And after climbing through a landscape of hell itself, they raised a flag.

Now the son of one of the flagraisers has written a powerful account of six very different young men who came together in a moment that will live forever.

I have had my eye on Flags of Our Fathers ever since I first spotted it sitting on my grandmother’s shelf several years ago. I have a minuscule connection to this book—the author and his father, one of the men in the iconic photograph, are from Antigo, the same small up-north Wisconsin town as my father. My grandmother was undoubtedly acquainted with the Bradley family, and our family has used its funeral home services over the years. When my dad and I were in Honolulu last summer, we visited the Pearl Harbor memorial site and he bought me a copy of the book from the gift shop. I’m not sure exactly what compelled me to read Flags right when I did, but my reading of it just so happened to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the battle at Iwo Jima and the flagraising. I love when that sort of serendipity happens!

Flags relates the harrowing battle very well—the whole middle third of the book covering this is hard to put down. I learned some abhorrent facts, but I appreciate that Bradley was generally fair in relating the details of the war, not blaming one side or the other. He is biased on the subject of his father, of course, but that’s not distracting or overwhelming. There were a few repetitive statements throughout, and occasionally Bradley inserted himself and his thoughts or feelings into the story that pulled me out of it a little. He did an excellent job of conveying the horrors of war, and this lengthy, confusing, and exhausting battle in particular.

Further, Bradley went on to relate what happened to the three surviving flagraisers after the war, which I feel is just as important to examine in any discussion of any war. I didn’t really know much about bond tours before reading this book, and how its a relic of the past now, something that would never happen today. With the lives of the flagraisers covered from youth to death, Flags provides a cross-section of what war can do to a person’s psyche, too, from post-traumatic stress disorder to an inflated, false sense of celebrity to the desire to retreat from unwanted attention and live a normal life. What happens when everyone insists you’re a hero when you just happened to be in a certain place at a certain time, just doing your duty like everyone else? It really speaks to the profound respect and loyalty these men had to each other, that just because they put up a flag they knew they weren’t any different from or more special than all the other men on that island, especially those that died there.

Flags of Our Fathers is my second of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from February 18 to 28, 2015.

non-fiction november week 2

nonficnovimageIt’s Non-Fiction November!

Hosted by Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Katie (Doing Dewey), Leslie (Regular Rumination), and Becca (I’m Lost in Books), Non-Fiction November is a challenge to spend the month exclusively reading and writing about non-fiction. Each week there is a discussion topic, and the hosts also have a couple of readalongs going for the event.

Week 2 topic, November 10–14 (hosted by Leslie, Regular Rumination)
Be/Ask/Become the Expert: Three ways to join this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good non-fiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Since the centennial of World War I started this year and we have the National WWI Museum here in Kansas City, we’ve seen a lot of programming (art and history exhibits, library readalongs, concerts featuring music about or from the war eras, etc.) around here commemorating this war. And between this at home and my recent visit to Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, this subject has been on my mind a bit lately. The WWI books I’ve read are fewer and mostly fiction (All Quiet on the Western Front, etc.) so my non-fiction recommendations on the subject are about WWII, Vietnam, and current:

war books 1

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand — An incredible, adventurous, harrowing journey for Olympic runner and WWII lieutenant Louis Zamperini, soon to be released as a movie.

Hiroshima by John Hersey — A sober account of six survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Equal parts sad, gruesome, and gripping.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank — Inspiring in the midst of the horrors of war, especially Anne’s words, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart.”

Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff — A gripping survival story, and a great companion read for Unbroken—WWII stories from soldiers on opposite sides of the war and opposite sides of the world.

war books 2

Night by Elie Wiesel — An intense, chilling account of life in a Nazi concentration camp. Wiesel doesn’t shock with gory details necessarily, but the tenacious humanity of the prisoners and Wiesel’s relationship with his father are moving.

A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo — I read this years ago, but it’s always been one I would like to reread eventually. A decade after his 16-month tour of Vietnam, Caputo wrote this memoir about his devastating experiences, both physical and emotional.

Voices from Vietnam edited by Michael Stevens — A compilation of letters and diary entries from Wisconsin soldiers during the Vietnam War. A letter from my uncle to my grandmother is included in the collection.

Drift by Rachel Maddow — An intelligent, accessible account of our nation’s gradual shift into a state of near-constant war, despite the very real human and financial costs, starting from the Vietnam War through the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


flags of our fathersThe next war-related book on my list to read is Flags for our Fathers by James Bradley, about the author’s father and his fellow soldiers raising the flag during the WWII battle of Iwo Jima, captured in that iconic photograph. My dad bought me a copy from the Pearl Harbor gift shop when we visited the site during our Hawaii vacation in August. It’s been on my list for years, knowing the Wisconsin ties—the Bradley family is from the same up-north Wisconsin town as my dad’s family.

atonement

Well, I made it through March and all the nonsense of packing and moving everything… and totally made the wrong book choice during that stupid-busy insanity. It took me almost a full month to read Atonement. Boo!

Atonement by Ian McEwan is a historical fiction surrounding one misunderstood event and the devastating consequences that followed. In 1935 precocious and self-absorbed 13-year-old Briony Tallis, youngest child of an aristocratic British family, witnesses a private flirtation between her older sister Cecelia and Robbie Turner, son of one of the family’s employees. Briony misconstrues this adult act and accuses Robbie of something that sends him to prison and effects the course of the family’s life for decades after.

Atonement is another book I’ve had on my shelves for years, bought with the best intentions long ago but never cracked… perfect for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge! Unfortunately, I picked the absolute worst month to try to read this. Atonement, for me, was extremely slow to start and hard to get into. Nearly all the action in Part I (and much of Parts II and III) is internal and a good amount angsty. It was hard for me to feel any forward motion for much of Part I, and it took around 130 pages to finally pick up the pace and grab me, but sadly with lots of chaos and little time that comes with moving, it was tough to stay invested and intrigued by the story. I hate to say it but f this hadn’t been on my TBR (because I really want to complete this challenge) I would have probably put it down within the first 60 pages.

Of course, that’s not to say it is a bad book. The prose is superb (if quite dense). Every sentence is purposeful and lyrical, and McEwan paints a vivid landscape in which his characters exist. I will admit I pushed through to the end not only because of the TBR challenge, but also because of all the hype; I had to find out if the ending was really worth it as much as I had heard/read it is… while I wasn’t completely blown away, overall I’d say yes, it is worth it, although not in the way I expected (which is probably good, I guess!). No spoilers here, but I am still thinking about the ending days after I finished. Pretty crafty, McEwan! So that is saying something, and I really did like the parts taking place during the war (Robbie as soldier, Briony as nurse). Still, I’m not certain if my lack of connection with the characters and trouble investing in the story were symptoms of what was happening in my life when I tried to read Atonement or just how I would have felt about it anyway if I had read it under normal circumstances.

Atonement was my fourth read of twelve books total for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

Read from March 9 to April 7, 2013.

day nine | 30 day book challenge

30 Day Book Challenge | Day 9 — A book that changed your opinion or completely surprised you, good or bad

Maybe I’m cheating a little bit on this one, but my answer is really more about my opinion of myself rather than a specific subject. This year, I was surprised by how much I loved books in a couple of genres I hadn’t paid much attention to in the past and for which I never thought I’d develop an interest.

I have more actively followed politics in the last year than ever before. Partly because of the election, sure, but mostly because of what has been happening in Wisconsin, my homestate. After the collective bargaining issues there in early 2011, I started listening to Rachel Maddow’s show online and when she came through Kansas City in April 2012 on her tour for Drift, her debut book, I immediately bought tickets, which included a copy of the book. I found it compelling and engrossing, and as disturbing as some of the history and events can be, I was fascinated by her research on United States militaristic and political power relating to pursuing wars. I think I’ll be hooked on political science and current events for life now. It’s so important to be informed.

After reading some blog reviews of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, I decided to check out what the fuss was all about, and I went against my normal habit of waiting for the paperback version. Historically for me, mystery/thriller is generally not a genre that catches my attention, or I have found plot summaries to be too cheesy, and in the past maybe I believed I was not the kind of girl who would like it (which I realize is naive and a ridiculous assumption about myself). In 2011 I read Tana French’s In the Woods and was not all that impressed. But I’m really glad I read Gone Girl as it captivated and entertained me throughout, even spurring me to pick up Sharp Objects. Still have to get to Dark Places too!

the things they carried

When I was 10 years old my parents and I took a trip to Washington DC and we stopped at the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Remembering my father quietly shedding tears while he found and touched names of his friends who lost their lives in Vietnam on the memorial wall is a very important and affecting memory of mine. I vaguely knew about the war—at least, I knew my dad and uncle were veterans. My uncle’s letters home were included in the Voices from Vietnam book from the Wisconsin Historical Society. It has been a while since I read it, but I remember him mentioning very real parts of the war, and I recall the descriptions being matter-of-fact and fairly stoic. Just being… how it was, everyday. I discuss how I felt about the current wars in this post, which doesn’t even compare to the lasting emotional impact the Vietnam War had on a whole generation of Americans.

I picked up a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried over Labor Day weekend, and decided to read it this month because I recently hooked up with Sheila at Book Journey‘s Banned Books Week celebration. O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is on ALA.org‘s top 100 banned/challenged books for 2000–09, challenged for profanity, disturbing violence, sexual explicitness, and disrespect for authority. I have to think that people may have not liked this also because it may cut too deeply for some with strong feelings about the war. Also, tellingly, it was challenged the years the United States declared war on Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t agree with banning a work like this (or, well, anything, really!) because it is so important to learn from the past and young people need to know about war, especially in this time when the true horrors of war are essentially hidden from us in the media.

The Things They Carried is a metafiction—compiled fictional essays loosely based on the author’s experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. It is not clear what is fiction and what is memoir. He mentions “truth-happening” and “story-happening,” explaining that sometimes stories can better convey history than actual events; a story will evoke an emotional response more than listing the facts. The title refers to more than just the baggage the soldiers haul on their backs—their pasts, memories, feelings, fear, and more. The book’s stories weave around a handful of characters that are brought to life through O’Brien’s lyrical writing style. His descriptions of the war are real, gritty, and powerful. Many sections were painful and difficult to read, yet meaningful and important. It is not a history, but supposed to make you feel like you were there. In this case, O’Brien succeeds. I could feel the sticky air and muggy heat, the miserable incessant rains, and smell the putrid mucky swamps. Death is like another character in the book—a constant companion of the living, trudging along beside them. People die, and each time was shocking, yet O’Brien’s words show exactly how jaded and filled with inner psychological turmoil these young men became about death and about being in this volatile situation. Soldiers often died from carelessness and fought to stay alive out of fear. Boredom and waiting around are prominent factors in some of the stories. O’Brien doesn’t romanticize war with delusions of heroism or courage in his book. While profound on an individual level, The Things They Carried doesn’t address larger political or moral issues behind this or any war.

Although some chapters dragged a bit, or seemed strangely out of place—a couple were just explanations of the previous story—I really loved it. For me, this was up there with Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

Read from September 22 to October 5, 2012.