book review: hidden figures

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is pretty much what the title implies. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the West Computers, starting from the WW2 days when computers meant people who did math, up to the Apollo 7 mission. It was a story I hadn’t heard before, not like the women of Bletchley Park breaking the Nazi codes in WW2 (though I suppose even the Bletchley story isn’t something I grew up hearing).

The story is interesting and Shetterly tells it well, though it does meander through a few people’s stories, meaning it doesn’t have a person to hang the story on (I imagine the movie version was more focused than the book is). It felt a bit like a lot of anecdotes plus authorial interjections about how meaningful that was.

One thing I wanted a lot more of was what exactly these women did. I wanted to see some math, instead of just taking the author’s word that they were doing very smart things. I kind of got the impression that Shetterly didn’t trust her audience to actually find the math interesting, and that put a bit of an interpretive distance between the text and me. It also felt a bit like a model-minority narrative, but that’s less about the book than about the decision to write this specific book, so whatever. Also, the military-industrial-complex rah rah ing (look how much these scientists had to do with the B-29 that delivered death to millions of people) was something that raised my hackles.

But in all, it was good.

book review: the raven boys

The Raven Boys is the first book I’ve read by Maggie Stiefvater, which probably makes me a bad teenbrarian. I’m sorry. If I knew she was this good I’d have started earlier.

Blue is a girl who’s grown up in a house full of women. Who are psychics. As a result she’s grown up with the very specific prophecy that if she kisses her true love, he will die. Oh, and Blue isn’t a psychic herself.

The Raven Boys are all students at a posh private school. Gansey is born to be a politician, but is fixated on discovering a dead Welsh king buried on a ley line in Virginia. He’s assembled a posse of friends to help him. Once Blue is added to the mix the quest kind of takes off.

So yeah, there’s loads of good pop-occult history going on, but what made this book work so well for me is all the class division going on and how fucking important it is to these characters. Gansey and Ronan (his scary friend who spends most of the book reckless, fighting or nursing a baby raven) have more money than god. Blue and Adam (who lives in a trailer with his abusive father and works a million jobs to pay for his schooling) are not rich. And these divisions are hugely meaningful to these people. Gansey is utterly condescending to his friends and offends people because he has no real concept of the value of money. Adam won’t leave his abusive situation and let his friend take care of him because he does not want to be bought. Gansey doesn’t want to buy his friend; he wants to help with the means he has.

All of the tension and argument that happens in this book is along those kinds of lines. There is no one person who is being an ass and could make it all better by just doing one little thing differently. It’s these worlds of money and gender and privilege all colliding in great ways with an epic quest. That the flaws of characters are built into the structure (or energy if you want to use the lines of power that the book takes seriously) of the world they find themselves makes it fucking great. (Also, I’ve cussed more in this review than there are swears in the book, but Stiefvater does the whole “he let out a stream of inventive invective” type thing really well.)

Excellent book. Cannot wait for the next one in the series.

book review: the hollow earth

Rudy Rucker’s The Hollow Earth is a creative-commons licensed novel about a 15-year-old Southern gentleman and his slave and his dog and Edgar Allan Poe who go on an Antarctic expedition to the centre of the Earth. So yes, this is a continuation of my December Antarctica story binge, but I swear I didn’t know ahead of time.

It’s kind of a rollicking adventure tale that takes place back in the 1830s and is written in that sort of voice, but by a late-twentieth century writer. It’s startling how much of a difference that makes to the readability. It’s recognizably written in that impossible science style of exploratory wonder and 19th century diction but doesn’t require the same amount of reading through the gratingness. I’m going to have to come back to this to figure out how he pulled off the trick.

Not to say it’s a perfect book. Any of my difficulties with it were made up for in the afterword where some of the science and history behind the hollow earth theory (and the particular oddities of the construction in this tale) were laid out as proof of how this is a true story. Very neat.