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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:  Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

REVIEW: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein


“While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?”

Dear Ms. Wein,

I enjoyed your book Code Name Verity so much that when I heard you’d have a new book out this year, I got right on obtaining a copy. Based on the blurb and what I felt after finishing “Verity,” I knew it wouldn’t be an easy book to read but I was hoping that it would be as memorable and as good. Once again, I think you’ve managed to deliver a story of courage and strength though it might be a touch intense as a YA novel.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, recommended by Jayne

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, recommended by Jayne

Last year, I didn’t read any other reviews of “Verity” to avoid spoilers. This year since I finished “Rose” before the release date, I didn’t have to worry about that. Still I decided to not look into the history of Ravensbruck too closely so it would be as much a shock to me as it probably would be for Rose. I had heard of the name of the camp but none of the details. The decision was a wise one because the intensity of the details was undiluted.

For all that I must say that the book gets off to a moderately slow start. Kind of like sitting on a plane which is lined up, waiting for clearance to take off and it keeps getting delayed. There is lots of exposition which is useful for those who didn’t read the first book and or know little about the ATA. Some details, such as Rose’s reaction to the doodlebugs, are important while others, such as a certain romance I was hoping to see occur between two characters from “Verity,” are a sweet gift but nonetheless, I was raring to get to the heart of the book.

But once it gets going, it’s initially like numbing shock that slowly wears off leaving you wide open to Rose’s dawning horror of what’s going on at Ravensbruck. The ways and means that figure into Rose’s survival there echo what I’ve heard in documentaries about POWs. Little things will save a life or take it. One must have a buddy or buddy system to watch one’s back. Someone with a reason to live will be more likely to remain unbroken while a way to occupy the mind helps keep mental collapse at bay.

Rose’s poetry serves to exercise her mind, help her deal with the conditions of the camp and initially connect with the group of women who will be crucial to getting her out of there alive. Later she discovers a fellow pilot who joins their “family” but first and foremost, writing and expressing her emotions through poetry helps get her through the bleakest times. I thought the details of what Rose and the others endured were more explicitly laid out and might be harder to read about than in “Verity” but since the setting is a German WWII concentration camp, I realized that it wasn’t going to be pretty. What I felt added to the impact they had on me is how understated they are. Raw, yes, but not sensationalized.

I loved the scenes of Rose’s “family” working together to make conditions just a little less hellish, to sustain each other, to defy the camp authorities when possible, to lift their spirits and keep some amount of hope alive, to save each other’s lives.

One of Rose’s tasks is to memorize the long list of Rabbit names by turning them into poetry to be sure their story is told and none are forgotten. The details of the Rabbits made me want to gather them all up in my arms and weep. The determination of the camp inmates to save these women to bear witness against the Nazis for the medical experimentation done on them made me want to cheer.

Rose’s disbelief that the Germans knew they were losing but kept on fighting is one I have always shared. Why more death and destruction with the outcome already beyond doubt? But at least the threat of the Allies’ advance and publicity over what had gone on at the camp was enough to barter for people’s lives who had ended up on the daily execution list.

One thing I think that is done exceptionally well here is in how the freed prisoners – here mainly shown by Rose – react once they’re freed. Her fear of open spaces, of making choices, of feeling overwhelmed into inactivity make sense. Her inability to speak on what happened to her, despite her best intentions, mirrors real life. The fact that her experience haunts her for years and she doesn’t begin to come to terms with it until she’s spoken again with a former camp “family” member seem realistic.

It was delightful to see some returning characters from “Verity” – Maddie and Jamie – yah!, his mother who is still taking in strays from the war, and a bit about the orphaned boys from Edinburgh. I was more ambivalent about another – Anna the German criminal/foreman in the camp – and left wondering about her ultimate fate. One thing was for certain – I wouldn’t want to be a close friend of Maddie’s and end up in German territory as the track record for these people isn’t good!

Recently I watched a documentary – The Botany of Desire – which discussed how scientists have discovered that a natural substance similar to THC is helpful to human existence in that it allows us to forget. Being able to forget some of the worst experiences of the camp is something that Rose finds to be vital. She also learns how hope – of even little things – keeps them all going. How defiance lifts their spirits. The ending is hopeful but not yet complete as Rose and the others still have a long way to go to come to terms with what they survived – and this feels right – but there appear to be some rays of sunshine breaking through the gloomy clouds. I feel relatively positive about things, even if more than a little wrung out. I doubt I could read more than one of your books in a year but I’m still glad to read that one. B



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