Weekend Shorts: Science Ladies on Audio

I’ve been meaning to throw this post together for ages, but it turns out that I am super embarrassed by my complete inability to separate two of these books in my brain and thus have had an almost complete inability to tell y’all about them. But the time has finally come to admit to my failures, mention to you some really awesome books, and promise myself not to make silly mistakes in the future.

What books have I got permanently confused?

Rise of the Rocket Girls, by Nathalia Holt
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Rise of the Rocket GirlsHidden FiguresYou see, what had happened was, I really wanted to listen to Hidden Figures, but it had a miles-long holds list. Then I remembered that there also existed Rise of the Rocket Girls, with a slightly shorter holds list, so I waited patiently for that. And then, immediately after finishing it, Hidden Figures came in. And so I listened to two books about a large cast of women working as computers for various parts of the space program back to back. This was fine, as far as listening to things goes, but terrible if you want to tell other people what you think.

Aside from my own mistakes, part of it is also that these books do have large casts of characters, and so even while listening to each of them I found myself being like, wait, who is this? Do I know her? Is she new? Ah, whatever, I’ll figure it out later.

Both books are interesting looks into history at long-ignored people who did important things, both look at these women’s lives both at work and at home, and both talk of how white dudes totally didn’t want these jobs until they totally did and how that affected the work. If I could go back and listen to just one, I’d pick Hidden Figures as it is a little more tightly written and easier to follow, but they’re both quite good.

And now, books I’m not confusing for other books:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksI have no idea why this book took me so long to get around to. If you’ve also been putting it off, you should definitely check it out.

There are two stories packed into this book: one about the cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks that became both immortal and hugely important to science, and one about Henrietta Lacks’s family and how they live in the shadow of these cells but reap essentially no benefit from them. For most of the book, I think Skloot does a good job of combining these two stories to give a broader picture of the health care industry, medical ethics, science as a calling vs. science as a money-making industry, and of course race and class and the huge disparity in healthcare based on those things.

Toward the end I felt like the family story went a little off the rails and I found myself checking my audiobook timer to see how much was left a little too often, but the vast majority of the book was solid, and solidly awesome. Very much recommend.

Word by Word, by Kory Stamper
Word by WordThis doesn’t exactly fit the science (SCIENCE!) theme I’m going for, being a book about dictionaries, but this is my blog and I say it’s close enough!

Stamper is a lexicographer (which certainly sounds science-y) for Merriam-Webster and in this book she takes the reader through the process of writing a dictionary, which is SO HARD, guys. She writes about defining words like “that”, choosing which words go into which versions of the dictionary, dealing with people who are upset about certain words and definitions, dealing with the fact that words won’t stop changing, and about the intricate nuances of the dictionary’s style guide, among other scintillating (yeah, kind of, actually) topics.

I loved the heck out of this book, and I even got my husband to tear his focus away from the internet while I listened to it on a road trip, so even if you’re not the nerdiest word nerd that ever loved words I think you’ll find some good stuff in this book.

The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel

The Astronaut Wives ClubI found myself facing a relatively short road trip, about 8 hours for the round trip, with only 10-hour plus audiobooks sitting around my house waiting to be listened to. So I loaded up all of the OverDrive collections I could get my hands on, searched for books I could listen to on my phone that were able to be downloaded immediately, and paged through all the results until I found something of the appropriate length and interest level. This was that book.

I have a mild interest in space and NASA and astronauts and the like, enough to spend a day at Kennedy Space Center with my rather more space-excited friends and enough to listen to and love Packing for Mars (though, really, it’s Mary Roach, I’m not not going to listen to that). But I moreso have an interest in the behind-the-scenes, stories-not-told aspect of basically everything, and this book definitely promised that. It was sold to me as a book about the wives of the first astronauts, the people who were stuck at home taking care of kids and houses while their husbands faced death in space, and I was super sold on that premise.

Unfortunately, this book fails in the execution. The biggest problem, I think, is that the book starts out as a collective biography of the wives of the Mercury Seven, which is already seven people to talk about for a whole book, and then keeps expanding to include the wives of the “New Nine” and “The Fourteen” and “The Original Nineteen” and it is so many wives, you guys. So many wives. So whereas at the beginning of the book you get actual information about Annie Glenn and Rene Carpenter and Betty Grissom and their histories as people and how they interacted with their husbands and the media and the fame in general, by a few chapters in the book is just about how “the wives” this and “the wives” that and it’s not so much about the wives any more as it is about the space program in general.

Which is the other big problem, I think — after letting us get to know those first wives and their rather interesting histories (some wives were also military or pilots or just generally career women who gave up their work for their husbands’), the book just kind of becomes a timeline of the space program and how Gus and John and Alan and whoever were off doing this launch or that launch and their wives were so worried or their wives were totally not worried or their wives were mad at them even though their very lives were in danger and it starts to become more about Dudes in Space than wives at home living their own lives.

I wanted to like this book, and I really did like this book in its focused, biography-of-some-cool-ladies beginning, but once it lost that focus I was only listening to it because I had nothing else ready to listen to. However, this will apparently be available as a TV show this summer, and I feel like that will be a much better medium for this story than the book was. I guess we’ll find out soon!

Recommendation: For those interested in the space program and the many, many people surrounding it.

Rating: 5/10