Archive for the ‘True Stories’ Category

Review of Going Into Town, by Roz Chast

Saturday, August 11th, 2018

Going into Town

A Love Letter to New York

by Roz Chast

Bloomsbury, 2017. 169 pages.

This book is an introduction to New York, which New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast created for her children, who did not grow up in New York City, like she did.

Here are some selected things she says about the book. You’ll have to imagine the entertaining cartoons that go with these words.

This is not a “definitive guide book” to Manhattan. In fact, it’s not really a guide book. There’s nothing in here about the Statue of Liberty, for example. Why? Because I’ve never been. I’d like to go. Someday. Just not today. Please don’t make me go today.

This is also definitely not one of those “insider’s guides” where I tell you about the hippest clubs, the swankiest restaurants, the edgiest neighborhoods, the coolest gyms, or the store where the best people buy the most exclusive shoes.

It’s not a history book. Do not imagine, even for a second, that I’m going to tell you a bunch of cool facts, like how Betsy Ross invented concrete, or that a thousand feet under Grand Central, somebody discovered an old Pilgrim restaurant, and look, here’s the menu: . . .

I feel about Manhattan the way I feel about a book, a TV series, a movie, a play, an artist, a song, a food, a whatever that I love. I want to tell you about it so that maybe you will love it too. I’m not worried about it being “ruined” by too many people “discovering” it. Manhattan’s been ruined since 1626, when Peter Minuit bought it from Native Americans for $24.00.

Now my kids are grown-ups. The city has changed since I was 23. Things have happened. Some good, some bad, some very bad. But I still love it more than anyplace else, and hope you will too.

She does communicate this affection in the pages that follow. And despite saying it’s not a guide book, the next time I go to New York City, I’m going to check out this book and carefully review her chapter on the basic layout of Manhattan – it makes it all very clear and logical and would be tremendously helpful.

And along the way, I’d get many ideas of things to do and places to visit. And on top of all that, the book has plenty of things that make you laugh. It’s fun to read even if you never have gone to New York City, but will certainly make you want to remedy that situation.

bloomsbury.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Stairways to Heaven, by Lorna Byrne

Saturday, August 4th, 2018

Stairways to Heaven

by Lorna Byrne

Coronet, 2011. First published in the United Kingdom in 2010. 293 pages.
Starred Review

Stairways to Heaven continues the life story of Lorna Byrne begun in Angels in My Hair, including telling about the process of becoming an author and people finally knowing that she can see angels.

Lorna Byrne has been able to see angels all her life. This book begins after her husband’s death and tells how the angels helped her move with her youngest daughter to a new home. Along the way, she reveals many things that angels have told her about life and about spiritual things.

Some of the things in this book seem a little out there. I’m thinking that it’s possible that even with all the study of the Bible I’ve done, I don’t know everything there is to know about spiritual things! Lorna Byrne doesn’t claim to know it all either, and she has a simple, humble style. She just tells what the angels have told her.

Since this book covers publishing her book, she’s also starting to answer many of the questions that people ask her now that the world knows she can see angels.

For the most part, these things are extremely inspirational and uplifting. Some points I especially like are that each one of us has a guardian angel who loves us and is with us always. And that there are many other angels all around us that we can call on to help.

This paragraph sums up nicely an important thrust of her teaching:

Many of us don’t understand how important the relationship between mankind and angels is. We have free will, but we have angels to prompt us to do the right things, to prompt us to do what God would want us to do in each and every circumstance. This is the task God has given angels and, because it is God’s task, angels will never ever give up. Every time you pray you are talking directly to God. Regardless of your belief in angels, angels are praying with you at the same time, adding power and strength to your prayer. This is one of the tasks God has given the angels. We never pray alone.

This is an inspiring and eye-opening book, though, like me, you may have to set aside some of your previous assumptions to fully appreciate it.

lornabyrne.com
hodder.co.uk

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Source: This review is based on my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Calypso, by David Sedaris

Saturday, July 14th, 2018

Calypso

by David Sedaris
read by the author

Hachette Audio, 2018. 6.5 hours on 6 CDs.

Hearing David Sedaris read his books always makes me laugh. I will admit that his humor is often crude or rude – but, yes, it is very funny.

In this book he mostly talks about his family. This includes the death by suicide of one of his sisters, so you wouldn’t think there’s a lot of room for humor – but if you think that you probably haven’t ever listened to David Sedaris.

He also talks about buying a beach house on the Carolina coast to share with his family. And his father, who is politically conservative, getting older. And David himself getting older and dealing with physical challenges – and getting addicted to his Fit Bit.

A lot of what’s funny about this audiobook is also very strange – like feeding his own tumor to a snapping turtle. But what can I say? It’s also incredibly funny the way David Sedaris tells it. I guess it helps to know you’re doing something strange.

I always say that nothing is better for keeping me awake on a long drive than a good laugh. You can find that here. (Though let me give fair warning: I wouldn’t want to explain these jokes to kids. In fact, it might be embarrassing if anyone else were in earshot. Funny, though!)

davidsedarisbooks.com
hachetteaudio.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Atlas of Beauty, by Mihaela Noroc

Friday, July 6th, 2018

The Atlas of Beauty

Women of the World in 500 Portraits

by Mihaela Noroc

Ten Speed Press, 2017. 352 pages.
Starred Review

This book is amazing! Amazing and wonderful.

Mihaela Noroc has traveled the world and taken pictures of women – beautiful women. These beautiful women come in all colors and sizes, young and old, dressed formally or casually. There is even at least one transgender woman. Many are not what you would call traditionally beautiful. But when you see them through the photographer’s eyes, you know – every one of these women is beautiful.

They come from countries all over the world. As an example, one of the collage pages has photos from Ethiopia, China, Singapore, Germany, France, Spain, Nepal, Uruguay, USA, Switzerland, Mongolia, Greece, Romania, India, Portugal, Chile, Sweden, and England. Another collage has pictures from Uzbekistan, Egypt, Cuba, Portugal, Tajikistan, Netherlands, Italy, Russia, Germany, Peru, India, Greece, Guatemala, Russia, Nepal, Argentina, England, Turkey, South Africa, Colombia, Ethiopia, China, Spain, and Mexico.

And these women are indeed beautiful. This photographer makes the viewer see beauty in even the most old and “plain” women she features.

The book does remind me of Humans of New York with little stories of each portrait subject.

For example, I opened the book at random and came on this pair of photos:

HELSINKI, FINLAND
After her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Katariina started to see life in a different way. For years she had worked in the perfume industry, but her mother’s illness made her think more about health issues related to beauty products, and to want to do something. She gathered a team of specialists and created an amazing free phone app that scans the barcode of a cosmetic product and informs the user about the safety of the ingredients.

EAST JERUSALEM, DISPUTED TERRITORY
After studying in the United States and England, this young Palestinian returned home to put her knowledge in the service of Palestinian people. Raya was pregnant with her second baby when I met her, but besides becoming a mother for the second time she was also on a mission to empower Palestinian women.

As a young entrepreneur, Raya started a cosmetic company, and most of her employees are Palestinian women from marginalized communities. She also works for Palestine’s largest bank, and one of her main projects is to increase the percentage of female employees in all ranks at the bank.

“Supporting so many women is what keeps me going, and gives me the passion, enthusiasm, and energy to have two jobs at a time when I have two young children.”

Many of the text descriptions are shorter, such as this pair:

NAPLES, ITALY
I met these sisters, Monica, Francesca, and Rosanna, in their hometown, though now they all live in different parts of Italy, far from one another. They had reunited to visit their mother, and spend some time together.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS
When I met Rachelle, she was glowing with pregnancy and the city’s late afternoon light.

“We are resting, after a long day at work.”

The book actually doesn’t need any text at all to be stunning. Though it’s also amazing how many different places on the globe she traveled and took pictures of women.

This book is marketed and produced for adults, with very small print in the captions. But if I had a young daughter in my home, I would be sure to purchase this book and place it where she could easily browse through it. Now that I think about it, if I had a teenage daughter in my home, it might feel all the more important. As it is, I’m going to purchase my own copy to remind myself that Beauty comes with many, many different faces.

Looking at this book made me feel part of a sisterhood of women from all over the globe, part of the human family. It reminded me that we come in all shapes and sizes and ages and colors. And we are Beautiful.

tenspeed.com
crownpublishing.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Card Catalog, by The Library of Congress

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

The Card Catalog

Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures

The Library of Congress
Foreword by Carla Hayden

Chronicle Books, 2017. 224 pages.

A history of the card catalog – it’s surprising how interesting that turns out to be. Well, okay, it’s interesting to me!

This book traces the development of the idea to put catalog information for libraries on 3 x 5 inch index cards. Originally, the Library of Congress would publish a book listing the books in its collection. So listing the information on cards was much more practical. Eventually, the Library of Congress was producing catalog cards for libraries across America.

But that’s only a small portion of this book. The bulk of the pages are pictures of items in the Library of Congress collection – along with pictures of their catalog cards.

There are many classic books, also interesting memorabilia – and on the facing page you’ve got the catalog card – some of them yellowed and beat up – for that item.

This is a beautifully designed book and is lots of fun to browse through. Because it’s mostly pictures, it doesn’t take too long, either.

loc.gov
chroniclebooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Tattoos on the Heart

The Power of Boundless Compassion

by Gregory Boyle
read by the author

HighBridge Audio, 2010. 7 ½ hours on 6 CDs.
Starred Review

I put this audiobook on hold after my sister Becky told me that her daughter’s college graduation had the best graduation speaker she’d ever heard – he even got a standing ovation. That was enough of a recommendation for me. I was not at all disappointed when I started listening.

I got the audiobook because while I’m on the Newbery committee, that’s the best way for me to get books read that are written for adults. And with all the Spanish words used in this book, it was nice to hear the author read it. He doesn’t use a lot of variety in voices, but that’s okay – it works with this book. But I ended up checking out the print version in order to pull out quotes for Sonderquotes – I kept getting blown away by his words and I wanted to remember them.

Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is the founder of Homeboy Industries, an organization that gives jobs to gang members and helps them get out of gangs and removes their tattoos. He lives in downtown Los Angeles, and has since the 1980s (when I lived in downtown Los Angeles for a few years) – and knows and loves gang members. He learns their names and knows them as people – and that makes a powerful difference.

The book is mostly stories, and they touch your heart. Something about seeing, through Father Boyle, that God sees and cares about gang members – helps me understand with my heart that God sees and cares about me. And not only does God care about me, He delights in me. Gregory Boyle shows that it’s possible to not only tolerate kids who are gang members – but even to see that they are delightful. Wow.

Here’s what Gregory Boyle says at the end of the Introduction:

In finding a home for these stories in this modest effort, I hope, likewise, to tattoo those mentioned here on our collective heart. Though this book does not concern itself with solving the gang problem, it does aspire to broaden the parameters of our kinship. It hopes not only to put a human face on the gang member, but to recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and daunting struggles of the men and women in these parables.

Our common human hospitality longs to find room for those who are left out. It’s just who we are if allowed to foster something different, something more greatly resembling what God had in mind. Perhaps, together, we can teach each other how to bear the beams of love, persons becoming persons, right before our eyes. Returned to ourselves.

He achieves these goals in this book. He does such a good job of putting a human face on the gang member for me – that it was unfortunate timing that I was listening to this audiobook at the same time the president called members of MS-13 “animals.” The contrast was huge. (Gregory Boyle, by the way, doesn’t name any of the gangs he works with, so as to not give the gangs that dignity. The people, however, he lavishes with dignity.)

The beauty of this book is watching Father Boyle treat gang members as delightful human beings. It’s obviously not easy, and comes with a lot of pain. At the time of writing the book, he had buried more than 170 people he cared about because of gang violence. Many of the stories he tells end with the tragic too-soon death of the subject of the story.

And the things he pulls out touch your heart. He talks about the “no matter whatness” of God’s love and God knowing us by name. You’ll see lives changed because someone showed compassion on an outcast – and maybe that will change your life, too.

Look for more quotes on Sonderquotes. I highly recommend this book.

highbridgeaudio.com
homeboyindustries.org

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Creekfinding, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrations by Claudia McGehee

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Creekfinding

A True Story

by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
illustrations by Claudia McGehee

University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 40 pages.
Starred Review

This picture book tells the true story of restoring a lost creek.

How can a creek be lost? Years before, a farmer had used a bulldozer to fill the creek with dirt, so he could turn the prairie into a cornfield – growing corn where the creek used to be.

A man named Mike Osterholm bought the farm and planned to restore the prairie. Then a neighbor told Mike that he used to catch brook trout at that very spot. Mike set to work to restore the creek.

The book shows the many steps this took. He started with old photographs to mark out where the creek had been. Then he used a bulldozer and an excavator to dig a path for the creek.

Mike said the water remembered.
It seeped in from the sides,
raced down the riffles and runs,
burbled into holes, filled the creek.

But a creek isn’t just water.
It’s plants, rocks, bugs, fish, and birds.

The book goes on to explain how they got each of those ingredients into the restored creek.

It took years to restore the creek, but now:

If you went to the creek with Mike,
you’d see water.

But a creek isn’t just water.
You’d see brook trout and sculpin.
You’d hear the outdoor orchestra –
herons, snipe,
bluebirds, yellowthroat warblers;
frogs, returned home;
and insects –
thousands, and thousands,
and thousands of insects.

Now a new generation can catch trout on Brook Creek – and a new host of creatures has a home.

The art in this book is amazing and evocative of the prairie. The illustrator’s note at the back is poetic:

One hot July afternoon, I visited Prairie Song Farm, home to Brook Creek, to gather images and impressions for this book’s illustrations. As I waded into the deep greenness, all sorts of creatures – winged, scaled, feathered and furred – bustled in the grasses and along the water banks. I wanted to re-create the textures and colors I saw, so readers could “walk” alongside Brook Creek as they learned about its restoration. I made the ripply, sturdy lines of earth, water, and sky in scratchboard and painted the prairie greens, creek blues, and everything in between with watercolors and dyes.

Because of the simple language and picture book format, young children can enjoy this book. But older children will get even more out of the story and learn many things about creatures, creeks, and prairies.

upress.umn.edu

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Obama: An Intimate Portrait, by Pete Souza

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Obama

An Intimate Portrait

by Pete Souza
Former Chief Official White House Photographer
Foreword by Barack Obama

Little, Brown and Company, 2017. 352 pages.
Starred Review

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve got a crush on Barack Obama.

However, like so many of my crushes, the biggest thing I admire about him is how much he loves his wife and how dedicated he is to her. At this rate, I’ll never fall for someone who’s available.

That sort of crush, though, encourages me by reminding me that faithful men who love and are committed to their wives exist. In this case, I’m also reminded that government leaders who honestly care about the people they’re serving and are trying to help people do exist. Even though he’s out of office, he still gives me hope by providing an example of someone who honestly cared about people and tried to do good things. (I don’t always agree as to what will be good – but it was obvious that’s what he was seriously trying to do. You can see it in these pictures.)

Okay, he’s also a handsome, classy man with a gorgeous family. And he’s adorably cute with small children. And not afraid to show emotion. And, yes, I enjoy looking at a book full of pictures of him.

And Pete Souza is an amazing photographer. Barack Obama says about him:

In fact, what makes Pete such an extraordinary photographer, I think, is something more than his ability to frame an interesting moment. It’s his capacity to capture the mood, the atmosphere, and the meaning of that moment.

Pete Souza has documented 8 years of history in a powerful and moving way. Here are some of his words from the introduction:

But in the 12 years I’ve known him, the character of this man has not changed. Deep down, his core is the same. He tells his daughters, “Be kind and be useful.” And that tells you a lot about him. As a man. A father. A husband. And yes, as a President of the United States.

This book represents the moments I captured of President Obama throughout his Presidency. The big moments and the small moments. Fun moments. Moments of crisis. Moments of laughter. Moments when I had to hide my own tears behind the viewfinder. Intimate family moments. Symbolic moments and historic moments.

I have had the extraordinary privilege of being the man in the room for eight years, visually documenting President Obama for history. This book is the result of that effort; I gave it my all. I hope that the photographs that follow, accompanied by my words, will show you the true character of this man and the essence of his Presidency, as seen through my eyes and felt through my heart.

Reading this book makes me a little bit sad, yes. But it also gives me hope – still – that it’s possible to have dignity and kindness and a servant’s heart in the Oval Office. May that day come again.

petesouza.com
littlebrown.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

Pastrix

The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Jericho Books, 2013. 206 pages.
Starred Review

A big thank-you to my friends Charles and Laura who gave me this book for Christmas after convincing me to read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s next book, Accidental Saints, which was a 2017 Sonderbooks Stand-out. I already had this book checked out from the library, but it was nice to have my own copy to keep and to mark the good parts.

The book is autobiographical, telling how the author went from being an alcoholic on the road to self-destruction to become a Lutheran pastor, or pastrix, as some call her to try to insult her. She has adopted and redefined the term to mean a female ecclesiastical superhero.

She first felt called to be a pastor when she was asked to give the eulogy when a friend hung himself. She looked around and realized this:

These were my people. Giving PJ’s eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.

It’s not that I felt pious and nurturing. It’s that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions and loss than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there with the woman climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a “hot date.” God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.

I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of antiheroes and people who don’t get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn’t help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. And having seen it, I couldn’t help but point it out. For reasons I’ll never quite understand, I realized that I had been called to proclaim the Gospel from the place where I am, and proclaim where I am from the Gospel.

What had started in early sobriety as a reluctant willingness to start praying again had led to my returning to Christianity, and now had led to something even more preposterous: I was called to be a pastor to my people.

This book is about that journey, and is filled with many stories along the way of people touched by God’s grace – including herself (not in a prideful way – when she really needed it).

There’s lovely stuff here, as well as convicting stuff. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a gracious person because she doesn’t claim to have it all together, to be doing everything right, or to have the only right way to God. Her writing helps me see God’s amazing grace manifested in and displayed toward all of God’s children in all their messy glory.

sarcasticlutheran.com
jerichobooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Friday, December 29th, 2017

Hidden Figures

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

by Margot Lee Shetterly

William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2016. 349 pages.
Starred Review

After I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I immediately ordered myself a copy of this book. I knew it was one I’d want to own. I was not wrong. (And I have a small collection of books related to Math.)

Now, the movie is – a movie. It presents a summary of the high points of the lives of three female black mathematicians who made a difference at NASA, especially in getting a man to the moon. It’s told in an entertaining way and makes an inspiring story.

The book has a whole lot more detail. The three women featured in the movie had long careers at NASA that lasted decades. Many black female mathematicians began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as far back as World War II.

The book has many more details and a far wider scope. You get hints of all the author will cover in her Prologue. Here are some bits from that.

Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943 – the women later known as the “West Computers” – I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands – isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity – have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling….

I discovered one 1945 personnel document describing a beehive of mathematical activity in an office in a new building on Langley’s west side, staffed by twenty-five black women coaxing numbers out of calculators on a twenty-four-hour schedule, overseen by three black shift supervisors who reported to two white head computers. Even as I write the final words of this book, I’m still doing the numbers. I can put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980, and my intuition is that twenty more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research….

To a first-time author with no background as a historian, the stakes involved in writing about a topic that was virtually absent from the history books felt high. I’m sensitive to the cognitive dissonance conjured by the phrase “black female mathematicians at NASA.” From the beginning, I knew that I would have to apply the same kind of analytical reasoning to my research that these women applied to theirs. Because as exciting as it was to discover name after name, finding out who they were was just the first step. The real challenge was to document their work. Even more than the surprisingly large numbers of black and white women who had been hiding in a profession seen as universally white and male, the body of work they left behind was a revelation….

But before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female. For a group of bright and ambitious African American women, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a crack at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the center of the universe.

I must admit, what excited me about this story is that it’s a story about many female mathematicians!

Why is that exciting to me? Well, back in the 1980s, I was a 21-year-old PhD student in Math at UCLA. Out of 120 new graduate students that year, only 5 of us were female, and only one other female was in the PhD program. I did end up dropping out of the PhD program and settling for my Master’s. But while I was there, I felt so much like an exception. The Math department had a long line of portraits on the wall of great mathematicians – and I only remember one woman, Emmy Noether. I always took great pleasure in getting better grades than my male fellow students (as an undergrad, anyway) – but it would have been nice to know about a time when, during World War II especially, the government specifically recruited women to do math.

Now, once they hired them, it was an uphill battle to get the pay or recognition that men with the same qualifications should get. That’s part of the story in Hidden Figures as these brilliant women worked to get the promotions and pay they deserved. Mary Jackson in the book and in the movie overcame obstacles to get the title of “engineer.”

But the book also talks about the history of civil rights as it was played out at Langley. The beautiful thing was that these brilliant women could do the math – and the quality of their work did prevail over the years.

The book begins in 1943, when Dorothy Vaughan began working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. It continues through landing a man on the moon, and how Katherine Johnson’s equations helped get them there. An epilogue refers to many more years and many more women serving our country with mathematical skills.

This book isn’t a quick summary – watch the movie for that. (And I highly recommend it!) It does give a detailed and epic story of brilliant, unappreciated women who made a lasting contribution to American history.

I like the way the Epilogue puts it:

Katherine Johnson’s story can be a doorway to the stories of all the other women, black and white, whose contributions have been overlooked. By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences, it was to fit in because of their talent. Like the men they worked for, and the men they sent hurtling off into the atmosphere, they were just doing their jobs. I think Katherine would appreciate that.

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