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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Book Review: Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier by Jim Ottaviani, with illustrations by Maris Wicks

I love the title of this book. I LOVE that the title isn't Women Astronauts. It's just Astronauts. Because it's not that Astronauts and men and Women Astronauts are something different. Right there, before you even open the book, you know this book's approach is somewhat different, in an awesome way.

This graphic novel traces the history of women in space, mostly at NASA, but also of Valentina Tereshkova, the Soviet Cosmonaut who went up in space way, way back before the US was even considering it. But eventually, decades later, the U.S. caught on that not only are women just as good astronauts as men, there are certain things women excel at. In fact, one of the biggest advantages to letting women into the astronaut pipeline is that it opened that pipeline to all sorts of people who weren't all just test pilots. So we have much more diversity of opinion and approach when it comes to problem-solving, than NASA used to have when everything looks like a nail because they'd only hire hammers.

We follow Mary Cleave as our narrator through the background, and then on her two missions, building the ISS. I loved this book! The science is accessible, the history is appalling, and the future is promising. For any budding young scientist--of either gender--who might be interested in space, this is a must-read.

This book is published by First Second, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Book Review: The Cactus League: A Novel by Emily Nemens

Baseball is certainly the most literary sport. It's not my favorite sport, but it tops my sports reading, by far and away. It's no contest. And in this novel-in-stories, baseball once again hits it out of the literary park.

In 9 stories (get it? Like 9 innings?), we see various angles on the L.A. Lions' preseason Arizona league. We start with the batting coach who once tried for the major leagues himself, who returns to his beloved Arizona home only to find it has been trashed by squatters while he and his wife were away. Then we spend time with a woman who once was young and beautiful and hopped from baseball player to player, but now is no longer so young, no longer so beautiful, and no longer has the pick of the team, as she considers reevaluating her life and her choices. Then there's the star rookie.

These stories truly can be read as individual stories, but as they progress, they do coalesce into a greater whole. particularly in the last story as several themes from previous ones come together. Perfect for spring. Perfect for baseball fans. But you don't have to be one to love this book.

This book is published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Book Review: Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolution by Andy Warner

When I was in college, I did not do study abroad. I am dreadful at foreign languages, I'd already spent some time abroad with my family as as tween, and I liked my college and wasn't sure why part of the point was to leave it. Yet most people did. Including Andy, who in 2005 went to Lebanon to study abroad. That's a fascinating decision that he kind of glosses over (yes, he makes a good case for Lebanon being a beautiful and interesting country but only after he's there--I'd like to have known more about why he chose to go to a country that's been war-torn for decades, after Sept. 11.) But the book pretty much starts with his arrival.

He meets people, he makes friends, he gets an apartment, he goes to clubs, he misses his ex-girlfriend, he starts to drawn cartoons again and most of all, he goes a little insane. Like he sometimes hallucinates, he's paranoid, and he has disturbing and realistic dreams. I'm glad that all seemed to be a one-time thing that resolved itself after he came back to the United States, but I also wish he'd explained that further--did he ever have any medical testing? Or even psychological? What would cause a person to temporarily go somewhat crazy for a few months, but then fully recover and never have another incident.

And yet, I don't get the book I wish for, I get the book he has written (and drawn). To see even a low level of a break with reality from the inside, from someone who's come out the other side, is truly a gift. To have someone who is now sane, be able to explain it in a way we can understand, gives a level of empathy most of us who've never struggled with mental health in that way, insight.

Now, that's not the only thing going on while Andy's there. There's a political assassination and unrest, Andy has his first sexual experience with a man, and in the end he decides the breakup with his girlfriend was a mistake (they're still together today and have kids). This book is incredibly open and raw, and reads like he doesn't even know the word artifice. It's one of the most honest and vulnerable memoirs I've ever read.

This book is published by St. Martin's Griffin, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Book Review: Catching a Russian Spy: Agent Les Weiser Jr. and the Case of Aldrich Ames by Bryan Denson

The second book in the FBI Files series for kids, I find these just utterly fascinating. The last one, The Unabomber, was about how the FBI works. This one is mostly about the CIA, and about the rather evil CIA operative, Aldrich Ames, who went to the Russians and offered to give them information if they paid him. His information lead to the death of dozens of American spies in Russia. The FBI got involved when the CIA figured out they had a mole and uncovered who it was. It turns out (I didn't know this!) that the CIA is not a law enforcement agency, so they can't arrest people. At that point they brought in the FBI, who worked with the CIA to discover evidence that would convict Ames, and to then arrest him before he could leave the country.

A single double agent can undercut and endanger the lives of dozens and scores of agents. One actually inside the primary spying organization of the United States was particularly dangerous. This book highlighted the problems, but also ended on a positive note as he was discovered and taken out. These books give kids an inside look at the FBI (and CIA) without glossing over the issues, and with an exciting and interesting story to go right along with it! Today, true crime is everywhere, and it's important for kids to have age-appropriate books they can turn to as well, so they don't end up watching Manhunter on Netflix and scaring the bejeezus out of themselves. As an added bonus, they'll learn some modern American history along the way.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Roaring Brook, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Book Review: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez

This book burned me up! A lot of this stuff I already kind of knew. But I never really thought about it. How everything in life is designed for men. How women's clothes don't have pockets. But I didn't know that Siri is designed to hear men's voices. And iPhones are designed to fit in men's hands. And when I thought about it, a big reason why I hate filling up the humidifier and leave it for Jordan' to do, is because of the massive opening which is very hard for me to twist the lid off, as it doesn't fit a woman's hand at all.

 But this book isn't just about modern technology. She discusses everything from how women MPs are treated in Parliament, to how different nonprofits have designed cooking stoves for African women who still cook over open fires--without ever asking the women what they want or need and then being shocked and dismayed after when the women aren't using them. Somehow the fault there lies with the women, according to the designers. Not with their designs. (Seriously, a spokesperson at Apple said we just need to train women--all women--to speak to Siri in a lower tone. Not fix the phone.) It reminds me a lot of another book I read recently, No Visible Bruises, about abuse, and the common question of why don't the women leave. The question ought to be, why don't their men stop hitting them?

But we can't fix any of these problems because we don't understand the problems. We don't know the extent of them. We don't study them. It's harder to study the effect of drugs on women because of hormone fluctuations. So we don't. So some drugs aren't effective on women at all. That's the solution our society has come up with. In what universe does that make sense? You think that's crazy, a drug that was DESIGNED for period pain was tested on men. That's how they found out a weird side-effect of the drug--Viagra--and completely changed the use for it (they never finished the testing on it for period pain, even though it looked to be extremely effective in early trials.)

It also reminded me of a graphic novel I read called Astronauts, which is about women astronauts, and it pointed out that when NASA expanded their idea of what an astronaut was to include women (and to include all sorts of strange things like Not Just Test Pilots), suddenly their troubleshooting became a lot better, because it wasn't any longer just a room full of hammers trying to force every problem into being a nail. When 52% of the population is being excluded, we can't possibly be functioning well. Want to raise the GDP? Instate universal day care. It would raise the GDP by 10% practically overnight. Ooooh, this book made me mad and aware and is really sticking with me. Everyone should read it.

I borrowed this eaudiobook from the library via Overdrive/Libby.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Book Review: American Dirt: A Novel by Jeanine Cummins

The person who told me to read this did warn me, that once you pick it up, it's impossible to put down. From page one, it's a roaring adrenaline-rush. In fact, I found it to be a terrible before-bedtime read as it excited me instead of lulling me, and I couldn't sleep at all. I should have just stayed up all night and read the whole thing.

It's hard to know where to go with a description with not wanting to give away even the very first chapter, but I think it's inevitable. Some backstory as preamble: Lydia lives in Acapulco with her husband, a journalist, and young son, Luca. She owns an independent bookstore. Their life seems happy and normal. But one day, they are at her mother's house for a party--it's Lydia's niece's quinceanera. The family is grilling out and everyone has gathered. Luca has gone inside to use the bathroom, and Lydia goes after him to see if he needs help. When the two of them are inside, machine gunfire erupts outside. Lydia grabs Luca and throws him into the shower and throws herself on top of him. They lie in silence, terrified, as they hear their entire family murdered around them. Some the killers come inside. They must be even quieter, making no sound at all. Finally, when there is silence, they must run. Run for their lives. Leave Acapulo forever with only what they have with them. A cartel is after them. Lydia's husband ran a profile of the leader in the local paper, and they vowed not just to kill him, but his whole family. They won't be safe anywhere in Mexico.

This book read like the best kind of summer action movie, but with much higher stakes, if only because the situation was so much more believable. And speaking of believable, I read nearly 100 pages before I finally realized this was fiction. It read just so true, that I was convinced initially that Lydia and Luca were real and that Ms. Cummins had done extensive interviews to tell their stories. Even now, weeks later, writing this summary, my heart has started beating faster, and the rush of the heart-pounding story is literally making my breathing increase. Yet it's not a fluffy beach-read thriller--I learned so much about the plight of immigrants striving to come to America for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. The danger, the uncertainty, the diligence and incredible effort they must put forth for.... who knows what outcome. But for Lydia, and many, many others, there is no other real option. She does what she has to do to protect herself and her child once she has lost everything else in the world. Desperation proves a strong motivator. Pick this book up when you have many hours to devote to it. You won't be able to put it down.

This book is published by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Book Review: Finding Mr. Better-Than-You by Shani Petroff

When Cam returns home from camp for her senior year of high school, her loyal boyfriend Marc is waiting for her. She's so excited to spend a year in art class with him, cheering him on at his soccer games, and ending with getting into Columbia alongside him. So when he publicly dumps her at their favorite diner surrounded by their friends, she's crushed in many ways, and has to figure out where to go from here.

Her best friends help her out, and along the way she figures out some important stuff, like that she doesn't have to sublimate her own interests for a boyfriend, and that true loyalty and real love doesn't even have to come from a romantic relationship at all. It's a fun romp with things going on practically every minute--she joins (and is the entire!) yearbook committee, becomes the secondary school mascot (at volleyball games and the like), rediscovers her love for NYC--and that NYU is probably a better fit for her than Columbia ever was--organizes an art show for one of her friends, dates a little, and basically has a fun, rollercoaster, more typical senior year. What about Marc? Marc who? Let's move on!

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Swoon Reads, a division of Macmillan, my employer.