Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

I always keep you guys updated on what I'm reading and what's on the horizon. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), there seemed to be a huge burst of interest in the comments about The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel, and I'm here to fill you in on my most recent non-fiction read. 

Unsurprisingly, this book focuses on the wives of the first NASA astronauts during the height of the "space race" between the US and Russia. The book spans the years between the late 50s and on through the 60s and early 70s. There are some distinct "groups" of wives that come onto the scene as their husbands are recruited for astronaut training and eventually assigned specific missions into space. Originally, there were seven astronauts and wives, then a wave of nine additional, then 14 more, and then 19 more. In short, a lot of wives. A lot of astronauts. A lot of drama!

First, I should tell you that I gulped this book down, more or less, in a day. I think I read something like 225 of the 270ish pages last Sunday. Lily Koppel is an accomplished writer. She regularly contributes to the New York Times, and she's the author of the very popular, The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal.  Her work is not so much the writing of a hard-hitting journalist, but very conversational and personalized to her subjects. I know I've seen some comments around the blogosphere that this was bothersome to a few readers, but I found it extremely relatable and pleasant to read. Obviously, since I gulped it down!

I was completely invested in the first half of this book because there was a limited number of subjects. I definitely felt that I got closest to the original seven wives. Koppel was able to introduce each wife and her husband thoroughly: their personalities, their background and education, how they met and fell in love, the state of their marriage by the time the NASA years rolled around. It becomes immediately clear that NASA is a political place to be and a microcosm of 1950s and 60s values. The wives were expected to be perfect and uphold perfect marriages. They dressed a certain way, carried themselves like sophisticated ladies, and held up a great deal of the PR end of the deal. Upon completion of each mission, an astronaut wife was expected to step out on her lawn with a smile and celebrate a successful mission or appear supportive and confident in light of a failed mission. And did I mention that every household had its own Life magazine journalist around, like, all the time??? Yeah. They were constantly documented. Especially during the course of a mission. It was a lucrative financial arrangement, but can you image the suckage? Don't think I could do it.

I cannot imagine the pressure. There was a tangible sense of dread and heartache in Koppel's account of what these women endured. They put up with a lot of shit from their husbands. There were some philanderers and some saints, but every wife had to put on a perfect facade. Likewise, the astronauts were all acutely aware that they would not receive a space flight if their marriage did not appear solid and pristine.

My only significant issue with this book was in the second half. As more NASA families came onboard, the docket of "characters" got muddled. I had a hard time keeping up with who was who. I did a lot of Googling so I could put faces with names, and I was glad to have a directory in the front of the book to help me refresh my memory. The latter half of the book did focus on specific, memorable, vital missions (Apollo 1, the moon walk, Apollo 13, etc.).  But I still felt it could've been edited down quite a lot to include fewer wives with a more intimate knowledge of those who were included.

Despite the issues in the second half, I really enjoyed this book. I'm so glad the wives' story has finally been told, and it's really hard to believe that it hasn't been before now. This book is as much about the culture of the time period as it is about the individual families involved in NASA's heyday. It's about gender roles and gender politics, celebrity and sensationalism, history and heartache--the nation's growing pains and glory. 

Pub. Date: June 2013
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781455503254
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I went after this baby as soon as I saw it!




35 comments:

  1. I have this on audio and am really looking forward to it. I wonder if I need to get a print copy to read along with the second half.

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    1. Hmmm, that's really hard to say. I found that some of the many astronaut wives floated to the top of the group just because their hubbies were chosen for more missions. So you might be ok with just the audio.

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  2. Sounds like a good read! I so rarely read non-fiction, but some of the best stories? You just can't make that up. Very cool! (I would likely cry in front of journalists so much that they'd have to print things like "Katie is ugly crying, again, because her husband is in a tin can in space.")

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    1. I'm reading far more non-fiction than I usually do, and this is one of the most readable (gulp-downable) that I've found in quite a while. I totally could not be as astronaut wife. No patience!

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  3. Both of her books sound wonderful. I cannot imagine being an astronaut's wife, I'm not cut out for it. I hate it when my husband is away, I'd go crazy if he went that far!

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    1. They do! I've never read The Red Leather Diary, but I'm was reminded of it through reading this one. I'm not cut out for being an astronaut wife either. Too much pressure!

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  4. Holy cow, really? Every household had its own Life magazine journalist around all the time?!?!

    The whole "perfect image" thing is crazy surprising to me, too. Ahhhhh I have to read this, I keep thinking it sounds amazing, and your review just added to that. :)

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    1. Yup! Can you imagine???

      It was really eye opening to the time period and NASA's crazy expectations.

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  5. I've heard a lot about this one and really need to make sure I get a copy of it sooner rather than later!

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  6. This sounds like a really interesting read, but I totally get the "muddling" with too many characters. It can get confusing at times. I'm going to look for this one!

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    1. Yup, muddled. But it was still awesome enough that it didn't matter too much.

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  7. I can't wait to read this one! Have you ever seen the movie "The Right Stuff?" I'll be interested in seeing how the true story of the wives' experience compares to the way it was portrayed in that movie.

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    1. I haven't! Koppel mentioned it, which brought my attention to it.

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  8. I just finished this on audio, and like you, I blew through it...and I had some of the same issues with the second half. I did wish I had it in print, just to read the acknowledgements, because I was wondering if the later wives who got more space in the book were ones whom Koppel was able to interview for it. I actually would have liked the whole thing to be longer--it was over too soon!

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    1. I read the acknowldgements but I can't remember if she got to spend more time with the wives she "showcased" in the latter half. I think so. Rene, especially. I was interested in learning more about Marilyn Lovell because I'm a big Apollo 13 fan.

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  9. I think I would really dig this one, I'm a sucker for anything Kennedy-era for the most part (especially space related). I can't believe I missed hearing about it up to this point - glad you filled me in!

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    1. It's amazeballs and I think you'd love it, Shannon.

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  10. This book sounds really interesting! I've always thought it would be difficult for families of astronauts and I didn't even know they had reporters around all the time! Having to remain so composed would have been insanely stressful.

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    1. It was really telling of just how crazy life was for these families. I was truly surprised at the amount of celebrity heaped on them and of course that always brings its own problems.

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  11. As engaging as i found this book, I was disappointed. At first i thought it was written as an effort to reclaim some lost part of 'women's history'. But as the book went on it seemed that Koppel only looked at the women in terms of being the wives of astronauts. Unfortunately that will always be a large part of these women's identity in spite of the fact that many of them went on to have considerable accomplishments of their own. Interesting story, but doesn't really score one for feminism.

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    1. I found it to be a portrait of what they went through at that time. I don't think Koppel is as interested in making a feminist statement as she is in telling a story. Definitely didn't score one for feminism, but I think I was ok with it in this book. I hope there is more written about these women in that vein, though.

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  12. OOO! I have to get my hands on this one :)

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  13. This sounds like a great read. I think I might like this in audio, although I think Kathy's right and a print version to go with it might be a good idea when diving into the second half of the book.

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  14. Having recently watched the movie The Right Stuff for the first time it piqued my interest for this one. I love reading about the women behind the men :)

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    1. I have never seen it! I definitely want to see it now.

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  15. I've been hearing you buzz about this one a lot lately so it's definitely gotten my interest, especially as it's been a while since I've read a really good non-fiction. The women's stories sound fascinating enough but with the backdrop of the 60s it is even more appealing to me.

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    1. It's so Mad Men. Seriously. I hope you love it! You're welcome to borrow my copy when I get it back from my mom. :)

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  16. This sounds like so much fun -- and unsurprisingly, I'm obsessed with the vintage cover! So cool. I'm reading Lydia Netzer's Shine Shine Shine right now with an astronaut for a main character, so this may be one I seek out for my next space fix...

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  17. I've been waiting to read this review :) Yup, onto the wishlist it goes!!!

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  18. Interesting! I can't imagine being married to someone who was going into space -- astronauts are cool and great, I just wouldn't want to marry one. It must have been so hard to stay home and worry, even without the additional thing of having to make sure you were presenting the perfect face to the country. Yeesh.

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  19. This one is a must read for me now!

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  20. Oooo. This book sounded interesting but I hadn't noticed that Lily Koppel wrote it. I LOVED Red Leather Diary. I saw good and bad reviews when I read it but I love how she writes. Have you seen the series From the Earth to the Moon? I remember one episode centered around the families/wives of the astronauts and it was fascinating. I'll have to check this one out. Thanks!

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  21. I'm anxious to get my hands on this one now that I've read your wonderful review! I think I'll listen to the audio and go back and read some of the closing chapters in the print edition.

    If you enjoyed this, you might like Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. I read it years ago (after reading Yeager) and thought it was very good. It's a chunkster, though. :)

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