Books, September 2018

I listened to a delightful episode of a delightful podcast today about the positive mental health effects of regular reading. I had sort of subconsciously known this but it really brought to the forefront how when I’m most stressed or tightly wound or overextended, I tend to read much less, but that’s precisely the time that I need to make a point of getting in some quality book time. (Same goes for exercise.) Check out the episode A Novel Remedy, and every other episode, of the Allusionist today.

The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown

This book rightly won its accolades on the strength of its sports and political history, which are both genuinely inspiring. But because everyone who knows about the book already knows about those parts and they’ve been reviewed ad nauseum, instead I want to focus on the local history. The boys and their boat were at UW – they stow their boat in the old boathouse near what would eventually be the site of my office building as a graduate student. Many of them were engineers, and their departments would eventually move into buildings where I had classes myself. The core player of the story, Joe, has a bunk in the U District YMCA – I’m pretty sure it’s the one that’s still there – where he cleans in lieu of rent. His (kind of a jerk) father lives near the young Woodland Park Zoo. It’s important to remember the history of a place and the accomplishments of the people it produced (particularly against the steep educational and economic odds that Joe and his peers faced), especially since the city and university have changed so much since then. A time traveler from even 30 years ago wouldn’t recognize the place, let alone 90 years.

Genre: history, local history, sports history. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

I, Iago, Nicole Galland

I don’t make a point of keeping track of when I start a book – for all my nerd record-keeping, noting when I start a book and therefore how long it took me to read it would just make it feel too much like homework. That means that I only really take note of how long it took me to finish a book when I read it in just a couple days (or occasionally, a single sitting), or when I started the book on account of some event in my life. In this case, I had been recommended this book last year when I emailed the fabulous Next 5 Books line at Seattle Public Library requesting villain protagonists. The librarian is supposed to provide you five recommendations based on what you read recently or are looking for. But the awesome librarian got excited by my left-field request and gave me 28 books (including several series firsts), including this (and also The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination). I finally pulled it off my wish list on April 1, having seen and loved Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival the night before. Which means this took me almost exactly six months of coming and going to finish it.

Anyway, Iago is a famously opaque character – his motivations are never particularly explained, which is part of what makes him so chilling. This fills in that backstory starting years before the events of the play and ending with Iago’s arrest in its finale, and swaps out the opaqueness for a far more disturbing portrait of a man who thinks he’s doing the right, even noble, thing until he’s so far over the line that he can’t see it anymore. Coming soon to a website near you: Iago, which picks up at the end of the play and continues from there.

Genre: character study, thriller. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

Women in Science, Rachel Ignotofsky

This illustrated history makes its point bringing attention to overlooked women in science. Like, Marie Curie is a science hero and rightly so, but it’s not enough to include 1 Marie Curie in your list of 1 bazillion men in the history of science and call it a day. (Last week, the Nobel for physics went to its third ever woman winner, bringing women to 1.4% of winners. Then chemistry went to its fifth woman, bringing it to 2.7%.) Women are already underrepresented in science and this further papering over of women’s accomplishments is bad for both women (who then lack role models as students, and recognition and community as professionals) and men (who benefit from women role models and an inclusive community too). This refreshing volume highlights women around the world since antiquity who dedicated (and sometimes lost) their lives to science. It would be an inspired gift for a tween or teen – boy or girl – interested in a career in science.

Genre: history, science. Format: graphica. Rating: 3/3

Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson

Continuing on from the idea of promoting representation for women in depictions of science, here we have a group of women in science, working together without competition or drama, some of whom are hearing impaired, and all of whom are totally underappreciated. The very real Henrietta Swan Leavitt was a human computer at the Harvard observatory in the early 20th century, where she was initially told that she was only there to make tedious calculations, and she was not to do any actual astronomy. Instead, she made one of the most important discoveries in astronomy, allowing astronomers to calculate how far away any star is. Because of her, and because her peers (especially the other calculators, who holler her praises from the rooftops at every opportunity) promoted her work and her name, we know how big our universe is. I don’t know how much of this fictional story reflected the real events of her life. But from a storytelling perspective, it built up Henrietta as a thoughtful, relatable main character that would be a treat for a young actor to play, and ensconced her in a field of charming and supportive other women scientists. I’ll also take this opportunity to point out that the play passes not only the Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colors – two women talk to each other about something other than a man, repeatedly discussing astronomy and each other’s lives – but also two characters with a disability talk to each other about something other than a disability. I’d love to stage this someday.

Genre: character study, allegory. Format: play. Rating: 3/3

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