Although written in chronological order, these three posts can be read in whatever order you like…
One of the fiction books I enjoyed this year was Cell by Robin Cook. I have been a longtime fan of Robin Cook ever since he published Coma and have read many of his books enjoying some of his characters that carry over from one novel to another. I am often humored when people ask me what book I am reading and I respond a Robin Cook book—their expression of sheer amazement that a recipe book exists on how to prepare a sweet robin red breast for dinner.
This novel centered on the invention of a smart phone app called iDoc that was to revolutionize the medical industry and the protagonist’s (a radiology resident) investigation of mysterious deaths associated with the program. About half way through the book, I began to question how realistic the story was until I heard two back-to-back stories on NPR about smart phone medical capabilities, which just so happened to be sponsored by a health insurance conglomerate (just like in the book). The plot twists and turns and in the end with a surprise ending, leaves you wondering just how the future might be with such a device. Interestingly, in the author’s afterward, Cook cites a non-fiction book that he ran across while writing Cell that allowed him to incorporate some not-so-science-fiction details.
A nonfiction book I read this year that had a personal interest to me was, Flameout: The Rise and Fall of Burger Chef by John P. McDonald (interesting that the author has the same last name as that other highly successful fast-food chain). Not that I am a fan of fast-food but a hamburger is my all-time my favorite food and the first fast-food hamburger I ever had was a 15 cent burger from Burger Chef in West Monroe, LA when I was probably about 8 years old. Seeing that familiar marquee on the book cover and recalling its original design featuring a prominent 15-cent sign at the top (obviously a poor choice when it became apparent the price would have to increase) sold me and I had to buy this book.
As I read the story, I could picture in my mind’s eye that first evening when we stood outside the order window for the first time. I remember thinking I couldn’t believe it only cost 15 cents. But what I learned of interest was that Burger Chef was actually started as a franchise chain to increase sales of milk shake machines and chain driven flame broilers (the ones common in Burger King today), both patented inventions by the company’s founders. For a time, these innovations allowed Burger Chef to keep pace and even exceed McDonald’s sales since flame broiled burgers were simply more tasty than griddle fried burgers. Sadly, it was a series of missteps, not the least of which was switching from natural gas fired flame broilers to griddles during the energy crisis that led to their downfall and eventual purchase by Hardees.
When I heard the podcast interview with Lily Koppel about her latest book, I knew The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story was a must read for me. Having grown up in the 60s with an inborn fascination with the space program, I have read just about every book that has been written about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs reliving the memories from my childhood of the excitement of space exploration through each author’s words. But all of those stories presented the perspective from the astronaut’s side. This book was an eye opener to how the seemingly idyllic lives of their husbands dramatically affected the wives.
To grasp this reality, it is important to recognize that these astronauts were the “rock stars” of the early 60s living lives close to and sometimes over the edge. Loving, supportive wives and happy marriages were the expectation of NASA and a perquisite for mission assignment. But in fact, nothing was farther from the truth. As with all rock stars, young hormonally active women—“Cape Cookies”—literally threw themselves at the astronauts whenever they were training at the Cape while their wives held down the fort in Houston where many were next-door neighbors. Unofficially, NASA ignored this as long as it stayed in the Cape and never filtered into their homes in Houston.
Being the astronaut wives who themselves were prominently featured in many Life magazine articles and photos, it was an incredible challenge for them to always put on the “happy face” for the reporters given the almost open infidelity and the fact that often, they had no idea if their husbands would return safely from their mission. This book gave me a completely new “Steel Magnolia-like” appreciation for the difficulties these brave women faced and the important, but previously untold part they played in our nations race to the moon.
A surprise nonfiction that I really enjoyed this year was Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto. This was a book my wife gave me for my birthday while we were actually in Amsterdam. Even though I have been to Amsterdam many, many times, I found that I learned a number of interesting facts that I didn’t know in spite of being there so many times. From the miracle of Amsterdam, which I had never heard of, to the fact that Holland is one of the oldest republics (26 July 1581), I relished learning the new information. But the part I particularly enjoyed was the interweaving of the story of a friend of Anne Frank interviewed in the book and the snippet of YouTube video of Anne, the only known video of her. I often say that Amsterdam is the first city anyone should travel to who has never been to Europe, similarly this is the book they should read before they go.
One book that I read this year that was an absolute delight was The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I was already an avid David McCullough fan having enjoyed many of his previous historical non-fiction but when I saw this one was being published in May, I knew it was a must read. Most everyone knows of the famous Wright brothers and that iconic black and white photo of the first sustained, mechanized flight on a cold December morning in Kitty Hawk, NC, but until I read this book, I didn’t really have an appreciation for what the brothers truly accomplished.
The Wright brothers were by no means the first to attempt to fly but they were by far the most successful. On their own, they discovered the physics of flight and with the aid of the first ever wind tunnel designed and engineered the first successful airplane. But while others were scheduling large demonstrations that often ended in dramatic and sometimes fatal failure, the Wrights were without spectators or spectacle, quietly learning how to safely control their flying machine. The part of their story that I never knew was that the Wright brothers literally taught the world to build and fly “aeroplanes.” Wilbur spent over a year in Europe; mostly in France flying demonstrations and garnering fame for himself, Orville, and their sister Katharine.
Flying is such a commonplace activity to us today. But it was just a little over 100 years ago that it all got started. Having read this book, I dare say that forever more as I pass through the boarding door of a commercial flight, I’ll think of what the Wright brothers accomplished and how were it not for them, much of this might not have been possible.
To be continued…