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Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, illustrated by Laura Freeman

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Paperback, 40 pgs.
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Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, illustrated by Laura Freeman, is a brief look at the extraordinary lives of these brilliant mathematicians — Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dr. Christine Darden. My daughter and I read this book together and were learning a great deal about not only the role of math in the building of airplanes and spacecraft, but also the history of the time when segregation still existed and women were not allowed in meetings or even on scientific teams.

In one illustration, my daughter commented about the separate water fountains and noted that the one for “coloreds” looked more like a toilet with a spout than a water fountain. I think this was her interpretation of the differences between those facilities and she was taken aback at how awful just that aspect was. Kids are far smarter than adults sometimes.

As we read, we looked up the real women on the internet to check out more of their accomplishments and look at the projects they worked on, and my daughter was particularly interested in the wind tunnels that Mary Jackson worked with. I think it was because the visual of the giant fan behind Jackson and her team didn’t demonstrate the airplane models being tested. The internet helped with that.

While we loved the illustrations and how vivid they are, we wondered about the earrings the ladies wore — stars, planets, moons — were these accurate to their daily accessories or just a nod to their role in the space race? My daughter also loves learning about the landing on the moon and what was said, and the biographies in the back about each woman was fantastic because we learned more about each of them, though we were saddened to learn that only one of them is still alive, as Katherine Johnson passed away in 2020.

Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, illustrated by Laura Freeman, is a delightful introduction to these stellar women and their accomplishments against all odds — racism and sexism. This generated some great discussion with my daughter and since she loves history, it was a great read for us.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Margot Lee Shetterly is the author of  Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. She is also the founder of The Human Computer Project, an endeavor that is recovering the names and accomplishments of all of the women who worked as computers, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers at the NACA and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s. She is a Hampton, Virginia native, University of Virginia graduate, an entrepreneur, and an intrepid traveler who spent 11 years living in Mexico. She currently lives in Charlottesville, VA.

About the Illustrator:

Laura Freeman is a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honoree. Her work on “Hidden Figures” written by Margot Lee Shetterly, was recognized with an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Children, reached the New York Times Best Seller list and was listed as one of “Ten Books All Georgians Should Read”. Her art has been honored at the Society of Illustrators in NYC and in the Annuals for Communication Arts and American Illustration.

Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 11+ hrs.
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Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by P. J. Ochlan, is an exploration of the lasting impact of war on individuals and the memory of war long after it is fought, incorporating the role of governments, individual and national ethics, and the media and film industry, as well as novelists, etc.

The narration of this book doesn’t do much for the dry academic text, which made this a harder read than it probably would have been in print. I definitely do not recommend this audiobook. The narration is dry and lifeless. With that said, if you are looking for a dynamic look at the Vietnam War and memory, this is more speculation, analysis of previous thoughts on memory and ethical remembering, as well as a look at how the entertainment industry in the United States shapes the views of war over time.

In some ways, Nguyen takes on too many subjects in this book. I feel like the whole section on first-person war-based video games could be a dissertation or a book in itself with data on the impact of these war video games, etc. This happens with other topics as well. This was far too academic and focused on theories and philosophies with little data, which was a drawback for me. I would have preferred more dynamic text and narration, as well as some data to back up some of his arguments.

My overall takeaway from Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by P. J. Ochlan, is that to remember war, we need to remember the good and the bad on both sides, not just the humanity of one side and the inhumanity of the other. We need to recall that all actors in war are culpable to some extent and that they are all round “characters” not flat. Humanity is not something that only applies to the righteous or the just act, especially as my grandmother once said, “there is always more to the story than you know and there is no one person at fault.” We all need to be better at accepting our inhuman actions and the humanity of those we do not know or understand well.

RATING: Couplet

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Riffs & Improvisations by Gregory Luce

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 36 pgs.
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Riffs & Improvisations by Gregory Luce opens with an apt quote from Wallace Stevens, in which he says music is a feeling, not sound. Luce moves through the music of his collection like a man in love. He loves not only the music, but the music of love.

In the opening poem, “Music to It,” he reaches us through our souls, those moments we all remember when we wanted the music blaring as we moved through our day. He sways and glides on the Metro to an unheard music strumming through his headphones, and he’s unable to stop moving and tapping. Isn’t this why we all love the music we do? Because it moves us, even when we’re in public and perhaps shy about our love of music.

Luce pays homage to what I’ll call “music memory.” In “An air that kills,” he says, “I hear/you whisper underneath/the song, a memory/that pricks without/the power to console.//” Each of us has those songs or riffs of music that recall memories. I cannot get past a song without recalling some memory or moment or loved one who has passed away. There are so many songs that call to us for its melody, its lyrics, its rhythms, but they also are tied to our lives by memory.

From John Coltrain to Richard Strauss, Luce’s improvisations can leave you breathless, swimming in a sea of bourbon and memory swirling in a glass and chinking ice. And you know that there’s a playlist on Spotify for this collection — how could you not have one! I will definitely be listening as I read this collection again. The delightful rhythm of Riffs & Improvisations by Gregory Luce will carry you away, allowing you to lay your head down and dream away in the “light of a love supreme.”

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Gregory Luce is the author of five books of poems: Signs of Small Grace, Drinking Weather, Memory and Desire, Tile, and Riffs & Improvisations (forthcoming in 2021). His poems have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Kansas Quarterly, Cimarron Review, Innisfree Poetry Review, If, Northern Virginia Review, Juke Jar, Praxilla, Little Patuxent Review, Buffalo Creek Review, and in several anthologies. He recently retired after 32 years from National Geographic and now lives in Arlington, VA. He is a volunteer writing tutor and mentor with 826DC.

Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long

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Hardcover, 32 pgs.
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Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long, is an anthem for change and its images will inspire kids to take action now, rather than think change is something adults have to do. I loved how this book opens with a young girl and her guitar, humming a song – a song of change.

The illustrations in this book are colorful and full of depth, really well shadowed and highlighted. With the opening pages, the young girl is alone on a white background — the white signifying the possibilities around her that aren’t realized and she’s alone, demonstrating that changes starts with each person. This young girl walks by MLK in a mural about dreaming and change, meeting a young musician on the street.

Together, they start small, cleaning up a local park and then helping another young boy, and with each moment of aide they provide, they bring the music of change with them. Gorman’s words speak to the courage it takes to be tolerant and patient with others who are not nice to you; how it is better to build bridges, rather than fences; and all the while building communities of change, hope, and empathy.

Gorman brings together words with Long’s images to create a beautiful picture book about loving yourself, your neighbor, creating community, and making changes in your own hometown. Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long, is a delight and I love the simplicity of the words to convey a complex message to kids. It empowers them to take matters into their own hands, creating change in their own backyards.

RATING: Cinquain

American Software by Henry Crawford

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Paperback, 102 pgs.
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With the increased reliance of society on technology and computers, American Software by Henry Crawford speaks to readers in programming language, a poetic device that transcribes everyday life to magnify its societal implications with precision. The collection even opens with a quote from The C Programming Language, 2nd Edition by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie.

I wan intrigued by this collection for one reason, my day job has me writing some technical pieces about mainframes. While I didn’t spy any specific references to mainframes, Crawford does rely on the formats of computing language to craft his poems about life in America. The collection’s opening poem, “Hello World!,” where readers are taken on a trip to one of the most tragic moments in someone’s life (Jackie Kennedy) and they’re whisked away to the automated check out line and the canning of soup, etc., all in the blink of a minute. Comparing that tragic moment in which someone could feel suspended in time and to be moving in slow motion to the current time where automation has taken over demonstrates Crawford’s look at society’s revolution toward speeding up everything.

Several of Crawford’s poems play a bit with perspective — whether as a president in “Lyndon Johnson” you could know every angle of a situation or as a husband and wife in “Living Under Roofs” could you even know your partner’s every thought and desire. Crawford masterfully plays with his poems to create something new, like in “When [Box] Met <Diamond>” where there is an internal conversation about the art of poetry within a conversation between the box and the diamond who meet inside the poem and begin their own conversation and plot to escape.

One of the best poems in the collection, “100 Years of the First World War,” in which references are made to “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae while the poem itself becomes like a play in which the poet is performing alongside McCrae and his “Soldier’s Song” moment.

The use of computer programming tags and symbols can make it harder to decipher the meaning of these poems, but discerning readers will enjoy the play in these poems. Let’s talk with the computer before the screen goes out. American Software by Henry Crawford tackles a lot of America’s societal issues in an automated world — the disconnect between people, the death penalty, wonder, and the pull between life and death.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Henry Crawford is a poet living and writing in the Washington, DC area. His work has appeared in several journals and online publications including Boulevard, Copper Nickel and the Southern Humanities Review. His first collection of poetry, American Software, was published in May of 2017 by CW Books, his second collection, The Binary Planet, is to be published by The Word Works in 2020.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (audio)

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Audible, 5+ hrs.
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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by the author, is a collection of short stories, with some seeming to be autobiographical or at least inspired by his own life here in the United States. Some of these refugees are seen through the eyes of another, and in this way, Nguyen provides us with a dual perspective — how the narrator views the refugee and how the refugees view themselves.

The narration was satisfactory as read by the author, but some of it could have been better served by a more practiced audiobook narrator who could have breathed life into the characters and helped readers “feel” the tensions a little more deeply. The author’s narration really didn’t add anything to these stories, like a trained narrator would have.

Despite the narration falling flat, these stories explore what it means to leave one’s homeland for another and be caught between them — between what happened in that other country and what is happening now as a result of those experiences. But not only has Nguyen given us stories that explore that rift in identity and culture shock of entering a new country to call home, he also explores the family bond and how it can be frayed by the past in Vietnam, dementia, sibling jealousy, and so much more. What are the dreams of these refugees and immigrants, will they be achieved, have the given up, are they settling, can they feel at home in a new country that is so different from where they came from? These are the kinds of questions explored in theses stories, and many of these characters seem to stem from Nguyen’s own experiences and family history.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is probably best read in print or in ebook, rather than on audio, so the nuance of Nguyen’s stories are not lost on the reader. I did enjoy spending time with these characters, but I’ll likely revisit them in print.

RATING: Tercet

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Billy Summers by Stephen King (audio)

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Audible, 16+ hrs.
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***trigger warning for sexual violence***

Billy Summers by Stephen King, narrated by Paul Sparks, is beyond the supernatural, horror that this author is known for, but it brings to life new horrors — those of real life. Billy, a former soldier, is a murderer for hire, and he’s looking for one last job so he can begin a new life. The set up for an assassination job is detailed and slow going, but readers will delight in the character building of Billy’s alter egos — the plants in various towns to hide what he is really doing. Masquerading as a writer in an office building, a computer IT guy, and his own Billy Summers’ shtick, which isn’t really how he acts.

In many ways, the face of Summers is similar to King’s characters created in years past — Billy is almost a stand-in for King, one of the ultimate character creators. King does give a nod to his previous writings here later on in the novel with a sneak peak atop a ridge at The Overlook. It is almost like this novel is an homage to all the risks he’s taken in his career and a middle-finger to the industry that counted him out and pigeonholed him. But I could be over-analyzing here.

Paul Sparks does an excellent job with every face of Billy Summers, and the narration is back and forth into Summers’ past in Falluja when he was a sniper. What I’ve always loved about King’s novels is his attention to detail, his ability to create well-rounded characters, and the settings that mirror real, small town life that is often considered pale in comparison to large, city life (a perception that he blows out of the water every time).

The most troubling aspect of the novel, however, is the obligatory rape of a young woman who becomes an acquiescent victim with Stockholm syndrome.  But even here, King is stretching this trope as he builds the sad relationship between her and Billy Summers into a morally ambiguous argument that not all snipers are bad guys. Perhaps, there are some who do draw a line in the sand, and Billy does rationalize his actions.

Even as I say that Billy is a mirror for King, so is the young woman by the final pages. It almost made me wonder if King may be done writing, but then there’s something more to this young lady that makes me confident that King is not done with his fictional worlds quite yet.

Billy Summers by Stephen King, narrated by Paul Sparks, is a multilayered story about a stone-cold, calculating assassin for hire who continually wrestles with his morality. King takes you on a journey that will leave you wondering about your own morality and mortality. Things in real life can run astray at any moment, even in a small town.

RATING: Cinquain

A story of THE WORLD before the FENCE by Leeya Mehta

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Paperback, 46 pgs.
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A story of THE WORLD before the FENCE by Leeya Mehta is the migration of the Parsi, the immigration of a young woman from India to America and the feeling of exile and belonging. Several centuries pass in this slim collection of poems, but like the book cover, each person in these poems is on a journey, one that seems to take them away from where they were to a new destination. However, these journeys end up being very circular, bringing them back to the culture and the past they have tried to leave behind. The past is integral to who they are, as is the migratory journey they embark upon.

In the opening poem, “Refugees,” readers are taken to the migration of Parsis in 917 AD in which “the boat is too small” but the past recedes until “the joy and blood that had come before/already turning to myth./” But even in this flight from one place to another, there is a deep-seated worry that things will not change for the better, but Mehta leaves us on the shore of the white beach with their hope. In “Sleep,” we spend time with this family in its new land, leaning into the hope that they can belong on this land, even with the traditions they carry. But their “Welcome” is not as comforting. While they can retain their traditions and the myths of the past, as well as their religion, they are unable to share that with those outside their group.

Mehta is taking us on a journey from her ancestors to the present day, and woven throughout these poems is the angst created by holding onto tradition and letting go to belong somewhere. In “The Towers of Silence,” the narrator says, “But there are places/that I long to describe/in a language I do not know./And the Towers, by our not being in them,/that is our sacrifice.//” These poems speak to the deep sacrifices of migrants as they move from the home they know to a new home that pushes back against their history and traditions.

from "Decorum" (pg. 12-14)

...
I do not know what I should do in a desert;
You cannot assume anything of yourself
Until you have experienced fire.

A story of THE WORLD before the FENCE by Leeya Mehta is just one look at migration and the sacrifices that entails, as well as the need to belong in a new home. There is a fencing off of the past and culture that occurs internally in some migrants, while there is also the fencing off of cultures and groups of people in their new home — separating them from others and preventing them from sharing their own stories and cultures. Mehta is a master storyteller who takes her poetry into the past to demonstrate the richness of a future in a new country.

RATING: Cinquain

I Dream of Empathy by Marianne Szlyk

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Paperback, 48 pgs
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I Dream of Empathy by Marianne Szlyk is a slim collection of poems that search for empathy, an understanding of how others feel.Her poems speak to the hurts of the past, to the environment, a mother, a husband, and a self. She reflects with sadness for the past and present, but with a sense of hope that things can be better as long as we strive to connect with one another and our environment. There are some poems that are deeply sad, like “She Wonders What Will Become of this City,” in which the narrator says, “She wonders what will become of this city/once the oceans rise and ghost towns form like coral reefs.// The real coral reefs will have crumbled,/all color leaching away into the corrosive sea.//”

Szlyk is an artist of words. She paints full pictures and creates poetic stories to give readers an internal monologue, but also a painting of a life. Like in “Cabin Fever,” she helps the reader see the hopeless feeling of cabin fever, how there is the desire to do something, but nothing inside the home. There is an immobility in that fever. The narrator of the poem is sitting and replaying saxophone songs in her head, while the laundry piles up and the use of the dryer worries her about the impact it will have on the environment.

One of the best sections of the collection are the “Scene from the Blue Room,” where Szlyk explores the relationships between a grandmother, granddaughter, and mother in a series of poems. The love of the sea/lake is passed from generation to generation. The passage of time is distilled into melting ice cream in a cereal bowl and the wafting big band music in the first poem in the series. In the second poem in the series, the granddaughter has made it to the bedside of her passing grandmother, missing her father and their times by the pond/lake, and wishing her relationship with her mother would improve. In the third poem, the granddaughter has grown up and had to sell the house she loved to visit. There’s a sense of closure in that she understands that walls can be painted over.

I Dream of Empathy by Marianne Szlyk is full of surprises and sharp observations about human relationships and how to find empathy or at least understand where others are coming from. She conjures a story where the reader has little choice but to fall in and follow her lead.

RATING: Quatrain

Escape Velocity by Kristin Kowalski Ferragut and Giveaway

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Paperback, 90 pgs.
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***full disclosure: Kristin is a member of my poetry writing workshop group***

Escape Velocity by Kristin Kowalski Ferragut forces you into motion with each poem, starting with “You Say We’re Like Magnets.” She illuminates the tension — the push and pull of magnetism — between lovers even if the relationship is not quite in sync. There’s a joy in the tension, the figuring out how pieces fit, how they push each other to grow, and so much more. Ferragut’s poems have a ton of depth, but they are equally smart, beautiful, and witty (with a bit of dark humor).

from "Intermittentamorous" (pg. 20)
...
Identifying as intermittentamorous is exhausting
The on and off, yin/yang, dream
of love versus hope of freedom.

Feels like a long practice to learn to be done,
a sigh and unplugging. Skin intact, space for sleep
and a nod to the vast possibilities in silence.

The first section focuses on reactions and the movement that results from those reactions. Ferragut’s poems are intimate and relatable, whimsical, and a spiraling kaleidoscope of science, love, frustration, and moving forward in life. “A Twenty-Four-Year-Old Getting Two Dozen Roses at Forty-Nine: A Dialogue with Myself,” is a delightful examination of aging and changing perspectives.

from "Drowning" (pg. 39)

What was the cause of death?
What is the difference? When
life is terminal and living on
                  so 
                          long.

Ferragut doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff of life; she meets it head on. “Escape and Loss” explores the sadness and regret that comes with the passing of family and friends. “Guilt hides beneath fingernails;/sorrow clings to laughs’ underbellies,/they will escape despite you./But you might leave regret…” (pg. 41) Her poems will turn the world upside down for you, force you to look through a new lens to find the beauty even in darkness. There is an undercurrent of joy and hope in her poems, and perhaps this is what gives her collection the velocity it needs to let readers escape into the real world and see it through Ferragut’s eyes.

Escape Velocity by Kristin Kowalski Ferragut is a journey through life but it’s a window into the darkness to find hope and a way forward when things don’t quite go according to plan. There’s magic in these pages, and I beg you to discover the worlds created in these poems.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Kristin Kowalski Ferragut teaches, plays guitar, hikes, supports her children in becoming who they are meant to be, and enjoys the vibrant writing community in the DMV. She is author of the full-length poetry collection Escape Velocity (Kelsay Books, 2021) and the children’s book Becoming the Enchantress: A Magical Transgender Tale (Loving Healing Press, 2021). Her poetry has appeared in Beltway Quarterly, Nightingale and Sparrow, Bourgeon, Mojave He[Art] Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fledgling Rag, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. Visit her website.

To Enter the Giveaway:

Leave a comment on this post with an email so I can contact you if you win a copy of Escape Velocity. Deadline to enter is Sept. 10.

The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva

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Paperback, 108 pgs.
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The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva is musically New Orleans, but also a collection of poems about learning a role that you may or may not take on.  It takes on the pomp and circumstance of the city and reveals an underbelly of sadness and want, while paying homage to the beauty of the city and its culture. The dichotomy of New Orleans comes to life in Leyva’s poems.

 From "Inamorata" (pg. 5-6)

...
and a funk in the other
     Nola when your bounce
         leaps from speakers

comes the great gyrate
    the whole line
        all heredity backing it up

...

Where'd you sleep
   last night? In the pines?
        Nola you fat and fine

the quick-quick-slow
        that repeats
         like being sick and tired

of being sick
    and tired or late again
            on last week's rent
...

Leyva’s poems are beautiful songs full of love, passion, and sadness. It’s a collection that pays homage to the past and invents a future. It’s about leaning into a bi-racial skin and finding a path that makes the most of an American life that is not always easy and is not always the most glamorous. It’s about breaking out of the molds assigned to us and creating our own lives and incorporating cultures in ways that make the most sense for our own well-being.

Poems like “Ear Hustle” unearth the dark past of an Americanized New Orleans culture in which powdered faces from beignets are unaware of the ancestors who cut the cane for that sugar. There’s that undercurrent of culture that he explores in his poems, but not to seek a rescue but to pay homage to the sweat and the work — to the understudy of society’s labors. These poems are multilayered, while the surface appears playful and musical. It’s a collection that celebrates rather than shames, though some poems do illustrate some of the shames of American history.

One of my favorite poems in this collection, “Sonnet for the Side Eye,” examines nature’s destructive tendencies (like Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans) with humanity’s obsession with naming that destruction. Leyva is tackling a great many things in this collection, but this poem in particular takes our obsession with categorizing things head on. So much divisiveness stems from these labels. But how do we as humans get to the point where we no longer label our fellow humans as a way to harm them or treat them as “other?”

Don’t miss The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva. I heard him read at a poetry event online and had to get my hands on this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.

RATING: Cinquain

Check out this interview with Steven Leyva in ArtsFairfax.

Later by Stephen King

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Audible, 6+ hrs.
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Later by Stephen King, narrated by Seth Numrich, is another of those thriller and less-horror King novels.

(trigger warning for possible domestic violence and incest)

Jamie Conklin sees dead people, but you’ll learn this right from the start of this novel. His life is anything but conventional, especially because of his gift. However, his mother, who works in publishing, struggles financially as a single mother and victim of a Ponzi scheme. What I loved was Jamie’s character development, his innocence was whittled away little by little as others use him for his ability, but at the same time, he learns to think for himself and set some boundaries. His mother seems to have learned little from her romantic struggles, and I sense that she doesn’t think beyond the immediate needs and risks to the bigger picture in many cases. But she’s really more of a background character, like Jamie’s invalid uncle.

King always seems to have a firm grasp on childhood and the struggles kids face with parents, peers, and other adults. He makes their lives real and reminds us that we all had those struggles once. But his supernatural elements really bring the creep. Jamie must contend with some dark evils in this novel, and while not always successful, King’s supporting characters round out the story and provide the main protagonist with the direction he needs in a believable way.

Later by Stephen King provides the best in character development and story-telling, but there is a rushed element near the end that seems like it was tacked on a little too quickly. I wanted a little bit more here, but given that it is told from Jamie’s 20-something point of view after everything happened, it seems like he has more to process later on. Perhaps there will be more, later.

RATING: Quatrain