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 last days of new paris

I’ve been waiting to read China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris since it came out. I own a copy. It’s in one of the boxes of books I still haven’t unpacked. After reading about Hitler I was ready for something beautiful and this book was.

It’s mostly about Paris and Surrealist art. Because it’s a Miéville book we’re following Paris’ 1950s resistance against the occupying Nazis in a city where art and demons fight in the streets. It’s about how art can’t be controlled and about secret agents and heroism and discernment.

I loved it, and loved that the appendix has a list of most of the artworks referred to in the novella so if you wanted to study up on surrealism, you have a good launching point.

book review: hitler – ascent 1889 – 1939

I’ve mentioned before that I’m trying to read more nonfiction in 2017. Part of that is to avoid the constant churn of shit that is the news cycle of doom, but without going full-on escapist all the time. It’s a shitty testament to my ability to objectify other times and their inhabitants that reading a book about the rise of Hitler feels less depressing than opening my Twitter app, but here we are.

There were a number of pieces of the rise of Hitler that I knew of, like the Beer Hall Putsch and The Night of the Long Knives, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what actually happened in those events. Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939 was good at filling in the gaps in my knowledge.

I came to this book through Michiko Kakutani’s excellent (pre-2016 US election) review of it. That definitely influenced my reading, and made me draw more parallels to the US today than I might have otherwise. I think that this book made it pretty clear that Hitler and Trump are different, but the interesting thing is how the public and politicians that facilitated Hitler’s ascent are so similar to the US of the mid 2010s.

Anyway. It was a good book, but I was glad to be done with that curious moustache peering out at me from my ereader every day.

book review: siege 13

I read Tamas Dobozy’s collection of short stories entitled Siege 13 on the recommendation of one of our library members. Dobozy writes about Hungarian immigrants to Canada and their communities, sort of. I didn’t know much about 20th century Hungarian history before reading this book, but the WW2 occupation by the Nazis and then the Communists led to a lot of traumatic life-shattering events, even for those who managed to emigrate to the west, so that forms the backdrop to most of these stories.

They were well-written enough, but I was lured in by a promise of beguiling weirdness, which there definitely wasn’t enough of for my taste. They were stories of informers, and of relationships between people who hid themselves away and who tried to falsify histories. They weren’t bad, and Dobozy is very skilled but they just weren’t my kind of thing.

book review: the path to the nest of spiders

The Path to the Nest of Spiders is Italo Calvino’s first novel and is very different from the ones that came after. It’s a story of Italian partisans in World War 2, told from the perspective of Pin, an orphan boy who attaches himself to a unit through the act of stealing a pistol from a German soldier.

It was designed to be a story of non-heroic participants in the war and succeeds in that. The people in the book are full of lice and weaknesses. The thing that is strangest is how un-strange the story is. The spiders’ nests are the only sort of fantastical and Calvino-ish thing about the story, and even they are described in ways that don’t place them undoubtedly outside the world of actual experience.

It’s a fine story, but I don’t know to whom exactly I’d recommend it. It’s kind of like Rushdie’s Grimus, which feels like it wasn’t written by the famous writer at all.

book review: angelmaker

Angelmaker was my first Nick Harkaway book. It’s about superspies, the clockworking son of London’s criminal king (but the good kind of crimes that are all about sticking it to society’s betters), a corrupted cult of technologists against mass-production and a globe-spanning swarm of mechanical bees. It’s pretty amazing.

In a lot of ways it reminded me of a more pulpy-fun Thomas Pynchon novel, though Neal Stephenson might be a bit more apt a comparison. Joe Spork doesn’t fall into the Stephenson-ultracompetence trap though. He’s just a guy caught up in things too big for him to deal with on his own. There’s a murder and torture and with the support of his lawyer and some revelations about himself and his ancestry there’s a plot to save the goddamn world. Very good book. Lots of fun.

book review: onward towards our noble deaths

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is the story of a group of Japanese soldiers in World War 2 who are stationed on the South Pacific island of New Britain in 1943. There’s no one character that’s the hero, just a bunch of poor saps who have malaria, malnutrition and get eaten by alligators. It’s bleak as hell.

The characters are drawn in this cartoony style while the backgrounds and animals are very detailed, which is an interesting effect. I feel it put me in their shoes as the rookies got slapped for no reason, or as they decided they needed to eat their fill before going on their suicide mission. This kind of manga is a bit different from what the kids these days are all about, but this was a really good comic.