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Before “computer” came to mean a sophisticated calculating machine, it meant a person: someone with a firm grasp of numbers and their myriad practical applications in the real world. In the 1940s, as the U.S. rapidly expanded its flight program to fight the Axis Powers, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia tapped into a new source of computing power: a group of whip-smart, highly educated African American women.

For the next two decades, the “colored computers” applied their mathematical knowledge to solve problems of flight at Langley, first in aviation and eventually in the space race. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the previously unknown story of these women in her first nonfiction book, Hidden Figures.

Sixty years after the narrative of Hidden Figures begins, we are living in fraught times here in the U.S. Many voices are calling for respect, equality and civil discourse while other voices–which often seem louder–are trumpeting hatred, bigotry and violence. I don’t always know how best to add my own (white, privileged) voice to the chorus of the former. But I believe that listening to, and helping tell, the stories of people whose experiences are different from my own is a vital first step.

It’s my turn again at Great New Books today, and I’m raving about the brilliant, bold women of Hidden Figures. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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We’re digging out from moving chaos over here and my brain feels like scrambled eggs. But I have (as always) been reading to stay sane. Here’s the latest roundup:

Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford
It’s 1926 and Maisie Musgrave is thrilled to land a job at the fledgling BBC. She quickly finds herself swept up by this exciting new medium and by her colleagues, especially her bold, brilliant supervisor, Hilda Matheson. I loved this novel – full of strong women, witty dialogue and thoughts on the power of ideas, in a setting (interwar London) that I adore.

The Tea Planter’s Wife, Dinah Jefferies
Young, naive and hopelessly in love, Gwendolyn Hooper follows her new husband from London to his Ceylon tea plantation. But her new home isn’t paradise: a meddling sister-in-law, an irritating American widow and family secrets threaten her happiness. I loved the lush, exotic setting, though I found Gwen irritatingly passive for half the book. Still a solid historical novel. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith
I’ve been curious for a while about this first adult mystery by J.K. Rowling (written under a pseudonym). Engaging characters – I liked gruff PI Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott – but a bit grim and gritty for me.

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly
Before computers were machines, they were people, and many of the most brilliant computers at NACA (later NASA) were black women. Shetterly tells the story of the women who played an integral (hitherto unsung) role in the U.S. flight program and later helped launch astronauts into orbit. Meticulous research + engaging writing + fantastic real-life characters = amazing. (It’s going to be a movie too!) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

The Perfume Garden, Kate Lord Brown
I picked up this novel at Bookmark in Halifax. It’s a gorgeous, moving story of family, love and perfume, told in two intertwined narratives set during the Spanish Civil War and right after 9/11. I loved main character Emma and her wise, brave grandmother, Freya. Bonus: it’s largely set in Valencia, a city I adore.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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