Week 36 (Sam): The Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore


Reader: Sam

Topic #15: Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+

Book: The Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

“Fighting was the only safe way to touch a Paloma…The rage made it true and good. The anger and honor of defending this family shielded them like a saint’s prayer. Hitting and kicking were safe. Anything else could bring sickness.”

The Paloma and Corbeau families both live a life without roots, traveling from town to town as performers. The Palomas and Corbeau would never willingly make contact with one another, but there is one stop every year that both families make simultaneously: the town of Almendro, the site of a disaster that turned the families against each other in the first place. Lace Paloma and Lucien “Cluck” Corbeau are only teenagers, young enough that they weren’t even born when the flood came, but they’ve inherited the rivalry of their predecessors. Under ordinary circumstances they never would have met, but in the panic following an industrial accident, Cluck saves Lace’s life and Lace is driven by superstition to repay her debt to him, even if she needs to hide her real identity to do it.

Thematically and structurally, The Weight of Feathers revolves around the parity between the two families. There is one protagonist from each, with their respective viewpoints taking up about half of the book. Each one is supported by a cast of characters from their respective family. For the first fifty pages, when Cluck and Lace haven’t properly met yet, they live parallel lives, each one surrounded by suspicion of the rival family, and each one unsatisfied with their position within their own family. Even the shows the families put on are horizontal reflections of each other: the Palomas don mermaid tails and swim amidst the trunks of sunken trees, just close enough to the surface for the audience to see them, while the Corbeau put on imitation wings and leap among high-up branches, emulating flight for the audience down below. All the parallels between the two imbue the book with an instinctive pleasure, the joy of seeing something and then seeing it reflected, as though in a mirror.

After a protracted opening hundred pages, the story begins properly when Lace starts working backstage for the Corbeau under an assumed surname and her friendship with Cluck is allowed to grow. Even as they become closer and Lace starts to want more from Cluck than a simple friendship, she knows her family ties and the lies she told to conceal them threaten to cut it all short if she is discovered. Although Cluck is in the dark about Lace’s identity, he has problems of his own, including a forbidding mother and a physically abusive brother who take a dim view of him getting friendly with Lace, and the worsening health of his grandfather, the only relative he feels truly close to. Both Cluck and Lace are troubled, both are scarred by traumas of the past, physically and emotionally, but their similarities hardly seem to promise a happy ending. Can the force that draws them together really pull stronger than the force that invisibly pulls them apart?

McLemore’s prose is pleasant, if somewhat inconsistent. The dialogue is often clever and precise, expressive enough that it doesn’t need accompanying description, but McLemore sometimes provides that description anyway, and the redundancy of it can diminish the simple joy of the reading itself. She has an inclination toward synesthetic metaphors, such as “the sense of falling did not touch her,” but the surreal tone she achieves with them isn’t worth their habitual clumsiness. The worst of these are so overwrought they actively distract from the point they were written to make.

As I alluded before, The Weight of Feathers has a slow start, but it compensates with characters that feel worth rooting for and a setting that dances dreamlike on the edge of plausibility. McLemore has invented a world of sadness with beauty hidden inside, and Lace and Cluck’s quest to find that beauty, whether together or apart, is effective in its own right. It’s true that at times, it becomes slightly predictable, but that’s partly because it has such a clear idea of what sort of book it’s supposed to be.

Final Grade: B –



Week 35 (Sam): Sip, by Brian Allen Carr


Reader: Sam

Topic #21: Read a book published by a micropress.

Book: Sip, by Brian Allen Carr

Publisher: Soho Press, New York

“The sun was up, so the dark could start. Everywhere, men and women dragged themselves into the light from wallows and hovels, from snag crooks and mishap holes to drop, once again, into the stupor that the sun gave them.”

As it turns out, the end of the world wasn’t all that final. It’s the middle of the 21st century, decades after the human race discovered that you could get high drinking your own shadow off the ground, and the species is still hobbling toward the future despite the lack of anything much to call civilization. Some of humankind live in domed cities without sunlight, others march around the countryside in all-women militia forces that slaughter everyone they meet, while most just live in the wreckage of the cities and towns that were once bursting with life. A young girl named Mira takes care of her shadowless mother, catching and feeding her the shadows of birds so her mother can sleep like she did before her shadow was stolen. Just as Mira is beginning to crack under this burden, she meets Bale, a man from a domed city, and she sets off with him and her shadow-addicted friend, Murk, on a journey to find a cure for her mother’s condition.

For a post-apocalyptic world, the setting of Sip is strangely calm. Despite the bands of shadow junkies who would gladly kill for their next fix and the armies of well-trained murderers, Mira, Murk and Bale live in relative safety, hardly ever crossing paths with these dangerous elements. Brian Allen Carr seems far more interested in invoking the gritty mundanity of a Western than the thrills or shocks of the horror genre and the book is well-served by it. Sip trades excitement for a suffocating malaise that lingers in every gesture and every word spoken. Even when Mira’s life grows more dangerous and bodies start to drop, a certain weary indifference is preserved, as though even the shock of death is not enough to restore a soul to a soulless world.

The fact that Sip is anything other than unbearably grim is a testament to the power of Carr’s dialog. His characters, if somehow considered without the strength of their dialog, would be merely serviceable extensions of their nihilistic environment, so emotionally drained that they find it nearly impossible to dream of better lives. However, the way his characters banter constitutes something like an act of rebellion against this quiet despair. The daily grind has imparted them with a sardonic wit, and their conversations are overstuffed with sarcasm, barbed insults and mean-spirited jokes. There’s hardly a wasted word in any of it, every sentence sharp and straightforward, and it’s lively enough that the whole cast, both starring and supporting, seems frighteningly real at times, even when they’re performing supernatural feats.

The impossibility of drinking a shadow isn’t given much more attention than a shrug or a wink here and there, the book more concerned with what the world is than how it got that way. There are other supernatural elements too; for instance, most shadow addicts have strange shape-shifting powers, and Mira possesses the unexplained and apparently-unique power to talk to animals. While it’s not clear why exactly people would have these abilities, Sip is entirely clear on what they do and how they function, so beyond the first thirty establishing pages, there aren’t any surprises as to what is or isn’t possible in the setting.

While Mira and her two friends are the most prominent characters by far, Carr insists on filling his world with other people, strangers who streak through the lives of the main cast like comets and vanish just as suddenly. Every single one of them has a story of their own, but they are all doomed to either die or to vanish from the story before we have time to learn what becomes of them. Carr’s melancholy setting seems to swallow hope and smother ambition, and the more humanity is crushed underneath this melancholy, the more one wonders whether it is even possible for Mira’s aspirations to be any less doomed than all the others.

Considering how much there is to experience in this book, it’s surprising just how small it is. There’s a great deal of genuine drama, as well as a healthy amount of dark humor wrapped up in just three-hundred short pages. I drank it down ferociously, and I suspect I will be returning to it in the future.

Final Grade: A-


Week 34 (Blaga) The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri


Reader: Blaga

Topic #5: Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative

Book: The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Mariner Books (2004)

Originally Published by: Wheeler Publishing (2003)





Among the variety of topics that Jhumpa Lahiri addresses in her written work, immigration is among the most often addressed and one of the strongest. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning short-story collection The Interpreter of Maladies did so; her first novel, The Namesake, does as well. In it, Lahiri details the story of two generations of the Ganguli family: Gogol Ganguli, an American-born Indian architect, and his parents, Ashoke (an MIT-based scholar) and Ashima (a housewife), who immigrate to the United States at the beginning of the novel.

Lahiri tackles elements typical of immigrant experience: homesickness, the desire to belong, question of cultural identity, and inter-generational struggles. Being an immigrant myself, I have either witnessed or personally faced these, so any time I read a book that broaches the subject, I approach it with both curiosity and a fair degree of caution. Having read Lahiri’s short story collection beforehand, I knew I didn’t need to worry: this novel is full of familiar conflicts and relatable characters that bring the immigrant experience to life.

The key to the believable immigrant story that Lahiri tells is the changing viewpoints. Lahiri chose to narrate her novel from the perspectives of Ashima, Gogol, and, occasionally, Ashoke. Although Gogol’s perspective is the most prevalent, the interchange establishes a much fuller picture of the family’s unique dynamic. We readers get to see Ashima and Ashoke’s homesickness so that we can understand them far better, including why they are so stubbornly attached to their native culture, why almost all of their friends are Indian immigrants, and why they insist that their children experience their traditions. At the same time, we also come to understand why Gogol, a first generation American, rebels against his parents’ demands throughout his childhood and young adulthood, to the point where he even tries to abandon his own name.

Lahiri invites us to observe the slow evolution of the family and their personal identities. This evolution begins in the smallest things, as Ashima feels her life in Boston stabilize, as the family chooses to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, and as the children adopt American lifestyles that even their parents can accept. Eventually, tragedy pushes the family to change much further and faster than ever before, and by the end of the novel, they find themselves in a strange middle ground common to American immigrant families, trapped between two cultures they both do and do not fully belong to. As Lahiri expresses it:

“And though [Ashima] still does not feel fully at home within these walls on Pemberton Road she knows that this is home nevertheless – the world for which she is responsible, which she created, which is everywhere around her…”

One other great asset of The Namesake is Lahiri’s writing itself: it is not simply the insightful handling of the subject matter, but the lyricism and pleasure of her prose. It flows – her sentences reflect her characters’ thoughts, carrying the reader along. Not once did I feel bored or want to skip ahead, which resulted in a more powerful and more immersive experience.

Ultimately, while Namesake is a book about immigration and immigrants, at its core it really is a story about family and about identity. Between the well-written characters and the beautiful prose, I highly recommend it.

Week 33 (Sam): The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz


Reader: Sam

Topic #5: Read a book written by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative

Book: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz

Published by Riverhead Books (2007)

“It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in [fukú]. In fact, it’s better than fine—it’s perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.”

Oscar de León’s family, like so many Dominican-American families in Paterson, New Jersey, has a “fukú” story to tell, although no one seems eager to tell it. A curse—fukú—has been maiming and killing his family since at least the time that Oscar’s grandfather died as a political prisoner in the Dominican Republic half a century ago. Oscar pays no attention to the stories; he’s far too busy figuring out how to get a girlfriend, or at least stop being the butt of his classmates’ jokes because of his obesity, his social ineptitude and his nerdiness. But whether he knows it or not, fukú is already wrapping its fingers around him, ready to drag him toward an untimely death.

While Oscar de León (aka “Oscar Wao”) is the book’s most central character, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is really a multi-generational story with a few different protagonists, all of them members of Oscar’s family. Oscar’s sister, mother, and grandfather all have chapters dedicated to their own place in history and their own brushes with fukú. Like other stories that span generations, this book acts as a history of its setting, in this case, the Dominican Republic during the murderous regime of Rafael Trujillo. The dictator’s cruelty, enabled by the execution squads he commands, merges uneasily with the more abstract threat of fukú, the two becoming nearly one and the same: a terrible evil that set its roots in the era of colonization and that will now destroy every human life it touches.

As serious as the book sounds, Díaz’s prose is light-footed and playful. This is mostly thanks to the narrator, a boy named Yunior who isn’t even a member of the family, and whose slight detachment from most of the events results in a gentle tinge of irony that hangs over everything. Yunior’s prose is skillfully eclectic, bursting at the seams with phrases borrowed from Spanish, slang from the United States, references to “nerd” media like Lord of the Rings and the Fantastic Four, and semi-academic (if frequently profane) footnotes on Dominican history. The effect is not quite funny enough to be fundamentally comedic, but it does make the book pleasant to read, even when horrible events are occurring. More than that, his unique voice lays the groundwork for Yunior becoming possibly the most intriguing character in the book, despite the fact that it’s not even clear who he is or how he’s connected to the de Leóns at first. The downside to all the slang, Spanish, and nerdy references is that unversed readers will occasionally have difficulty following the narrative, but there’s no question that the vibrant prose is worth that price.

In a novel with so many characters, one wonders whether Oscar was a good choice to play the starring role. He’s certainly a memorable character—cripplingly anxious, geeky, and uncontrollably amorous toward nearly every woman he meets—but he’s also a fairly passive force in his own life until the final fifty pages. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is more the story of what happens to Oscar and less the story of what Oscar does. It’s a difficult problem to untangle, because the thematic role of fukú necessitates that any protagonist in this story be largely helpless before forces stronger than themselves, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most engaging way to present a narrative.

Altogether, Díaz presents something that is less of a character driven narrative and more a series of curious events entangled with one another, delivered with great wit and tied together with a nihilistic flourish. Ultimately, there’s a certain cynicism to the ending that does not feel fully addressed. So much suffering was shown and confronted, but it’s difficult to see what has really been learned. Perhaps that’s just what tragedy is: pointless.

Final Grade: B –

Week 32 (Blaga): Collected Poems by C.P. Cavfy, translated by Edmund Keely and Philip Sherrard


Reader: Blaga

Topic #23: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

Book: Collected Poems: Revised Edition, by C. V. Cavafy

Publisher: Princeton University Press (1992)


Guard, O my soul, against pomp and glory.

And if you cannot curb your ambitions,

at least pursue them hesitantly, cautiously.

And the higher you go,

the more searching and careful you need to be.

Excerpt from “The Ides of March”


Throughout his lifetime, Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) wrote numerous poems, of which one hundred and fifty four were completed and published. A Greek born in Alexandria, Egypt, Cavafy made his living as a journalist and civil servant and gained little renown as a poet until after his death. Today, he is considered one of the great modern Greek poets. This second edition of Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keely and Philip Sherrard, and edited by George Savidis, offers a chronologically arranged selection of his works, both published and unpublished during his lifetime.

Cavafy’s poetry is based in topics related to the ancient world, so I knew that I had to read it. It was an interesting experience, given that I am not used to reading collections of poetry, let alone collections of poetry in translation. Unfortunately, my first impression was that the wide-ranging differences between Greek (both modern and classical) and English renders the translation process difficult and not necessarily rewarding. Of course, a translated text is never the same as the original, but when two languages have different flows to them, it makes conveying even an approximation of tone impossible. In this case, the alleged intricacy of Cavafy’s style (especially the verse) did not usually seem to be well-reflected in the English.

Although not all of the poems made an impression, those that did carried a powerful impact. I was struck by two poems in particular: The Ides of March and Waiting for the Barbarians. They struck a chord due to the political and philosophical statements that Cavafy makes through them — statements that are still true today. The Ides of March, quoted above, addresses political ambition and the dangers it carries, highlighting the inevitable downfall resulting from over-confidence.

Waiting for the Barbarians was particularly powerful and relevant to the present political situation. I will quote a few slivers of the poem here and let it speak for itself:


Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?

Why do the senators sit here without legislating?

    Because the barbarians are coming today.

What laws can the senators make now?

Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.


But, in the end, the barbarians do not come. So Cavafy asks:


And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.


Cavafy’s poems can be divided in several general categories: mythological (alluding to Greek and Roman myth), historical (alluding to historical figures or events), erotic (especially homoerotic), and contemplative/instructive. A reader does not have to be acquainted with many of their subjects to appreciate them (I was not really familiar with the majority of Byzantine figures he alludes to); the message of these poems has a certain amount of universality which can impact anyone. Turkish Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk is one example. His New York Times essay on his relationship with one of the poems is worth reading and considering.

Whether you are a reader of poetry or not, I find that this collection has something for everyone. I would recommend looking through it, even if you do not read the entire collection. Like me, you might be surprised, or even inspired.

Week 31 (Sam): Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney


Reader: Sam

Topic #23: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

Book: Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (Author Unknown)

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2000)

“Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,/ eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride./ For a brief while your strength is in bloom/ but it fades quickly…Your piercing eye/ will dim and darken; and death will arrive,/ dear warrior, to sweep you away.”

Long ago, when dying paganism was still fresh in the hearts of those who dwelled in the cold lands northeast of Britannia, a small ship bearing fifteen Geatish warriors disembarked on Danish shores. There had been plenty of bad blood between the Geats and the Danes, enough reason for war in that era of violence, but these Geatish warriors had no plans to revive hostilities. Quite the opposite; their leader, Beowulf, had heard stories of the monster, Grendel, and the Danish corpses he had left behind him and he was spurred to come to their aid. Brave as he is strong, strong as he is proud, Beowulf means to win not just the favor of King Hrothgar, but lasting glory as a warrior by the only means he can: the risking of his own life.

As one of the oldest surviving texts in Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf’s archaic English is unintelligible to readers of modern-day English, other than the occasional familiar word. Like any other foreign language text, a modern reader must depend on a translation, and it is this translation that largely dictates the quality of a reader’s experience. Seamus Heaney is mostly successful in turning the original Old English into something easy to read while respecting the line order; he breaks the action down into quick, simple clauses, often chaining many of these clauses together to convey more complicated ideas, but rarely allowing any part to break the rhythm that he undoubtedly heard in the original language.

This edition has everything a passionate reader might want in a translation. With the original text and the translation printed on opposite pages, scholars or students of Old English can check between the two instantaneously. There is also an excellent foreword, which provides much-needed  background on the era and allowed me to follow the story pretty well from the start. I was especially pleased with the miniature summaries sprinkled through the book, which quickly explain the meaning of each passage. At times, when the narrative dipped into one of its many nested stories and it became unclear which character was being described, a quick check in the margins was often enough to reorient me.

As a tale of monster-slaying and adventure, Beowulf is frankly, a bit lackluster. Beowulf combats three foes in over three thousands lines of the poem, but of the three, only the third and final reads as anything more than a summary of the most important points. Great care is spent in establishing each of Beowulf’s opponents as a dangerous threat, and after he defeats them, many lines are spent extolling his greatness in slaying them, but again, only in the last case does the battle prove to be more than a trivial concern. Beowulf’s seeming invincibility carries some interesting thematic resonance, but whatever the poem might be trying to say with these dull battle scenes, they also rob the poem of virtually any sense of excitement

Rather than an adventure narrative, the poem is much more successful as a reflection of a way of life entirely foreign to any modern reader. The Scandinavian kingdoms of Beowulf may be in frequent conflict with each other, but culturally, they are indistinguishable. Beowulf’s quest to win glory in battle is simply one example of an obsession that animates so many other stories in the poem: the hunger to prove oneself to subordinates, to superiors, to comrades, even to enemies and to oneself, but always through battle. In a world nearly empty of joy other than the meager distraction of drinking and stories, the only real value a person can obtain is obtained through the sword. But when the specter of death hangs over everything, are even the greatest deeds capable of bringing a life lasting meaning? It is when Beowulf considers this question that it achieves its most beautiful stanzas and ideas.

Final Grade: C+

Week 30 (Blaga): Trust the Focus (Focus#1), by Megan Erickson

22663603Reader: Blaga

Topic #20: Read an LGBTQ+ Romance novel

Book: Trust the Focus, by Megan Erickson

Publisher: Intermix (2015)

After graduating college, Justin Akron and his best friend Landry climb into Justin’s RV and take off on a cross-country trip. Justin’s father, a renowned freelance photographer, has just passed away, and their goal is to visit the places he most loved in life and spread his ashes, all the while blogging about the journey. Along the way, what was simply meant as a tribute to the dead brings long-suppressed tensions and truths rising to the surface. If they are willing to face them, Justin and Landry’s lives and relationship might change forever.

Trust the Focus benefits from a strong and believable premise that makes the central conflict easy to relate to.  Justin has been suppressing his sexual orientation for years, adopting the image of “masculinity” as much as possible – playing baseball, joining a fraternity in college, etc. – while simultaneously behaving as his conservative politician mother’s perfect son, majoring in political science and preparing to become her campaign manager, despite really wanting to become a photographer like his father. Landry, his best friend since childhood, seems every bit as  free as Justin is constrained: he is openly gay in a happy relationship and he studied whatever he wanted in college. Place those two opposites in a small, isolated space for several weeks, and two perfectly-crafted facades begin to crack. The consequences of this simple and believable premise felt just as real and meaningful as the set-up, the struggle their relationship becomes carrying real pathos.

While this book tells a great love story (of the friends-to-lovers variety, which I find particularly strong), it is just as effective as a coming-out story. Justin’s decision as to how honest he will be to his real wishes is not something that he can rush into comfortably. Yet he chooses to admit the truth because of love. This smart pairing of two types of story gets a lot out of its protagonist and makes him feel more developed than most.  Their evolving relationship reveals vulnerabilities in Landry as well, and his clashes with Justin showcase the human imperfections that make him a more balanced and nuanced character.

While Erickson develops Justin and Landry well, this cannot be said about the other characters in her novel. The character who presents the most notable problem is Justin’s mother. As a politician running for office with a conservative platform, she is portrayed as the largest obstacle to Justin coming out freely and publicly. Their estranged relationship, along with the fact that the story is written from Justin’s first person perspective, means we never get a clear view of her as a human being until, with one small exception, the very end. The problem with her portrayal is not so much her being the barrier Justin needs to overcome; it is her main motivation, as stated: the future of her career. Her personal perspective is not revealed until the end, when we get to see her as a single mother who has fought to raise her child and make a life, and a person with flaws and feelings of her own as opposed to a personification of Justin’s insecurity who only interjects to limit his possibilities or spur him to action. In fact, most of the secondary characters in the novel are there solely for the convenience of the story or to artificially hasten the conflict. Of course, a premise where two people are on a cross-country trip makes it convenient for side characters to leave minimal impressions on the reader, but I found the hasty introduction and subsequent irrelevance of these characters to render them largely pointless.

Despite a strong start and central conflict, the denouement left a lot to be desired. In the immediate aftermath of the climax, the way the plot ties together—and especially, the way two main sources of conflict are addressed—is needlessly melodramatic. It shifts the tone of the story from a realistic, believable one into one more appropriate to fairytales. Erickson would have done a better job if she’d been careful to make the conclusion of her story as grounded and plausible as the rest was. Ultimately, despite its flaws, Trust the Focus is an intelligently crafted, fast-paced and enjoyable read. It tells a rather sweet (and quite steamy) friends-to-lovers story and does tap into realistic and important questions. A good book for a rainy day inside.

Week 29 (Blaga): Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly


Reader: Blaga

Topic #13: Read a non-fiction book about technology

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

Narrator: Robin Miles

Published by: HarperAudio (2016)

Print Copy Published by: William Morrow (2016)


Dorothy Vaughan. Mary Jackson. Katherine Johnson. Christine Darden: these are just four women of color from over forty who worked at NASA as human computers between the 1940s and 1980s, contributing to scientific achievements and social developments. Blending history and biography, Margot Lee Shetterly masterfully recounts these sweeping changes while paying homage to the work and lives of the women who played a part in them.

When the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later be dissolved and replaced by the National Air and Space Agency (NASA)*, hired women for the first time in the 1930s, their male colleagues were scandalized; it was not until 1943 that they began to hire black women as computers. It was wartime though, and with President Roosevelt’s executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the national defense industry, anyone who was qualified could be hired. Whether anyone intended for it to be so initially, these female human computers remained at work even after the war – one of the first barriers on the path of overcoming was broken. Dorothy Vaughan was one of the first to be hired. Mary Jackson became an aerospace engineer. Katherine Johnson, among other things, calculated the rocket trajectories for John Glenn’s 1962 flight orbiting the Earth, the Mercury and Apollo missions. Christine Darden, the youngest of these four women, was hired directly out of graduate school; she became an engineer at NASA eventually working on sonic booms. These four and their colleagues were college or graduate school educated. They were hard workers, brilliant minds and patriots serving their country through a World War and into a Cold War. So, why has the wider public mostly not heard about them until recently?

Shetterly’s advantage in authoring this book is that she grew up in Hampton, VA – the town where the black computers lived during their decades with NASA; she knows many of them personally, and demonstrates a comfortable understanding of their work. The book is part biography – it tells the stories of these four women, relating their early lives, including their educational backgrounds and what ultimately brought them to Hampton, and tracing their achievements at NASA. It is part history of science – Shetterly does not shy away from science and mathematics, and proves willing to engage with complex vocabulary and concepts. It is also part socio-political history, detailing the sexually and racially discriminatory practices of the WWII and Cold War eras. Together, these three aspects form a holistic image of the world the black computers lived in, and how they lived in it.

At times, the book’s preoccupation with conveying the precise details of rocket science became somewhat overbearing. While a certain degree of this is appreciated, parts of Hidden Figures were challenging to get through. The detail Shetterly gives the historical background is similarly exhaustive, but much more consequential. It is important not to look at the events at NASA through the perspective of 21st century people, but within their historical context. Here, Shetterly’s accessible narrative style was of large help in getting through these fact-heavy portions of the book.

While Hidden Figures is not really a light read, it is very much worthy of attention. Shetterly pays respects, very much overdue, to a group of incredible women who contributed a great deal to America’s space program, highlighting how impressive their achievements are given the difficulties women and people of color faced in that era. An excellent book.


*Note: for the sake of simplicity, I will use only the acronym “NASA”  for the remainder of the review, even though NACA was technically (at least on paper) a different agency.

Week 28 (Sam): The Captive Prince, by C.S. Pacat


Reader: Sam

Topic #20: Read an LGBTQ+ Romance novel

Book: The Captive Prince, by C.S. Pacat

Publisher: Berkley Books, 2013


CW: Rape, Slavery

“The blindfold was tied around his eyes, tight. A moment later, Damen felt ringed fingers on his jawline, lifting it, as though Radel wished simply to admire the picture he made, blindfolded, arms lashed behind his back.”

Prince Damen of Akielos has spent his life enjoying the service of slaves: they cleaned him, dressed him, fed him, and, of course, serviced him sexually; he never paid them much attention. After a palace coup, however, he finds himself in chains, declared dead and shipped off in secret to Akielos’ worst enemy, the country of Vere, to serve as a “pleasure slave.” Damen is proud and prone to explosions of anger, but he must learn to control his emotions in order to survive the machinations of the Veretian royal court or the cruelty of his master, Laurent, the Prince of Vere. The palace hallways swarm with schemers and manipulators, and the key to Damen’s continued survival is to keep any of them from discovering his true identity.

Before you go any further, a warning is necessary: in The Captive Prince, C.S. Pacat explores a world of inequality and the dehumanization of slavery. The newly-enslaved Damen is subjected to constant physical and emotional abuse, every little act of rebellion punished in the hopes of “taming” him. More than that, his very role as a harem slave means that he has no sexual autonomy and his masters can choose to rape him whenever they like. While the abuses of slavery are most obvious to Damen, who is accustomed to unconditional respect, other slaves in the palace are also suffering under the yoke, no matter how much they’ve been trained to accept their positions. Ultimately, I’m not sure the book has anything profound to say about sexual abuse or slavery in general, but I can at least promise that it is respectful enough of the material to never gloss over the suffering of victims. 

Despite the word “Romance” written on the back cover, The Captive Prince doesn’t seem like a romance story at all. Presumably, the romance the book promises is the slowly-thawing relationship between Damen and his master, Prince Laurent. From the start, Laurent and Damen resent each other, but by the end, they grow to respect each other, at least a little bit. There are even hints of genuine sexual chemistry between them, and yet, to call their uneasy near-friendship a romance just isn’t accurate. The grotesque power dynamic between them is far more a prominent part of their relationship than anything more specific to the two of them. Presumably, their relationship will develop further in the two sequels, but as a reader expecting something more substantial, it was a bit of an anticlimax.

Denied the most basic autonomy and at the mercy of others, Damen makes for an unconventional protagonist. He has a few goals—survival, avoiding rape, escaping, protecting other slaves from Akielos from abuses—but he has almost no power to pursue any of them. His intelligence and his physical prowess as a fighter mean almost nothing when he spends his days chained alone in a room or at court gatherings surrounded by armed guards. His diplomatic and martial skills rendered useless, the skills that help him now are his ability to control his temper and understand the intentions of the schemers around him, seeking leverage in the complex social web of the palace. In contrast to most stories, what makes this one most interesting is not what the protagonist can do, but what he can’t do.

C.S. Pacat’s prose is simple and effective, describing the endless passage of days in the palace with an easy, almost lazy, grace. She conveys the limitless luxury of the Veretian court not with extensive descriptions, but through a few simple images: golden chains, painted faces, huge baths and flowery perfumes. The sex scenes are related with similar ease, evoked simply and quickly, even when they are describing assaults. The terror of rape is an essential part of the core of this story, but Pacat is tasteful enough to understand that rape doesn’t need to be established as terrible through lurid descriptions and traumatic images, but is already self-evidently terrible.

Ultimately, despite some good prose and character writing, not all that much actually happens in The Captive Prince. Mostly, Damen waits for things to happen to him, and they only happen occasionally. His lack of agency is a part of the unique appeal of the book, but it left me wishing for something more exciting instead. Maybe reading the other two books in the series and treating the trilogy as one text would address some of my reservations, but that’s not how it was published and not how I will evaluate it.

Final Grade: C

Week 27 (Sam): The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum


Reader: Sam

Topic #13: Read a non-fiction book about technology

Book: The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

Published by The Penguin Press (2011)

“There were times, and they came frequently enough, when one could believe that modern society, machine-age America, was addicted to poisons.”

It’s the early twentieth century, and the behemoth of mass production is carrying New York City, like the rest of the country, into a technologically advanced future. Automation floods the streets with automobiles, with canned food and gasoline-jet lamps, with pesticides and medicines. Yet, for all their value, these products of a modernizing world carry tremendous dangers as well: poisons. Toxins swirl in the air, ooze from the machines on the assembly lines and seep into the cocktails and whiskeys. For Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris, the still-emerging field of forensic toxicology holds the key to identifying the dangers of the modern world and preventing them, and he will do anything in his power to pull the field up to the level of respectability.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is Deborah Blum’s guide to the development of the vital practice of forensic toxicology, now taken for granted despite its importance. In January of 1918, Charles Norris is appointed to the brand-new position of Chief Medical Examiner for New York City, and with the help of toxicologist Alexander Gettler, he investigates poison-related deaths all across the city. With the exception of a few suicides and the occasional murder, most such deaths are rather mundane, a result of countless new products flooding the apartment buildings and factories, released carelessly and without oversight from the new and virtually-powerless FDA. To protect their city, Norris and Gettler must take up the fight, not only battling the poisons themselves, but taking on the negligent companies and government bodies that allow them to menace the citizens of New York.

Blum divides the years of Norris’s tenure into about a dozen chapters, each marked with a date and named for the poison that was most prominent in the department’s work at that time. The precision of this system of subdivision is representative of the book as a whole; Blum writes clearly and concisely about the events of the period, presenting them as plain fact. She keeps the science simple enough for a layman to understand, explaining whatever is necessary as quickly as she can so she can return to the big picture of Norris’s crusade against poisons. Rather than relying on expressive language or craftsmanship, she instead trusts in the inherent drama of life and death that plays out before us. Terrible dangers menace the ordinary citizens of the city, and the book gains an atmosphere akin to that of a thriller as it untangles several odd and notable cases.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of this book is its reflection on the dangers of the Prohibition era, which in stark contrast to the expectations of its architects, leads to far more alcohol abuse than ever before, the death toll climbing correspondingly. Deprived of legal alternatives, New Yorkers turn to bootleg liquor instead, unaware how much of it is composed of the often-deadly wood alcohol. Rather than trying to protect citizens from the dangers, the US government actively adds wood alcohol to products that might be used for bootleg liquor in the naive hopes of discouraging it. In addition to standing as an indictment of the US government’s behavior during prohibition, it echoes one of the book’s main ideas about the United States as a whole: that death was frequently an avoidable result of ignorance in the face of the awesome scientific forces of technology.

Despite presenting some interesting details and teaching me some facts about history I’m glad to know, The Poisoner’s Handbook is not altogether a compelling story. If Norris and the other members of the medical examiner’s office were particularly colorful characters, it isn’t clear from Blum’s treatment of them, and in any case, it would have little to do with their work. In the same vein, there aren’t any particularly notable through-lines to keep the book focused from chapter to chapter. The main criticism toward Deborah Blum’s book is simply that the personalities she chose to center her exploration of the era around are forgettable. Perhaps with greater care, she could have brought New York City’s past to life in a more human way.

Final Grade: B-