The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
By Margot Lee Shetterly
William Morrow, 368 pp., $27.99
Before the digital revolution, computer was a word applied to human beings, individuals who attacked complex calculations armed only with slide rules and capacious minds. Before NASA, there was NACA, the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics, anchored by the enormous Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Scores of women went to work there during World War II, many of them African- Americans hired as the computers who helped engineers build the world’s most powerful air fleet. Among their number were Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and the others profiled in Margot Lee Shetterly’s utterly winning “Hidden Figures,” which follows the black female computers through the war years to the rise of space exploration and the birth of NASA.
Much as Tom Wolfe did in “The Right Stuff” (though with an entirely different prose style — more aerodynamic, you might say), Shetterly moves gracefully between the women’s lives and the broader sweep of history. In the 1940s Virginia was still part of the Jim Crow South, but change was coming. “War, technology, and social progress; it seemed the second two always came with the first,” Shetterly writes. And besides, the Langley computers had proven themselves, vaulting over “the high hurdle of low expectations.” Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories. “What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved,” she writes, and in this genuinely inspiring book, they finally do.
Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies
By Ross King
Bloomsbury, 416 pages, $30
Monet’s paintings of water lilies in his ponds at Giverny are easy to take for granted; many of us grew up with a framed poster of the 1978 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art hanging in the kitchen. But the painter’s place in history wasn’t assured by the time he died in 1926, as Ross King’s absorbing new book makes clear. Although the last remaining Impressionist was undeniably wealthy and famous, by the time World War I began, he had been in an artistic slump for many years. Holed up in his rural retreat, “he thought he had accomplished everything he could possibly do with a paintbrush,” King writes.
“Mad Enchantment” chronicles Monet’s last dozen years, a period of death, war, and privation (though his well-connected friends kept him well-supplied during France’s tobacco shortage: “Monet without a regular supply of cigarettes did not bear contemplation”). Monet’s eyesight was failing, and so was his artistic confidence. Yet the work he created then continues to beguile and inspire — “in these worst years of visual disturbance Monet somehow managed not only to harmonize his colors but also to create ever more subtle effects of shadow and light.” King writes with great authority about painting and is pleasantly gossipy about everything else. At the book’s center is Monet’s friendship with Georges Clemenceau, the former radical politician who led France through World War I as prime minister; the two had “transformed from enfants terribles to grand old men” together, their affection tested at times but never broken. Wisely, King quotes often from their letters — in which Clemenceau calls Monet “my dear old nutcase,” and “my sweet, furious brother” — a genuinely endearing window into two souls.
THE HISTORY AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF HANDWRITING
By Anne Trubek
Bloomsbury, 192 pp., $26
Readers in the sandwich generation know this: Upon hearing that many schools no longer teach cursive handwriting, at least one of your child’s grandparents will bemoan the decline and fall of civilization. Yet why do we associate penmanship with anything more than the ability to communicate clearly? And if clear communication is the goal, why not just teach our kids to type on devices? As Anne Trubek makes clear in this slim but eloquent volume, handwriting has always been about more than simply words on paper.
From the first known writing, Sumerian cuneiform, human beings have not only used but pondered the meaning of a written language. Socrates, for one, was against it, arguing that writing “caused humans to become less intelligent, less civilized, and less creative,” Trubek notes. The terms of the argument may have changed, but warnings about the loss of handwriting in our age of text illustrate that Socrates’s worry is still with us. From the monks copying scripture in medieval Europe to the 19th-century American educators who “sought to make the teaching of penmanship into a more prestigious, lofty, and intellectual vocation,” handwriting has reflected how people felt about religion, education, and society itself. Another book might cast a wider net, looking at handwriting in Asia or Africa, but Trubek’s book is thoroughly engaging and filled with odd, even moving facts; when Platt Rogers Spencer, the first American priest of penmanship, died in 1864, “his last request was for his pen, which he died holding,” she reports.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.