31 July 2019

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  The Rise of the Rocket Girls, Nathalia Holt
Of all the science-related books I read in July, this was one of my favorites.

In the early part of the 20th century, the last place you would have found a woman working would be in scientific endeavors. Oh, there were a few "odd" women ("bluestockings," they were called, usually "repressed spinsters" who couldn't find a husband) who worked in the sciences, but young, attractive women who excelled in mathematics or sciences usually took more "womanly" jobs like teaching (or just surrendered and married). Then a few young ladies found employment at what would later be the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, like Barby Canright, Macie Roberts, and Barbara Lewis, performing manual calculations for rocket trajectories (or using a newfangled adding machine called a Friden). These "rocket girls," and other "computers" like them, formed the backbone of later rocket research—but the male engineers got all the glory.

This is a super profile of Canright, Roberts, Lewis, and the women who followed, women who juggled motherhood and marriage with 12-hour days and launch deadlines, and managed to balance being "all-American girls" while performing mathematical calculations that some men said were impossible for women to even understand. Even more amazing, most of the "rocket girls"'s husbands understood their dedication to their work and didn't mind their long hours, taking over "womanly" chores like caring for the children and keeping house. I felt like I really got to know all of them, and cheered them on each time one of their projects succeeded, or when they finally got newer computers to make easier calculations for their ever-more-complicated space vehicles. Their expertise sent us from simple rockets adapted from the German designs to spacecraft that orbited the planets and finally headed out into the solar system.

A scientific book that doesn't talk down, but makes each new challenge understandable. Highly recommended!

book icon  Death in the Stars, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton is requested to escort a famous singer  to the event of the century: a total eclipse of the sun. She's unsure why the woman is so afraid to go on her own, especially when a good friend of the singer's, a beloved comedian, is accompanying her to the event as well. The trip will be by air, but there seems to be something deeper in Selina Fellini's fear. Of course it's cloudy the day of the eclipse, but the clouds part just in time for everyone to view the spectacular. It's only after the event is over that they notice comedian Billy Moffatt is gone—and then he's found unconscious and later dies. Kate doesn't find this suspicious, only odd, until it's found out two others in Selina and Billy's performing troupe died of odd causes, a dog trainer named Douglas Dougan, and a ventriloquist, Floyd Lloyd. Could Selina's war-changed husband have caused one of or all of the deaths? Or someone in her family?

This is a enjoyable combination of behind-the-scenes at a music hall and the lives of its performers combined with an astronomical event and the repercussions of the aftermath of the first World War. I love the language and the narration of all of the Kate Shackleton books, and also the supporting characters like Mrs. Sugden and Jim Sykes. In this story, Mrs. Sugden reveals another piece of her past—one that is rather novel!—that eventually helps with the investigation, and there's also an unusual young character who provides a rather eerie clue via an odd means of communication.

Plus, Harriet's back, so am looking forward to the next book to see how Kate deals with having her niece aboard.

book icon  Missions to the Moon, Rod Pyle
This is an interactive coffee table book about NASA and the moon missions to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings. Already chock full of photographs, diagrams, artwork, and original correspondence (a page from the FBI's investigation of Wernher von Braun, von Braun's original sketch of a space station concept from 1964, George Low's letter changing the name of the first space effort to "Project Mercury" (it was originally "Project Astronaut"), a hand-drawing of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, etc.), there is also an app you can download so you can click links in the text with your phone or tablet and see further artifacts and video.

A nice, basic look at man's interest in the moon, the first steps with rockets, and the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions (the latter which forms the bulk of the second half of the book), perfect for thos who were born after the wonder had happened.

book icon  Shoot for the Moon, James Donovan
This was one of several books released for the moon landing anniversary, and we ended up buying most of them. I have books about the space program going back to the late 60s (John Noble Wilford's We Reach the Moon and Richard Lewis' Appointment on the Moon), and appreciated these fresh looks at the space program. This one is enjoyably narrated and focuses on some of the flight controllers and other participants who were never mentioned in previous books, like Steve Bales and Max Faget. It also took the time to focus on Wernher von Braun and his connection with the Nazis, and also a little of the history of the Soviet space program (I had no idea Valentina Tereshkova was not a trained astronaut; instead she was a skydiver who was given a chance to go up in space as a stunt and then given honors afterwards—she had no control of the spacecraft at all).

One review of this book on Amazon by someone who worked for NASA says the text is riddled with numerous small scientific errors and some mistakes of detail. I believe I did find a mistake but can no longer remember what it was. It's a shame because otherwise the text is a page turner. I would still recommend it for the story of the accomplishments of the engineers and the astronauts who made going to the moon a reality.

book icon  Mayhem & Mass, Olivia Matthews
This is a pleasant mystery series starring Sister Louise LaSalle, who lives in the religious community of St. Hermione of Ephesus in Briar Coast, New York. Her nephew Chris LaSalle works as an official for the college connected with the congregation. Sister Lou has invited her old friend Maurice Jordan to speak at St. Hermione's, an unpopular decision with some of the community because of his controversial views. When he's late for his speaking engagement, Sister Lou hurries to his hotel room, and finds him dead by violence. A shaken Sister Lou is determined to find justice for him, just as a cynical newspaper reporter named Sharelle Henson thinks following the murder investigation will gain her some points at her new job, even though her editor is dead set against it.

I like the story characters, but the author's storytelling skills are occasionally amateurish. She introduces her characters as Full Name "Nickname" Last Name, which comes off as stilted. Although I appreciate her describing rooms and other locations by citing vivid colors, styles and architectural details, she vastly overdoes it; for instance we are introduced to Sister Lou's office with its bright blue chairs early in the story, and then they are described again and again and again. Yes, we know her chairs are blue. Enough already.

On the other hand, I've seen reviews saying that the ending "wasn't fair" because the killer isn't introduced into the plot until almost halfway through the book. Actually, most of the suspects aren't introduced until the story is well enough on its way; the beginning of the book is used to introduce Sister Lou, Chris, Shari, Lou's nemesis Sister Marianna, the other sisters, the two police officers on the case, and even the murder victim. And when all the suspects are introduced, there's also a big fat clue that leads you to the solution.

I'm going to stick with this series because I like Sister Lou and the idea of a sister sleuth, but I hope the author's writing improves. (And, swelp me, I was brought up Catholic, but had no idea there was a difference between a sister and a nun!)

book icon  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
I think an American child psychologist reading about Marie Kondo's childhood would have sent her off to therapy. She's the middle child, with an older brother who barely looks up from his video games, and her mother is absorbed with attending a younger sister. She started reading books about organization at age 5. She was always the kid who tidied up the classroom, then she'd run home and tidy her room. If it got untidy again she cried. To her tidying was not only fun, but personally fulfilling.

To live Marie Kondo's way, you must live very simply. She aspires to this, and it is a tenant of her Shinto beliefs as well. Many people like an austere lifestyle, most don't. But that works for "KonMari," as she's known. She realizes it won't work for everyone.

What she's saying at her most basic is that you should quit weighing yourself down with things you don't need. Maybe you can't cut your books down to thirty like she has—but are you hanging on to books you read ten years ago, don't recall the plot, and don't think you'll ever re-read? Why? If you really lose that thirty pounds like you've been promising yourself the last fifteen years, will you really pull those musty old size twelve skirts and pants out of a drawer and wear them? Aren't they all out of style? And why cook with dried up spices with no more flavor, or possibly give yourself food poisoning eating that outdated can of soup? You should look at a book and exclaim, "Oh, I love that; I'm going to re-read it!" or "This is a great reference book for my writing!" Look at an outfit and say, "This looks so good on me. I'm going to wear it tomorrow." These are the things that "spark joy." These you keep.

Of course there are certain things you have to keep even though they don't "spark joy." Even if you live in Florida, you keep a heavy coat in case of a cold spell. You are required to keep things like tax returns, business papers, medical records, etc. But those actually "spark joy" when you know you have them when you need them. Everything else is lagniappe.

I doubt if I'll ever get rid of all my clutter, but this is what I've been doing for the past seventeen months. I saved a whole bunch of autumn and winter magazines for the pictures. I pulled them down, tore out the prettiest leaf and snow pictures, but discovered I couldn't figure out why I kept half of them! Out they went. Clothes I didn't want got donated, tattered clothes went in the trash, gifts I had no room for went bye-bye to Goodwill so someone will love them as I don't.

I do like Kondo's method of not tidying by room, but by category. You pull your clothes out from wherever they are living and check them all. Are you wearing them? If so, why not? If you don't like them, let go. She even has a ceremony where you say farewell to the things you are giving away, thanking them for their service, and sending them off to make someone else happy. Could change your thinking about clutter.

book icon  The Mercury 13, Martha Ackmann
In 1961, Randy Lovelace of the Lovelace Clinic, which provided the medical testing needed for the original astronaut corps, secretly tested thirteen women with the object of seeing if women as well as men were fit for space travel. There was then, and still is, a great deal of misinformation about physical differences in women making it impossible for them to travel in space (even though we now have female astronauts). It should be no surprise that the women tested, mostly trained pilots, passed all the medical tests with flying colors, as well as the psychological ones. In fact, there were certain advantages to women astronauts: they weighed less, used less oxygen, and some even dealt with solitary duty better than men.

However, of course it was 1961, NASA wasn't looking for women, and there was a requirement that astronauts be jet test pilots, a job which a woman was not allowed to perform.

This is the story of the women who volunteered for these tests, even though they knew the testing was not official. They hoped that if they did well NASA might change their minds about accepting women to the program, if not then, perhaps in the future. The women included Jerrie Cobb, who sought to break altitude records while reporters asked her inane questions like "Why does a pretty young girl like you want to spend her time around the dirt and grime and noise of airplanes?" And also Jacqueline Cochran, an orphan from Florida who fell in love with air racing and whose husband supported her dream. There was also Ruth Nichols (who is portrayed in Fly Girls), an air racer and competitor for flying awards; Betty Skelton, who'd flown with the Blue Angels, and Dorothy Anderson, who risked losing her job to participate in the tests.

I wasn't as taken by the writing in this one as in, say, Hidden Figures or Rise of the Rocket Girls, and was disappointed to hear about Jackie Cochran's actions. According to the author, she seemed determined to hog any glory that came from women's involvement in the space program. But it was interesting to find out that the women did have "the right stuff" medically and psychologically, and it would have been intriguing to see how they stacked up with the rest of the requirements had they only been allowed to participate.

book icon  Murder Go Round, Carol J. Perry
In this fifth book in the "Witch City" mysteries, Lee Barrett goes to a storage auction with her elderly Aunt Ibbie, who raised Lee after her parents died, after Ibbie becomes a fan of a television series about them (clearly based on Storage Wars). The two bid on a lackluster unit, and most of what's in it is junk, but one item stands out: a vintage carousel horse that Lee loves and immediately takes to be restored. Next thing she knows her police detective boyfriend reports that the restoration shop was burgled and someone prised apart her carousel horse, evidently looking for something, and Lee's unwanted ESP has reared its ugly head again, showing her the vision of a dead man with a bleeding neck in the reflective surface of the silver samovar also discovered in the storage unit.

Next thing Lee knows, she's involved with Salem, MA's Russian community, an odd red-headed woman named Stacia, and someone who keeps following her around. After all, what has an old carousel horse got to do with people who were once servants to the Romanovs, not to mention the KGB?

Again, these aren't great art, but I like the combination of Salem, the mild "woo-woo" involved in the plots, the cat O'Ryan, and Lee, Pete, and Aunt Ibbie, not to mention River and the folks at "the Tabby." Lee and Pete's romance isn't intrusive as some cozy mystery romances are, either.

book icon  First on the Moon: The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Experience, Rod Pyle
This is Pyle's more detailed narrative specifically focusing on the flight of Apollo 11 in coffee table format, a companion volume to the more general overview Missions to the Moon. Like that volume, it's crammed with diagrams, black and white and color photographs from the NASA archives, drawings, artwork, and clippings, with a foreward by Buzz Aldrin. If you were born after the event, a visual feast for the eyes and mind, if you do remember the incredible event, a walk down memory lane.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery at Missile Town, Jerry West
How fortuitous that I still had this particular Hollisters book to read just as the anniversary of Apollo 11 rolled around!

When this novel takes place, Cape Canaveral was chiefly known as a missile base, but a few monkeys had been launched in rockets and recovered. The Hollisters receive a letter from Elaine Hollister's sister Carol Davis, inviting the family to visit them in Florida, and intrigues the family by enclosing a photo of Lady Rhesus, a monkey who has gone into space. She is owned by Miss Mott, a neighbor of the Davises. So Elaine Hollister and the kids (Pete, 12; Pam, 10; Ricky, 7; Holly, 6; and Sue, 4) are off to Cape Canaveral, where they get involved, of course, in several mysteries, including possible sabotage of the missiles and the disappearance of Lady Rhesus. (Holly also has an adventure on the train—she always was my favorite!)

Again, given when this was written, was surprised and delighted to discover that, when the Hollister kids are playing at a pretend missile launch, and Joey Brill (the resident bully) and his friend taunt the kids that "only men launch missiles" (meaning that Pam and Holly shouldn't be participating in the game), Ricky informs them that "plenty of women have jobs at the missile range"—their Uncle Walt, who works at Cape Canaveral, told them so. This was written in 1961, long before Rise of the Rocket Girls and Hidden Figures brought out the important work women did in the space program! Later in the book they meet Miss Mott, who helped train the monkeys that were shot up in experimental rockets. (Lady Rhesus is clearly modeled on "Able," a rhesus monkey who was shot into space, and her partner "Baker," a squirrel monkey, who lived until age 27.) At the Cape, they meet both women and men reporters. At the end of the book, it is Pam who helps find a missing missile payload. 

A cool entry in the "Happy Hollisters" series!

book icon  Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins
I haven't read all the astronaut biographies, but this is supposed to be one of the best, and I quite concur. Collins relates his early years as an Army brat (he was born in Rome, Italy), but the majority of his story is about his days as a test pilot and then as an astronaut. This is a delightful read because Collins explains everything in an understandable way without being condescending and keeps the tone light except when the situation requires it. He states in his Preface: "I bore easily, and I have written for people who bore easily," and indeed, there is not a boring page in this volume. His narration is engaging, often self-deprecating, and frequently humorous, but always interesting, whether talking about his training at Edwards Air Force Base or narrating some of the negative parts of astronaut life, including stupid and/or repetitive press questions, body rebellion under the pressure of training, and, of course, detailing the rigors of spaceflight and his own views about being "the guy who went to the moon, but didn't get to walk on it." There are also short sketches about each of the astronauts he worked with (Collins has something nice to say about everyone, even if his capsule characterizations hint that a relationship wasn't all gravy), and he's included a poem his wife wrote for him before he left on his moon voyage, which will leave a lump in your throat.

Glad I finally had the time to invest in this book. Highly recommended as an astronaut bio and behind the scenes look at the 1960s Space Program.

book icon  Re-read: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein
In 2075, the moon has become a penal colony, but most of the sentences are long over; people have remained on the moon partially because a body used to the moon's gravity suffers on Earth and partially because the "Loonies" have built their own society, pretty much ignored by the corrupt warden and his cadre ("the Authority") so long as no major laws are broken. We join this world via Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis (just call him "Mannie"), who has become the go-to computer repairman for the Authority's computer who runs everything: a HOLMES FOUR that Mannie calls Mycroft or "Mike."

And Mike has become sentient, with Mannie as his first "not-stupid" friend.

With Mike's help, political agitator Wyoming Knott and elderly Professor Bernardo de la Paz, plus an initially-reluctant Mannie, the Loonies decide they are tired of all their profit going to Earth (mmmn, students of US history, does this sound familiar?) and wish to be a sovereign nation. They're not afraid to fight, and that's good, because the Federation on Earth doesn't want to give independence to a bunch of convicts and will do anything to stop them. Mike becomes one of the revolutionaries and concocts an audacious scheme to defend Luna against the overwhelming presence of Earth shock troops.

Heinlein basically recreates the Revolutionary War in space, with Earth as the evil British and Luna as the American colonists, and in the process creates a new society where line marriages are the norm (multiple husbands and wives), the characters speak in a mixed patois that includes Australian English and Russian, and no one is crazy to "go home" since Luna is their home. The characters, especially brainy Mike, who grows from an innocent youngster taking his baby steps in the world of men to one of the leaders of the rebellion, will stick in your mind long after you finish the book, and the end, at least back when the book was written, is a stunner.

book icon  Eight Years to the Moon, Nancy Atkinson
If you are a space program fan and have enjoyed all the television specials and all the new books about NASA and the "Space Race," but are looking for "something different," you might want to try this oversized hardback that turns its back on the politics and the public, and actually does takes you behind the scenes. The astronauts make brief appearances, but the protagonists in this are the folks that built and programmed the computers, tested the spacecraft, managed the companies that built the vehicles. You meet Ken Young, one of the first employees in the new Mission Control location in Houston, TX; chemical engineer Norman Chaffee (no relation to the astronaut Roger Chaffee) who went into building rocket engines; Dottie Lee, who, as a "computer" at Langley Research Center, worked out trajectories for missiles; Earle Kyle, one of the very first African American aerospace engineers; and more.

If you're fascinated most by the the science behind the space missions, this is definitely the book for you. Full of black and white illustrations from NASA files and photographs of the people who made the rockets fire, the capsules work, and the astronauts breathe, with text that covers everything from propulsion to life support.

book icon  Murder by the Book, Lauren Elliott
I'm a sucker for mystery books taking place in New England, not to mention mysteries taking place in bookstores. I need to get suckered in less easily. This book makes me want to throw things. I'm not sure if it's the book or up.

Our protagonist Addison "Addie" Greyborne previously worked with rare books at the Boston Public Library. When a great aunt she doesn't even remember leaves her the old family home in the small New England town of Greyborne Harbor and a great deal of money, Addie takes the opportunity to move there and open her own rare book store. The day she opens the store someone in a dark car tries to run her down, then someone tries to break into her store, and then while she and her new friend Serena (owner of the cute tea shop next door, SerenaTEA [eyeroll]) are cleaning up a mess at the back of the store, someone breaks into the front and creates a mess, but just makes off with a cheap copy of Alice in Wonderland.

This is all in the first chapter. In the next 250 pages, the dark car tries to get her several more times and is seen hanging around her home, someone breaks into her home, someone steals her keys, etc. We also find out that a year earlier Addie lost her fiance David in a home invasion, six months earlier her father died near the Harbor in a terrible car crash, and then she was notified her aunt passed away. For most of the book she is either racing to open her store then back to her house where it takes her ages to get an alarm system installed to the police station or somebody's trying to physically injure her or break into the places she owns...she finally decides she needs an assistant and hires the first person she interviews. (Ironically, the new employee is the daughter of a fellow businessperson on the street, a sour woman named Martha who hates Addie on sight and gets together with a bunch of other Harbor businesspeople to force her to leave town because...well, we don't know why—check next paragraph.) Oh, and then one of the businesspeople is killed and Serena gets accused of the murder, and...

Where do I start? Serena helps Addie clean up an inadvertent mess and suddenly they are besties. Serena's brother Marc is the chief of police, and he and Addie meet eyes and suddenly it's romantic attraction 101. Next thing you know they keep running into each other; no wonder the other businesspeople are all atwitter. I'm shy, but Addie doesn't seem to have that problem, so why in heaven's name doesn't she march up to Martha and ask her, civilly, why all the hate? Apparently someone's been spreading rumors that Addie moved to Greyborne Harbor to escape prosecution on criminal activities in Boston, but even when that is squelched everyone in town hates her and Marc and Serena explain this is because they are jealous of Addie being a Greyborne. Wow, this sounds like a jolly little town. Also, at the time the book opens Addie has been in town a month, remodeling and setting up the store. Do you mean to tell me that at no time has she found a moment to talk to anyone in town, make some friends, go to the local coffee shop, or even notice the tea store next door? She had to eat; didn't she even go grocery shopping? Really?

So you've followed my narration about all the things that happened to Addie: the almost-car accidents, the break-ins at the store and at the house, the other threats to her life, right? So finally she gets the alarm system installed in her house! And what does this ridiculous woman do? She leaves the door open and the alarm off because she's expecting Serena for tea. Seriously? Seriously? In one chapter she wonders if Marc thinks she's a dingbat. Well, I for one, lady, can tell you you are.

(Also, note to the publisher and the writer: the name of the book is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. No book expert like Addie would call it just plain "Alice in Wonderland" [the title which is not even italicized in the book either time it's mentioned]. The original copy mentioned in this book would have been entitled Alice's Adventures Underground.)

Please. Find a better book. Even Dr. Seuss created more saavy characters.

book icon  The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols, Nicholas Meyer
Back in the 1970s, Meyer penned The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, about Sherlock Holmes' efforts, with the assistance of Dr. John Watson and the famous "alienist" Sigmund Freud, to wean himself from a cocaine addiction that is making him increasingly ill and paranoid. (The book was later made into a film which kept those essential parts of the plot while changing the rest of the storyline; it too was well-received.) Later Meyer wrote two sequels, The West End Horror and The Canary Trainer. This is his fourth Holmes effort, which opens on Sherlock Holmes' birthday when Mycroft contacts his brother about an unsettling manuscript that has come into his hands. The British intelligence agent bringing it to him was murdered, and it has become essential, in the political climate, to stop its distribution. The manuscript is the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an anti-Semetic screed published in Russia in the late 19th century, purportedly a true report of the "Jewish plot" to take over the world.

In Meyer's novel, it is Watson's new wife, Juliet, who provides the means of translation for the Russian manuscript—she has "bluestocking" family members belonging to the Bloomsbury set who are Russian-language scholars—and discovers it's a plagiarism of a French document criticizing Napoleon III. Holmes, Watson, and a Jewish-American woman named Anna Strunsky head for Russia under assumed names, dodging those who follow them, determined to discover who wrote this calumny and get his (or her) confession, thereby refuting the document if it is distributed.

It's a hair-raising adventure across Europe and into Russia, and all done in Meyer's marvelous voice: he has Conan Doyle's style down cold  and provides a narrative as much like the originals as possible (without the pesky racism). The result comes off as a "real Holmes story"—but there's one fly in the ointment: anyone familiar with history knows that the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" continued as a destructive juggernaut, causing the strengthening of anti-Semitism, pogroms, and eventually the Holocaust, and even today the document is taken for real by Holocaust deniers. So there is no triumph at the end for our intrepid pair. Also, Anna Strunsky is introduced as an intelligent, tough woman who gets through all of the hardships Holmes and Watson also suffer, but an event happens that lessens her role in the story. It was rather irritating to have a positive figure come out in such a negative manner. Still worth it for the great Holmes/Watson interaction and Arthur Conan Doyle feel.