Friday, January 27, 2017

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians that Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is the book I have been waiting for.  As a woman engineer that has often been the only woman in the room, it was inspiring to read about women in the past who persevered to have the careers they dreamed of in the mathematics and engineering fields.  I never knew that women were behind the calculations that put Americans on the moon and helped develop better aircraft during and after WWII.

Hidden Figures tells the story of many women, but focuses on Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Groble Johnson, and Mary Jackson. During WWII, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was faced with a  problem – how could they get enough mathematicians and human “computers” to do the calculations necessary to get state of the art aircraft designed for the war effort?  They decided to start advertising at colleges for mathematicians including all black colleges.  They hired a number of highly qualified women with great mathematical skills who put in their all to make both the war effort and space program a success.  While doing so, they also helped to bring their families a better life.

I’ve honestly struggled with this book review. I could write a multi-page review and go into depth about each woman and their lives, but I don’t think that is effective. The book has such a great depth to it, it is hard to narrow it down for a review and give it justice.  I bookmarked fifty or so quotes I loved so I’ll have to narrow it down to.  What did I love about the book?  What I loved the most was learning about women that were successful in the STEM field.  When you are growing up and thinking about going into the STEM field, there are not many role models to look up to.  That is why I am also so excited about the movie.  Having it become the norm to show the reality of women working in these fields will hopefully encourage other young women to pursue a career in these fields.  I also love that it is finally giving these women credit for all of their hard work.

I also loved that the book told the story of many women who worked at Langley, but focused on these women.  I loved learning their stories, their lives and struggles and how they were able to use their love of math to get a college education and a rewarding career.

Hidden Figures also gave a unique look into history. These women worked at NASA, but were not considered equal.  Over time they were able to work for equality and a way to break through the glass ceiling.  Why were women with the same qualification as men hired at a lower grade and not allowed to progress up to as high a grade as similarly qualified men?  They worked hard to dispel the myth that “men were uniquely qualified to be engineers.” I learned a lot more about the segregated south as well.  It seems so strange to me that African Americans not only couldn’t use bathrooms or drinking fountains that white people used, but they couldn’t even check out books from the library that weren’t from the colored section.  They also couldn’t attend the same schools which forced each town to try to staff two different schools, which was not always effective.  The segregation made it very hard for a woman of color to be able to make it in a technical field, but these women persevered and made it.
I’ve narrowed down a few favorite quotes:

“As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” – Author Margot Lee Shetterly.  I thought this was awesome.  If we can change the stereotype of only white males being in these fields, I think we could attract more qualified people to them.

“You men and women working here far from the sound of drums and guns, working in your civilian capacity in accordance with you highly specialized skills, are winning your part of this war: the battle of research.  This war is being fought in the laboratories as well as on the battlefields.”

“Being an engineer, Mary Jackson would eventually learn, meant being the only black person, or the only woman, or both, at industry conferences for years.”  I still find myself the only woman at engineering meetings, but it’s gotten better.

“They wouldn’t get rich, but an engineer’s salary was more than enough to crack into the ranks of the comfortable middle class.”  I always tell this to my family who thinks engineers live in mansions.
“There wasn’t one day I didn’t wake up excited to go to work.” – Katherine Johnson

“She was still juggling the duties of Girl Scout mom, Sunday school teacher, trips to music lessons, and homemaker for her two daughters in addition to her full time work at Langley.”  I felt like this was a page out of my life!

Overall, Hidden Figures told a compelling true story that all Americans should know about the hidden women who helped to make our air and space program a success.  I learned a lot from this book and can’t wait to see the movie!  

Book Source:  Review Copy from William Morrow.  Thanks!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

Title: Faithful
Author: Alice Hoffman
Read by: Amber Tamblyn
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Length: Approximately 8 hours and 28 minutes
Source: Simon & Schuster Audio Digital Review Copy – Thank-you!

Survivor’s guilt.  When one survives a tragedy, how can you get over the guilt to be able to live life again?

Shelby Richmond is a wounded young woman.  After a tragic accident as a teenager that put her best friend into an endless coma, Shelby struggles with life.  While Helene remains beautiful and people come from all over searching for a miracle from her touch, Shelby is committed to a psychiatric hospital.  Afterwards she shaves her head, lives in her parent’s basement and does drugs.  She has hit rock bottom.

Life is a journey and Shelby continues on with the journey and slowly moves away from punishing herself each day.  Moving with her drug dealer turned boyfriend, Ben Mink, Shelby arrives in New York City.  She gets a job at a pet store, adopts a few pets, and makes a best friend, Maravelle.  She hates kids, but in helping her friend out, she grows attached to Maravelle’s kids.  Ben Mink turns out to be the perfect boyfriend, but Shelby is not so perfect to him and they part ways.  Will she be able to find love?  She also has not been the perfect daughter, but when she finds out her mother has cancer, will she be able to redeem herself?  Why does Shelby receive mysterious postcards with a drawing on one side and a message on the other such as “feel something?”

I really enjoyed this audiobook.  Amber Tamblyn was a great narrator and the perfect embodiment of the character of Shelby.  The coming of age and redemption storyline kept me engaged on my daily commute.  The best part of this novel was the characters.  They were all believable characters and very engaging.  Shelby really annoyed me at times with her treatment of characters such as Ben Mink, but I loved how she grew as a person throughout the novel. I love animals and loved how dogs were also very important in the narrative.

Favorite Quotes:

"Shelby knows what's wrong with her. She is paying her penance. She is stopping her life, matching her breathing so that it has become a counterpart of the slow intake of air of a girl in a coma."

“You rescue something and you're responsible for it. But maybe that's what love is. Maybe it's like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running”

“Shelby told her that if she had a hundred lifetimes she would want Sue to be her mother in every one, just as for a hundred lifetimes she would want James to be the one that stopped on the road that night. She would want him to stay here. She would want him to know her when no one else did.”

Overall, Faithful is a very engaging audiobook about the power of moving on from guilt into redemption.

What is your favorite story of redemption?

Friday, January 20, 2017

So Big by Edna Ferber

What does it mean to be a successful person?  What is the price of success?  Can we help our children too much on their way to success?  All of these topics and more are found in Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, So Big.  So Big chronicles the life of Selina Peake and her son, “So Big” Dirk DeJong.  The daughter of a gambler, Selina finds herself alone at her father’s sudden death with no way to support herself.  She decides to become a teacher in the outskirts of Chicago within a Dutch community of vegetable farmers.  She tries to find the beauty in her situation and soon finds herself in love.  Will Selina be able to find her way in her new setting?  How will her choices effect the life of her son?

I picked So Big for my January book club pick for the FLICKS (Rogue) Book and Movie Club.  I have wanted to read So Big for quite some time after I learned that author Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo Michigan (where I was born) and grew up in Appleton Wisconsin (not far from where I live now).  She wrote many best sellers that were made into movie favorites such as Showboat, Cimarron, and Giant.  When I discovered she wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner novel of 1925, I was stunned.  Why had I not heard of this author who was writing in the Jazz age at the same time as F. Scott Fitzgerald?

I still cannot answer that question after reading So Big.  I thought it was an excellent novel that while it started in the past, it lead up to the Jazz age and was a perfect picture of what was going on in the time.  It had a lot of deep questions to think about.  Does being a bonds tradesman and making lots of money make you a successful person?  Or does enjoying life and trying to make a good living, but focusing on the beautiful?  Also, what happens to the children of the successful tycoons of the Gilded Age who didn’t have to strive for their success as their forbearers did?  I found that the messages that were in this book were as relevant today as they were back in the 1920’s.  It provided great discussion at our book club, although sadly only one other member read it besides myself.  Why is this book and Edna Ferber not part of the literary canon?  I feel that successful female authors are often left out in the past as well as today.  In her biography in the back of this edition it said in her New York Times obituary that “She was among the best-read novelist in the nation, and critics of the 1920s and ’30’s did not hesitate to call her the greatest American woman novelist of her day.”

So Big reminded me a bit of The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington which I read in a different book club in Milwaukee over ten years ago.  Both dealt with the American dream and how families deal with it through the generations, although I thought So Big did a better job.

I enjoyed the characters in this novel, but in particular Selina.  I also love how she mentored young Roelf Pool and allowed him to think beyond his hardscrabble existence as a farmer’s son.  I also loved that she always thought of the positive and how things could be improved.  She was dealt a bad hand at life more than once, but she was able to use her own ingenuity to rise above it all.  It was a good feminist story.

The story skipped around some and foreshadowed events, but I enjoyed the style of writing and her great descriptions.  I also loved that Sobig gets his nickname from the question you ask, “How Big is Baby,” “So Big!”  It was interesting that one book club member had never heard of this!

As an instructor I was intrigued when Sobig is in college and there are students that are “classified” or traditional students and “unclassified” or returning adults.  The unclassified have saved their entire adult life to finally go to college and achieve their dreams, but they are shunned by both the college and traditional students who have parents to pay for their college.  I thought it was interesting that you could raise some hogs to pay for college back in this day.  If only it were true now!

I loved the setting and seeing Chicago change through time.  I particular loved learning about the vegetable farmer industry and how it grew up to supply the needs of the city and what hard work it was getting it to the city to sell.

Some of my favorite quotes:

“But he sulked and glowered portentously and refused to answer, though her tone, when she called him So Big, would have melted the heard of any but that natural savage, a boy of ten.”  As a mother of a ten year old- this gave me a chuckle!

“Selina was to learn that the farm woman, in articulate through lack of companionship, becomes a torrent of talk when opportunity presents itself.”

Aug Hempel – “I’m out in the yards every day, in and out of the cattle pens, talking to the drovers and the herders, mixing in with the buyers.  I can tell the weight of a hog and what he’s worth just by the look at him, and a steer, too.  My son-in-law Michael Arnold sits up in the office all day in our plant, dictating letters.  His clothes they never stink of the pens like mine do .  . . Now I ain’t saying anything against him, Julie.  But I bet my grandson Eugene, if he comes into the business at all when he grows up won’t go within smelling distance of the yards.  His office I bet will be in a new office building on, say Madison Street, with a view of the lake.  Life!  You’ll be hoggin’ it all yourself and not know it.”  This was one of my favorite quotes in the book.  Aug Hempel is the father of Selina’s best friend Julie.  He was a butcher and then later became a meat packing baron.  He was disturbed that through his hard work, the next generations grow more distant from the actual work that brought them their success and maybe of enjoying life to its fullest.

Dirk – “I like it well enough, only – well, you see we leave the university architectural course thinking we’re all going to be Stanford Whites or Cass Gilberts, tossing of a Woolworth building and making yourself famous overnight.  I’ve spent all yesterday and today planning how to work space of toilets on every floor of the new office building, six stories high and shaped like a dry goods box, that’s going up on the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Ashland, west.” – I think this is the ban of every beginning architect.

“He might have lived a thousand miles away for all he knew of the rest of Chicago – the might, roaring, swelter, pushing, screaming, and magnificent hideous steel giant that was Chicago.”

“Neat little pamphlets are written for women on the subjects of saving, investments.  ‘You are not dealing with a soulless corporation,’ said these brochures.”

Overall, So Big by Edna Ferber is a magnificent American novel and should be a must read for everyone.