Set against the backdrop of the 1960s and 1970s and the Vietnam War, Cooke follows the careers of several women who worked as stewardesses for Pan Am, which focused on international flights. Biology major Lynne Totten, experienced traveler Karen Walker, and Tori Werner, a Norwegian woman who wanted to work for the foreign service were all hired by Pan Am and sent to a six-week training course before getting assigned to flights around the globe. As they gained seniority, they could bid on their preferred flights and live abroad, from New York to Los Angeles to Hong Kong. Their perks included free air travel and paid vacations, with time for all-night parties or sightseeing. Later, some stewardesses sued Pan Am for the right to keep working after marriage and even during pregnancy during an era when new hires had to be slim, attractive, female, unmarried college graduates younger than 27. The author’s father worked for Pan Am until it went bankrupt in 1991, and the family traveled frequently on standby. At reunions for former flight crew, Cooke met and interviewed many retired stewardesses, and was fascinated by their stories. Most notable was an Operation Babylift flight that Tori Werner supervised as purser with Lynne and Karen as part of her crew, that brought orphaned and refugee infants and children to the United States from Vietnam. I would have liked a little less about politics and the Vietnam War and more stories about the other stewardesses mentioned, but I found this well-researched book to be an engaging read about a very challenging job that also allowed the women to expand their horizons.
This memoir is a really enjoyable read for anyone interested in popular science. Levesque combines her own experiences with recent history and trends in astronomy. Interviewing numerous colleagues for this book, Levesque entertains with stories of viewing the sky at huge telescopes on remote mountains, complete with jet lagged drives on gravel mountain roads, encounters with tarantulas, scorpions, and close calls with lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions. Carefully planned observing time in places as remote as Chile’s Atacama Desert, scheduled far in advance, can be disrupted by bad weather or mechanical difficulties. Advances in astronomy, her own research, sexism and racism in the field, and controversy over building new telescopes are described, along with her excitement at viewing the 2017 solar eclipse, and the disorientation of remote viewing far away from some modern telescopes. Readalikes include Lab Girl by Hope Jahrens and The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seaver. The Great Courses video lectures A Field Guide to the Planets narrated by Sabine Stanley may also appeal.
Circe by Madeline Miller
In her follow-up to her 2012 novel The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller revisits the world of Greek myths, this time with the witch-goddess Circe. Circe, the daughter of Helios, a Titan, and a water nymph, never feels at home in her father’s halls. She is mocked for her strange voice and lacks the beauty and power of her parents and siblings. Instead, she finds herself drawn to mortals and prefers them to the vain and petty gods around her. When her latent powers are made known, she is considered a threat by Zeus and is exiled to the island Aiaia. On the island, she begins to practice pharmakeia, witchcraft using herbs and other elements to create powerful spells. She is particularly adept at transfiguration.
Circe briefly leaves Aiaia when she is summoned to Crete by her sister, Pasiphae. While at Knossos, she meets her niece, Ariadne, the inventor Daedalus, and has a memorable encounter with the Minotaur. After returning to exile, Circe is more keenly aware of her loneliness than before and throws herself into working her magic. Despite her isolation, Circe does have the odd visitor. Sometime lover Hermes comes to tell tales of the outside world. Circe’s other niece, the witch Medea, seeks her out after fleeing her kingdom with Jason. Ships of men also find their way to her island and, at first, she welcomes their company. After a sailor’s brutal betrayal, Circe transforms him and his crew into pigs. Thereafter, most men who find her island meet the same fate. One day, as foretold by prophecy, Odysseus makes his way to Circe’s shores. If you know your mythology, you already know how the story plays out. However, in Miller’s hands, the story feels fresh and utterly compelling.
Circe is a complex and sympathetic heroine. Her struggles to find her voice and wield her power are both ancient and completely of the moment. Circe may be about a goddess, but it has a lot to say about being not only a woman, but a woman with power. A particularly potent theme throughout Circe’s story is how men fear powerful women and attempt to suppress them. Miller’s vivid, evocative writing brings the Greek gods and monsters to life in a unique and fantastic way. Readers who enjoy stories about women’s lives, and those who read literary, historical, and fantasy fiction will all find something worthwhile here.
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.
Reporter Lily Koppel, who wasn’t born until after the last Apollo mission, became fascinated by a photo of the astronaut wives in Life magazine, and wanted to learn their stories, which have never been told. The wives of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were suddenly thrust into the spotlight after years of living quietly on drab military bases. The astronauts had training, all kinds of it, but the Mercury wives didn’t even get any advice from NASA on how to handle their new roles. Life magazine had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families, but their photos and stories didn’t tell the real story; the emotional side of the space race. The wives strove to be supportive while raising their children and maintaining their homes almost single handedly while worrying about their husbands when they were training or on a mission. They did meet monthly, in an informal group, and were always there to be supportive during missions or after a death, but didn’t share all of their fears and doubts until years later. Many of the marriages crumbled under the stress. Today, many of the astronaut wives are still friends, and are now telling what they remember of those stressful, exciting years when they rode in parades, went to balls and the White House, and were married to men who became instant celebrities.