Monday, January 22, 2018

Audiobook review: The Wright Brothers


Title: The Wright Brothers
Author: David McCullough. Read by the author.
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Audio, 2015. First published 2015 by Simon and Schuster.
Source:  Library digital resources

Publisher's Blurb: 
Two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize David McCullough tells the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly: Wilbur and Orville Wright.

On December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright’s Wright Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. The Age of Flight had begun. How did they do it? And why? David McCullough tells the extraordinary and truly American story of the two brothers who changed the world.

Sons of an itinerant preacher and a mother who died young, Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in a small side street in Dayton, Ohio, in a house that lacked indoor plumbing and electricity but was filled with books and a love of learning. The brothers ran a bicycle shop that allowed them to earn enough money to pursue their mission in life: flight. In the 1890s flying was beginning to advance beyond the glider stage, but there were major technical challenges that the Wrights were determined to solve. They traveled to North Carolina’s remote Outer Banks to test their plane because there they found three indispensable conditions: constant winds, soft surfaces for landings, and privacy.

Flying was exceedingly dangerous; the Wrights risked their lives every time they flew in the years that followed. Orville nearly died in a crash in 1908, before he was nursed back to health by his sister, Katharine, an unsung and important part of the brothers’ success and of McCullough’s book. Despite their achievement, the Wrights could not convince the US government to take an interest in their plane until after they demonstrated its success in France, where the government instantly understood the importance of their achievement. Now, in this revelatory book, master historian David McCullough draws on nearly 1,000 letters of family correspondence—plus diaries, notebooks, and family scrapbooks in the Library of Congress—to tell the full story of the Wright brothers and their heroic achievement.

My Review:
As so often happens with the audio books I listen to while exercising or doing housework, I didn't know I was interested in this until I checked this out from the library. But I quickly realized that while I'd have said that I knew all about Wilbur and Orville Wright being the first to have a successful powered flight, I didn't actually know much of anything. David McCullough fixed that.

Another thing McCullough fixed was the controversy (of which I was vaguely aware) about some counter claims to the title of "first to fly." I can see where these came from--the Wrights were very private (secretive, if you wish) during the development of their craft, so others did in fact do well-publicized flights before they did. But the private records confirm it: Orville and Wilbur were first.

I enjoyed the book for the detail it provided about the whole process (how many of us assume that they managed that one famous flight at Kitty Hawk and that was it--flight was invented?), the many iterations and adjustments and the constant drive for more, recognizing that their early attempts hadn't produced practical flight. I was also interested in the struggle they had convincing anyone (like the US government) that what they had was worthwhile (no wonder they had to keep working!), and was intrigued by the fact that they were the only ones working on the problem who were self-funded (and they did it all for a tiny fraction of what most others spent).

The impact of fame on their lives was interesting, as well. The essentially private Wilbur was very nearly tempted out of his industrious path and came close, I think, to succumbing to vanity. His own native good sense seemed to pull him up just in time, though he did become a bit of a dandy for a time. And both the men were, I think, a bit out of their depth in the business end of things, and were lucky not to have been truly taken to the cleaners.

The only aspect of the book that bothered me was the reading. It wasn't bad, but I think the author would have done well to let someone else read it. His delivery is just a bit "flat," rather like reading a news report. That does avoid unnecessary and inappropriate drama, but it doesn't make for good listening. [As a note, he did way better than another misguided author-narrator I started at the same time and had to abandon. Someone should tell Sarah Vowell to stick to writing and let someone else read, because I found her voice unlistenable, a bit like the silent movie star in Singing in the Rain.]

My Recommendation:
An interesting piece of history, and like most of the non-fiction I listen to, it would probably be better read as a paper book. (Which raises the question of why I listen to so many NF books, even knowing they are usually better read. I don't have a good answer, except I do get through more of them this way, and a partial grasp of the subject is better than none.)  Anyone interested in the history of aviation has probably already read it, but if you haven't, nab a copy.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Wright Brothers out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

#fi50 Heads-up

Just a reminder to anyone who wants to participate, that next week (week of 1/28) is Fiction in 50 week! This month's theme is "Snowglobe." Use it as a title, or just as a starting point, or ignore it completely, but write your 50-word story and post up your link next Sunday when I post my story!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Non-Fiction Review: The Reason I Jump


Title: The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism
Author: Naoki Higashida; translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell
Publisher: (US) Random House, 2013. Originally published by Escor Publishers, Japan, 2007. 135 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
Written by Naoki Higashida, a very smart, very self-aware, and very charming thirteen-year-old boy with autism, it is a one-of-a-kind memoir that demonstrates how an autistic mind thinks, feels, perceives, and responds in ways few of us can imagine. Parents and family members who never thought they could get inside the head of their autistic loved one, at last, have a way to break through to the curious, subtle, and complex life within.

Using an alphabet grid to painstakingly construct words, sentences, and thoughts that he is unable to speak out loud, Naoki answers even the most delicate questions that people want to know. Questions such as: “Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly?” “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” and “What’s the reason you jump?” (Naoki’s answer: “When I’m jumping, it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky.”) With disarming honesty and a generous heart, Naoki shares his unique point of view on not only autism but life itself. His insights—into the mystery of words, the wonders of laughter, and the elusiveness of memory—are so startling, so strange, and so powerful that you will never look at the world the same way again.

My Review: 

I grabbed this book at the library because it sounded like a really interesting way of getting some insight into autism. And in a way, it is. I was a little way in when something about it began to bother me, making me wonder if it was really what it claimed. Sometimes the voice didn't seem quite believable. I looked at reviews, and found a lot of food for thought there. After reading reviews and finishing the book, I saw two issues: the author is trying to speak for all people with autism, and the question of whether his ideas could have come from a 13-year-old. 

Most people who know anything about autism spectrum disorders know that you can almost never say "all people with autism..." and not make a fool of yourself. Naoki Higashida, being only 13, can be forgiven for thinking his experience is universal, but I made a mental adjustment and replaced all his "we" statements with "I" statements, because in the end, he's only telling us how he feels (though that insight into his behavior may help to understand other people with autism). To me, it's a non-issue. Most 13-year-olds would probably make the same error.

The bigger issue seems to be whether these are really the author's own ideas. I admit to feeling some doubt on reading some passages that seemed both strange and sophisticated. Higashida also makes a lot of rather odd statements about motivations for odd behaviors. By the time I got to the end of the book, I decided that the author's odd statements are probably his own, the result of spending too much time inside his own head, if you will. I'm impressed that he was able to articulate them, and unsurprised that some answers are bizarre while he was unable to answer other questions at all.

Many reviewers focus their doubt on the bit where he explains autism, or rather his own metaphor for being autistic: "I think that people with autism are born outside the regime of civilization...we are more like travelers from the distant, distant past." I saw reviewers wondering how much of that somewhat poetic language was the work of the translator (I'll never know, but I'm sure there are some bilingual folks who could check), as well as people who didn't believe a kid could come up with the ideas. To me, it sounds exactly like something a kid would come up with, especially a kid with plenty of brains and not much ability to connect and communicate with others. Doesn't every early teen think he/she is an alien from another world, at least occasionally?

In the end, this book bothered me less than it did many people, though I didn't find it all that readable (it's 135 short pages and still took me weeks to get through) for some reason. I saw some things in what he says that make sense, and resonate with my experience with family members on the spectrum. I read other things that I had to shrug and say "well, that's his experience."

My Recommendation:
This book does fill a gap, since most books on autism are either written by adults, either neurotypical or on the spectrum. This one is the kid's view, and is written from a place where he has not yet found a way to function fully in the world, but is old enough to wonder and worry about the need to do so. It's a good reminder that just because a person cannot speak, or speak well, it doesn't mean he does not think, or have plenty of words inside. It's flawed, it's not brilliant, but it is probably worth a look.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Reason I Jump out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."