Category: Book Review

What I’m Reading: The Firebrand and the First Lady & Hidden Figures

The more I learn about and bear witness to the world, the more I’ve realized that my classroom education left out some aspects of history that give context to world and national events, and shape how I understand and interpret them. Reading is one of the best ways I’ve found to introduce missing perspectives and fill in gaps in my education.

Growing up I certainly had an awareness about the civil rights era–we learned about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X in school. But, even though I learned about these important people, there are so many others whose names I should also know, that I don’t. Pauli Murray and Katherine Johnson are just two of those names. Luckily, reading brought their stories into my world, and helped add depth to my knowledge about the various contributions of people of color to the United States during the civil rights era.

The Firebrand and The First Lady by Patricia Bell Scott

The Firebrand and The First Lady by Patricia Bell Scott

I learned about these two women by reading books that I think offered a lot of good information about US history and the role that women of color played in it: The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.  Science writing and science history tend to comprise more of my reading list so Hidden Figures was in my conventional wheelhouse more so than the Firebrand and the First Lady, but both books were still quite different choices for me, being written by and about women of color. While I’m embarrassed by how little of my bookshelf came from or is about women and people of color, it is something that I can and am consciously fixing.

The Firebrand and the First Lady tells the story of the friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt. Murray was a lawyer, a civil rights and women’s rights activist, and the first black women to be ordained as an episcopal priest. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first lady of the United States from 1933-1945, US representative to the United Nations 1946-1953, and an important political figures in the women’s rights and civil rights movements. With neither woman alive to speak for themselves, the author draws heavily on the letters they wrote to each other.

Being able to see the letters they wrote to each other, especially when they disagreed, was amazing. It really was a snapshot from another time, where people with opposing views could find common ground and unite around a shared respect, treating each other with civility and thoughtfulness. It just struck me as sweet and sad that there was once a time when a young woman could reach out to a political figure and not just get a reply, but get true buy-in and a relationship that lasted the rest of their lives. I don’t think we currently live in such times, although this lovely piece by Jeanne Marie Laskas about how President Obama handled his mail, reading 10 letters a day from the public was a nice reminder about how important it is to have elected officials who hear you.

In telling the story of Murray and Roosevelt’s extraordinary friendship, the author gave an overview of the civil rights movement and the role that women played in it. But it was also an extremely American story, about how regular people built themselves up through education and hard work to leave an imprint on the world through the changes in policy and law that they helped bring about. The book left me not only knowing Murray’s name, but also with a profound respect for her.

I felt sympathy for Roosevelt, being a power broker but with limitations, and needing to figure out what she could do, what she should do, and how to pick which battles were the ones worth seeing through. She wasn’t able to do all that she wanted to, and yet she did so much more than most. But I was glad to see that Murray always held Roosevelt’s feet to the fire. In some ways, seeing Roosevelt’s responses felt like a master class in how to deal with criticism, and how there is always more that we can all do to help improve life for those around us. Being pushed to be better is a gift in many ways, but it’s also an endorsement of your own worth– that you’re worth improving.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Hidden Figures is quite a bit more well known, now that it has been made into a box office-topping film. Despite there being a movie version, the book is certainly worth your time. It tells the story of the black women “computers” (in the literal sense of “people who do computations,” but really mathematicians and engineers) who worked at NASA during its formation and at the dawn of the space race. It’s been written and said by others that the fact that this story hasn’t been told before is amazing. I certainly am not the first person to notice that this is a trend, the contributions of women of color being erased from the history that gets handed down. I’m glad that this book is as popular as it is because it is bringing this bit of history to the forefront and giving the amazing women whose story the book tells the place in history that they deserve.

One of the important things about Hidden Figures that has been said in this article and elsewhere is that, while it might be about events that took place from the 1940-1960s, there are still trends and themes from then that echo through research institutions today. Certainly for women of color working in physics today there are still numerous barriers to success and discrimination that white women and women in other fields don’t encounter.

Ultimately, I recommend both of these books, they are beautifully written and offer a point of view that I found incredibly valuable for expanding my understanding of the role that women of color played in US history. That context is important for understanding the tumultuous political climate of the world today, and I’m grateful to the authors for telling the stories of these women.

What I’m Reading: Two Years’ Worth

It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed any books on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I stopped reading. I have devoured quite a bit of non-fiction in the past two years with occasional forays into fiction. I want to share with you a list of the things I’ve been reading lately. Even though I read them all in the last two years, some of these books have been out for a long time, while some are more recently published. I don’t really have a set way of figuring out what I’m going to read; it really comes down to whatever attracts my attention. If it’s listed here, I enjoyed it in some capacity, but I certainly have my favorites that stood out to me more than others.

A sample of books from the past two years.  Photo by Erin Podolak.

A sample of books from the past two years. Photo by Erin Podolak.

In non-fiction, I don’t think I could possibly say enough flattering things about Rust by Jonathan Waldman. I absolutely loved this book, but I was surprised by how much there is to say about a topic like rust. It’s an incredibly compelling story, and I learned a lot not only about the science of rust and it’s history but also about the problems rust poses in the United States today in terms of infrastructure. Having gone to college just steps away from the abandoned Bethlehem Steel mill, I also got a kick out of his adventures exploring the hulking ruins I’m so familiar with. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and completely recommend it for anyone who likes non-fiction and just learning about a new topic. I was also very impressed by The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell. It chronicles an interesting exercise in which the author watches and records what happens in a single patch of land for an entire year. I thought it was unique and beautifully written.

I read a lot of science history books; it’s probably the genre I find myself pulled toward the most. In this realm, I absolutely loved The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan; it certainly tells a side of the development of the atomic bomb that you don’t often see. I also read three books by Sam Kean, and enjoyed them all.  He does an amazing job of putting scientific topics into current and historical context. I find his books consistently entertaining. They’re full of fun narrative bits that bring the topics to life.  I also have to specifically mention The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl by Arthur Allen.  I was completely fascinated by this account of research using body lice during World War II, it was an aspect of the war that I’d never heard anything about. I was sharing fun facts about body lice with friends, family, and acquaintances for some time after I finished it. I think people probably got tired of hearing me say, “did you know….” and having the second half have to do with lice.

More books from my collection. Photo by Erin Podolak

More books from my collection. Photo by Erin Podolak

I haven’t listed below all of the fiction books I read, but one highlight was discovering Michael Crichton for books aside from Jurassic Park. I really enjoyed Sphere in particular. I also spent the better part of the two years listening to every Harry Potter audiobook. Somehow I managed to get to my mid-twenties never having read a single Harry Potter book– better late than never. It probably goes without saying that I loved them. I really enjoyed having them read to me by listening to the audiobooks; hearing everything pronounced in a British accent really puts the books over the top. I also read a collection of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft, and the Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was also a big fan of The Circle by Dave Eggers, although I have to admit I found the ideas it presents for our future quite frightening (like, haul up in a shack in the woods frightening). Which is the point, I think it’s supposed to do that.  Or at least make us think more critically about how much we share online, why we share it, and which entities we allow to own our information.

I go back and forth between reading paper books and using a Nook. In general, I tend to buy my non-fiction books as books because I truly wouldn’t mind living in a library (which seems possible in a small apartment sometimes). I usually don’t buy paper books for fiction, but I’ve read some that were borrowed. For fiction I typically rely on my e-reader, especially for collections and murder mysteries, which I’d say are my main guilty pleasure.

So, if you’re interesting in checking out some of the books that I’ve enjoyed here’s my list:

The Billion-Dollar Molecule – Barry Werth
Bossypants – Tina Fey
The Case of the Dueling Neuroscientists – Sam Kean
The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean
Driving Mr. Albert – Michael Paterniti
Empires of Light – Jill Jonnes
The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl – Arthur Allen
The Forest Unseen – David George Haskell
The Ghost Map – Steven Johnson
The Girls of Atomic City – Denise Kiernan
The Half Life of Facts – Samuel Arbesman
The Hunt for Vulcan – Thomas Levenson
I Was Told There’d Be Cake – Sloane Crosley
Infinitesimal – Amir Alexander
Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
Longitude – Dava Sorbel
The Map Thief – Michael Blanding
Merchants of Doubt – Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway
On the Move – Oliver Sacks
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember – Annalee Newitz
The Science of Harry Potter – Roger Highfield
The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore
The Skeleton Crew – Deborah Halber
Soul Made Flesh – Carl Zimmer
Thunderstruck – Erik Larson
Rust – Jonathan Waldman
The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean
The Water Book – Alok Jha
Wild Ones – Jon Mooallem
Yes Please – Amy Poehler
10% Happier – Dan Harris

I also just want to mention that I wasn’t asked by any of the authors or publishers of the books listed above to review them or say nice things. No compensation, I just liked them and you might too.

What I’m Reading: Toms River

It’s been a long time since I’ve shared thoughts about anything that I’ve read. Not that I’ve stopped reading of course, in the past year I’ve made my way through many non-fiction science books that I’ve enjoyed but haven’t written about. I was on a blogging hiatus, but now that I have free time courtesy of the things detailed in this post, I want to rebrand my book review series. I’m not sure book review is accurate to describe the type of posts I write.  While I share my opinions, I almost never write about books I didn’t enjoy and try to avoid negative comments. I do this because if I’m going to write a post I want it to be about something I’m excited about and enjoyed rather than something I disliked. Thus, I feel calling these posts What I’m Reading is better than Book Reviews. As always, if I’ve been asked to read a book by the author or publisher I’ll let you know, though nearly all the books I write about are chosen because they peaked my interest. Even with a new name, I hope people will still be encouraged to check out the books featured in this series.

When I’m reading non-fiction I gauge the success of the story by how quickly I finish reading it. Are the things on my to-do list falling by the wayside because I need to know what happens next? Am I so engaged that nearly 500 pages can be consumed within a few days, or are the pages trickling by as they lull me to sleep each night? Is the book so compelling that even the most technical details are devoured alongside the more narrative elements of the story? To cross the line from “I liked it” to “I loved it” a book needs to meet these criteria. I loved Toms River by Dan Fagin.

toms-river-250x300In addition to being the name of Fagin’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Toms River is the name of a town in New Jersey. I grew up in New Jersey in the 1990s and 2000s – just young enough to know that Toms River had a stigma attached to it, but not old enough to read the papers or understand why. When I found out Fagin was writing a book about the New Jersey town and it’s epic pollution problem, I was intrigued and quite frankly a little shocked by how little I knew about the environmental disaster that had taken place in my own home state.

As far as states go, New Jersey doesn’t exactly have a glimmering reputation. Since it’s not enough to have to contend with pop culture stereotypes like Jersey Shore or the Sopranos, we also have our fair share of government corruption and industrial pollution. Yet I feel protective of the “Garden State” (when you think of the pollution problems, the jokes just write themselves don’t they?) Where I grew up, on the boarder of Union and Morris counties, was the very picture of the idyllic New York City suburb. It was hard to imagine the state had a pollution problem when surrounded by the manicured perfection of sprawling lawns, parks, and golf courses. Yet, even as a kid, while I don’t remember any specific media coverage I remember the negativity, the impression that Toms River had problems. Until I picked up Fagin’s book, that was really all I knew about it.

While the details of the environmental disaster that played out in Toms River over the course of 50 years may have eluded me growing up I was aware of New Jersey’s distinction as the state with most Superfund sites. On their website the Environmental Protection Agency describes Superfund sites as:

“An uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people.”

The government started designating Superfund sites after the Love Canal case in which toxic chemicals located beneath homes and an elementary school in Nigara Falls, NY started causing health problems in 1978. Toms River made it onto the list in 1983 thanks to the Ciba-Geigy factory, a 1,400 acre site where the chemical company manufactured primarily dyes, but also resins and epoxy. The company dumped waste products from the manufacturing process contaminated with toxic chemicals on the factory property, into the nearby river, and into the Atlantic Ocean from the time the factory was established in the 1950s. Toms River is a beach community, and the toxic waste easily seeped through the porous sandy soil to contaminate the ground water in the area. The groundwater cleanup started in 1996, when I was eight which is why I missed out on the majority of the drama.

Fagin’s book starts out by getting into the history of dye manufacturing. It doesn’t really sound like a topic that would be captivating, but I was fascinated by the backstory behind major chemical companies and how dye became a big business. Tracing the various companies through their founding, expansions, closures, consolidations, and mergers with clarity is a difficult task, and Toms River does it skillfully. I was hooked from the very beginning and as the story developed from the discovery of the chemical compounds used in dye manufacturing through the events that led Ciba-Geigy to open their plant in Toms River I found myself more and more impressed at how sucked into the story I became.

There is a turning point in the middle of the book where the story starts to shift from explaining how the pollution got into the water in Toms River, to explaining the affects of that pollution on the town’s residents namely the rise of a pediatric cancer cluster. I may be slightly biased in how interesting I find cancer epidemiology since I do write about cancer research for a living but I feel like Toms River handles an incredibly complex science with a perfect amount of nuance and explanation. The book even gets into the nitty gritty of experimental design without making me want to skip ahead to just find out the results. The intricacies of the studies needed to prove an environmentally caused cancer cluster became the drama for a big section of the book.

Woven throughout the book are the stories of the people involved from the first dye discovery through the operation of the factory all the way to the legal battle that sprung up once the cancer cluster was discovered. Generally I’d call the human element the narrative aspect of the story, the thing that drives the story forward, but that doesn’t really feel appropriate in this case. The entire thing is a compelling narrative. Still, Fagin does a wonderful job of injecting the story with the personal experiences of the people who lived it. The book culminates with settlement of the legal case regarding the Toms River pollution, and the scientific findings from the studies undertaken to prove that the cancer cluster had an environmental cause. These parts of the story are explained through the impact they had on the families of children with cancer and thus resonate deeply.

I really loved Toms River from start to finish, and recommend it for anyone regardless of your background knowledge or interest in science or environmental issues. It is just a fascinating story, told extremely well.

Book Review: Best American Science & Nature Writing 2013

Lately I’ve really enjoy reading collections of stories, I love being exposed to different writers and most importantly I can typically get through at least one story before falling asleep. I say typically because a few nights ago as I was reading  a Sherlock Holmes story on my Nook I actually did doze off, and my device slipped from my hands smacking me in the face – a fun night to be sure. But I digress, in general, collections make solid pre-bedtime reading.

For the last week or so I’ve been reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 (on honest to goodness paper, so no technology induced injuries here. ) I was given the opportunity to review the book, which is available today, in advance and encouraged to share my thoughts. Well, my thoughts are mixed – there are good and bad things about this particular collection, and despite my enthusiasm for collections for me it highlghted a general downside.

science-medium-2013[1]One of the most valuable things about collections is that they presumably do a lot of work for you. The BEST implies that some authoratative figure has done the druggery of sorting through the entire body of work in a field, in this case science writing, for you. For this collection these authoratative figures are series editor Tim Folger and edition editor Siddhartha Mukherjee. Mukherjee is author of the pulitzer prize winning The Emperor of All Maladies – A Biography of Cancer, which I read and think is deserving of all the praise it has garnered.

I was so optimistic about this collection upon seeing that the edition editor was Mukherjee because I admire his work quite a bit. His own writing certainly doesn’t disappoint – I honestly think checking out the collection is worth your time just to read his introduction. It is a lovely description of science writing painted against the background of the “father of genetics” Gregor Mendel. The book includes writing that I think is terrific, and I have no problem with it being held up as exemplary of the best science writers among us – I was happy to see names like Michael Moyer, John Pavlus, Michelle Nijhuis, David Quammen and Katherine Harmon. As it seems with all good things though, there is always a “but” and I do have an issue with this collection.

You enter into a bit of a contract with the authority figures who determine what is featured in a collection when you purchase a book like this. The relationship brings with it the promise that the stories have all been vetted and are the BESTof what is out there. You trust that you are in for a good show, a quality show. However, the collection of what is the best is merely an opinion. We all have opinions, and my opinion isn’t always going to match your opinion, or Mukherjee’s opinion, or anyone else’s opinion.

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Wake Up Sweetheart, You’re A Feminist (Book Review: The Good Girls Revolt)

I hope you read that title with the sarcasm with which it was meant, and that you never try to call me sweetheart. It won’t go well. It’s been a while since I did a book review here at Science Decoded (mostly because I don’t have the time to read that I used to) but I just finished Lynn Povich’s The Good Girls Revolt and it spurred me to want to write this post which has been kicking around in my brain for months now. The Good Girls Revolt is the story of the first all female class action lawsuit filed by the women who worked for Newsweek.

Even just two years ago, if you had asked me if I was a feminist I would have told you no. Back then the idea that women needed to form a movement to be treated equal seemed extreme. Equality isn’t hard, it’s a pretty simple concept really. So who wants to be all extreme and label themselves and fight for…what…what are we fighting for? I didn’t know. I had plenty of opportunities, I interacted with professional women a lot. It didn’t feel necessary. Besides, I like shaving my legs (though you should read this post about choosing not to). I have a closet full of dresses and high heels. You’re unlikely to catch me outside the house without makeup. I was vice president of my sorority for crying out loud. Feminist? Psh. But you know what feminism isn’t about? Those things. Any of it.

GoodGirlsRevoltComing from a relatively well-off, educated background where I was always expected to go to college and then work, I never thought of myself as a feminist. My Dad’s attitude toward my career as a science writer has always simply been, go get ’em. I have surrounded myself in life by people, men and women, who value my intelligence and drive to succeed. Growing up I never felt like I was being compared to my brother or any other guy. I never felt like I was less or that less was expected of me. Feminists were an other, and if anything made me feel intimidated. The judgement of other women is scary, sometimes it feels scarier than the idea of walking into a room full of men to tell them what’s what. But, spending a little time in the world, talking to people, and reading things like Povich’s book or Dr. Isis’ Feminist Awakening has a wonderfully eye opening effect.

I think most women in the workplace have a so-and-so said this absolutely jack ass comment to me about xyz story, at least I do, and I’ve heard many stories in a similar vein. The types of things that make people look at you like you’ve got six heads because surely someone didn’t actually SAY that. You might not even have realized it, because at the time I didn’t really see it as sexism. I knew I was upset that good ideas were being shot down. The thought that anyone would take the way I look and my gender and use that to gauge my ability as a writer before actually reading anything I wrote was so completely absurd to me, that I didn’t even realize at first that it was happening.

In hindsight, this made me blame myself – maybe it really isn’t that good an idea, maybe I’m not working hard enough, maybe if I’m here later and put in more hours, maybe if I prove myself…no. I want to grab unpaid intern Erin and shake her and say don’t you dare write that crappy story that you know is bullshit while the paid male intern gets the better story. Walk out. Leave. You’re better than that. I’ve heard it said before that my generation is lazy and entitled. Well in my not so humble opinion, myself and my friends and other young people like us more often assume deeply personal responsibility for failure. If I don’t get that story it’s because I did something wrong. Me. I’m not good enough. How could it ever be that there is a system ingrained in society that is going to hold us back? This is 2013. It can’t possibly be true that we’re still dealing with this.

Povich’s book chronicles events from the 60’s and 70’s, we can’t still be having this same problem? No, no we’re not. The problem back then was flagrant, out in the open, so egregious that it couldn’t be ignored. That is still happening, oh, does it happen. But there is also a subtle sexism – a mild slight, a passing comment, a raise that’s just a little less, a promotion that takes a little longer to get. These are the things that are harder to pinpoint, harder to blame on sexism, but are ultimately what made me wake up to the fact that I’m a feminist. Part of Povich’s book focuses on today, on three women from my generation working for Newsweek: Jessica Bennet, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball and the story they wrote in 2010 “Are We There Yet?” questioning if the battle of the sexes is really over. Their experiences resonated with me a lot.

Since I entered college and started writing and trying to get my work published, I’ve been lucky in that the sexism I’ve faced has been mild. Sad state of affairs that it makes me feel lucky, but it does. Right now where I work my superiors are all women – my boss, her boss, her boss’ boss, her boss’ boss’ boss…but my awesome situation isn’t common (and believe me, I don’t take it for granted.) But that doesn’t mean that sexism isn’t still here, and that other people aren’t dealing with much worse on a regular basis. I’m a feminist for myself because yes, I want a fair shake, I want to be recognized for the value of my work and not whether or not my hair looks shiny that day. But, adding my voice to the other feminist voices out there is about more than just me. I’ve got it pretty good. I’m not trying to argue that I don’t. But I can support the women out there who are dealing with overt sexism, who are being attacked. I can try to be an ally. That to me is the real value of feminism, of standing together.

It’s my opinion that a lot of the yelling that happens on the internet (if you could only hear how loudly I am typing!!) happens because we’ve gotten so wrapped up in judging the world based on our personal perspective that we can’t see the things that happen outside ourselves. I’ve never encountered sexism therefore sexism doesn’t exist. We have GOT to shake off this way of invalidating the experiences of others. Once you start listening, I think you’ll find like I did that the need for feminism is impossible to ignore. Participating in #sci4hels, and working with Rose, Lena, and Kathleen (follow us in Helsinki next week!) is another thing that has driven home for me the need for women to support each other. We’ve already used our platform to have a conversation about being female science writers, and I hope that discussion is one that will continue in the future.

Feminism, for me, is a way to recognize that we’ve come a long way but we still have a long way to go. We still need to get out there, and support each other, and continue having these conversations because equality might be a simple concept, but that doesn’t make it any less evasive. I’ve had these conversations a lot lately, and have been asked, “do you think people don’t take you seriously because…you know…you’re good looking?” Typically, I answer something along the lines of making smart decisions is optional, and if anyone doesn’t take me seriously for any reason that’s their mistake to make. I don’t think it’s a bad answer, but until that answer is a resounding “no” we’re just not done yet.

So, if you’ve been in the journalism business for less than 20 years, The Good Girls Revolt is a must-read. Hell, if you’ve been in the business for more than 20 years, it’s still a good read. Recommended.