Book of the Week: Hidden Figures – Margot Lee Shetterly

Some of you saw the cool movie trailer I posted last week for the forthcoming film of this book. (If not, I’ve posted it again at the end of this review.)  But don’t think of this book as some kind of novelization of a movie. Hidden Figures is an impressive work of historical research and great read.

Shetterly’s book follows the story of four African American women who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the early days of the space program. Against the backdrop of Jim Crow racism topped with a dose of garden variety mid-20th century sexism, “the computers,” as they were called, were fundamental in the shaping and success of America’s space program.

To get a sense of how integral “the computers” were to the space program, consider this anecdote: When John Glenn was counting down to his landmark flight around the Earth’s orbit he told the director of flight operations to get Katherine Johnson. “Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go.”

This is you-are-there American history. Shetterly draws from oral histories of scores of NASA employees, personal recollections of the women by their colleagues and family members, information from archival documents, and media reports and correspondence of local and national African American leaders of the era.

Hidden Figures was listed as one of PW’s most anticipated books of Fall 2016. I think we’ll see very strong review and media coverage leading up to the release of the film. But don’t wait for the movie—you know the book is always better.🙂

The first female computing pool, begun in the mid-1930s, had caused an uproar; the men in the lab couldn’t believe a female mind could process the rigorous math and work the expensive calculating machine….[T]he women who were hired were crack mathematicians, either already holding master’s degrees or destined to gain one. It was hard enough to be a woman in the industry at that time, but the black women who worked at Langley also had to be strong, sharp, and sufficiently self-possessed to be able to question their superiors—and that is just what they did. They sought information, offered suggestions, caught errors, and authored research reports. The stories are amazing not because the women were extremely smart, but because they fought for and won recognition and devotedly supported each other’s work. Their work outside the office—as Scout leaders, public speakers, and leaders of seminars to promote science and engineering—was even more impressive. They were there from the beginning, perfecting World War II planes and proving to be invaluable to the nascent space program.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Obviously, one could go on and on about the amazement at finding out that black women were at the center of the US aeronautics and space industries, but the part of the story that really spoke to me was that many of these women had already turned their back on their dreams for various reasons–for marriage, children, or simple economic expediency–but then long after they thought their lives were decided, some combination of luck and fate tapped them on the shoulder and they stepped up, even if it meant uprooting or separating from their families. I can’t imagine the courage it took to do that. This book also made me long for when the country called on its citizens to do something great, and when patriotism meant more than mere flag-waving. When it was deemed crucial to recognize and develop talent in whatever package–white or black, male or female, citizen or immigrant–it was wrapped in.”
— Kim Fox, Schuler Books & Music, Grand Rapids, MI

 

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (9780062363596) by Margot Lee Shetterly. $27.99 hardcover. 9/6/16 on sale.

New Fiction: Intimations – Alexandra Kleeman

Here’s another book that landed on several Fall 2016 “Must Read” lists. Kleeman’s debut made her a must read for me. I finished last year’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and wondered what dimension she’d beamed in from…and how the people in that dimension could be such sharply trenchant observers of American culture. It felt surprisingly new; the closest comp I could come was Don DeLillo and his surreal riffs on America. The NYTBR called You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine “a powerful allegory of our civilization’s many maladies, artfully and elegantly articulated.”

This time out Kleeman’s offering a collection of stories that her editor describes as “narrative diagrams of the three main stages in a human life: the distress of birth into a world already formed, the brief and confusing period of ‘living’ where you understand what is expected of you and struggle to do it, and the deathy period toward the end where you sense it is ending and will end only partially understood, at best.”

Aiyiyi. You should read her. She’ll alter your frame of reference. In a good way. Maybe.

“Alexandra Kleeman sees things differently. At least, that’s how it feels when you read these curious and lovely stories. Existence, survival, touch: all become strange in this collection…as if the author knows of a different dimension or scientific method we have no idea is out there.”
Elle

“Kleeman brings her twisted, evocative style to a thought-provoking collection of stories….These stories, absurdist, bleak, and funny, defy straightforward interpretation and instead linger long afterward, to be reinterpreted as they mutate in the reader’s mind.
Publishers Weekly

Kleeman follows her much-discussed debut, You Too Can Have a Body like Mine, with a cerebral story collection about the torments of an abrasive world and such visceral topics as mortality, vulnerability, love, and loss of control. Many of the 12 tales are infused with the surreal or intangible….Kleeman thoroughly owns her material, and her inventive collection offers a prodigious exploration into distinctive realms.”
Booklist

“‘Nobody thought the apocalypse would be so polite and quirky,’ according to the final story in this collection, which imagines the end as a series of disappearances—first the house keys, then the cat, then one’s boyfriend, a lake, one’s memories. This sort of whimsical philosophical inquiry is a common thread in Kleeman’s second book. With a literary genealogy that includes great-uncles like DeLillo and Pynchon and cousins like Rivka Galchen and Ben Marcus and can be traced back to/blamed on Samuel Beckett.”
Kirkus Reviews

Intimations (9780062388704) by Alexandra Kleeman. $25.99 hardcover. 9/13/16 on sale.

Fiction Short Take: Closed Casket – Sophie Hannah

 

British suspense writer Hannah is a long-time Christie geek and was tapped by the author’s estate to continue the series. Hannah’s first “Christie,” The Monogram Murders, was a NYT bestseller and drew rave reviews as well as endorsements from writers like Gillian Flynn and Tana French. USA Today was prompted to say that “Sophie Hannah does an egoless, silky job of reviving Agatha Christie’s beloved [Poirot].” I think we can expect more of the same for round two.

Poirot’s and Catchpool’s sleuthing skills are put to the test as Hannah’s spot-on take on Agatha Christie’s milieu and writing moves toward an unpredictable and satisfying finale. Hannah’s second Christie novel…will be devoured by readers of that title and of Christie’s original works.”
Booklist (starred review)

A famous Irish author of children’s mysteries announces that she’s just disinherited her family before a gathering that includes those very family members—along with Hercule Poirot…. As in The Monogram Murders (2014), Hannah provides both less and more than Agatha Christie ever baked into any of her tales. But the climactic revelation that establishes the killer’s motive is every bit as brilliant and improbable as any of Christie’s own decorous thunderclaps.”
Kirkus Reviews

“[T]his endeavor confirms that the Queen of Crime’s legacy is in capable hands.”
Publishers Weekly

Closed Casket: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery (9780062458827) by Sophie Hannah. $26.99 hardcover. 9/6/16 on sale.

Fiction Short Take: Night Vale Script Books! – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Hey Night Vale fans, here’s the motherlode–two collections of episodes from seasons one and two of the hit podcast. Value added thanks to introductions by the authors and illustrations throughout by regular Night Vale artist Jessica Hayworth.

Fink and Cranor also provide behind-the-scenes commentary. And there are guest introductions by performers from the podcast including Cecil Baldwin (Cecil), Dylan Marron (Carlos) and Kevin R. Free (Kevin). Jon Bernstein (Disparition) will provide an essay on the music accompanying the podcast.

Hopefully that tides over fans till whatever the authors of Welcome to Night Vale cook up next!

“Like A Prairie Home Companion with LSD in its drinking water, this addictive, deeply weird podcast is for anyone who likes his or her quasi-radio listening with a surrealist tilt.”
The Los Angeles Times

Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 1 (9780062468611) and The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 2 (9780062468635) by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. $16.99 trade paper original. 9/6/16 on sale.

New in Paperback: Be Frank with Me – Julia Claiborne Johnson

This little book won my and many other readers’ hearts. It’s now out in paper where I think it has a good chance of breaking through to the wide audience it deserves. (Here’s my original coverage.)

If you’re unacquainted with this sharply funny feel-good novel about one of the most beguiling young oddballs you’ll ever meet on the page, I envy you; you can never read a wonderful book again for the first time.

Floor booksellers, Kirkus supplies the best handselling line I’ve ever heard, calling Be Frank with Me “the curious incident of where’d you go, Salinger.”

“Readers will find themselves captivated.”
People

“Johnson’s magnificently poignant, funny, and wholly original debut goes beyond page-turner status. Readers will race to the next sentence.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“Delightful. You will laugh out loud.”
Slate

“A lot of fun to be had along the way. Sit back…and enjoy the show.”
New York Times Book Review

Be Frank with Me (9780062413727) by Julia Claiborne Johnson. $15.99 trade paper. 9/6/16 on sale.

Video: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain

I don’t often cover movie tie-in editions of books. But Im eager to get a look at Ben Fountain’s new introduction for this edition. This is a book that is dearly loved by many Indie booksellers. They championed it long before the NBCC Award and before it was named an NBA finalist, before any of the other prizes.

I’m curious about Fountain’s take on the book’s journey into the hearts of readers—and I wonder if he’ll have thoughts on Ang Lee’s film, due in theaters November 11, 2016. I know I’m not the only one seeing a very different tone in the film’s trailer than I had in my head when reading the book. Interpretation is fascinating stuff. I can’t wait to see the whole movie.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk [Movie Tie-in Edition] (9780062644022) by Ben Fountain. $16.99 trade paper. 9/6/16 on sale.

Children’s Chapter Book: The Poet’s Dog – Patricia MacLachlan

Patricia MacLachlan is an American master—the author of more books than I can count. (What I can count is that those books have over 9 million copies in print.)

Here’s what her editor has to say about her books in general: “The themes in Patty’s work remain constant – she has always written about loss and about being saved (both literally and metaphorically), and about love, and the power of words. She has always written about the special ways that children connect with adults. And there is always a dog somewhere in her stories.” J

The Poet’s Dog is magical realism about love, grief and healing. That she does all this for children is, as they say, like dancing backwards in heels.

Three starred reviews and a lovely bookseller endorsement:

As I started reading The Poet’s Dog, I was surprised to find that the book is largely narrated by the poet’s dog of the title. We’re told that ‘Dogs speak words but only poets and children hear’ before the story opens and this is foundational to the book. The dog, Teddy, tells of his rescue of a couple of children from a car stranded at the beginning of a terrible snowstorm. The reader learns simultaneously of the budding relationship between the kids and Teddy, and of the relationship between Teddy and his owner, a poet and teacher named Sylvan. As the story unfolds these two narratives intertwine seamlessly, almost like the poetry that much of this book (primarily in prose) resembles. In fact, this book, which contains very little actual poetry, would be an ingenious way to gently push a young reader towards an appreciation of poetry, in part because poets and children are the only ones who have the special ability to communicate with dogs, but also because of the subtle usage of poetry throughout. I found the entire journey through this little book to be delightful and the ending perfect. Highly recommended.”
—  Bobby Ray, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY

“Magical. A quiet, elegant, poignant story suffused with humor, heart, and goodness.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A spare, moving tale. Using simple words that even youngest readers will understand and enjoy, MacLachlan tackles subjects such as death and mourning with understated grace.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Readers will find their own jewel in this gem of a book.”
Booklist (starred review)

The Poet’s Dog (9780062292629) by Patricia MacLachlan, Patricia. $14.99 hardcover. 9/13/16 on sale.