Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

A remarkable book to savor, about the remarkable journeys made by young Washington, from boyhood on a sugar plantation in Barbados, fleeing by airship and boat to Virginia then following a scientist to the Canadian Arctic. A young slave born in 1830 who doesn’t know his mother’s name, Wash is loaned to his master’s brother Christopher, a scientist building an airship. Pursued by a bounty hunter to the United States, Wash becomes a gifted illustrator and develops a fascination for marine life. Wondering why he was chosen and abandoned propels loyal, curious Wash from the Canadian Artic to Nova Scotia and eventually to London, Amsterdam, and a desert to find his answers. Compelling but not a fast read, character-driven but with a wonderful sense of place, this award-winning novel is one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year.

Brenda

 

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

How many dinosaur species can you name? If it’s more than a few, you are likely to enjoy this terrific mix of memoir and popular science. Young paleontologist Brusatte travels the globe introducing the reader to other scientists and their exciting finds. I learned that Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils have been found only in western North America, and they were pretty smart, but couldn’t outrun a car. Some dinosaurs had feathers, and European dinosaurs were smaller than elsewhere. Brusatte, from Ottawa, Illinois, clearly has the job of his dreams, as this is the golden age of dinosaur research, with a new species of dinosaur discovered every week, on average. Perfect for fans of popular science or readers of Michael Crichton’s novel Dragon Teeth.

Brenda

 

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate

by Peter Wohlleben

An absorbing, leisurely read, about how trees grow and communicate. If you enjoy a walk in the woods of area forest preserves or the Morton Arboretum, you may enjoy spending time with German forester Peter Wohlleben. I was interested to learn that trees, even of different species, can communicate with each other through scent and chemical signals sent through the fungal network around their roots. They can send signals of attacks by insect pests or herbivores, and even share sugar when another tree is stressed or injured. They also compete for sunlight and space, migrate (very slowly) when the climate changes, react to storms, drought, and injuries, and take risks deciding when it’s best to grow taller or shed their leaves. The likelihood of a single seedling growing up to be a mature tree is very small, but it can be supported by its parent tree as it grows. Urban trees have more challenges, but still manage to communicate, though they aren’t likely to live hundreds of years like a beech or oak tree in a forest. Wohlleben even has a 500-year plan to create thriving forests, which may be aided by getting his many readers to think about and see trees differently.

Brenda

 

The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

Naturalist Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig, meets a forty pound octopus named Athena, and becomes fascinated by octopuses. She becomes an octopus observer at the New England Aquarium in Boston and meets aquarists, interns, and volunteers who bond while an octopus wraps an arm or two around their arms, and while they stroke her soft head. Octopuses (not octopi) are intelligent, very curious, and capable of changing the color, pattern, and texture of their skin many times in an hour. Boneless, they can and will fit in very tiny places and try to escape from their tanks to explore the world. The suckers on their eight arms can smell and taste, and are both strong and flexible. Over a couple of years, Sy gets to know four giant Pacific octopuses in Boston, travels to Seattle to watch octopuses mating, and learns to scuba dive. Sy observes wild octopuses in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. Poignantly, she also watches a favorite octopus, Octavia, grow old. After reading this absorbing, moving memoir, I look forward to spending time at aquariums observing the amazing octopuses.

Brenda

The Glass Universe

The Glass Universe, by Dava Sobel

An absorbing history of women in astronomy and stellar photography, for readers of Hidden Figures. I enjoyed reading about the women computers and astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 through the 1930s, examining glass photographic plates of stars, and analyzing the data, working at half the pay of men. The observatory has a library of these photographs going back more than a hundred years, which is being digitized. These photographs led to several advances in astronomy, as did photographs of stellar spectra. Annie Draper, wanting to see her late husband’s work continue, funded much of the observatory’s work for years. Edward Pickering was the director for many years, followed by Harlow Shapley, and they oversaw new telescopes, expansion of the buildings, grants for women doing graduate work in astronomy, and new mountain observatories in Peru and South Africa. Sobel, known for her witty books on the history of science, such as Longitude, used information found in letters, memoirs, diaries, and notes of astronomy conferences to bring the women, including Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne, vividly to life.

Brenda

Hidden Figures

hidden-figures-jacketHidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot discovered that her home town of Hampton, Virginia, was also home to many African American women mathematicians who worked for NACA, later NASA, in the 1940s and beyond. The college educated women, many of them teachers, were recruited as human computers during World War II, running calculations for aerospace engineers. These jobs paid much better than teaching, and many of the women stayed on as they began to raise children, and as NACA transitioned to NASA. Virginia was defiantly a southern state, resisting integrating schools in the 1950s and 1960s, and the women worked in the all black West Computers section at first, with a white section head. The cafeteria tables and bathrooms were also segregated, but the pioneering women proved their importance, getting reassigned to other sections, sometimes getting promoted to mathematician and rarely to engineer. In the 1940s and 1950s, the goal was to produce new faster and safer airplanes, and later they worked on projects developing rockets, calculating spacecraft trajectories, and programming early computers. Several of these pioneering women are highlighted, and the stories of their careers and personal lives are fascinating and surprising. I haven’t yet seen the popular movie based on the book, but I look forward to it, and to learning more about the human side of NACA and NASA during the Civil Rights Movement. The author’s thorough researching of the people, place, and time make for a compelling and memorable read.
Brenda

Lab Girl

lab girl jacketLab Girl by Hope Jahren

Hope is a Norwegian American from Minnesota, daughter of a community college science teacher, who was expected to major in English at the University of Minnesota, but found her calling instead in science. She has been a scientist for over 20 years, and along with her lab manager Bill, has built and run laboratories in Georgia, Maryland, and Hawaii, as well as done fieldwork in Ireland, Norway, and many other places. Her field is geobiology, which seems to be a blend of geology, botany, and the environment. Her passion is for plants and trees, and her story is framed with descriptions of the life cycle of different kinds of plants. The themes of her story are cold, night, silence, sleeplessness, the joy of discovery, and the rewards of persistence and asking questions. Bill is a delightfully quirky, sarcastic character, and I’m glad to know they still work together. Hope struggles as a young woman in a sexist environment, and as one with a bipolar disorder. There is actually plenty of humor here, along with the evident joy she feels in a scientific life of research, discovery, and teaching. Her difficult journey to motherhood is also shared. I was fascinated by Hope’s well-publicized memoir, and found it a very quick and satisfying read.
Brenda