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Publisher's Summary

The Unsubstantial Air is the gripping story of the Americans who fought and died in the aerial battles of World War I. Much more than a traditional military history, it is an account of the excitement of becoming a pilot and flying in combat over the Western Front, told through the voices of the aviators themselves. A World War II pilot himself, the memoirist and critic Samuel Hynes revives the adventurous young men who inspired his own generation to take to the sky. The volunteer fliers were often privileged - the sorts of college athletes and Ivy League students who might appear in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Hynes follows them from the flying clubs of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to training grounds in Europe and on to the front, where they learned how to fight a war in the air.

By drawing on letters sent home, diaries kept, and memoirs published in the years that followed, Hynes brings to life the emotions, anxieties, and triumphs of the young pilots. They gasp in wonder at the world seen from a plane, struggle to keep their hands from freezing in open air cockpits, party with actresses and aristocrats, rest at Voltaire's castle, and search for their friends' bodies on the battlefield. Their romantic war becomes more than that - a harsh but often thrilling reality.

©2014 Samuel Hynes (P)2014 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"Intimate and memorable portraits of these idealistic, daredevil young men are contained in a marvelously fluid narrative." (Kirkus)

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Great info poorly arranged

The author did a good job researching the book, but it fails to gel into a solid connected work. It feels like a collection of different sources.

Add in a very "breathy" narrator who makes ever fact and event sound like call to emotion, and the whole becomes less than the sum of its parts.

It's still a good nonfiction reference on the first air war, it's just not the page turner it might have been.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Wonderful Book

I have read and re-read (listened to) this book. It's a marvelously well crafted story of the young pilots who bravely fought that first war in the air. Not just an historical recollection, this book draws on letters and diary entries from the pilots themselves, woven together with a narrative that keeps the reader fully engaged. A masterful book coupled with an outstanding audio performance. A must read for any aviator, aviation enthusiast, or student of history.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • B Taub
  • Ann Arbor, MI United States
  • 10-31-16

A realistic view of WW1 pilot life

I read and listen to a ton of aviation literature and this one was memorable. Samuel Hynes is very sympathetic to the young men he documents and his compassion comes through.

Maybe 10 years ago I read a book called THE CANVAS FALCONS. While that book had some factual inaccuracies it did provide a strong understanding of what the WW1 pilot's life was really like. It really affected me. THE UNSUBSTANTIAL AIR does the same, with a particular focus on American pilots (I recommend reading / listening to these two titles in sequence).

It seems that a lot of aviation history has been written by people who aren't pilots. That's not the case with this book. Samuel Hynes was a WW2 aviator and his experiences color his writing in this book. That background works well. (BTW, Mr. Hynes' memoir of that time, FLIGHTS OF PASSAGE doesn't seem to be available on Audible - please, please, please bring it!)

As opposed to the vast majority of WW1 aviation books, this one doesn't restrict itself to pursuit (fighter) pilots. Mr. Hynes spends a good deal of time also talking about bomber and reconnaissance aviators. That kind of material is largely missing from many books of this genre (although Cecil Lewis, author of SAGITTARIUS RISING, for which Mr. Hynes wrote the introduction of the Penguin Press edition does start the war as a reconnaissance pilot). It turns out that there were more US bomber and reconnaissance pilots in the war. That fact, and the facts about the hierarchy of aircrews, was interesting to hear about.

Near the beginning of this book it seems like there will be no flying in it but, if you want flying, stick with it - it comes and it's masterfully described.

Finally, part of what makes this selection so strong is the narrator. He brings gravitas to the subject matter.

Anyhow, wish I could better capture how much I enjoyed this selection. I highly recommend it to aviation history buffs!