Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Book Marks: Book Fairs, Comics, And Publishing

"...the ebook story has turned out to have a twist in the tale. Sales of physical books increased 4% in the UK last year while ebook sales shrank by the same amount. Glance around a busy train carriage and those passengers who aren’t on their phones are far more likely to have a paperback than a Kindle.

"The e-reader itself has also turned out to have the shelf life of a two-star murder mystery. Smartphones and tablets last year overtook dedicated reading devices to become the most popular way to read an ebook, according to the research group Nielsen."

So the death of print has yet to arrive, based on this bit of news, which seems to have cheered UK publishers somewhat. The resilience of print appears to be the case in Malaysia as well, according to the Malaysian Book Publishers Association.



"'The content of many of these books is shallow, almost like a collection of tweets,' said 20-year-old Shurooq Hashim, leading member of a book club that participated in the [Riyadh Book Fair]. “When I feel I can write the same, I don't think it deserves to be published. These books are written by people who want to market themselves."

Not everything at the Riyadh Book Fair is good, apparently. "Brief chapters of trivial information in large print and images fill up pages of such books that the publishers deem to be popular among a segment of the population"? Sounds familiar.



According to O'Reilly's research department, computer-book sales have dropped 54 percent since 2007. In principle, the demise of professionally prepared support materials shouldn't be any cause for concern. It's just another sea change unleashed by the Internet, another in the list of casualties, such as printed encyclopedias, newspaper classified ads and music on discs.

"In reality, though, none of the tech industry's teaching channels—manuals, computer books, online sources—is universal and effective."


Also:

  • "People like me assumed that comic books were SUPPOSED to look like that. I assumed that the thick, blotchy lines were drawn that way. I thought the colors were printed outside of the lines on purpose. ... We looked at it as a style instead of the crappy quality that it really was. It wasn't until I began my job as a 'digital art restoration artist' that I began to see just how damaging the process of comic book printing could be to the art."
  • "Tung Nan Book Store was among the first few in Sabah to bring in English books published by Longman and Oxford in England after the Education Department sponsored them to a book fair in London. The books were imported from its supplier in Singapore and later, from Peninsular Malaysia." Now, it's closing down.
  • "Nothing, but nothing—profanity, transgender pronouns, apostrophe abuse—excites the passion of grammar geeks more than the serial, or Oxford, comma. People love it or hate it, and they are equally ferocious on both sides of the debate. At The New Yorker, it is a copy editor’s duty to deploy the serial comma, along with lots of other lip-smacking bits of punctuation, as a bulwark against barbarianism." Comma Queen Mary Norris talks about how a punctuation mark could cost a dairy company millions.
  • "What makes [Büşra Karayıl] different from her peers is the fact that she published a book, 'Esma'nın Günlüğü' (Esma's Diary), at the age of 14. Her story is about an illiterate mother and her daughter who reacts to this situation. When Büşra learned that her mother Şükran was not allowed to go to school because of her gender, she reacted, saying, 'What kind of rubbish is that? This will not happen to me. I will go to school.'"
  • "...books aren't commodities that you can purchase at a bargain. They are the living minds of brilliant people who have taken the time to share their world, their stories, with us, and all we want is a 'discount'!" Q&A with Priyanka Malhotra, owner of New Delhi's Full Circle Bookstore.
  • "Arimba [Kovelinde] was this character and I imagined him as the Anthony Bourdain of the rifts, because I like Bourdain's particular blend of seeking out interesting places and people, and the way food takes him to more casual places rather than making the rounds at only the big attractions like a travel guide would." An interview with the people behind webcomic site Deep Engines, which also publishes the webcomic about said Bourdain-esque character, Epicurean's Exile, that's fast becoming a favourite.
  • "Once the laughing stock of the literary world, self-published books are increasingly establishing themselves among the publishing heavyweights, spurred by the ease of online distribution and companies offering works tailored towards specific niches." Which still comprises genres such as romance, steampunk and, unfortunately, dinosaur erotica.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

When Wandering Hearts Hunger For Home

I cut into a scone with a knife and spread the last of the jam and clotted cream onto the halves. By themselves the scones had little taste, though the faint perfume of butter promised more. So the jam and cream were necessary, and I found myself wishing they gave out more. But I didn't have the heart to ask.




Nor did I have the heart for much else that evening.

I left work for dinner one weekday evening with my head full of mental bramble. I can't remember why I was bummed out, but I knew I didn't want to deal with it sitting in a shiny café with a sculpted plate before me. Something a little more rough-hewn and quotidian was called for.

One evening at a café months earlier, I caught up with a couple of friends and saw one of them off; she was heading to Singapore to work. I liked the salmon, but had no room for the scones, which they told me was good.

Seemed like a good idea.

I stopped ordering pasta dishes since I learnt how to prepare them, as many are simple and don't take much to make. I make exceptions for what's beyond my current skillset, but we all have lazy or sad days.

So I tucked into a spaghetti bolognaise. Some effort went into decorating the plate, but I felt the dried herbs should just go on the dish. I made a bit of a mess when I blew on the pasta to cool it, scattering the herbs onto the table.




Just as I'd expected, its workaday plainness cleared my mental haze somewhat and didn't fill me up completely.

I appreciated that they warmed up the scones, but not only was there not enough cream and jam, the scones were still kind of hard and could only be cut across. Splitting them from the top was difficult; attempts to do that made more crumbs. And without the cream and jam they had little taste and moisture.

Which is probably why it's usually "tea and scones".

Once the food was gone, so was the steel wool of tangled thoughts in my head - until a familiar gloom clawed its way in.

Heartache. Numbness. Loneliness.

From what I could notice, this café opened to some fanfare. The homely décor, welcoming and unpretentious, might have been intended to keep customers around and make them feel at ease. Some places are so done up you're afraid to leave your fingerprints on any polished surface.

And parts of it looked like a converted house. One corner was a seating area you can comfortably have tea at and not realise you are not at home. Handwritten notes and drawings hung on a series of wire racks on the walls, mementoes left behind by patrons past.




The white-tiled counter with cement-hued sides where beverages, scones and pastries were served from dominated the dining area, with cheap-looking thin steel-legged chairs with plastic backs and seats enhancing the DIY diner's vibe. The al fresco seating area outside looked inviting, and more so during daytime.

I'm not fond of crowds, but any social establishment like this was meant to be packed. Looking around, I imagined the chatter and laughter of times when this place was new, the clatter of silverware on plates, the clinking of spoons against cups, and the aroma of coffee. Oh yes, and people. Lots of people.

But I was alone this evening, and the dining room feels cold in more than one way. The motor in the chiller would intermittently kick in, raising a din as it did. Kind of old-fashioned, but I didn't mind.

My attention returned to the notes on the wire racks, which flapped from the draught from the ceiling fan. Each flutter seemed to conjure remnants of what the writers did while they were here; the results were discordant but still painted a discernible picture of this café's heydays.

At this phantom recollection, my heart felt slowly squeezed by a melancholic longing for the writers of these notes to return and, strangely, a burgeoning curiosity about them. Who are you all? How did you learn about this place? What did you have and did you like it? How do you feel about this place and its staff? How often do you come back? Will you return someday?

What would it take to make you return?




A different picture soon unfurled. An empty living room. A single grey-haired figure slumped in a chair, staring longingly on a shelf full of framed photographs. The walls replay events they've witnessed over the years, interrupted by shadows thrown by the occasional ripple of a curtain. In the air, past ghosts of conversations and banter whisper over the hum of a ceiling fan.

The chiller's motor kicked in again, bringing me back to reality. The clutching sensation withdrew from from my heart as I got up, prompting memories of other places afflicted by a similar forlornness.

The silence of a once-vibrant place can be heart-rending, as it tolls for the impending death of a dream.

I couldn't stay any longer.

I walked into the night with even more questions. For those of us who left home to pursue a better life and a place of our own, our birthplace holds a certain allure - that is, to those with more fortunate childhoods. It is where we learnt of the world and how to survive it, an education sustained by the flavours from our mothers' kitchens.

And it is this nurturing sustenance that we return to when life exhausts us, saps us of our wide-eyed wonder, optimism, confidence and courage to face it. Even the stoutest spirits longs for the healing nourishment of home.

However, as those hands age to the point where even stirring a pot is laborious and old recipes fade away from memory for a lack of heirs, we who now dwell far away from home and family resort to surrogates. We take pictures, exhange notes and wax lyrical of this and that, perhaps in a vain attempt to disguise a deeper hunger.

Food, after all, is more than flavour, presentation, and ambience. And the hands that stir the pots we often eat out of these days may not care as much for our welfare, our joy, or our troubles as they toil above their own struggles.

Yes, they fulfil a need, and some of their owners and cooks may be passionate about food and what they do. They strive to do their best against the odds. Over time, we may develop a bond with these places and their people.

But try as it might, a café, bistro or restaurant will never truly be home.

And when the flame in the familial hearth goes out for good, when the hands that fed us from birth go to their final rest, when our surrogates eventually shutter one after another, hungry hearts like mine and those of my fellow wanderers may never get to go home again.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Cold Vengeance, Hot Case: Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge A Treat

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 06 March 2017


The third instalment of Ovidia Yu's Aunty Lee crime series begins with an arson at a veterinary clinic in Singapore.

And the intrepid, sometimes foolhardy Rosie Lee, the protagonist and proprietor of a Peranakan café in Binjai Park (and, perhaps, her creator's in-universe avatar), has to navigate the clues and suspects with a sprained ankle.

In Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge, British expat Allison Fitzgerald is subjected to trial by Internet after she had a puppy euthanised at the clinic that has been torched.

A traumatised Allison left the island state, only to return several years later to sue those she held responsible for her misery. One of those is Cherril Lim-Peters, Rosie's friend and now business partner, hence Rosie's involvement.

However, Allison gets killed and that would've been the end of it, if not for the deceased's sister, Vallerie, who tagged along and has to remain and help the police with their investigation.

Pitying Vallerie, Rosie lets her stay at her home. None too thrilled with this arrangement is Rosie's Filipina domestic helper and sidekick, Nina Balignasay, who is suspicious of the new guest and is cross with her boss for getting hurt while climbing up a stool and an upturned pail on a coffee table.

Not to mention the fact that the paranoid, shrill and condescending Vallerie is the archetypal nightmare Caucasian tourist. For the rest of the book the gwaipoh proceeds to make everyone's lives miserable, including the reader's.

“Aunty Lee liked catering funerals almost as much as she enjoyed catering weddings. Funerals were less happy as occasions, of course, but there was far less chance of someone getting cold feet and backing out.”

Nevertheless, Nina hopes that "the presence of a guest would prevent [Rosie] from climbing onto things." No such luck.

Soon, the kaypoh (nosy) Singaporean Miss Marple is all over the case, during which she confronts her frailty and mortality, the dark side of people, and the complexities of online shopping and Skyping. Meanwhile, the body count starts to rise...

Readers hoping for more of the same from Yu will not be disappointed. The author rambles her way towards the denouement and into our hearts in her inimitable way, occasionally deviating to dish out social commentary and homespun wisdom.

Anyone with a favourite aunt who goes off on different tangents during a conversation can perhaps relate.

A passage conveying the thoughts of recurring character Inspector Salim, for instance, also sells the upper-middle-class residential area of Bukit Tinggi, makes a case for attracting foreign talent to Singapore, talks about genetics in guppy breeding, and hints at Salim's possible latent crush on Nina. Plus, gratitude to Rosie's sleuthing and cooking, of course.

“...how a man ate his crab (and whether he had the tenacity to dig the sweetest meat out of the claw tips) showed so much about his character.”

We also learn that Rosie's not keen on making kuih with machines (“too much system”) or forcing young national servicemen to run in the sun in the name of national defence because they might drop dead and you don't need that much exertion to fly a drone.

Our heroine still smiles from her jars of homemade sambal and achar, and who else can rock a kebaya blouse with a pink Converse T-shirt, kaffir lime-green yoga pants and pink-and-green Nike shoes?

Others get to shine this round. Nina's presence is bigger here, and we see more of several minor characters, even the Robocop-like police staff sergeant Neha Panchal. Further developments in the lives of some cast members are possibly teased, too.

One thing though — did Vallerie Love have to be such a walking ulcer? The folksy prose, wit and the mouth-watering descriptions of food could barely offset her loathsomeness, which clings like the memory of a horrible aftertaste.

“It was always easier to deal with the greedy than the crazy, because you could follow their reasoning even if you didn’t share their values.”

Still, this is the satisfying continuation of a series we've been waiting for. However, gratification soon gives way to concern over the longevity of the series. The work that went into this book appears to be more than that of the previous two, and the fourth novel is on the way.

I hope the author takes it easy. Look at Aunty Lee, after just two books fall down already.



Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge
A Singaporean Mystery


Ovidia Yu
William Morrow
338 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-06-241649-0

Amazon | Bookurve | Book Depository | Kinokuniya | MPHOnline.com

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Book Marks: Textbooks, Libraries, And Reading

"Nai Sarak, Delhi's oldest bookselling and publishing hub, is struggling for survival. And the shopkeepers blame a number of factors — the advent of online bookstores selling second-hand books, rise in book piracy, a flourishing photocopy culture and an increase in number of foreign publishers setting up shop in India, making textbooks available at cheaper prices. ... sales have dipped by 60 to 70 percent in the last few years."

At a university in the US, a student paper also opined that the prices of textbooks are too damned high. "In fact, the average cost of a college textbook has increased by 73 percent since 2006, according to a study by Student Public Interest Research Groups. Nearly one-third of students in the study reported that they used financial aid to help pay for their textbooks."



A short story collection from an alleged North Korean writer is under a renewed spotlight. ... The Accusation by Bandi was first published in South Korea in May of 2014, but received little attention as a literary work. This was partly because no one was certain who Bandi was, or if the book was really written by a North Korean.

But the fate of the book encountered a change of tide late last year." Odd phrasing aside (what does "a change of tide" in a book's fate mean?), I think we'd all like to hear more stories from North Korea other than the fables spun by its government.


Plus:

  • "I love books. I can't leave a bookstore without at least one. But I also have a tendency to buy books and not actually read them. Somewhere along the way reading fell by the wayside in favor of other forms of entertainment. To get back on track, I made some simple changes that have helped me with my reading habits thus far—no speed reading necessary."
  • "I was pulled out of line in the immigration queue at Los Angeles airport as I came in to the USA. Not because I was Mem Fox the writer – nobody knew that – I was just a normal person like anybody else. They thought I was working in the States and that I had come in on the wrong visa." Deny all you want, but it's increasingly clear that Trump's White House is encouraging the ghastly behaviours of ghastly people.
  • "Education publisher Pearson reports biggest loss in its history ... after a slump at its US education operation." In January, the world's largest education publisher announced that it was letting go of its stake in Penguin Random House.
  • "The Cologne Public Library is serving as a social and educational space for the city's refugees, as counterparts across Germany increasingly become places for community engagement. Could the UK learn from this?" Why not? What is going to happen to all that space once the books and shelves are gone?
  • "For Céline Leterme and Jon Dowling, they started talking about Counter-Print – an online book shop and publisher – at their own local [pub] nine years ago, after realising there were others who shared their love of vintage design books. Fast-forward to today, and the ambitious designers are now also selling new books on design from a variety of publishers they admire, as well as children's books..."
  • "When is a Trojan horse not a Trojan horse? When it is a branch of Waterstones. So says managing director James Daunt, eager to reassure retailers and readers after the chain came under fire for opening three unbranded branches in the past three years – Southwold Books in Suffolk, Harpenden Books in Hertfordshire and The Rye Bookshop in East Sussex." Maybe local bookstore chains should look into this.
  • "Let's be honest, it's been a rough couple of months [in the US], and the headlines over the past few weeks have been jarring and unsettling. Yet even the most die-hard political activist has to recharge and reboot every now and then. It's no surprise that small pleasures can provide a little well-needed escape in times such as these." Okay, but should you plug your own book in articles like this? Is it fine to do that now?

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

This Town Is His Oyster

Apparently, Rehman Rashid started writing about his adoptive hometown but he couldn't stop and ended up wth a whole book, Peninsula: A Story of Malaysia.

The chapters in that book, "Small Town" and "Lost Tribes", were later revisited and turned into a slimmer volume, Small Town, which I consider a beautifully written encomium to Kuala Kubu Baru.

The former newsman's brief yet compelling and grandiloquent yarn of KKB manages to take us from its storied past to how life is like there today, with some musings about and concerns for its future. The town, he suggests, represents the postcard-perfect image of Malaysia we should all work towards becoming.

Though parts of Small Town are already in his other book, the contents feel fresh, helped in no small part by the contributions of other KKB-ians - and my being away from the pages of Peninsula for months.

Here, have a taste:

"History accretes upon human endeavour like a pearl oyster dealing with a speck of grit: wrapping itself layer by layer over the jagged little irritation, one layer at a time, until this lustrous little jewel appears. The time it takes, the painstaking minuteness of the layering, are hardly in keeping with the pell-mell construction of a national economy through massive infrastructural development.

"...By fate and fortune, this pearl of a small town survived it all to offer me sanctuary in my own retirement and senior citizenship."

Now isn't that a whiff of cool, crisp countryside air.

But this is a bit more than just "how the story of just one town in a secluded corner of the Malaysia peninsula encapsulates the entire history of the State of Selangor and its nation". Through the book, we are also acquainted with some of the locals, including Rehman's surprisingly young landlord. Through their stories and the author's lyrical prose, the town springs to life.

Self-published with the help of the Kuala Kubu Historical Society (PESKUBU), the book also features photographs by the author and artwork by local KKB-ians, making it more of a community project. Proceeds from sales of the book during its launch went to PESKUBU.

It is also the story of how the author ended up residing in this place, where he wrapped up A Malaysian Journey. KKB doesn't sound like a place one would choose to live in, but one supposes that a life of relative silence and seclusion holds a huge draw for certain people.

"Some people don't care much for silence," he muses in the prologue. "It can be associated with death, I suppose. Silence is an absence; what's left when things cease. Sound is life: energy, motion, interaction ... communication ... Silence, on its part, is insulation. Cessation. Stasis, really."

Yet, he remains anything but quiet on social media, commenting on world affairs; writing a couple more books, including this one; and sharing the sights and sounds of his neighbourhood that he has explored since taking up recreational cycling. So the news of his hospitalisation came as a shock.

Rehman may have a reputation, but when it comes to KKB and its denizens, he's incredibly effusive, grateful to be embraced by the locals as one of their own despite not being born there. Like an oyster, the town seems to have smoothed out the rough edges of this gnarly irritant of a man (to his detractors) - though his inimitable abrasiveness will surface should anyone mess with him or his neighbourhood.

"I could ask for no better place to live out the remains of my days as a Malaysian; no better environment or circumstances than here among my fellow small-town Malaysians, most of whom may have actively tried to forget more than I could possibly know about what they'd been through to be here now."

And by golly, has this tiny corner of Peninsular Malaysia been through a lot.



Small Town
A Personal Tribute to Kuala Kubu Baru, Hulu Selangor, Malaysia

Rehman Rashid
PESKUBU (and Rehman Rashid)
64 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 9789671439517

Kinokuniya | MPHOnline.com | Silverfish Books

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Book Marks: Indies, Sensitivity Readers, And A Dictator's Son

Tokyo-based journalist Yoji Gomi, author of My Father, Kim Jong Il, and Me said that:

...Kim Jong Nam, the son of late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and the half brother of current leader Kim Jong Un, represented a small hope for change in the isolated communist country.

"I thought he was someone who has something meaningful to say, and perhaps bring change to North Korea."

Is that why he was dealt with?



For an island nation of 23.5 million people, Taiwan churns out about 40,000 new titles annually. But things aren't going great:

Between 2012 and 2015, Taiwan’s total book sales dropped 46%, from $1.14 billion to $617.9 million, although sales seems to have stabilized in the past year. Much of the decline is due to bookstore closures and had little to do with e-books, which account for less than 4% of the market.

The number of registered bookstores went from 2,603 in 2007 to 2,192 in 2015. Last year, only 1,492 were still in business.

So Taiwan's indie booksellers and publishers are scrambling to reverse that trend.



Need a sensitivity reader for your new book on, says, crazy-rich Asians? Well, it's now a thing. Though some are for it ("A blind misrepresentation of a minority culture is a failing of craft as much as an underdeveloped protagonist or poor pacing."), others are not, especially if authors feel forced to have their work scrutinised for blind spots ("Censorship doesn't start with government dictates. It begins with popular pressure.").


Plus:

  • Despite concerns regarding U.S.-Cuban relations, the U.S. Publishing Mission to Cuba (organised by Publishers Weekly and US book promotion and book marketing company Combined Book Exhibit) "ended this year's visit on an optimistic note, with both Cuban and American publishers vowing to continue to work to somehow bring the two industries closer together."
  • "It's a wonderful time to be a reader," says Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post's Book World, in this Q&A with OregonLive.com.
  • Malaysia's George Town Literary Festival was shortlisted for the Literary Festival Award under the London Book Fair (LBF) International Excellence Awards.
  • "With a mixture of tough love and an unshakeable belief in the power of the physical book, which seemed quixotic in the era of e-readers and online discounting, [bookseller James] Daunt began to turn things around." How Waterstones came back from the dead.
  • "Many business owners now recognise what a powerful tool a book can be to help them build credibility for their brand and raise the profile and visibility of their business. However, there are several ways that a book can do exactly the opposite of what is required." BusinessZone lays them out.
  • "For decades, booksellers peddling their wares along Pansodan Street have formed an important part of the city's fabric, but last year authorities forced them to move as part of plans to clear the increasingly cluttered pavements. On January 7, a new home was found for them at the 'Yangon Book Street', located on the corner of Thein Phyu and Anawrahta streets, next to the historic Secretariat and Central Press buildings."
  • The claims in this book, Masculinity and Science, about how science became a manly pursuit are kind of interesting.
  • Now that Amazon is streamlining the way self-published paperbacks are printed with its Kindle Direct Publishing program, "it's even easier to force your friends to read your novel," according to Engadget.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Hidden Figures That Charted The American Path To Space

One afternoon in a café and a couple of flavoured lattes later, a first draft I like. It's been a long time since I felt anything like this. The book helped tremendously.

I started out not liking it so much. By the end, however, I knew what the fuss was about. And I liked that connection between the ladies of Langley's West Computing and those from the Harvard Observatory, and I wasn't the only one who noticed. Seeing the dots being joined as the pages turned is thrilling. It's like witnessing the continuation of a developing space saga.

I was also nervous, and not just because of the coffees. As an editor, I'm supposed to be good at highlighting a writer's blind spots, but I'm not as confident in spotting my own. When dealing with material that touches on sensitive matters, one is likely to hit a sore spot. If I have, I apologise.



The hidden figures that charted the American path to space

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 22 February 2017


Mention "human computers" and the first thing that might come to mind are the mentats in Frank Herbert's Dune.

The second thing might be a bunch of women called the Harvard Computers, who helped American astronomer Edward Charles Pickering map the stars. I first learnt of them - in particular Annie Jump Cannon, a key figure in the development of the modern star classification system - from Jason Porath's Rejected Princesses.

But it never occurred to me — and perhaps many others — that America’s aeronautics industry and that nation’s foray into space also received help from female human computers, some of whom were African Americans. Remarkable, perhaps, given the prejudices of that era.

Then again, maybe not. From familiar figures in sports, entertainment and the civil rights movement to the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen, African Americans played undeniably crucial roles in the history of the United States — something that seems to have been downplayed by certain historical narratives.

So we should all compose a note of thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, who brought to light the incredible story of the West Area Computing Unit, the black, all-female group of mathematicians of the Langley Research Center of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later become Nasa.

Some of us probably shouldn’t be faulted for assuming that Neil deGrasse Tyson is the only black scientist in America. When I was growing up, my knowledge of US history mostly came from movies and brick-thick encyclopaedias... when I could get to them.

Shetterly, on the other hand, “knew so many African Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” Her father was a research scientist at the Langley Research Center and her mom was an English professor. So this can also be considered their story as well.

A cast of thousands populates this sweeping narrative, from civil rights leaders, scholars and even celebrities and the cast of Star Trek. The lab employees at Langley, from Shetterly’s descriptions, wouldn’t be out of place in modern-day institutions such as Google or maybe Tesla.

Let’s not forget the female mathematicians, black and white, who may have numbered up to a thousand. To tell all their stories within a single volume would have been impossible, so Hidden Figures focused on a few, all of whom were from Langley’s West Area Computing Unit.

Among the standouts include Dorothy Vaughan, who rose up the ranks to the head of the West Area Computers and is the lynchpin of this tale; Katherine Johnson, who calculated the launch windows for the first astronauts, including John Glenn; and Mary Jackson, Nasa’s first black female engineer and Girl Scout mum who strove to get more women employed by the space agency.

This book is aptly titled. Racism and misogyny meant that the part women and blacks played in the war effort was largely — and unfairly — kept out of the spotlight. Their work was vital, but besides doing the math, the West Area Computers also battled those two forces for their due and dignity. However, they didn’t face and overcome them alone.

More than the incredible story of barrier-breaking, this book is also a heady slice of American history, the apple-pie fragrance and sweetness of which emanates from the kindness of Margery Hannah, head of West Computing’s section, to her black subordinates; the righteousness of Robert T. Jones, the aeronautical engineer who stood up for a black man bullied by cops; and astronaut John Glenn’s trust — by “the transitive property of equality” — in Katherine Johnson’s verification of the numbers that would determine his fate.

Also hard to ignore is the heartwarming and exemplary spirit of kinship within the Langley staff. Some of these women are wives and mothers, who put up with the demands of their jobs and the prejudices of the day for their families. The story of how Mary Jackson helped her son design a winning car for a soapbox derby, for instance, is worthy of a Petronas Mother’s Day ad.

One also got the sense that the camaraderie among the staff also broke boundaries. Under Shetterly’s penmanship, their achievements, beliefs and efforts eclipsed their racial identities. “Black” and “white” became nothing more than the colours on the pages. As Katherine Johnson told audiences during her talks, according to the author: “Math was either right or wrong, and if you got it right, it didn’t matter what colour you were.”

Fine, so I might have run away quite a bit with how awesome this book is, even if some parts tend to gloss over some of the other characters’ histories and over-explain the technical aspects of the problems the characters worked on. I should also toss in how much the US needs to remember this bit of its past, considering who’s currently in the White House.

As Hidden Figures illustrates, America was at the forefront of scientific innovation, a battleground for civil rights and, despite its apparent problems in solving its racial issues, an example of democratic government. Not to mention a trove of very inspiring human stories.

Just as how a little steel ball launched by the Russians into space galvanised the engineers and mathematicians of Nasa into plotting a course for the moon, that guy’s election victory might prompt Americans to rediscover what made the US great all those years ago. They could, perhaps, start by doing the math with these now-revealed figures.



Hidden Figures
The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

Margot Lee Shetterly
William Collins
384 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 9780008201326

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