Plants and Computers

Spoiler Alert:  The subjects of the following book reviews, one fiction, one nonfiction, may not be your thing.  Math and Science.  Not mine either!  But, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) are a major part of our culture so I thought it best to jump on board and see what all the chatter is about

The first review I can almost guarantee you, along with millions of others, have heard about and/or seen the movie version…Hidden Figures.

The movie version has come, won awards and has now faded from the daily news.  But, not from the shelves of Tanglewood’s library.  Hidden Figures (2016) was written by Margot Lee Shetterly.  Be sure to read the Prologue by Shetterly.  It will entice you to keep turning the pages to learn more.

In the book Hidden Figures, you will discover all kinds of interesting details about life and times of the women prior to their jobs at Langley’s West Computing that were omitted from the movie.  That information is what makes this book and their stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden so compelling.

A strong point supporting Hidden Figures is very well researched.  Shetterly really did her homework.  She combed through historical documents, listened to oral histories, spent hours interviewing, read letters and went through many, many other primary sources.  All this to bring to light their amazing work.

Hidden Figures is very readable.  I thought Shetterly did a super job of making the math and science discussions understandable to such as me.  I though the book could have been organized a bit better.  But, the title chapters served as an aid to keep me on track.

Not only will you learn the background of these individual trailblazers, but what led them to enter the workforce at Langley as computers.  Despite the many obstacles they faced, and would continue to face, once they began their work, these brave women prevailed not only as working women in a male dominated area but more as African American women when segregation was the rule.

I think you will be pleasantly surprised and probably shocked in some instances by what you learn by reading Hidden Figures.  It is all about the women.

The Signature of All Things (2013) by Elizabeth Gilbert takes a STEM topic and makes it into a story you may not want to put down once you start reading.  Many of you readers may recognize Gilbert from her memoir Eat, Pray, Love.

The Signature of All Things is a historical novel that is very much connected to science, Botany in particular.  I know what you are thinking…history and botany…readable?  Yep!  Turns out those two ingredients plus a well-developed main character, Alma Whittaker, who loves learning makes for an interesting read.

The novel opens and goes on for about 50 pages before meeting Alma.  But, you do get to know her father Henry Whittaker who has a very colorful background.  By getting to know him and his connections to the very real Sir Joseph Banks and Kew Gardens plus his marriage to Beatrix van Devender, you will be ready to meet Alma.  And, perhaps have a better understanding of what drives Alma.

Alma enters the story as a newborn.  She was definitely her father’s daughter.  Not only in her looks, which may have been unfortunate, she was also a very clever child.  Always wanting to know the “why” of things.

This novel centered around Alma but other characters besides her parents and Hannah de Groot, head housekeeper, help shape her thoughts and life choices.  One of those characters Alma met when she was 10 years old is Prudence.

Prudence who is dainty and startling beautiful, the complete opposite of Alma, was adopted into the Whittaker family one night after a tragic incident.  Alma knew nothing of this incident until she met Prudence at the breakfast table the next morning.  It was at that breakfast that Alma began to notice things about herself.

A few years later, the two girls become a trio when Retta Snow happens upon the scene.  One day she just came strolling through the gardens uninvited.  18-year-old Retta is a most unusual young woman unlike any Alma had ever experienced.  Retta immediately considers Alma a friend.  Nobody have ever called Alma a friend.

Alma’s life is not without men.  Unfortunately for Alma the man she thought would be her husband, George Hawkes, married Retta.  Prudence then announces her upcoming marriage to Arthur Dixon, the man who had been their tutor..  Alma loses her sister and the man she loves all within a day.

Enter Ambrose Pike, orchid artist.  In fact, my favorite part of this book was when Alma and Ambrose met in the garden.  I so enjoyed the conversation the author created between these two during their first meeting.  The two become inseparable.

Alma and Ambrose married.  Shortly after the “marriage”, Ambrose is sent off to Tahiti to work on a vanilla plantation.  Alma becomes depressed.  With Hanneke’s help, Alma slowly returns to her old life.  It is then that she learns of Ambrose’s death.

It is long after the news about Ambrose, Henry Whittaker dies.  Alma receives even more unsettling news from Hanneke.  Alma’s world as she thought it to be starts looking a whole lot different to her.  “She was a virgin and a widow and an orphan and an heiress and an old lady and an absolute fool.”

Alma decides to leave White Acre.  Her story does not end there by any stretch of the imagination.  You will want to keep turning those pages.  Enjoy The Signature of All Things.



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