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Old 07-04-2017, 05:43 PM   #1
WT Sharpe
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July 2017 discussion: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (SPOILERS!)

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly has won the vote, and so whenever you're ready, feel free to join in the discussion.

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Old 07-05-2017, 01:40 AM   #2
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I finished the main body of the book, and am now working my way through the back matter. I'll have a good deal to say in a bit, but I'm really glad I read this book. The movie was powerful and informative, but the book was even more powerful and more informative. Most of the details about the life of a black woman in Virginia were not, sadly, news to me, but many of the details of NACA/NASA were both fascinating and new.
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Old 07-08-2017, 08:55 AM   #3
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There's a good story here, but for me it's getting lost in the purple prose. It's stuffed with adjectives, metaphors and similes, many of which tend to the irrelevant, the repetitive or the just plain wrong. It also leans a little too much toward the polemical; with history, an author should be more willing to let the facts speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, I think the issues for me are compounded by the narration, which is overly expressive, a bad combo with already overwritten prose.

That said, I'm fascinated by the world-building, early days at Langley. For me it's a case of knowing the generalities of the creation of the US war machine, but being entirely ignorant of the particulars related here. I think specifics make for much more evocative history than broad swaths.

Still early for me in the book; I'll have more to say later.
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Old 07-08-2017, 06:09 PM   #4
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First of my observations. I started out reading, rather than listening, though I ended up doing a lot of both. But in reading the Prologue, very early on, was the comment:
Quote:
My investigation became more like an obsession. I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end.
A telling point about this as history. Clearly, it grabbed the historian as a person as much as a historian, and that shows sometimes in the writing. I suspect some of that obsession leads to what issybird describes. And, while I agree with her on one level, it's exactly that obsession that results in the level of detail we find here. Plus, ultimately, it made the story more compelling for me, personally. Yes, a totally dispassionate narrative might be more historically appropriate, but, frankly, if the story isn't good enough to get the author excited, what's the chance I will be.

Also:
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Originally Posted by issybird
That said, I'm fascinated by the world-building, early days at Langley. For me it's a case of knowing the generalities of the creation of the US war machine, but being entirely ignorant of the particulars related here. I think specifics make for much more evocative history than broad swaths.
I completely agree. Even though I grew up in the midst of the Space War, and was completely a geek about it, I admit I knew almost nothing of this. Even the term 'computers' as it applies to people was unknown to me until more recent years when talking about some of the events of WWII around the Enigma machine.

Finally, I would argue that the 'obsession' that leads to perhaps overwritten prose, is what ultimately drives the level of detail here.
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Old 07-11-2017, 05:44 PM   #5
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3 1/2 stars for me. I was fascinated by the subject - the intersection of the struggles for women for workplace equality, for African-Americans for equality, and of humanity for reaching space.

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There's a good story here, but for me it's getting lost in the purple prose.
I'm with you on that; the story suffers from overblown prose. I didn't find this a problem at the beginning, but it was becoming wearying in the back end. But because it had a great story at its heart, it kept me going.

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That said, I'm fascinated by the world-building, early days at Langley. For me it's a case of knowing the generalities of the creation of the US war machine, but being entirely ignorant of the particulars related here. I think specifics make for much more evocative history than broad swaths.
Yes, it is a wonderful view of the proto-NASA where we can see something of the people at the working level.

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Yes, a totally dispassionate narrative might be more historically appropriate, but, frankly, if the story isn't good enough to get the author excited, what's the chance I will be.
Absolutely. What saved the book for me was that it was mostly a
story about the lives of identifiable people, brought forth from the shadows.

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Even the term 'computers' as it applies to people was unknown to me until more recent years when talking about some of the events of WWII around the Enigma machine.
Female human computers were actually on the scene in an earlier space-race, and as usual, they enjoyed the opportunity for less pay and much less possibility of advancement (plus change, meme chose)

The Harvard computers:
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/histor...spect-9287444/

Their contributions are also mentioned in
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/...d-the-universe




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Finally, I would argue that the

'obsession' that leads to perhaps overwritten prose, is what

ultimately drives the level of detail here.
Sometimes it is possible to have a bit too much detail.

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Old 07-11-2017, 05:51 PM   #6
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I've not read the book, but I have see the movie. Is it true that the book is hard to read?
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Old 07-11-2017, 07:19 PM   #7
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I've not read the book, but I have see the movie. Is it true that the book is hard to read?
It's an easy read. I read it in two days.

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Old 07-11-2017, 08:04 PM   #8
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I've not read the book, but I have see the movie. Is it true that the book is hard to read?
No, it isn't hard to read at all. I was concerned that some of the less savoury aspects of the life of a black woman in the South might be rather hard to read, but I found it didn't prevent my enjoyment of the reading.

Like you, I saw the movie first. But it made me actively want to read the book, and I am glad I did. I'm pretty sure issybird is reading the book before she sees the movie, so it will be interesting to see her perspective on that.
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Old 07-11-2017, 08:14 PM   #9
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When Mary asked Emma Jean to participate in a career panel in 1962, organized by the local chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, she readily agreed. An all-black group of junior high school girls paid close attention to Mary and Emma Jean’s joint lecture, entitled “The Aspects of Engineering for Women.” Afterward, Emma Jean entertained the girls with a slideshow from a trip she had recently taken to Paris and London. Their appearance together in front of the group—Mary, petite and black, and Emma, white and nearly a foot taller—made as powerful a statement on the possibilities of the engineering field as their actual presentation. Not only did the girls receive firsthand evidence that women could succeed in a traditionally male field; in Mary and Emma’s collaboration, they saw that it was possible for a white workplace to embrace a woman who looked like them.
This quote from Chapter 19 says a great deal about what an impact these women had. And about the aspects of community and their roles in the community that multiplied that impact. Had they simply been black, women, engineers who worked for NASA, that would have been important. But because they were out in the community, meeting young people, they became role models for a whole new generation. Role models both as women AND as women of colour.
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Old 07-11-2017, 08:23 PM   #10
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And, for me, the most troubling of all the things that were done to the children of Virginia:

Quote:
As white parents herded their students into the new segregation academies, the most resourceful black families scrambled to salvage their children’s educations by sending them to live with relatives around the state, some as far afield as North Carolina. Prince Edward’s schools would remain closed from 1959 through 1964, five long and bitter years. Many of the affected children, known as the “Lost Generation,” never made up the missing grades of education. Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth. Dorothy’s friends and former Moton colleagues watched helplessly as their children’s futures were sacrificed in the battle over the future of Virginia’s public schools. Commenting on the situation in 1963, United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “The only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”[emphasis mine]
I should note, however, that Mr. Kennedy was not completely accurate about the places that don't provide a free public education, especially for young girls, but it really doesn't change the point he was making, and making rather eloquently.
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Old 07-11-2017, 09:25 PM   #11
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I completely agree. Even though I grew up in the midst of the Space War, and was completely a geek about it, I admit I knew almost nothing of this. Even the term 'computers' as it applies to people was unknown to me until more recent years when talking about some of the events of WWII around the Enigma machine.
I can vaguely remember reading back in my student days that almost all of the high school math teachers in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s worked at Leitz during their vacations, doing calculations for lens designs. Good zoom lens designs weren't possible until powerful digital computers became readily available, because of the vast number of calculations that were necessary for even relatively basic lens designs.
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Old 07-24-2017, 04:05 PM   #12
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So, we're well past the usual time for starting discussions. Has anyone else read the book? Got a comment? If no comment, then a simple (choose one)
  • Read it. Hated it
  • Read it. Meh
  • Read it. Loved it
  • Tried to read it. Couldn't finish
  • Didn't read. No time.
  • Didn't read. Couldn't afford
  • Didn't read. No interest.

(and yes, I know it's not a survey, just a list. Was deliberate.)
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Old 07-24-2017, 04:33 PM   #13
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July 2017 discussion: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (SPOILERS!)

I just finished the book. I borrowed it as an audiobook from my library and it didn't arrive on my device until three or four days ago. I had reserved both the ebook and audiobook editions, and the audiobook became available first. I'll have to say that I enjoyed it so much that I'll have to buy the ebook for a later reread.

Even though all of this took place in my own backyard, I was unaware of the struggles the women endured. To be sure, I was born in 1950 and was in a segregated elementary school when Alan Shepherd made his historic flight, but I well recall that event. What was hidden from me for all those years was the stories of the black female computers at NASA.

Hampton and Newport News are a part of the Tidewater region in which I live, so the places and streets were all familiar to me. I even learned a little about the history of one of the most familiar streets in Newport News. I'm quite familiar with Mercury Blvd., and don't recall it ever being Military Blvd., but I was quite young when the name was changed. I wasn't aware that it was done in honor of the Mercury program and astronauts, though it makes perfect sense.

On the critical side, I felt there were a couple of times when the author repeated other portions of the book practically verbatim, but overall I found it quite pleasant to read.

Less pleasant were the reminders of the rampant racism of the region; a racism that may have modified its outer form to become more covert but unfortunately still persists.

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Old 07-24-2017, 07:06 PM   #14
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I was curious to see your reaction, Tom, since I knew this happened in your backyard. It's always an added pleasure to be able to visualize exactly the setting of a book.

As for Charlie's checklist, I have to admit to somewhat mixed feelings. Essentially, I'm very glad I read it and I learned a lot, but I didn't think it lived up to its potential. Tom mentioned the repetitiveness. I also thought the author inserted herself too much into the narrative, where she'd have better left the facts to speak for themselves. I mentioned above that I thought the book overwritten and unfortunately I thought the narration emphasised this. What bothered me most in the long run, though, was the sense that the author didn't really understand what the computers did, or if she did, she didn't convey it well.

This was a three-star read for me that should have been a four. But my takeaway, especially pertinent in these times, is the utter bewilderment at the willingness of some to squander so much potential out of spleen and resentment.

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To be sure, I was born in 1950 and was in a segregated elementary school
...and all that implies, I imagine. Unfortunately the world hasn't changed as much as I used to think it had.
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Old 07-24-2017, 07:07 PM   #15
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I didn't realize, though I should have, that this was set in your back yard. That must have made it even more compelling.

And yes, I was born only a couple of years before you, and certainly remember that historic flight. And was a bit of a space geek, frankly. But had no clue at all about all of this in the background.
Quote:
What was hidden from me for all those years was the stories of the black female computers at NASA.
Exactly!

Quote:
Less pleasant were the reminders of the rampant racism of the region; a racism that may have modified its outer form to become more covert but unfortunately still persists.
And persists in areas beyond the region too. But I thought the book did a decent job of focusing on the hidden figures of the title without either justifying on the one hand, or turning into a diatribe on the other.

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Tom. I came at this first as a movie, and enjoyed the movie so much I had to buy the eBook/audio book pair. I went back and forth between the two. I'm sure at some point I'll do a re-read in pure eBook format. (It's easier to drill down into the details in an eBook than in an audiobook.)
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