“Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly

hiddenfiguresHidden Figures is the extraordinary true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations, prior to computers, facilitated some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

This eye-opening story shows that before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to figure the math and trajectories that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space, and more importantly bring them safely home.

What is astounding about this account is that, not only was this accomplished by humans rather than computers, but they were female and black in a time when significant roles for females, let alone blacks, were limited. Hidden Figures follows the interlaced accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, some of the sharpest minds of their generation. Formerly consigned to teaching math in segregated public schools of the South, opportunity came during the labor shortages of World War II – anyone with the smarts, regardless of skin color or sex, were sorely needed in America’s aeronautics industry. Eagerly, these heretofore unnoticed mathematical masterminds answered their country’s call, moving to Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia.

The story moves from World War II through the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race. Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, these women helped America achieve a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and Space Race. For over three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

A movie was made from the book staring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Kevin Costner; it was released on Christmas Day, 2016.

Katherine Johnson, one of the women featured in the book and film, is still living. She was awarded the Presidential medal of freedom in 2015. She was born before the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote, and she grew up going to segregated schools.

The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, was born in Hampton, Virginia, in 1969 where she knew many of the women she later wrote about in her debut book. Her father worked as a research scientist at NASA-Langley Research Center, and her mother was an English professor at Hampton University. In 2013, Shetterly founded The Human Computer Project, an organization whose mission is to archive the work of all of the women who worked as computers and mathematicians in the early days of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 6. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 1 for a discussion of Hidden Figures at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Like Family” by Paulo Giordano

Like Family by Paulo Giordano

likefamilyThis short novella takes an intimate look at a young, mismatched husband and wife: Nora is an exuberant, creative, messy, and outgoing interior decorator, while the unnamed 35-year-old narrator is a mathematical, precise, introverted, and socially awkward Ph.D. in physics.  The narrator credits Nora with bursting into his life and flushing him out of his “hidey-hole.”  When Nora is bedridden with her first pregnancy, they hire a childless, elderly widow known as Mrs. A. to help.  The couple nicknames her Babette because, like the Isak Dinesen character of Babette’s Feast, she prepares elaborate meals for them.  She soon becomes a fixture in their lives and stays on to serve as housekeeper and nanny to their new son, Emanuele.  A loving, but finicky, woman, she sets the standards for the household: she rewashes dishes the narrator had washed the night before.  As the title implies, she becomes so much a part of the family that she accompanies the family on Emanuele’s first day of school and is mistaken by strangers to be his grandmother.

With no warning, after eight years of employment, Mrs. A. calls one morning to report that she can no longer work for them, because she is “tired”.   Blind-sighted and stunned, the couple soon learn that the real reason for her departure is that she has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.  This is not a spoiler as the book opens with Mrs. A.’s death, then circles back in time through her 16-month fight and loss to cancer, and the halcyon days when she was considered a member of the family.  Mrs. A. not only performed the most tedious household chores, she was their confidant, encourager, and the glue that held them together, “a steady element, a haven, an ancient tree with a trunk so massive that even three pairs of arms could not encircle it,” the author writes.

Since his birth, Emanuele has only known family to include Mrs. A. so he is understandably baffled that she could just stop coming one day.  He learns the hard lesson that “nothing lasts forever when it comes to human relationships.”  The narrator and Nora have also spent most of their years together with Mrs. A. at their side.  They must reevaluate their life without her.  He tells his therapist, “Nora and I are always so busy, so distracted, so tired.  If these really are our best years, I’m not satisfied with how we’re using them.”

The couple sees Mrs. A. through her illness, accompanies her to the wig maker, and sits by her bedside.  This beautifully written story is a striking portrait of marriage, the meaning of family, and the legacy of love an individual can leave.

The Italian author, Paulo Giordano, is a Ph.D. in particle physics (the same as the narrator).  His first novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, published in 2008, catapulted the then 26-year old author into the literary spotlight when it won the Strega Prize, the most prestigious Italian literary award.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 6.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 1 for a discussion of Like Family at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning author of Americanah, is more an essay than a book (52 pages – easily read on a lunch break) adapted from her celebrated TEDx talk of the same name. Adichie proposes a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century, one rooted in inclusion and awareness.

weshouldallbefeministsShe first unpacks the term feminist from all the negative baggage and stereo types: “you hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, you think women should always be in charge, you don’t wear make-up, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t use deodorant.”

She tells a story from her childhood. At the beginning of the term at her primary school, her teacher said that whoever got the highest score on the test could be class monitor. If you were class monitor, you would write down the names of the noise-makers every day. You also were given a cane to hold in your hand as you patrolled the class. Even though you were not allowed to use the cane, it was an accoutrement of authority. Adichie very much wanted to be class monitor, and she got the highest score on the test. To her surprise, the teacher then said the class monitor had to be a boy – so the boy with the second-highest score became the class monitor. “What was more interesting is that this boy was a sweet, gentle soul who had no interest in patrolling the class with a stick,” while she was full of ambition to do so. The teacher didn’t make this caveat to the rule clear as she assumed it was understood. It was “normal” that only boys could be class monitor. If we do something over and over again, or see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, clergy, presidents, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should hold those positions.

Adiche acknowledges that men and women are different – different hormones, sexual organs, and biological abilities. And, women can have babies; men cannot. Men have more testosterone and are, in general, physically stronger than women. It made sense a thousand years ago that men ruled the world, because human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength was the most important attribute for survival. Today, the person more qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. “It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more creative, more innovative. And there are no hormones for those attributes.” We have evolved. She argues that our ideas of gender need to evolve to catch up.
We teach girls to be “nice,” not angry, aggressive, and tough. Boys are taught to be “hard” – so, angry, aggressive, and tough are okay. We spend too much time teaching girls to worry what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case; she goes on to state: “I would like to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.”

Adichie ends with her own definition of a feminist: “a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’ All of us, women and men, must do better.” We should all be feminists.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, January 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 4 for a discussion of We Should All Be Feminists at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout, winner of the Man Booker Prize, is an irreverent, satirical novel about race relations in America, specifically in and around Los Angeles.  The nselloutameless narrator is an African-American male of undetermined age who lives and works as a farmer in Dickens, California. Dickens is a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles, notorious for its violence.  The narrator is smart, college-educated, sarcastic, and witty. Initially, he is a self-interested libertarian who has no interest in giving back to his community. The narrator disagrees with the prevailing black cultural mindset. For example, his father and Foy Cheshire (a washed-up black intellectual who became rich after stealing an idea for a Saturday cartoon series from the narrator’s father) see racism as prevalent everywhere. Though the narrator himself has experienced racism firsthand, he also knows that race relations are far better than they used to be, though they still require cultivation. He sees the issue to be more about class and “opportunity kicked aside.”  When the City of Dickens is “deleted” from the map to increase the property values of homes and business surrounding the area, the narrator takes it upon himself to restore Dickens with the help of his friend Hominy Jenkins.

Hominy Jenkins is an elderly African-American man in his eighties. He is a local celebrity for being the final remaining living member of the Little Rascals. Hominy is well-loved and well-respected, but he is heartbroken when the City of Dickens is “deleted”. Hominy, who has experienced the most vile racism of anyone in the neighborhood, feels powerless and used like a slave. He opts to become the narrator’s slave. The narrator grudgingly takes on Hominy as a slave, as Hominy insists. The narrator and Hominy set about marking the boundaries of Dickens with spray paint. They put up signs for Dickens and seek to re-institute segregation in the community as a way to bring people together. It will serve as a reminder of how far they have come and of how far they still have to go. The narrator’s work enrages people like Foy, who condemns the narrator as a “Sellout.” The narrator’s attempts to integrate the all-minority Chaff Middle School with five white kids are opposed on racist grounds by Foy, who ends up shooting the narrator. It is during this time that the narrator’s holding of Hominy as a slave and his work in segregation are discovered. The two factors earn him a case tried before the Supreme Court.

The narrator recognizes that, although racism is nowhere nearly as bad as it used to be, it still exists and must be dealt with, rather than ignored or exaggerated. For example, a truth that most people ignore is that Los Angeles is one of the most segregated cities in the world.  The narrator approves of young white people and black writers at the Atlantic magazine who are willing to risk controversy by having conversations about race. He opposes people like Foy who want to shut down debate and then control the narrative, or people like a black comedian who chases white people out of the audience by saying that this is “our thing.”  This timely novel is sure to spur conversation and debate about the current status of race relations in our country.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 7 for a discussion of The Sellout at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“Becoming Amish” by Jeff Smith

Bill and Tricia Moser lived a charmed life in one of America’s wealthiest communities, Grobecomingamishfrontcoversse Pointe, a tony suburb of Detroit where they drove BMWs to their well-paying jobs as an architect and occupational therapist.  Questioning the meaning of it all, they began a personal and spiritual journey that eventually led to a horse-and-buggy life in an Amish community.  The book relates their fascinating quest for faith and community.

When they made the transition, everything changed dramatically: simple living, plain dress, and a prohibition against most technology.  The mode of transportation was a horse and buggy or bike.  They grew their own food.  Tricia traded her professional life for a traditional domestic role: she and her daughter were responsible for making the clothes for the family, doing the laundry with a tub washer and ringer, canning food for the winter, and preparing meals.  Bill and his sons built wooden pallets for money, chopped wood for heat and cooking, and farmed with a horse and plow.  Women wore long dresses, smocks and head coverings.  Men wore work pants, suspenders, shirts with vests, hats and grew long beards.  No more individuality; everything was uniform.

The book draws back the curtain on their intriguing way of life.  We experience a typical 3-hour church service with 45 minutes of singing at the start of the service, the message in the middle and more signing at the end all in German (or Pennsylvania Dutch) – translators were provided for the Mosers.  Men sit on one side, and women sit on the other.  They take turns holding services in each other’s homes.  Amish communion services are held twice a year, and it is a whole community, full-day event.  Services begin at 8:30 in the morning with Scripture readings until a short break at noon for lunch, then more Scripture until about 3:00, the hour tradition holds that Jesus died.  Bread is broken, and then a foot-washing ceremony takes place with men pairing up with men and women with women, all taking turns washing each other’s feet, just as Jesus did to his disciples.

Formal education ends at 8th grade around age 13 or 14.  Until they are 16, the children apprentice with an adult for whatever means of earning a living they will be going into.  When the young adults are ready to testify to their faith, they become baptized and join the church – usually age 18 through early 20s.  The Amish and Mennonites were descended from the Swiss Anabaptists.  They fled persecution and settled in America.

Communities are limited to about 20-40 families (families are usually 6-7 kids).  When a community grows too large, they split off some of the families and move them to another area to start a new community.   Bearing children, raising them, and socializing with neighbors and relatives are the greatest functions of the Amish family. Their life is designed to serve God and neighbors.  Barn raisings and work bees are community events that everyone partakes in.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the Amish lifestyle is that it is regulated by the Ordnung  (German, meaning: order), which differs slightly from community to community. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another.  The community norms are decided and adhered to by the members of the community.   Some norms seem arbitrary and inconsistent – you must drive a horse, but you can charge a high-tech lithium battery with a generator.  You can’t use buttons (clothing has hooks rather than buttons), but you can use a fully automated pallet maker.  You milk your cow by hand and then go to the local library to surf the web.

The author, Jeff Smith, writes with a straightforward journalistic style with frequent highly descriptive scenes about the people and the countryside.  Meet Jeff in person at the Book Nook at 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 5.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, November 7.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, November 2 for a discussion of Becoming Amish at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

girlontrain

The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller narrated by three women.  The main narrator is Rachel, whose heavy drinking has cost her both a  marriage and a job.  She unhappily shares a flat with someone she knew at college and, instead of letting her roommate know she lost her job, she keeps up the façade of her old routine by taking the same train into London every morning, sipping canned gins and tonic.  The train goes by her old house, where her ex-husband (Tom) lives with his newish wife (Anna) and their newborn baby.  The train also passes a house where a handsome couple (Megan and Scott) live; Rachel sees them breakfasting on their deck and projects a life of bliss:  a perfect marriage, perfect home, perfect jobs.  “He is dark-haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blond hair cropped short.” She continues, “They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.” Every day is the same – until it isn’t.  One morning, Rachel is shocked to see Megan kissing another man.  The next day she hears on the news that Megan has gone missing.  Rachel goes to the police, but, because of her drinking, is deemed an unreliable witness.  Rachel herself isn’t completely sure what she remembers or what really happened.  She gathers the nerve to go to Scott under the guise of being a friend of Megan’s and learns that Megan was seeing a therapist.  Rachel boldly books an appointment with the therapist to see what she can learn.  The plot thickens when Rachel learns that Megan has been babysitting Anna and Tom’s newborn baby.

Megan, the second narrator, is not anything like Rachel imagined.  She is restless with Scott and having an affair with her therapist.  She used to work in an art gallery and longs to be a free spirit, but feels out of place and confined in her suburban neighborhood.  Megan is bored, edgy, and unhappy, until the day she disappears – never to be seen again.

Anna, the final narrator, initially gloats about her victory in winning Tom away from Rachel.  Rachel is infertile, but Anna and Tom immediately conceive a baby.  As the story moves along, Anna and Rachel learn they have more than their love of Tom in common.

The author, Paula Hawkins, does a masterful job of portraying the story through the vantage points of the three women.  With changing timelines and alternating accounts, she spins a tight ,suspenseful tale.  I could not put this book down.  A movie adaptation, starring Emily Blunt and directed by Tate Taylor, is scheduled for release on October 10.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” show at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, October 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 5 for a discussion of The Girl on the Train at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan

girlsofatomic

At the height of World War II, men were off fighting and women were engaged in war efforts here in the states.  Detroit’s car plants were refashioned to build fighter planes, ammunition, trucks, and tanks.  The country was unified in its intense effort.

In eastern Tennessee, residents began receiving notices stating that their land and homes were no longer theirs and they would need to vacate.  The government cleared 59,000 acres of land and erected a secret city (not listed on any maps) in a matter of months to house 75,000 workers.  At the height of construction, houses were erected at the rate of one every 30 minutes.  These workers, mostly women, were recruited from the cities of the Northeast, farms of the South, and small towns in the Midwest.  The promise was good pay, housing, and an effort to end the war.  The price was blind obedience and sealed lips.  Only a few at the top really knew what was going on.  The average worker only knew her specific minuscule task and was forbidden to talk to neighbors or coworkers about it – they had an ant’s-eye-view of an elephant unable to fathom the big picture.

Only after the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did they reach a realization – they built the atomic bomb.

Denise Kiernan told the story through the eyes and voices of real women – some still alive: Celia, a secretary transferred from the Manhattan Project’s original offices in New York City; Toni, a secretary from neighboring Clinton, Tennessee – her aunt and uncle’s farm was seized by the government; Jean, a statistician-mathematician from Paris, Tennessee, who supervised a team of young women who crunched numbers to track production, and others.  Interviews, research, and notes from diaries were used to recreate this unique personal slice of American history.

Although the workers were equally unified in their dedication to the war effort, their treatment was still subject to the gender and race inequalities of the time.  Whites were put in dormitories, African Americans were housed in four-person, 256-square-foot “hutments,” each one “a square plywood box of a structure that had a potbellied stove sitting right smack-dab in the middle.” Kattie, an African-American woman, tells how she was not allowed to live with her husband, when white couples could.  Houses, impermanent as they were, were reserved for families.  A household was not a household, unless it was led by a man.

The purpose of the instant city was what happened in the plants.  However, to keep an orderly and happy workforce, efforts were taken to take care of the workers personal and social needs.  Churches, stores, movie theaters, recreational centers for skating and dancing were all created from scratch.  Social organizations thrived – there were even boy scouts and girl scouts for the kids.

The unity of government, industry, and individuals all working for one goal creates a stark contrast to the divisive climate today.  It’s unimaginable to think of 75,000 people uprooting, not knowing where they will be moving and not knowing what their jobs will be – all on blind trust in the government.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 6.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, September 6 for a discussion ofThe Girls of Atomic City at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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