Book Review – Hidden Figures

TITLE: Hidden Figures

AUTHOR: Margot Lee Shetterly

PUBLISHED: 2016

FORMAT: Paperback

Hidden Figures bills itself on the cover as “The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.”  That is a perfect description of the book, which has already inspired a (somewhat fictionalized) movie about the  events in the book.   (Full disclosure, I have seen the movie, but I’m one of those people that likes to read the books that movies are based on as well).

This is a non-fiction recounting of the history of many of the women who are often overlooked in history but without whom, World War II and the Space Race would not have gone the way it did.  The book gives you the history of several of the women involved, including Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Katherine Goble Johnson. But Hidden Figures is not just about the work the women did, but also the environment they did it in – mainly the segregated south of the 1940s/1950s/1960s, as well as the atmosphere of the Cold War that surrounded the Space Race.  The book doesn’t stint on the history and how it impacted the many women involved.

In fact, there could have been a lot more history in the book – the main chapters end at Apollo 11 (the moon landing for those who aren’t as much of a NASA nerd as I am), but the Epilogue continues with more history on some of the women, up to 2015.  Understandably, the lack of ‘more’ is subjective, and the book makes it clear how much things changed at NASA, from its pre-NASA days as the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) to the 1980s at least.  Granted, it also shows how much hasn’t changed.

The narrative is definitely helped by the author’s personal familiarity with the subject (she knew some of the women personally growing up in Virginia), as well as the years of research she conducted.  She also has a good writing style that kept me interested in the book as a whole.  This wasn’t a dry history of facts and dates.  She helped you view the players not only as professionals in history, but as individual persons.  That’s not always the case in some non-fiction historical narratives I’ve read.

All in all, I found Hidden Figures pretty compelling.  This is an area of history I’m not as familiar with, though I’ve read a lot about the early days of NASA (I may have NASA nerd tendencies).  However, information about these women who were integral to the program was not in a lot of the histories I read, mostly written by the white men who worked at NASA, or were the astronauts themselves.  And, admittedly, there are times when it is a hard read given the societal issues and the language that was prevalent at the time (the author chose to use the language of the times to stay true to her subject).  While I don’t feel that is a reason not to read this book, I know that not everyone feels the same way.

I give it 4 out of 5 pages.

Books Review – Board Book Roundup

My method for picking out children’s books is to walk around the library and look for books on display that seem interesting/cute, randomly flip to a couple pages and see just how much text there is and to check out the artwork (I can’t tell you how many books I’ve put back because the illustrations are awful!), and then read them to a ridiculously smart almost three year old.  Anyway, I decided to combine several in this review.


TITLE: Harold’s ABC
AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR: Crockett Johnson
FORMAT: Board Book
PUBLISHED: Originally 1963. This edition – 2016? 2015? (New book/doesn’t say)

The book is kinda cool.  Harold and his trusty purple crayon (yes, that Harold) go out on an adventure through the alphabet.  This isn’t a typical ABC book.  There’s no A is for apple, turn the page, B is for Banana, etc… Instead, what you get is a story interrupted by that… “To go on any kind of trip, you have to leave home. He started with A for Attic…”  And as Harold is going through this, you see illustrations where the letter is front and center to something they’re talking about (In A’s case, the A makes up the top of the house. Q forms the Queen’s head.)

It isn’t bad, but this book is *small* – like maybe 4 inches or so.  I wish it had been just a little bit larger and the letters had been a little bit bolder.  I’m guessing with a kid a little older who already knows his letters that this story would go over better, but in this case, the toddler knows *most* of his letters and it was a little difficult to get him to pick out the letters and he got bored with it.  [Note: This paragraph brought to you by the phrase “little bit”]

A few of the letters were weak (X is for X-out), and Z was for snore “Zzzl” – um.. since when is there an l in the middle of a snore?  But most of them were good.

I’ll give it a 3/5.  Nothing overly wrong with it, but nothing exceptional about it either.


TITLE: Dig
BOOK BY:  National Geographic Kids
FORMAT: Board Book
PUBLISHED: 2015

So, Dig looked cute.  There’s a photo of large excavating equipment on the front, and when I opened it up randomly, I opened it to a larger photo of the same piece of equipment.  So I sort of assumed that it was about big equipment, which excited me.

Apparently, I should have looked at more pages, because it’s about all kinds of things that dig – people, dogs, whatever.  I was a bit disappointed.  Also, the toddler didn’t really care that mommy and daddy could dig in a garden.  He wanted the big equipment too.

This is an issue I have with board books.  Nothing about the book on the back cover, just a sales pitch for the rest of the series.

Anyway, really disappointed. The book was done well enough, but it isn’t what either of us wanted. And some kid apparently snacked on the library copy, so it tastes good enough.

Still, I’ll give it a tentative 4/5.  I was disappointed in it because it wasn’t what I thought it was (and really, what are the odds that I’d open randomly to the one page of equipment and not any of the other 10 pages of mammals?), but it wasn’t a bad book.


 

Book Review – Welcome to the Symphony

TITLE: Welcome to the Symphony: A Musical Exploration of the Orchestra Using Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5
AUTHOR: Carolyn Sloan
ILLUSTRATOR: James Williamson
FORMAT: Hardcover w/attached music panel
PUBLISHED: 2015

Welcome to the Symphony is a fabulous book.  It’s probably best suited for slightly older kids because of lots of big terms… 4-7 maybe?  But the not-quite-3-year-old I read it to enjoyed the music part of it.  I’m sure he won’t be saying timpani anytime soon.

Anyway, the book follows three little mice.  One of them is at the symphony for the first time, so the other two mice explain it to their friend as the book goes along.  It’s a really direct approach to terminology “Tempo is how fast or slow music is played” – AND behavior at the symphony.  “Don’t clap yet, they’re just warming up!”

Plus, as it works its way through a pretty well-known piece of music (I remember this as a background to some cartoons), it explains all the instruments and you can compare them to each other pretty easy.  Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone, Timpani.  (And there’s a page about other instruments you may find in a modern symphony that you didn’t find in this piece of music such as the piano, harp, tuba, etc).

In all, this is a really thorough explanation of the symphony and a great introduction for a kid.

My only issue with the book is that you have to hit right on the number for the audio pad to work.  Most of these books, you can hit anywhere in the square; there are a lot of reviews on Amazon that say “This didn’t work!” and I suspect that they’re stemming from that issue.

Regardless – the book works, the toddler loved hearing the instruments, and when he’s a little older, I think this would be a great resource to teach him about music.

5/5 pages and 5/5 musical notes. :p

Book Review – LOST

TITLE: LOST: Lost and Found Pet Posters From Around the World
AUTHOR*: Ian Phillips
ILLUSTRATOR: Ian Phillips?
FORMAT: Paperback
PUBLISHED: 2002 (NOTE: this is the 15th anniversary edition – it says so on the cover)

So… This looked like it would be something cute and amusing and I’d flip through the pages for an hour and not be sad I wasted time.  I mean, it’s the anniversay edition, so… they wouldn’t reprint something that was crap, right? I went to check it out of the library, and the librarian gushed about how wonderful this little book was.

And I took it home and I looked forward to it.

The concept of this book is…different.  People have lost (or very rarely found) a pet and of course, they make a poster for it.  The author* of this book for whatever reason collects these posters and once made a call around the world for them.

There’s a quick prologue explaining that, and a quick … epilogue? appendices?  whatever… with a list of tips for making your own lost pet poster (note – it didn’t say you had to lose a pet first) and a few stats about pets that I find hard to believe.  Oh, and the font the author used is kinda hard to read – its one of those that is probably meant to look like somebody with remarkably neat handwriting printed something, but it’s done in like 80% gray, so it’s just annoying.

On the right hand are pet posters, and they’re… um… well…  Crap a lot of times.  There’s exactly one page somewhere in the book in color, and there’s a lot in the book that have been copied to the point where you can’t make out half the stuff in them.  I don’t know if they were that bad to begin with or if they were poorly reproduced for the book or what.  But since so many of these posters don’t have pictures of the pets in them at all, who knows.  (I want to be annoyed by that. After all, who doesn’t have a picture of their pet and still cares enough to make a lost pet poster, but if the book was printed in 2002 and it’s a 15th anniversary edition, I guess we’re looking at the 80s, so I can see why they sucked so bad.  Still, if I hadn’t found the book in the non-fiction section, I would have had to check to see if it was a humor book)

The best part about the book was that the left side pages formed a flip book, and if you flipped towards the back you saw a dog run into the page, followed by a cat, followed by a bird, and they corresponded with the dog, cat, and everything else section (the last of which includes birds, a cow, and even a sandwich).

But, since the book was designed to show of the posters, I have to give this one a bad rating.  Another in the “I really wanted to like it” category, I give it 2/5 stars.

 

 

*Note – can you call yourself an author when all you do is write 50 words at the beginning and then show scans of something you’ve collected?

Book Review – Nanotecture

TITLE: Nanotecture: Tiny Built Things
AUTHOR: Rebecca Roke
PUBLISHED: 2016
FORMAT: Hardcover

Nanotecture is supposed to be, according to the book’s own description, a book about architecture/small houses  (including bird/dog/cathouses).  I got it because I thought it would be a really interesting book about tiny houses, which I would never on any planet live in (where would you put books?!), but which I think are fascinating.

The book is small – slightly smaller than a traditional hardback – and each page features a full color photo and then a description and block info that includes who made it, where, when, why, etc…  It’s arranged in five categories from smallest to largest, and features icons that tell what materials were used in the building project.

So, for starters, the book isn’t quite what it’s billed to be.  A lot of the book (like half of the book) is sculpture and the like and not anything useful in any way, meaningful or not.  “This sculpture was done for an art show and lasted forty-seven hours before we took it down!” (Okay, I’m exaggerating.  But barely.)  The reason I wanted the book was to see DWELLINGS – their word – and not just plain artwork.  Nothing wrong with artwork, but that wasn’t what I was going for.

Also the photo was nicely in full color, but it was a single, exterior shot for each thing.  When the outside of the space is a square and the inside is supposed to hold an entire house, the almost windowless square is the most boring camera area possible.  I’m sure they were going for the small format to keep in theme (oh, a tiny book about tiny houses!), but it lost a lot of potential with only the one image.  I know that not everything could have multiple photos – there was a bird house that could be installed as a roof tile, for instance – but a lot of them had designs that were *about* the inside of the piece.

The book was thorough, but it wasn’t what it said it was, and it lacked a few things that would have made it stellar.  I’ll give it 3/5.  Look at it for what it is – an art book – and not at all a book about tiny houses.

Book Review – Save The Date

TITLE: Save The Date: The occasional mortifications of a serial wedding guest
AUTHOR: Jen Doll
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 2014

I will start this review with a slight disclaimer.  I found this book in Book Pages, in the midst of a page of chick lit books, so I expected it to be fiction when I requested it from the library.  It’s a memoir.  But I decided that the jacket blurb still sounded amusing enough (so what if it wasn’t the genre I expected? – the blurb hadn’t changed, right?), so I read it anyway.  And really, in my defense, it had sounded like chick lit, so I assumed.  Even her name sounds fake (although her website and bio blurb both promise it isn’t.).

Anyway, I’m sorry I read it and that had nothing whatosever to do with genre.

In case you wondered, here’s the blurb:

From a fresh and exciting new voice, a hilarious and insightful examination of the search for love and the meaning of marriage in a time of anxiety, independence, and indecision.

Weddings. They’re fun, festive, and joyful, and at a time when people marry later in life—and sometimes not at all—they offer endless opportunities to reexamine love and what we want for ourselves, regardless of whether our aim is a walk down the aisle. In Save the Date, Jen Doll charts the course of her own perennial wedding guesthood, from the ceremony of distant family members when she was eight to the recent nuptials of a new boyfriend’s friends.

There’s the first trip home for a childhood pal’s big day, during which she learns that her first love has eloped to Hawaii. There’s the destination wedding attended with little baggage beyond a suitcase of strappy sandals and summery party dresses. Regrettably, there is a series of celebrations that mean the end to a valued friendship. There’s also the wedding that offers all the promise of new love.

Wedding experiences come in as varied an assortment as the gowns at any bridal shop, and Doll turns a keen eye to each, delivering a heartfelt exploration of contemporary relationships. Funny, honest, and affecting, Save the Date is a spirited look at the many ways in which we connect with one another.

 

It sounds like typical chick lit (even if it is the non-fiction version) so I started ahead.  The book starts with a wedding she attended as a child and goes on and on about how she was hooked and weddings are the Most. Amazing. Things. Ever.

Every chapter is part something about her and something about somebody’s wedding.

What I was hoping for with this book was a bunch of stories about weddings she’d attended with a few anecdotes here and there.

Really, with several of these stories, especially in the second half of the book, you could take the wedding out of the chapter and just have Jen Behaving Badly.  Ever. Single. Chapter.

You see, she’s the kind of person that I can’t stand.  She’s one of those in the moment damn the consequences but not in a good way sort of people.  One of the early weddings she talks about is the destination wedding of a friend.  She’s broke, of course, so she immediately goes and books airfare and buys an expensive wedding gift (and I know this because she told us it was an expensive wedding gift) and takes a vacation to the Caribbean, because hello, the opportunity clearly presented itself.

Never mind that if you were really poor there’s no way in hell you’d even consider going, let alone manage to find the funds to do it, so let’s describe her like she really is.  Overtaxed monetarily because she has no stop button.

Every chapter has pretty much the same sort of story line.  1. Ridiculous over the top wedding.  2. Open Bar.  3. Jen behaves like a spoiled toddler.  4. Somebody has to do damage control because she’s a raging alcoholic, and not even the kind that’s just fun to watch.  She’s a TOTAL FUCKING TRAINWRECK.

To the point that in one chapter, she even ADMITS that she “may have been a bit of an alchoholic for a while” – which shows she’s still floating in Denial (capital D for sure) because she had several chapters of being a mess of an alcoholic after that.  Including going for drinks before the wedding so she could drink at the wedding and after the wedding and at the after reception party.  (Side note:  I haven’t exactly been to a million weddings, but not one of my friends has ever had a wedding with a party after the party.)

I read to the end because I was determined there had to be a point to all this.  But there wasn’t.  There was no arc that made her sympathetic in the least.  And she glossed over all the weddings, which was supposed to be the point of this book.

I would have loved it if we could have enjoyed more details about the traditional New Orleans wedding bash – or hell, even more about the gifts that all got stolen (nope, just a throwaway line about how the bride was like “oh well”  – um,  no she wasn’t.).  The destination weddings.  Hell, even a detail about THE BRIDE’S DRESS instead of Jen telling us what she wore to the bash.

I would rather read the 2nd 50 Shades book than read any more of her drivel.  I’m pretty sure the only reason that this book ever saw the light of day was because she wrote for a big NYC magazine and has friends in the Biz.

In fact, the only thing this book has going for her was the fact that she managed remarkably well formatted sentences and exceptional grammar.  But that aside, it’s total crap.  So 2 out of 5, but only because her sentences were pretty.

 

 

 

Book Review – Smile

TITLE: Smile
AUTHOR: Luis Sanchez
FORMAT: Paperback
PUBLISHED: 2014

On my little book date, I discovered a wonderful series of books called 33 1/3, the name of course coming from the size of a record, which was cool because they’re a series of music books.
The first one I found was Smile, which dealt with the Beach Boys, a band I grew up with. I wasn’t familiar with Smile as a piece of work, at least by name, which isn’t saying much because I never know titles of things. So, you know, I was excited to find this.

Except here is the thing. The little book reads a lot like a badly organized college paper (And this from a guy with a PhD in Musicology), and by a guy who totally misses the point.
The first thing the book talks about is a SNL (Saturday Night Live) promo skit where Brian Wilson is chased by the surfing police and sent out in the water on a surf board which he hardly manages to use, at one point using the board backwards even. Cue rant by Sanchez about how the skit misses who the Beach Boys are, yadda yadda, whatever.
Except that you can watch the skit on YouTube, and if you watch it, it’s clearly satire, it’s meant to be cheezy as heck, and Sanchez would still miss the point if it was the broad side of a barn.

Then, the book flops around back and forth about how fat Brian Wilson is and a few other things, but it never really talks about SMILE whatsoever, and by the time I got halfway through the book, I didn’t really know what the point of all this was, and, even worse for a book… I didn’t care.

So, the book had promise, but Sanchez clearly didn’t.
Two out of five pages.

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