What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Some fiction and some nonfiction, both with strong female characters.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

This book tells an amazing story that deserves a place in history, but reading it isn’t nearly as much fun as watching the movie.  I’m disappointed to realize that a lot of the most pleasing moments in the movie apparently were invented by the scriptwriters or heavily exaggerated–because if those things had really happened, the author surely would have included them in the book!

Shetterly tells the story of how African-American women contributed to the development of NASA during and after World War II, playing crucial roles in America’s first satellite launch, first manned spaceflight, and missions to the Moon.  Hired as “computers” to perform vast calculations on paper and with adding machines, these women did excellent and vital work but were treated as “colored girls,” with segregated facilities and much higher thresholds for attaining the title of Engineer, authorship of papers, good salaries, and respect compared to white men–yet a few of them managed to earn these things anyway, because they were so clever and persistent.  They also did this work while raising children.

One thing that’s clearer in the book than in the movie is that this is not just the story of three outstanding heroines.  This is the story of how the space race was not won by men alone and how not all smart people are white!  In the prologue, the author explains how she grew up near NASA’s Langley Research Center in a segregated neighborhood packed with scientists, engineers, and educators: “I thought that’s just what black folks did.”  Throughout the book, she explains how the culture and values of some black families and communities helped to support these careers.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel lives in an outer suburb and commutes into London each day.  The train makes a stop from which she can see into the back yard and some rooms of a house where a young couple seem to lead an idyllic life–similar to the life Rachel used to have in another house in that same row, before everything went wrong.  Now Rachel is an alcoholic, keeping up her daily routine in hopes that her housemate won’t realize she was fired from her job.

One day, Rachel looks out the train window and sees something shocking.  When the woman she’s been watching is reported missing, Rachel feels she must investigate using the information only she knows.  But her ex-husband’s new wife thinks Rachel’s presence in the neighborhood means Rachel is stalking her–and how can an alcoholic prone to blackouts investigate a mystery or present herself as a reliable witness??

This is an excellent suspense novel, with some plot twists I didn’t see coming and plenty of tension and mystery.  Although it’s hard to like Rachel because of her self-defeating behavior, her first-person narration seems very real and does have its own twisted internal logic.  (I haven’t seen the movie, which apparently wasn’t very good.)

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Asking for things has played an important role in Amanda Palmer’s career as a performance artist and rock star, contributing to her success.  However, despite her years of experience with unabashed asking usually resulting in getting what she wanted and feeling good about it, she found herself unable to accept her own husband’s offer to loan her some money to cover expenses between tours.  Why was that so hard?  She explores that question as she tells her story.

This isn’t a self-help book: Although Palmer taps into some of the basic questions and fears that underlie most people’s feelings of, “I couldn’t possibly ask for that,” she provides little concrete advice on how to become more open to asking in typical interpersonal situations, outside the rare culture of her fan base.  Still, her story inspired me with reminders of what is possible when you work at creating community by helping people as well as letting them help you.  (It stirred up fond memories of my volunteer work helping Looney Labs–when Kristin asked me to do something and I asked her to help me do it better and then people started asking me to do more and more!)  A crucial point is that Palmer not only did a lot of asking; she also did a lot of giving, and it’s that back-and-forth intimacy that makes her fans love her.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the elucidation of the idea that some sort of Fraud Police are going to show up in your life and say, “You are accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.”  Palmer assures us that most adults feel this way at times.  Just hearing that helps a lot, I think–I’ve had many conversations where friends and I admit just how much we don’t have it all together, and sharing that feeling helps us remember that we don’t have to be perfect.

There’s also a great conversation between Palmer and her husband, in which she asks for something she feels stupid asking for because she thinks he must have known she needed it, and he explains that he was raised thinking that was an inappropriate thing to offer, and she has the heartbreaking realization that it’s something he never got to have even as a little child.  That’s just the kind of discussion people need to have sometimes so that we all can feel loved.

Also, Palmer’s best friend said something very wise: “If you want to know what you believe, ask the people you taught.”

Small Hours by Jennifer Kitses

This novel takes place during one day in the lives of Helen and Tom, who bought a house in a blue-collar town far outside New York City in hopes that it would be a better place to raise their twins–but now they’re not so sure. Helen keeps finding herself overwhelmed with anger, and the work-at-home job that’s supposed to give her such wonderful flexibility is mostly just giving her stress. Tom has been keeping a huge secret for three years and has reached the point where he has to make a big decision that could expand his family or destroy it–just as he’s having a really difficult day at work. Throw in a couple of taunting teenagers, a too-talkative convenience store clerk, a dying dog, a flirting colleague, and a neighbor who’ll help you if it kills him, and you’ve got one very complex day!

I was able to read the whole book within 24 hours, and I recommend that approach. Whether you read it quickly or slowly, this is an enjoyable, relatable, and realistic story.

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

Neurotic astronomer Irene Sparks has just made a breakthrough in her lab when she’s notified that her estranged mother has fallen down stairs and died.  It’s time to go back to Toledo–the city where Irene was born and raised by an alcoholic single mother who worked as a psychic and burned down their house when Irene was six, and the city where Toledo Institute of Astronomy now wants to employ this promising scientist.

At the Institute, Irene meets George Dermont, a physicist whose theories of the universe are secretly informed by the ancient gods he hallucinates during migraines.  George and Irene feel an instant, undeniable connection that fulfills his lifelong yearning while shattering Irene’s carefully constructed sexual persona.  The situation is complicated by the fact that each of them is already dating someone even weirder than themselves.

Meanwhile, flashback chapters tell the reader about the relationship between Irene’s and George’s mothers and the secret plot they hatched back in junior high school.  Did it really go horribly wrong years ago, or will it turn out to be wonderfully right?

This book is a strange combination of realistic writing about intelligent, unusual people with over-the-top silliness, but the wackiest parts turn out to have a sobering scientific explanation.  Overall, I enjoyed it, especially the narration of Irene’s thoughts:

On the windowsill was a hairbrush, full of hair.  She should pull out all that hair and throw it away, or she should keep it forever, in case her mother could be cloned.  She should never clone her mother.  She should clone her mother and raise her as her own, parent her right, make things turn out differently for her poor, poor mother.  Irene felt her heart scrabbling in her chest like a squirrel climbing around and around one of her ribs.

Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown

It’s 1935, and Dottie has just been promoted to head bookkeeper at an insurance office in midtown Manhattan, a great job for this 19-year-old who lives with her Jewish immigrant parents on the Lower East Side.  But on the same day as her promotion, both Dottie and her 42-year-old mother Rose realize they are pregnant.  Dottie’s longtime boyfriend has insisted on saving sex for marriage, so how is she going to explain this and get him to marry her immediately?  Rose was just getting back to work as a labor union organizer, now that her youngest child is 7, and she’s bitterly disappointed at the idea of a new baby–and the pregnancy is aggravating her leg pain from an old injury.

Over the next few weeks, Dottie and Rose–first alone, then working together–change the course of their lives several times over as they make a decision, throw themselves toward it, then suddenly change course when circumstances cut off their options.  This engaging novel manages to explore a lot of possibilities and a lot of ideas about what one can or can’t do, and why, within the limits of what was available to women in the Depression.  Their feelings seemed very real, and I related to both of them, in different ways.

I learned about several of these books from reviews in the Quick Lit linkup.  Check it out!  Here’s my book review index.

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