The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2015)
This novel fleshes out the stories of the Old Testament about David, king of Israel. Brooks does a good job of showing all sides (good and bad) of David’s character, from the point of view of his prophet Nathan. Women are not neglected in this tale. Although overall they are treated very badly by the male characters, their stories are told as fully human beings living in a time when they are not respected. Unfortunately (male or female) in this book everyone’s life is full of violence, blood, and death, which is (as far as we know) how things really were. It’s hard to believe that the psalms that we still sing today came from this man, out of this time period.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel (Viking, 2016)
Acclaimed writer Dava Sobel (Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter) has written another fascinating book that brings science to life, this time with the help of historical photos and letters. This book, like the recent movie Hidden Figures, is about women “computers.” Several of the women whose history is told in The Glass Universe are among the few well-known woman scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, Cecilia Payne). Initially women were only allowed to serve as underpaid staff at Harvard Observatory who carried out tedious but very important calculations on photographs of stars taken on glass plates. Sobel notes that Harvard’s collection of half a million glass plates that captured the sky on each night between 1885 and 1992 is irreplaceable. As time went on these women astronomers were able to publish papers, present at international conferences, and hold professional titles. They were responsible for key discoveries in optical astronomy, such as the classification of stars and the relationship between brightness and period in variable stars.
Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt (Penguin Group, 2009)
On the cover of this novel, Jack DeVitt was described as the successor to sci-fi greats Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and I can see why. His style screams “20th century middle-aged male.” Asimov and Clarke were very popular, intelligent, forward-thinking writers, but they had a very male-oriented perspective. That being said, the book is well written and hard to put down. But McDevitt’s time travelers follow much looser rules than those set by other science fiction authors (such as Connie Willis). It’s perfectly acceptable for a time traveler to exist twice in the same time period, for instance. The men in this story visit times from ancient Greece to the present (and even the future) with very little concern for their impact. They’re not completely selfish though – they bring back a whole collection of ancient Greek plays that had been lost to us.
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin, illustrations by Gary Gianni (Bantam Books, 2015)
The author of the well-known fantasy series A Games of Thrones has launched a new series with this book, which takes place 100 years prior to A Game of Thrones. An interesting new feature of this book, compared to the previous series, is the large number of black and white illustrations interspersed throughout the text. I also liked the fact that there was one main character (with his sidekick) throughout the story, unlike the vast confusing cast of characters each Game of Thrones book had. While the medieval world of Westeros is still extremely violent, at least the hero of this book is a good guy who survives to the end of the book. This is an improvement over the last few GOT books, where Martin killed off all the characters who had any redeeming virtues. If you’re are a fan of A Game of Thrones, you will enjoy this new series.
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez (Saga Press, 2016)
This light-hearted sci-fi novel concerns a young woman who had a spell placed on her at birth that resulted in her constantly having to use her superpowers to save the Earth and sometimes other galaxies. After a couple of decades she declares herself tired of the workload and ready to settle down and live like a normal person. So she tries to find the fairy godmother who gave her the spell, and get it removed (much like Ella in the children’s book/movie Ella Enchanted). It doesn’t go quite the way she expected. But the book is very funny and Constance does end up with some normalcy in the end.
Strangers in their own land: anger and mourning on the American right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press, 2016)
This nonfiction book written by a respected sociologist (her tenth book) is as readable as a novel. A resident of Berkeley, California, Dr. Hochschild spent the past six years visiting Louisiana, interviewing people on the political right and getting to know their culture. Her goal was to try to understand what she calls the Great Paradox. Red states that have the most industrial pollution and environmental damage consistently elect the most right wing Republican and Tea Party candidates. These politicians eliminate or fail to enforce environmental regulations, while offering incentives for fossil fuel companies to relocate to their states. Over the past twenty years states such as Louisiana have become havens for oil refineries, fracking operations, and all kinds of polluting industries. Hochschild takes a very personal approach in which she tries to “scale the empathy wall” and truly understand people whose political values are very different from her own. By visiting people’s homes, churches, and businesses, she gradually builds up a “deep story” about why people on the right end of the political spectrum prioritize jobs, their Christian faith, and their communities over the very real health impacts (such as cancer) that local environmental degradation is causing themselves and their families. Part of it is a deeply ingrained loyalty to the free market system and pride in being able to take care of themselves; part of it is a hatred of the federal government dating back to the Civil War. A key factor is that the South has an insular culture (most folks don’t ever travel far from home) with a heavy dependence on right-wing media sources like Fox News and talk radio. I recommend this book highly to liberal and progressive readers open-minded enough to want to understand people on the other end of the political spectrum.