Review: Come Up and Get Me: An Autobiography of Colonel Joe Kittinger

Colonel Joe Kittinger is probably best known for his work with projects Excelsior and Manhigh, which culminated in a record setting parachute jump from the edge of space. In truth, this was only one highlight of a colorful life filled with daring and record-setting aeronautics.

Kittinger was a career aviator for the US military. His time as a research and test pilot contributed to the development of new flight safety equipment, as well as breaking ground for a fledgling NASA. (His famous leap starting, in a way, with the first space walk.) He served as a fighter pilot in Europe as well as Vietnam, where, after being shot down during a combat mission, he was held prisoner of war.

Following his release and return as a hero, Kittinger would eventually find his way back to ballooning. In addition to winning a number of competitive balloon races, he would go on to become the first man to pilot a balloon solo across the Atlantic. In his later years, the Colonel and his wife turned to barnstorming: flying from town to town in an open-cockpit plane, delighting fans at events and airshows.

The life of Colonel Joe Kittinger has not been a dull one. To call him a daredevil might seem fitting, but may equally do the man a disservice. He was a risk taker, but not necessarily in a haphazard or reckless way. He set goals and pursued them with bravery, dedication, and more than a little bit of luck.

Joe Kittinger was truly a man who lived to fly. Come Up and Get Me will appeal easily to fans of aviation, ballooning, and military history.

Rating: 4/5

Review: Monsters of the Northwoods by Paul and Robert Bartholomew, et al.

Bigfoot may be best known for his appearances in the Pacific Northwest, but that hasn’t stopped reports of the creature from cropping up elsewhere around North America. In Monsters of the Northwoods, authors Paul and Robert Bartholomew, William Brann, and Bruce Hallenbeck make the case that Sasquatch may also be hiding out in the more remote corners of New England.

The text focuses on the states of New York and Vermont, first covering a variety of historical accounts, and leading up to a series of modern day creature encounters.

While the concept here is great, and there are a number of enjoyable items to discover, the execution is best described as uneven. For example, there are a few chapters dedicated directly to local monster sightings, but they’re interrupted by another chapter which attempts, rather unconvincingly, to correlate these events with unidentified flying objects. This diversion only serves to break up an otherwise logical geographical progression in the story telling.

Arguments over arrangement aside, the UFO material was simply not a good fit for the text. The authors were forced to fall back on non-Northeastern events just to make these paranormal connections. Here (and elsewhere) they don’t seem to have been able to decide what kind of book to write: one which discusses the macro issue of “Bigfoot the general mystery” or one which addresses, much more specifically, “Bigfoot in the Northeastern US.” As a result, they spend time on both and excel at neither. I would argue that the latter would be better executed by ignoring the philosophical arguments like “is Bigfoot connected with UFOs?” or even “what is Bigfoot?” (the focus of a later chapter). Leave these discussions to studies of the phenomenon as a whole, which can leverage the most compelling cases from anywhere in the world. You’re not going to be able to do justice to such sweeping issues using only material drawn from as narrow a segment of the globe as the Northwoods, and still make everything feel cohesive and well argued.

The sighting reports, while much more in line with the title theme, are also of hit or miss quality. Chapter two dedicates five or so pages to an incident which seems to be immediately debunked at its conclusion. The main character in this bit has, we’re told, “personally interviewed over fifty people claiming to have either seen or heard [the monster].” Why the authors opt to spend several pages investing in the debunked story, rather than relating any of these other, potentially more interesting and open-ended items is unclear.

While certain incidents (particularly ones directly involving the authors?) are covered in satisfying detail, others are glossed over in little more than a sentence or two. In one instance, at the close of the chapter on Vermont sightings, the authors attempt to draw a comparison between Sasquatch and a mystery feline creature, the “catamount”, also said to inhabit the Northeastern US. They seem to be trying for the argument that, just because something is not proven, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not real. Which is not inherently unreasonable: after all, many animals were myth before they were officially described and accepted by science. Yet in this instance, the catamount, like the Sasquatch, has never been accepted by science, seemingly mooting the entire point. They may as well have drawn a comparison with the Loch Ness monster. Ironically, the authors dedicate some three whole pages to a verbatim news article describing this random cryptid; more detail than is given to any Bigfoot-related clippings elsewhere.

Ultimately, despite the uneven quality and a lack of focus, Monsters of the Northwoods was not unenjoyable. For Sasquatch enthusiasts, it’s always exciting to see the mystery reach new territory. It should also hold particular interest for those who have a personal connection to the region, and who may never have thought to be on the lookout for monsters in their neck of the woods. Those who don’t fall into the above categories might be better served by starting elsewhere.

Rating: 3/5

Review: Encounters With Star People by Ardy Sixkiller Clarke

Encounters with Star People gives the UFO phenomenon a fresh new treatment, focusing exclusively on the experiences of modern American Indian people. Author Ardy Sixkiller Clarke, herself of Indian heritage, has personally collected and curated these stories. They are all presented here for the first time, having previously been held in strict confidence, known only to the experiencers, or other close members of their communities.

The 20-plus chapters each introduce a separate story, most of which focus on one or two specific individuals being interviewed by the author. She relates her experiences with each unique personality, and manages to portray a lot of character in her contacts in a relatively short amount of space. The nature of the events documented ranges from basic sightings of unidentified craft to alien encounters and abductions.

The skeptical reader will likely take solace in pointing out the myriad minor (or major) inconsistencies between the experiences related here. Inexplicable variation tends to be the rule in ufology, and the same apparently holds true within this community. Despite this, viewing the breadth of these accounts through the lens of a shared culture gives the whole thing a rather unique air of consistency. The believer may even find that the stories aren’t quite so wildly inconsistent after all, and that there seem to be at least a few themes which appear to underlie these otherwise independent events. It’s worth noting that some of the book’s later accounts take on a decidedly dark tone, and I admit to finding the cumulative effect of so many, not entirely dissimilar, experiences a bit disturbing.

My one substantial complaint with Encounters with Star People is that all accounts have been made anonymous. This is a point the author is very clear about, and we’re told, rather understandably, that it was a hard and fast condition of being able to publish much of the information she was given. I certainly understand why someone would desire not to be openly associated with fringe topics which could easily be used to threaten their job, relationships, or general quality of life. Having said that, as a reader one is forced to recognize that an anonymous account is also an unverifiable account, and as such provides zero evidentiary value. Some of the stories here are fantastic, but for the skeptically minded, they may as well be out right fiction. Assuming many of the items here are true, at least in some quantity – as human experiences if nothing else – then it’s a shame that such great material will likely be diminished and overlooked for the lack of a name. Even just one such story, backed up by confirmed and credible sources, might carry more weight than dozens that can never be traced beyond these pages.

With that in mind, if you can look past the anonymity and appreciate the material at face value, then Encounters with Star People is undoubtedly a ufological gold mine. Dr. Clarke should be commended for the effort she has put into this research over the years, and for bringing the culture of the star people to the general public. This work has added more new reports to the canon of ufology than possibly any other in recent years, if not decades. At times amusing, confusing, and even alarming, it was a hard book to put down.

 

Rating: 4/5

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Kim Philby was a unique individual who lived a fascinating life as one of the most successful spies the world has ever seen. Outwardly a loved and respected member of the community, the man spent decades secretly betraying the people and governments who supported him.

Ben Macintyre opts to approach the Philby saga not as an academic presenting research but as a storyteller revealing a drama being played out against the all too real backdrop of international war. He adeptly weaves together a cohesive and riveting story line utilizing quotes gleaned from interviews, biographies, journals, and other surviving documentation. The author openly admits that many exact details will never be known, and that his version of events required “judgements about the credibility of different sources,” which “is not an exact science,” but ultimately is “as close to a true story as [he] can make it.”

Even if only largely true, the story has all the twists and turns of a thrilling spy novel. The fact that the actions of these individuals shaped the outcomes of very real wars, influenced international relations, and directly contributed to the lives…and deaths…of thousands of people around the world just makes the whole thing all the more fantastic. Macintyre presents characters which are often deep, conflicted, and borderline surreal, yet simultaneously sympathetic and relatable. He paints a vibrant picture of the unique time and culture within which these personalities thrived: a Britain where the upper class ruled, and one’s status and personal connections made all the difference.

These men were, perhaps, as close as the world has known to real life James Bonds. It’s certainly no coincidence that Ian Fleming was a contemporary and often an acquaintance of these same individuals. Their exploits, even without the central thread of treachery, make for some compelling reading.

Kim Philby’s betrayal was so thorough and successful, the story at time borders on classic movie theater horror. The protagonist’s companions haplessly, tragically, work against their own self interest, while the audience is forced to stand by, helplessly watching as the villain, who seems so obvious in retrospect, works his craft. The fact that the victims were not only real, innocent people, but some of the most powerful governments of the world, is jarring.

A Spy Among Friends is about as much of a page turner as a book about real life human history gets. Macintyre does a superb job of bringing the material to life in a way which is thorough, accessible, and dramatic. I highly recommend it, regardless of one’s personal interest in, or knowledge of, the Philby case.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton

Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween is divided into 6 main chapters. The first two cover the origin of the holiday around the British Isles, beginning with Samhain and the early rituals of the Celts. The author traces the progression of these festivals through the centuries and on up to modern day Hallowe’en. Chapter three moves overseas and examines the parallel evolution of Halloween on the North American continent. Having established the historical context, the author then presents a global picture of the adoption of Halloween in modern times. This is followed by a unit dedicated to the festival of Dias de los Muertos, after which the book wraps up with an examination of Halloween in popular culture.

As author Lisa Morton observes, despite the huge popularity of the holiday in modern times, Halloween has received surprisingly little academic attention. It has also been subject to a variety of misinformation, particularly around its early history and religious significance. Suffice it to say, Trick or Treat offers a wealth of information on the topic, most of which appears well researched. Morton’s approach is objective, and she makes an effort to dispel some of the common Halloween myths in passing.

My biggest issue with this history of Halloween comes down to the structure and presentation of the material. There are times when Morton really steamrolls her way through the content. There is very little opportunity to stop and take stock; the facts are presented, and a sentence or two later we have already moved on. The information was there to be had, but it came in such a barrage that I left feeling unsure how much of it I had really absorbed.

I would also have preferred to see more space dedicated to the subject matter of the first couple chapters; to really flesh out more of the historical context, and pace the progression through time a bit better. The chapter on Dias de los Muertos felt largely unnecessary, and it could easily have been cut down to concentrate on more relevant material.

Finally, the chapter on popular culture felt poorly worked in. A lot of it seemed redundant, having just gone past-to-present in previous chapters, only to do so again in much of the same context as before. That same material, if added in alongside the historical pieces instead of after them, may have really improved the flow of the entire presentation.

On the whole, as someone who has been a fan of Halloween since childhood, I enjoyed the opportunity to develop a more grown up and informed knowledge of this most misunderstood of holidays. Complaints about presentation aside, I would recommend this book to most curious trick-or-treaters.
Rating: 4/5

Review: Britain’s X-traordinary Files by David Clarke

It’s hard to rate Britain’s X-traordinary Files poorly based on execution. The book is well edited, thoroughly referenced, and easily readable. It’s also, frankly, a bit dull. With a title clearly playing on the intrigue of the hit X-Files science fiction series, one might be forgiven for expecting an exciting revelation or two hidden somewhere in the mix. The driving force behind research into, and entertainment based on, government secrecy is all about the prospect of uncovering the mythical smoking gun; the proof that the government knows the “truth” behind extraterrestrials, Loch Ness, and many other of the world’s curiosities. It’s the foundation of countless books, websites, and documentaries, as well as conspiracy theories and works of fiction.

In the context of this book, “X-traordinary” may translate more accurately as “something a bit unusual”… and being a little off-kilter doesn’t necessarily equate to being new and interesting. The concluding chapter on the Loch Ness monster is a prime example. Nessie is arguably Great Britain’s most widely known and beloved mystery, and most people know at least a little something about the case. It’s been around for decades now, and is well ingrained in popular culture. So what does the British government think of the situation? To sum up: a few believers who find it compelling, a bunch of non-believers who don’t, and the general consensus that even if it probably doesn’t exist, it’s great for tourism, so why mess with it? In other words, exactly what most people probably would have assumed, without twenty-odd pages of evidence extracted from notes, letters, and official documents.

Cutting a bit deeper, one may ask why we bother reading up on these fortean topics at all? For some of us at least, the answer is that a good mystery is exciting. It’s knowing that even if the monster isn’t real, a mystery persists in how so many people can experience it. It’s the love of a good ghost story if nothing else. But the X-traordinary Files isn’t necessarily a book about the mysteries themselves. It’s a book about how governmental entities saw and responded to these events. The author isn’t presenting and analyzing Nessie so much as he’s presenting and analyzing the records of people who were in power at the time. It’s a discussion of people discussing a mystery. Which more often than not, boils down to being just that much less thrilling than addressing the topic head-on. There are no shocking revelations; in fact there doesn’t even seem to be much new material at all. In most instances the official documents do little more than reiterate and corroborate what was already the official story, which I expect most of the general public already knows.

Author David Clarke addresses a variety of subjects, including ghosts, angels, psychic powers, phantom helicopters, and more. Even the Bermuda Triangle makes an appearance, despite being nowhere near Great Britain. There doesn’t seem to be any particular rhyme or reason to how the material was selected, and the level of detail given any one item is rarely more than what you would expect from a cable TV special on the same. Again, the focus here being more the official documents on the subjects than the subjects themselves.

Rating this book fairly has proven a challenge. In truth, I think the author executed the material well, it’s just that the content is not, to my mind, nearly as interesting as the book jacket would have you believe. There is almost no new or revelatory information; just confirmation of what was already publicly known, or at least suspected. And so, I’m not sure what audience I would recommend it for: A beginner would be better served by a book that approaches the subject matter more directly, while paranormal veterans may prefer something with more focus or fresher content.

Rating: 3/5

“The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.”

– Gifford Pinchot

“The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.”

– Arthur C. Clarke

Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, former CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield shares a variety of tales from his extensive career both on and off the planet, as well as the personal philosophy that helped him through it all.

Hadfield is the kind of individual that you want as role model your children. His work ethic is exemplary, and he emphasizes the critical nature of ongoing personal education and development as key to his success. Don’t determine your self worth based on where you end up, he says, but on the effort you will put in to get there. If something is worth doing, it is worth committing to and doing well, regardless of the payoff. Perhaps not revolutionary ideas in and of themselves, but backed by the life story of someone who has embraced these principles and embodied them. Hadfield’s career is a feel good story for anyone who believes in the power of hard work and education.

While An Astronaut’s Guide spends a lot of time on the author’s attitudes and ethics, it’s by no means a self help book. The text is also a candid biography, giving great insight into the years of development that went into building the career of a star (no pun intended) astronaut. Hadfield reminisces on his youth, his time as a military test pilot, and his many additional years training at NASA before ever reaching space. We learn how the intense commitment involved can affect personal relationships and family dynamics. It becomes clear that today’s select few astronauts represent, in many ways, the pinnacle of humanity: it’s a lifestyle that demands levels of intelligence, dedication, and both physical and mental training that very few of us could hope to successfully achieve.

Chris Hadfield first reached fame several years ago through a series of educational and entertaining social media postings made from the ISS. We learn that these were motivated by his love of the space program, and, with the help of his son back on Earth, he wanted to do his part to boost public awareness and interest. The videos became a hit and internet stardom followed. I’m the kind of person who finds any story about life beyond Earth hard to pass up, simply for the curiosity and wonder they evoke. From the vastness of the cosmos to the minutia of how to brush your teeth successfully in zero gravity, it’s all fascinating stuff, and Hadfield, who flew on three separate occasions, brings these anecdotes in spades. The same attitude that lead him to educational social media carries through in his writing, and we’re gifted with numerous stories that run the gamut from the profound and enlightening to the humorous. The author is consistently candid about the astronaut experience, and these sections proved particularly hard to put down.

All in all, it’s difficult not to recommend this book. If you’re already a fan of space travel, or the space program, you will receive a bevy of stories and insights from a man who spent decades at NASA and commanded the ISS. And if you aren’t a space enthusiast yet, you might just be one by the end. But even without all of the fantastic anecdotes, Chris Hadfield is still an eminently likable and admirable personality with a lot of unique life experience to share. Worth reading whether you’re an aspiring astronaut, or just aspiring to become a more enlightened human being.

Rating: 5/5