July Reads

I've had so many great reading recommendations that I can no longer hold my reads to one a month. Three reading recommendations follow.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Recommended by Skip

The Martian

When the first line of a book contains an f-bomb said by the principal character, and the third line of the book is only an f-bomb said by the same character, you may think you know what kind of book this will be, and who the man might be. Do words like life-affirming, entertaining, inventive, resourceful, and surprising come to mind? They should. This book surprised and delighted me: what an exciting first novel.

I was lucky enough to hear the author of this terrifically engaging book speak recently at a conference at an 8:30 a.m. session on a Sunday morning. Weir noted he was impressed that so many turned out to hear him at such a time, and my goodness, the attendees were in for a treat. Weir is an amusing, smart, and self-deprecating man, and he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Speaking afterwards to his publisher's representative, Skip told me that the author does very few speaking engagements (couldn't think why not: Weir is a natural), I told him I hadn't yet read the book or seen the movie, but was now very much looking forward to doing both. He recommended I read the book first, and so I have. So glad I went to the session, so glad I spoke to Skip, and am really very glad I read The Martian.

For those of you who haven't yet read this page-turning book, it is about Mark Watney, an astronaut who, due to circumstances outside anyone's control, is alone. On Mars. What happens next? Well, I guess you'll need to read this book, too.

Get your copy of The Martian today.


A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose by Amor Towles

Recommended by Liz

A Long Way Home

Liz recommended that I read this book back in March, but all the MPL copies were in use or on hold by a number of other people for weeks so I wasn't able to borrow the book until very late June. Reading the book, I certainly understand why it is on the reading list of so many others.

The front cover of the book notes "as a five-year-old in India, I got lost on a train. Twenty-five years later, from Australia, I found my way back. This is what happened in between."

As many of you will already know, this book was also made into the multi-award-winning movie, Lion (yet another film I haven't yet seen). I had read about both the book and movie so I did know generally what the book was about.

What I hadn't quite expected was how the simplicity with which the story was told would so deeply affect me as a reader. After I finished reading the book, I went back and read the first chapter again. It ends with the sentence "Come with me. I'm going to take you to your mother." Reading these words again with a better understanding of the impossibilities of his life brought tears to my eyes.

The scenes and stories of Saroo at home with his family as a child, living a life not only of incredible privation but also surrounded by love were powerful. When he is becoming lost, and then tells the tales of being lost were terribly frightening to read even though you know he survives. He proves himself to be a resourceful little boy, but again and again it seems luck is truly the most essential component to survival. Sometimes he met with kindness. More than once he is met with cruelty. Kindness, however, is what truly mattered, and it did end up saving him from the streets. At the end of the day, I think it was hope that drove the story. His hope to find his birth family. And his mother's deep hope that he would somehow return to her. For the mother it meant she stayed in the neighbourhood where he lived as a child refusing to move to be closer to her remaining children because he may somehow return and this stubborn determination meant the homecoming was possible. And when they met again? "My mother described her reactions better than I ever could mine: she said she was 'surprised with thunder' that her boy had come back, and that the happiness in her heart was 'as deep as the sea'.

It is a powerful story. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Get your copy of A Long Way Home today.


Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Recommended by Kevin

Hidden Figures

Get your copy of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race today.

By chance I clearly have a July book reading theme: all were made into films. Unusually, I saw the movie made from this book before reading the book which is a rarity for me. While I was watching it, I thought more than once that I wanted to read the book since it was likely there was so much more to the story of these brilliant women. When it was recommended to me as a read, the time was right.

If you have watched the movie and haven't yet read the book, I can strongly recommend picking it up. It tells a story much broader in scope, more deeply nuanced, and with greater historical breadth than suggested by the film.

For those of you who may not be familiar with either the book or movie, the Hidden Figures are the black women mathematicians and engineers who did important work at NASA and its precursor (NACA) during the War, the Cold War, and the Space Race. There were dozens of women, and in particular a handful are the focus of the story including Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. As outlined in Shetterly's book, they led full and fulfilled lives as mothers, wives, active churchgoers and community members — and brilliant and tenacious workers whose expertise advanced the scientific achievements of the US, and who somehow did so at a time of divisive segregation and discrimination. One of the strengths of the book is how the societal milieu of the time is as important to the story as is the magnitude of their achievements. The cruelty of segregation is highlighted again and again: that German POWs were permitted to use local Virginia restaurants — but Black Americans could not. That people couldn't share a water fountain. A gas station. A restroom. A table. A neighbourhood. That the public school system was shut down for years in Virginia in protest to federally mandated de-segregation.

And in this time and place, women with brilliant minds were sought out, hired and valued for their brains. The women in turn wanted to have a work life that mattered, in which they did important work that contributed to their country's success, and who despite whatever indignities were faced daily, they never lost sight of the burning drive for scientific success and accomplishment. Their determination, focus, and strength of mind and purpose are truly inspiring. As Shetterly says in the book:

Just as islands, isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity, have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the south during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It's a great story and that alone makes it worth telling.

Get your copy of Hidden Figures today.