Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for August, 2017

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

Posted by nliakos on August 11, 2017

by Margot Lee Shetterly (HarperCollins 2016, in various editions)

Like many others, I suppose, I was inspired to read this story of the women of color who worked for NASA , formerly NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), as human computers, beginning during World War II and continuing though the era of space flight until NASA’s mission and budget were curtailed by shifting priorities  and goals in the 1970s.  The film of the same name, which also dates from 2016, focused on the stories of three of these women: Dorothy “Dot” Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. The book also follows these women (although their close camaraderie may have been an invention of the film’s director), but it provides details about many others as well: Dorothy Hoover, Christine Darden, and others too numerous to mention. Unfortunately, no photographs were included, leading me to try to imagine the women as the actors who portrayed them in the film. Photographs surely exist (If I remember correctly, some were shown at the end of the film.) and would have been helpful in keeping the many characters straight in my mind.

But the book is so much more than the stories of the women of West Computing, the segregated pool where most of them began their careers as human calculators. It is also a history of NACA/NASA, a history of the Civil Rights Movement, and to some extent a history of the women’s rights movement. Shetterly also weaves in events from general American history to help us situate the events in the book in time.

The book helped me to learn about the extensive black middle class–the doctors, teachers, and other professionals who earned college and graduate degrees but who were shut out of professional careers around the country because of their race. They took the jobs that were available to them, staffing the nation’s segregated black colleges with some of the finest minds of the 20th century. Reading about this in an era when historically black colleges are struggling to survive, I am reminded of the double-edged sword of inclusion that has dealt a death blow to our women’s colleges, too. Plenty of leadership opportunities and other paths to academic and professional excellence were available to students of color in historically black colleges and to women in historically female ones. When they found themselves in integrated or co-ed settings, however, forced to compete with white males for those same opportunities, women sometimes found themselves taking a back seat to the men,  while black students sometimes found themselves criticized as trying to act white if they prioritized studying over sports or social life (which can happen to white students too, but that is another story.).  Once the rock stars of black academia (such as William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, the brilliant math professor who mentored Katherine Johnson when she was in college)  began to be wooed by traditionally white institutions, the black colleges could not compete, and they suffered a brain drain that impacted the quality of the instruction they could offer, making them less attractive to students of any color. Integration: a good thing, but with some negative consequences too. (Think also: the now-defunct Negro baseball league.)

I liked the book (though it was not as satisfying as the film, being about real life and historical facts and not designed to keep a reader on the edge of her seat), but I found some of the writing kind of overdone and pretentious.

Agonizingly typed and retyped on my Samsung tablet.  This keyboard drives me bonkers! I think I might be able to fix some of its problems in settings, but am not sure how. I type a word (say, ‘not’) and it auto-corrects to some non-existent word (e.g., ”nother”). Or it inserts spaces or letters willy-nilly,  turningross33@gmail.com sentences into gobbledy-gook. Example in the previous sentence: I wrote “turning sentences…”. Why did it make up some crazy email address???

One thing I really miss about home is my laptop. Can’t wait to return to normal typing!

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The Soul of the First Amendment

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

By Floyd Abrams (Yale University Press, 2017)

The complete text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution is as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But Floyd Abrams focuses his little book on the second part only–“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” This, to Abrams, is the “soul” of the amendment.

Reading the book definitely helped me to understand what the first amendment does and does not do. It concerns what the government, specifically the Congress,  can and cannot do. It does not prevent private companies or citizens from repressing speech.

Abrams gives the reader some history–which framer advocated for what, and why. Some of them did not think it was necessary to explicitly prevent the government from infringing on free speech. Others disagreed. In the end, the reference to free speech and a free press were included; they might just as easily have been left out, and we would be a different country today. Yet for the first couple of hundred years of the republic, nobody paid much attention to the amendment, and freedom of expression was routinely curtailed and censored. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that case law began to develop based on the rights set down in this amendment. I had no idea that that was so, and I think probably few people do. (N.B., The history part was pretty dense and tough going for me; it isn’t written in legalese, but it’s challenging.)

Then there is a lengthy comparison of how freedom of expression and a free press are viewed by Americans and according to American law, as opposed to how they are viewed in Europe and in other democratic societies (very different). In other societies, other rights may take precedence over free speech, such as Europe’s right to be forgotten, which allows people to request that articles written about them be suppressed if they are no longer relevant, whatever that means, and the control over hate speech. It’s instructive to consider what happens when two or more essential human rights are in conflict with each other.

He nearly lost me in the final chapter, which deals with the infamous Citizens United decision, the one that opened the door to treating corporations as people who have the right to express themselves politically by donating enormous sums of money to political causes and candidates. Liberals such as I am have a kind of knee-jerk negative reaction to this Supreme Court decision, but Abrams argues the case that prevailed (he was actually one of the attorneys who argued it before the Supreme Court), and I admit that at times he was very convincing. It’s useful to consider the arguments on both sides.

(Painfully typed on my tablet in Karpenisi,  Evrytania, Greece)

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Walking to Listen: 4,000 miles Across America, One Story at a Time

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

by Andrew Forsthoefel (Bloomsbury USA 2017)

For some reason, I love reading first-person accounts of very long walks (very long bike rides appeal, too)–perhaps because I will never do one of these marathon walks (across the US, across France, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska…). This book fits right into this genre. Andrew Forsthoefel yearned to know how to become a true adult, and so he decided to set out walking from his home in eastern Pennsylvania with a sign that said “Walking to Listen”, hoping to meet people who could guide him on his journey to adulthood. He ended up in Los Angeles eleven months later, having understood that maturation is an ongoing thing, not one which we complete in any kind of recognizable way. The various men and women he encountered on his trek shared their stories with him (85 hours’ worth of recorded interviews), and he shares some of them with us. Partial transcripts from some of the interviews are shared between chapters, and other stories and guidance that he received are summarized.

Much of the book is devoted to the author’s experiences, his emotional ups and downs, his fears of the people he was about to meet (in every single case, until he met them and they turned out to be harmless/friendly/helpful/generous, and some of them became real friends), and the very real physical dangers he faced, such as the crossing of Death Valley.

He took three books along with him (Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman; The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran; and Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke). He quotes extensively from them, for they had many important lessons for him in their pages. He must have known these books very intimately after living with them for almost a year. After reading his book, I felt I knew those three books better too.

I enjoyed the book, like others of its genre.

(Excruciatingly created using the touchscreen of my Samsung tablet, while I am on vacation in Greece. I can’t figure out how to tag the post or categorize it; I guess I will have to do those things when I’m back home with my laptop. I’ve read reviews of the WordPress app for tablets and smartphones,  and they do not make me want to get it! Perhaps I should mention that I read the book on the tablet too, using my kindle app.)

 

 

 

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