Flying Alone by Beth Ruggiero York: A Young Woman Takes Flight

 

Flying Alone

Flying Alone: A Memoir

by Beth Ruggiero York

eARC, 202 pg.
2019

Read: October 14-15, 2019


When she was 14 years old, Elizabeth flew for the first time—as she says, it was the first time she’d been that excited since her father died the previous year—and she made a promise to herself that she’d learn to fly.

Her plan had been to join the Navy and become a pilot, which would put her on the fast track to being an airline pilot (her ultimate goal). This was derailed by a diagnosis of probable MS, the Navy would no sooner train a pilot who’d likely develop MS than they would one who had the disease. So, that door closed, she’d go the private sector route—it’d take longer, but it’d still get her where she wanted to go.

The book really takes off (ouch, sorry, didn’t mean that pun, but I can’t bring myself to edit that) as she’s about to get her private license at a small flying school in Massachusetts. The book traces her development as a pilot in a culture not really receptive to female pilots (but not hostile to the idea, it didn’t seem), through various stages in her progress—eventually through different employers. We see her navigating through both successes and setbacks, and how she’d move on from either up to the point of making it to her goal—flying for TWA.

A near-constant presence in the book is her primary flying instructor and eventual significant other, Steve. I never liked the guy, and I am not sure I can understand why anyone would. But, this is written years after Steve and the author had gone their separate ways, and she’s writing with the full advantage of hindsight. So York displays all the warning signs she spent years ignoring while they were together because it seems like she can’t understand all of what she was doing with him either.

If this were a novel, I’d be complaining about how little we get of Elizabeth’s friend and student, Melanie. Melanie sees Steve for who he is and encourages Elizabeth to take some of the early steps she’ll need to advance her career. She also encourages her to get away from Steve—advice that is rejected (but maybe takes root). I enjoyed her presence in the book and can imagine she’d have been fun to hang out with at the time.

For me, seeing the various kind of jobs that a pilot can hold—and what they entail—was the best part of this book. Yeah, it’s disillusioning how many corners were cut (when not ignored) along the way (and I’m guessing the statute of limitations has passed for many of these)—but the various companies and duties were fascinating. It was also refreshing to see some of the pilots worrying about things like that, as well as displaying that there were people around her that had her best interests at heart (or at least would back her when needed).

It’s been a while since I saw anyone do this, but remember back when movies would end by telling us what would happen to various characters in the future? York finishes this book with a quick summary of what befell many of the people/companies we’d met along the way. It’s a nice touch here.

But before that, we get a very quick recap of her life in the last chapter and epilogue. Between the penultimate and the final chapter, she jumps a little over a year in time to get us to her interview (and hiring) by TWA. After taking things so methodically up to that point, it felt abrupt to make that jump, like we’d missed a lot. There’s probably a good reason for York’s choice there, but it felt like she was in a rush to meet a deadline so she skimmed over that year. And then didn’t really give us a lot about the early days with TWA. I think that’s my major criticism of the writing—she just sped past that last year and stopped. I think a little time talking about her initial experience flying for a major airline would’ve been nice—maybe she’s saving that for the sequel? (It didn’t seem like that was the intention, but it’d work)

You really feel like you’re getting behind the scenes of small airports, freight and charter companies. People like Tom Wolfe can make maverick pilots sound exciting and romantic. York makes the idea sound dreadful and a real threat to safety in the air and on the ground below flight paths. Superman tried to reassure Lois when he said, “I hope this hasn’t put you off of flying. Statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel.” Frankly, after reading parts of this book, I could use someone telling me that.

The book feels honest—it doesn’t seem like she glossed over her own faults or highlighted others’ at her own gain (or the other way around). There’s a sense of “here’s some smart things I did,” “here’s a bad decision I/he/they made,” “here’s stuff that happened that could have gone either way and worked out okay.” It’d have been pretty easy to make herself “the good guy”, or everyone else “the bad guy”. Instead, we got a bunch of humans being human.

This is a quick read, an insightful read, and an effective read—I wasn’t sure what to expect out of Flying Alone, but I don’t think I got it. What I got, however, was better—I’d recommend it. A story about a woman succeeding on her terms—while overcoming issues and problems beyond her control and as a direct result of her choices—not overly romantic, not overly sentimental, and not afraid to show her own deficiencies. This is the kind of memoir we need more of.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. Which is what she got. Honest, not timely—I do feel bad about not getting this up in late September, or anytime in October. I tried.


3 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Relief by Execution by Gint Aras: Reflections on Societal Woes from a Different Angle on the Holocaust

Relief by Execution

Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen

by Gint Aras

eARC, 94 pg.
Little Bound Books, 2019

Read: September 21, 2019


This is a short book (long essay), that to really get into would render the reading of the content pointless, so I’ve got to hold back some of what I want to say. The official blurb is a good starting point for a few thoughts I have in reaction to this essay:

Between the years of 1996-1999, Gint Aras lived a hapless bohemian’s life in Linz, Austria. Decades later, a random conversation with a Polish immigrant in a Chicago coffeehouse provokes a question: why didn’t Aras ever visit Mauthausen, or any of the other holocaust sites close to his former home? The answer compels him to visit the concentration camp in the winter of 2017, bringing with him the baggage of a childhood shaped by his family of Lithuanian WWII refugees.

Thus far, I’m on board with it—Aras blends recollections of the visit with glimpses of his past—the racism, the abuse, the ways of thinking that he was raised in, and then applying that to American society. I think this is a solid idea, but not terribly uncommon. What makes this better is the perspective Aras brings to it. Rather than identifying with the inmates, the victims of the holocaust; he puts himself in the shoes of the guards, of the soldiers carrying out the orders that those of us separated by a distance of miles, years and context can’t imagine.

Or, as the blurb concludes:

The result is this meditative inquiry, at once lyrical and piercing, on the nature of ethnic identity, the constructs of race and nation, and the lasting consequences of collective trauma.

It’s this part that I found wanting. The length of this essay didn’t work for me — Aras either spent too much time on things he didn’t properly develop, or he spent too much time talking about things that didn’t add enough value to the essay. Either fully developing things—which would probably take another 50 or so pages (just a guess)—or trimming about half the length to give a tighter, more controlled argument would have made this a stronger piece of writing.

I enjoyed the writing generally, but too often (not really frequently, but not rarely enough) his writing got in the way of what he was trying to do. His style was too elaborate, his vocabulary obfuscated, and he just got in his own way.

Lastly, I think the essay would’ve been better served with more about his actual time in Mauthausen.

In summary, I think this is a great concept, but I couldn’t get behind the execution—often overwritten, and either too short or too long. Still, this is worth your time. You’ll end up thinking about things in a different way, which is always beneficial. It’s a short read. It’s a compelling read. Sure, it’s a problematic read—but the positives outweigh that.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author via Lori @ TNBBC Publicity in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


3 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Riding the Elephant by Craig Ferguson: Heartfelt, Amusing, Occasionally Inspirational and/or Hilarious.

Riding the ElephantRiding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations

by Craig Ferguson
Hardcover, 266 pg.
Blue Rider Press, 2019
Read: July 1 – 18, 2019

The following year, 2009, I actually sang ”Sweet Caroline” along with Neil Diamond on stage—he put his hand on my shoulder! ”Reachin’ out. . . touchin’ me. . . touchin’ you . . .,” which means, no matter what you may achieve in your life, I’ll always be that little bit more awesome than you.

Early on, Ferguson talks about his approach to the writing of this bookafter years of writing the monologue-type things he started his talk show with (I call them type, because they’re not like your standard late night monologue), he’s continued to think in those terms, he finds it natural to write in. So, he wrote a few of those looking back on his past. Prestoa new memoir.

The timeline jumps around a lot, so there’s no real linear storyline. But there are trends, if you’re looking for them. More than that, there are themessobriety, family, and personal growth would be at the top of the list.

There are some wonderfully-written passages, not enough for my tastebut it’s not that kind of book, so those moments shine. Mostly, it’s a showcase for Ferguson as story-teller. And he’s a good one: whether it’s about a fishing trip, a vacation in Japan, performing somewhere, teenage romance (unrequited, I should add) or meeting his wife (for example) — you get caught up in the tale. Maybe the lessons he takes from the story or the point he was trying to raise, aren’t quite as good as the story itself, but frequently it is.

I could read the account of his learning to fly a couple of times a year and find it amusing and inspiring each time. I loved his discussion about his tattoos, tooit made me wish I had a session lined up.

One of the most prominent themes (maybe the most) is sobriety and his alcoholism. As you’d expect, Ferguson balances the harsh truths about both with his signature wit.

The problem with trying to hide active alcoholism from someone you live with is one of balance. You have to drink because you’re an alcoholic, but you don’t want to appear too drunk because then the poor unfortunate that is supposedly in a relationship with you might insist on you getting help. That’s the last fucking thing you want because every drinking alcoholic knows ”getting help” means stopping drinking, and that is unthinkable. Keeping your shit together is a tightrope act and is only halfway possible with luck, good timing, and cocaine. Even then it doesn’t always work.

Let’s be honest, it hardly ever works.

It never works.

I do think I would’ve enjoyed this more if I’d listened to the audiobookalas, it wasn’t available at my library. I think I’d have responded better to Ferguson’s voice telling me the stories, not reading them with frequent approximations of his voice in my head. But it was nice enougha few chuckles, some really well-written passages, some good insight into Ferguson. It wasn’t spectacular, as I’d hopedbut it was good. I’m glad I read it, and I bet if you like Ferguson to any extent, you’ll enjoy reading this, too.

—–

3 Stars

2019 Library Love ChallengeHumor Reading Challenge 2019

✔ A memoir or biography of a favorite celebrity.
✔ A book written by a comedian.

Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, David K. Dickson and MJ Simpson: An Indispensable Guide to Douglas Adams and his Work

I’d intended to get this up and ready for Towel Day last week — but, obviously, I failed. Schemes once again, Gang aft a-gley. It’s pretty fitting, really that this is late.

Don't PanicDon’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Third Edition)

by Neil Gaiman; Additional Material by David K. Dickson & MJ Simpson
Series: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy (related)

Hardcover, 207 pg.
Titan Books, 2003
Read: May 22 – 23, 2019

          
The idea in question bubbled into Douglas Adams’s mind quite spontaneously, in a field in Innsbruck. He later denied any personal memory of it having happened. But it’s the story he told, and, if there can be such a thing, it’s the beginning. If you have to take a flag reading THE STORY STARTS HERE and stick it into the story, then there is no other place to put it.

It was 1971, and the eighteen year-old Douglas Adams was hitch-hiking his way across Europe with a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europethat he had stolen (he hadn’t bothered ‘borrowing’ a copy of Europe on $5 a Day, he didn’t have that kind of money).

He was drunk. He was poverty-stricken. He was too poor to afford a room at a youth hostel (the entire story is told at length in his introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts in England, and The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy in the US) and he wound up, at the end of a harrowing day, flat on his back in a field in Innsbruck, staring up at the stars. “Somebody,” he thought, “somebody really ought to write a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

He forgot about the idea shortly thereafter.

Five years later, while he was struggling to think of a legitimate reason for an alien to visit Earth, the phrase returned to him. The rest is history, and will be told in this book.

I distinctly remember purchasing the first edition of Don’t Panic from BookPeople of Moscow in the fall of 1991 — I remember being blown away by the idea that someone would write a book about Douglas Adams’ work. I had no idea who this Neil Gaiman fellow was, but I enjoyed his writing and loved the book he wrote — and read it several times. It was a long time (over 2 decades) before I thought of him as anything but “that guy who wrote the Hitchhiker’s book.” The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy had been a favorite of mine for years by that point, and getting to look behind the scenes of it was like catnip.

This is the third edition, and as is noted by Gaiman in the Forward, it “has been updated and expanded twice.” The completist in me would like to find a second edition to read the original 3 chapters added by David K. Dickson in 1993, but the important change was in 2002, when “MJ Simpson wrote chapters 27-30, and overhauled the entire text.” If you ask me, Gaiman’s name should be in the smaller print and Simpson’s should be the tall letters on the cover — but no publisher is that stupid, if you get the chance to claim that Neil Gaiman wrote a book, you run with it. Overhauled is a kind way of putting it — there’s little of the original book that I recognize (I’m going by memory only, not a side by side comparison). This is not a complaint, because Simpson’s version of the book is just as good as the original, it’s just not the original.

This is a little more than the story of The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, but it’s certainly not a biography of Adams — maybe you could call it a professional biography. Or a biography of Adams the creator, which only touches upon the rest of his life as needed. Yes there are brief looks at his childhood, schooling, etc. But it primarily focuses on his writing, acting, producing and whatnot as the things that led to that revolutionary BBC Radio series and what happened afterward. Maybe you could think of it as the story of a man’s lifelong battle to meet a deadline and the lengths those around him would go to help him not miss it too much.

Once we get to the Radio series, it follows the The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy through each incarnation and expansion — talking about the problems getting it produced (in whatever medium we’re talking about — books, TV show, movie, stage show) and the content. Then the book discusses other Adams projects — Dirk Gently books, The Last Chance to See, his computer work, and other things like that.

It’s told with a lot of cheek, humor, and snark — some of the best footnotes and appendices ever. It’s not the work of a slavish fanboy (or team of them) — there are critical moments talking about problems with some of the books (some of the critiques are valid, others might be valid, but I demur). But it’s never not told with affection for the man or his work.

Don’t Panic is a must for die-hard fans — and can be read for a lot of pleasure by casual fans of the author or his work. I can almost promise that whatever your level of devotion to or appreciation of Adams/his work, it’ll increase after reading this. Any edition of this book should do — but this third edition is an achievement all to itself. Imagine someone being able to say, “I improved on Gaiman’s final draft.”

I loved it, I will return to this to read as well as to consult for future things I write about Adams, and recommend it without hesitation.

—–

5 Stars

Humor Reading Challenge 2019

And Drink I Did: One Man’s Story of Growing Through Recovery by Jay Keefe: An underdeveloped, but powerful memoir of addiction and recovery

And Drink I DidAnd Drink I Did: One Man’s Story of Growing Through Recovery

by Jay Keefe


Kindle Edition, 154 pg.
2018

Read: March 2 – 5, 2019

This is one of those books that’s pretty well summed up by the title and subtitle. There’s not a lot more to say, really. But I’ll flesh it out a little — the first two chapters are primarily focused on his pre-alcohol life to gain some insight into his alcoholism. He begins by saying that he doesn’t know why he’s an alcoholic, he doesn’t know what made him one — moreover, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he is an alcoholic. That doesn’t stop him from thinking and writing about his childhood — not in an effort to justify or explain away his alcoholism, but to understand it. He explains some early emotional experiences, as part of this — and even his earliest memories of OCD.

This might be the closest I’ve gotten to understanding the compulsion’s sensation:

I didn’t feel right or complete until I had done specific tasks.

Even after I did them, there was still a lingering sense that something was off. When people ask me to describe it, the best I can do is to say it’s like an itch that can’t be scratched- kind of like when the top of your mouth tickles, and you use your tongue to scratch it, but it doesn’t really help because your tongue just isn’t the right instrument to scratch an itch.

It’s like that.

Kind of.

Then he explained his initial drinking experiences and how alcohol made him feel. It reminded me of a similar passage in Mose Kasher’s memoir of addiction.

I always felt a void and had no idea how to fill it.

Alcohol filled that void perfectly.

It took me out of myself.

I could relax. . . .

Alcohol quelled the OCD too.

I didn’t clean when I was drunk.

It didn’t bother me that things weren’t in their place.

I didn’t sweat the small stuff, so to speak.

And I knew I wasn’t sweating it. That was the beauty of it.

It’s so easy for people — especially for non-addicts — to pin drugs and alcohol use and abuse to people who are partying or having a good time and can’t stop. For Kasher, it was about feeling normal; for Keefe it’s about quieting the OCD, about not having the self-doubt and insecurities that plagued him. It’s about self-medicating. Addiction’s never more understandable to me than when I hear someone talking like that — who wouldn’t want that experience? Forget about feeling good, just getting to neutral — no problems.

Anyway, from there Keefe spends a few chapters talking about his experiences drinking — at one point he says that other addicts’ war stories never impressed him, and initially you get the feeling that’s hypocritical because he talks a lot about some of the stupid or out of control things he did while drinking. But he never glorified the experience, he never celebrates what happened — it’s just a list of things he did. Like reciting the tasks (largely routine) at work you completed one week. More than once I found myself wondering how Keefe is still living — and he probably did, too, while writing it.

He then talks about his early days of recovery — his early 12-Step days and when it started to work for him, and how that changed his life. How being sober didn’t fix all of his problems, and how he still has impulse control issues and what he’s done to minimize the problems that causes him. Then he discusses his current circumstances, with a few years of sobriety behind him — how he’s doing, what he’s doing with himself, and that he’s still an alcoholic, living in fear of stumbling.

Those last couple of chapters, in particular are really powerful.

I’m a little of two minds about this book — you can see from what I’ve quoted how this book reads. Paragraphs that are 1 or 2 sentences long (there are some that are a little longer), some aren’t even complete sentences. The book largely reads like a very detailed outline — at best like a good first draft. Also, the timeline’s a little fuzzy and his knack for not using names all the time when talking about his life doesn’t help keep things clear.

None of that keeps the book from making an impact. It’s moving, it’s powerful, and you have a very real sense of what he went through. So Keefe’s not Tobias Wolff or Frank McCourt — who cares? The book accomplishes what he sets out to accomplish, is insightful, touching and inspiring. That’s good enough for me.

—–

3 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

In Their Own Words by David B. Calhoun: Not exactly what I expected, but a profitable read

In Their Own WordsIn Their Own Words: The Testimonies of Luther, Calvin, Knox and Bunyan

by David B. Calhoun


Paperback, 232 pg.
Banner of Truth, 2018
Read: January 13 – 27, 2018

I liked this book — don’t get me wrong. I’d even recommend it heartily to people. But I have some issues with it.

Let’s look at the book blurb, shall we?

           Hundreds of biographies have been written of Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and John Bunyan. But there is something unique to be gained by listening to these men tell their stories in their own words.

Right there? I’m sold — great idea for a book. What’s more, this is from Banner of Truth — this kind of thing is in their wheelhouse. Who wouldn’t want to read this kind of thing?

           Here, in In Their Own Words, is a collection of testimonial statements drawn from the writings of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Bunyan. We see men who candidly confessed their sins and boldly testified to the grace, mercy, and goodness of God to them. Their testimonies illustrate the great truth stated by Paul that ‘where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 5:20-21).

The key word there, is “statements.” I had visions of extended portions of the works of these men. Which seemed odd to me at least in Calvin’s case, as he’s notorious for not talking about his life (as is seen in this book, I should add). But still, that’s what it sounded like to me. But by and large we’re talking a sentence or two of quotation to be followed by Calhoun discussing more about his subject on whatever topic/time period he’s looking at. Sometimes we get a paragraph — sometimes a couple consecutive paragraphs. Sometimes it’s less than a sentence. Really there’s a lot more David Calhoun than I expected. I don’t have a detailed analysis, but I’m pretty sure that the text is 55-65% Calhoun (and a few biographers he quotes), with the remainder by the subjects.

This doesn’t diminish the work by Calhoun — it’s no easy feat finding these snippets and then assembling them into a coherent narrative. But still …

My other issue is the inclusion of Bunyan. He doesn’t fit thematically, or even historically. Also, despite really trying — repeatedly for almost two decades — I can’t muster up that much enthusiasm for him. This is a personal flaw of mine, I realize. But that’s that.

Now, the content of the book? It’s really good — linking these mini-biographies (50-60 pages per subject) to biographical remarks is a great idea, and adds a perspective you don’t normally see. Calhoun is able to focus on the parts of their lives that they cared more about, rather than whatever the prevailing interests of scholars are.

We get good, concise views of their lives, with a lot of flavor of the subjects — their concerns, their thoughts, even some of their personality. A good investment of time — I learned some things, I found some inspiration in some of the words — and relished Calhoun showing the Providential care shown to each of these men.

Read this, think about it — just don’t go in expecting to get saturated by the words of these figures and you’ll enjoy it more than I did.

—–

3 Stars

2019 Cloud of Witnesses Reading Challenge

Death Valley Superstars by Duke Haney: Cautionary Tales about Hollywood

Death Valley SuperstarsDeath Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland

by Duke Haney
Kindle Edition, 306 pg.
Delancey Street Press, 2018
Read: January 2 – 16, 2019

Duke Haney, actor, screenplay writer, novelist, essayist, has delivered a well-written collection of sixteen essays revolving around some of those impacted by, affected by, corrupted(?) by, shaped by Fame — that fleeting authority and celebrity bestowed by a chosen few in the Hollywood system that has captured the American imagination and attention since the 1900s.

The quality of the writing throughout was pretty consistent, as was the voice, etc., etc. But my own interest varied widely from piece to piece. I think that’s largely on me, not Haney. But then again, maybe Haney shouldn’t have picked topics that have been done to death. I’m not sure that the universe needs another essay/reflection/biography/anything about Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald, or Jim Morrison. It certainly doesn’t need any further effort to celebrate Hugh Hefner.

On the other hand, the pieces about Sean Flynn (son of Errol), William Desmond Taylor, Christopher Jones, and other people that I’d never heard of were fascinating. I learned something, I was introduced to people I’d missed out on. They weren’t slightly different takes on worn-out ideas about legends that have had dozens of books written about them.

Better yet were the pieces that were about his life — encountering Elizabeth Taylor as a youth, working on various films, his nude scenes, his crush on (and seen in retrospect, stalking) of a noted actress, the encounter with the lady on the bus talking about the video store they both frequented, even the part of the Jim Morrison essay about his quest to hire a psychic (it shouldn’t be that hard in L.A.) to do a séance in a hotel room Morrison lived in. He’s really his best — and most entertaining — subject (although when the subject of an essay is someone else, Haney tends to talk about himself too much). He doesn’t come across as someone trying to gloss over mistakes, missteps, or embarrassing moves — in fact, he seems to revel in them. These are honest (seeming), frequently funny and charming.

I have no doubt that there are plenty of people out there who will invert my rankings, or dispute them all together. And they’d likely be right to do so (I doubt they’d convince me, but you never know). Most collections I read are pretty uneven. This isn’t the case with Death Valley Superstars, I think the quality is consistent — it’s just my own reaction to the chapters that are varied. I’d wager the same will be true for other readers.

If nothing else, I think the above summary rundown demonstrates the variety of pieces in this collection — and I didn’t make mention of all of them. One thing that is fairly consistent is the takeaway from the collection as a whole — fame is fleeting, but its effect on the lives of the famous (and those near them) is long-lasting, and rarely pleasant or beneficial. Really, the whole book can be seen as a collection of cautionary tales with a persistent message — stay away from Hollywood.

I didn’t love this book, but I really liked parts of it, and am glad I read it. I can easily see many readers wondering what was wrong with me, however, and eating this thing up.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion, which is seen above.

—–

3 Stars

✔ An essay collection.

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge