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REVIEW:  Neil Armstrong – A Life of Flight by Jay Barbree

REVIEW: Neil Armstrong – A Life of Flight by Jay...


To date, everything written about Armstong’s life and flights has been written from the outside looking in; Barbree is the only person whom Neil Armstrong trusted to share close personal details about his inspiring life story.

Working from his years of notes, and with the full cooperation of the Armstrong family, Barbree has written the definitive biography of America’s most famous astronaut and one of our greatest modern heroes. Much has already been written about Armstrong and the major players who helped him fly to the moon, but he wanted this book to emphasize his two passions—family and flight. Barbree and Armstrong discussed everything, from his two marriages and the death of his baby daughter, to his love of flying, the war years and of course, his time in space. The book, timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch and full of never-before-seen photos, includes many personal details that have never before been written, such as what Armstrong really felt when he took that first step on the moon, what life in NASA was like, his relationships with the other astronauts, and what he felt the future of space exploration should be.

Fifteen seconds and counting. astronauts report they feel good.
T-minus nine seconds.
Ignition sequence starts.

I wasn’t even born when President Kennedy announced his grand dream for NASA to land men on the moon and return them safely home by the end of the 1960s. Though I do remember hearing about NASA, moon walks and astronauts as a child it wasn’t until I was an adult that I truly became fascinated with and interested in the NASA program and space flight. This might have something to do with my early introduction to it. That came when I was very young, on vacation with my family one July and my mother dragged me out of bed, plopped me in front of the TV and I sat watching the first step taken by man on the moon. I’m ashamed to say at the time it didn’t make much impression on me but since I was only a tot at the time hopefully that will excuse it.

“Liftoff, we have liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour, liftoff of Apollo 11. Tower cleared.

In the years since, I’ve read books and watched programs and movies about the astronauts, the flights, and the aftermath. One thing that struck me is how, decades ago, Neil Armstrong decided to stop giving interviews. He’d said all he had to say, answered all the questions he could about the landing and wanted to move on. So when I saw this book listed at Netgalley my initial thoughts were wow, a view from the inside of this man’s life and with his cooperation. I need to check this out.

“The Eagle has wings,”

“Eagle, Houston, if you read, you’re Go for powered descent.”

Barbree clearly loves the story he’s telling, knows it extensively yet manages to tell it in a way that’s easily undertandable without implying that the reader is uneducated or stupid for not knowing something. What needs explaining is done simply and efficiently and what doesn’t is left alone. The book is written in a more subdued style but not to the point of dry or technical. Instead it’s very matter-of-fact and not given to too much gushy, gee whizz, wow, emo reporting. Still it’s moving and I will admit to getting emotional myself while reading it. The book is packed with wonderful photos including several views and angles of the Apollo 11 liftoff and their holding orbit before leaving Earth for the Moon.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Though the book obviously focuses on Armstrong, I’m glad that time is also spent extolling the Soviet achievements and the cosmonauts who almost made it there first. As well, the Mercury 7, Gemini 8 and Apollo astronauts are all mentioned and their places in the NASA space program explained, noted and lauded. Not only were these steely eyed missile men who could and did coolly handle the expected risks and the unexpected glitches that could have lead to disasters but they were brilliant as well, racking up advanced degrees in subjects that make my head hurt. It was a massive group effort and Barbree shows this.

“That’s one small step for man,” Neil said with a momentary pause, “One giant leap for mankind.”

But what about life after July 20,1969? Armstrong’s influence carried on far past his moon landing. He was instrumental in inspiring future astronauts to want to fly in space and enter the program. When the Challenger tragedy occured, he was one of the ones called on to head the nuts and bolts part of the investigation. When the US and Russia began Soyuz and then joint work on the Intenational Space Station, it was his work in tricky docking maneuvers during the Gemini and Apollo programs that lead the way. From everything I’d ever heard or read about Armstrong, he was a class act. He was a man who achieved greatness, who truly did boldly go where no man had gone before but who remained solidly grounded – so to speak – and who never stopped pushing for more space exploration. B


‘Here Man from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.’

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REVIEW:  The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

REVIEW: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport


They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.

Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.

The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.

Dear Ms. Rappaport,

My introduction to the Romanovs began many years ago when I read Robert K Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra.’ While it’s a very good book for its time, one glaring defect for me was always the fact that the lives of the four Grand Duchesses were covered in only one chapter titled OTMA. The sisters themselves used the term but, as you mention in your book, it mainly served to turn them into an faceless mass, indistinguishable from each other. When I saw the title of your book I thought, ‘aha, now maybe I can learn more about each sister as an individual.”

From the opening, the book is so full of signs, SIGNS I tell you! of what was to lead to what was to come. Or what certainly helped grease things along. Reading it is like watching one of those old 1970s disaster films – Airport, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake or The Poseidon Adventure. We get the introduction of the cast of characters, the setting of the disaster and slow build up to The Event – whatever that might be, followed by the fallout from the catastrophe. Here it’s the Romanov family, in a Russia poised for social upheaval, which lead to the Revolution and then to their deaths.

Since we already know the family is doomed, it’s easy to pick out the people and events in their lives and the world stage that got them to Ekaterinburg. All of this must obviously be covered as it was such an integral part of what happened to the sisters but what about them before the end? What made them tick? How were they different? This is what I really wanted to know.

The book comes through for me. It’s obvious that considerable time and effort was expended in tracking down – and in many cases translating – original source material. Their parents wrote much about them in letters and diaries. Since the sisters were celebrities in their day there a plethora of foreign coverage of their lives. And as they were prodigious letter writers, their own experiences, thoughts and hopes were captured and preserved in the moment, much like objects in amber.

Far from being the stairstep princesses in often matching tulle covered picture hats of the day, the sisters were vastly different young women. Sometimes solemn, serene, imperial, impish, boy crazy or downright mean, the girls were individuals from the beginning and just starting to show the women they could have become given different circumstances. I was surprised at how extremely naïve they were but given the degree to which their parents sheltered them, and how they still called them “girlies” until Olga was near twenty, I suppose I shouldn’t be.

One thing that does come through, crystal clear, is their devotion to each other, to their parents and to their brother who, unfortunately, due to the Russian peoples’ and his parent’s hopes for an heir, seemed to push the four sisters into the background and blur their individual personalities.

Reasons are given for not including information about the actual execution and the disposal of the bodies. I realize that you’d already covered it in another book but by merely mentioning that it makes it seem as if you’re trying to sell the reader that book to get the complete story.

I did enjoy getting to know Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia much better than I did when I began the book. Each sister is now a bit clearer and more fixed in my mind. Yes, I know that if they had lived, they would probably have been relegated to nothing more than footnotes of the era (after all, who remembers much of Princess Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France?) but since that isn’t what happened and many still want to know more about them, this is a good starting point to do so. B


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