Between the Lines Book Club: Interviews with Margot Lee Shetterly

between the lines book club logoThis month we are reading Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a spellbinding nonfiction book about the women who made the space race possible. You can join us to discuss this book at Arden Dimick Book Club at 10:30AM on September 23, 2017.

Margot Lee Shetterly is a passionate advocate of preserving and publicizing the contributions that Black women have made to science. Here are some interviews with her:

New York Times

On the importance of imagination:

Writing this book helped me understand just how powerful imagination is: having the clarity of mind to see the world as it is and then to see it as it might be. That’s what this whole thing is. That’s what “Star Trek” was: We don’t know how to make an ideal society, but we’re going to portray that, and then we’re going to work backward. I think that’s why science fiction — despite the dystopian parts — comes out of this super ideal that, eventually, we will get to some better place where we actually live up to our ideals. Without imagination, I don’t think there’s any progress.

Shadow and Act

On growing up in the world of NASA (her father worked there):

I did know them growing up. My dad worked with Mary Jackson very closely at one point. I knew Katherine Johnson as well. They were all part of this group of Black engineers and scientists within this larger NASA community. So these people on one weekend would go to the HBCU Alumni Association Dance, and then the next weekend they would go off to the National Tech Association where they would put on their science hats and be together and talk about that.

There was no disconnect between those parts of their identities; it was very normal. But you know, while I knew the women; I didn’t know their story and how they got there. It was really my husband who helped spark the idea. We were visiting my parents almost exactly six years ago and had run into one lady who is a Sunday School teacher, and my dad was talking about the work that she’d done, and it just turned into this larger conversation about these different women. My husband was like, “This is amazing! Wait a minute nobody knows about this!” And I was like, “Wow, I don’t know this story.” That was really the beginning of me saying, “OK, I need to know this story.” Six years later here we are.

NPR

On Katherine Johnson and John Glenn:

She started working at Langley in 1953. … Johnson did many things, but among them was co-author a report writing the trajectory equations for putting a craft into orbit around the Earth. One of the most notable moments of her career was leading up to the orbital launch of John Glenn’s flight, which was really a turning point in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

You know, the Russians had got a real head-start into space; America was playing catch-up. And this was also a moment where electronic computers were taking over the task of much of the calculating that was necessary for these increasingly complex missions.

But as sort of a handoff moment between human computers and electronic computers, John Glenn asked Katherine Johnson — he actually asked “the girl”; all of the women working at that time were referred to as “girls.”

And he said: Get the girl to do it. I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer, and if she says they’re good, you know, I’m good to go as part of one of my pre-flight checklists.

So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.

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TV Episodes For That Kick of Persistance

coyote looks at Sarah Connor, from "Some Must Watch"It’s been a long week and I’ve been thinking about the TV episodes in which a central character hits bottom and rises to fight the good fight again. Here are three episodes of television in which characters persist. I’ll be spoiling the endings so beware!

 

Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Chain of Command Pt. II”

This episode (Episode 11, Season 6) focuses on Captain Picard, who has been captured by the Cardassians. Picard finds himself at the mercy of an interrogator, Gul Madrid. As part of the process of breaking Picard, Gul Madrid tries to force Picard to state that there are five lights shining in the interrogation room. Picard (and the audience) can see that there are actually four lights. The mental and physical battle between these men is harrowing. Few moments are as kickass as Picard’s final words to Gul Madrid:

 

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Anne”

Buffy was full of moments in which a wide variety of sentient beings, including but not limited to humans, tried to make Buffy feel worthless and then got their asses kicked by her. However, I’ve always thought that “Anne” (Episode 1, Season 3) is underrated. Buffy runs away from home and tries to avoid any heroics but naturally she ends up fighting to free homeless teens from monsters who enslave them. In the process, Buffy gets back on her feet and gives the chance of a new life to another girl, who shows up as a hero on Angel. “Can I be Anne?” is, in context, one of my favorite moments from the show.

Buffy in her waitress uniform from "Anne"

The true terror lies in customer service.

 

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: “Some Must Watch, While Some Must Sleep”

Sometimes you just need to accept your ferocious side and roll with it. The Sarah Connor Chronicles stars Lena Headey (pre-Game of Thrones) as Sarah Connor and Thomas Dekker as her teenage son, John, who is destined to save humanity in the future. For the purposes of this episode, you need to know that Sarah’s life is devoted to protecting John and training him to be a leader, and she has been joined by a benevolent Terminator played by Summer Glau.

 

This is a weird episode that tricks the viewer and the characters multiple times. Sarah begins by doubting herself. She regrets a recent act of violence. She is stuck on this violent act, which she dreams about again and again. Here’s the opening voiceover:

 

Midnight is the witching hour, if you believe that kind of thing, and most people won’t admit it if they do. Midnight is the time when a door opens from our world into the next and we are visited by dark spirits of the shadow lands. The incubus, the succubus, the old hag. Visitors are known by many names but each story bears the same marks. The demons come after midnight in the first three hours of the new day when we are alone and vulnerable, deep asleep and hopeless. When we cannot move. They lay on us, press on us, suffocate us, take from us what is most precious. Our lives, our love, our sanity. Our sleep. If you believe in that kind of thing.

 

As the episode progresses, Sarah moves beyond despair and inaction and embraces the side of her that will stop at nothing to protect humanity and protect her son. She’s not nice. She’s powerful. The episode is dark and violent and when you consider that Sarah has to let a softer side of herself die in order to become an agent of violence, it’s tragic. Still, if you need to gather some serious resolve, and you need to be a bad bitch for a while, consider these closing lines, played over the image of a coyote:

A spirit sits on a man’s chest. She is strong, beautiful. She is here to steal his children. She is here to steal his future. He is paralyzed. The terror in him will burst his heart if he cannot control it. She is a Night-Mare, a demon-woman, the oldest and most enduring story told by man. The witching hour is controlled by witches. She is a bad dream. She is a bad bitch.

Sarah, in her hospital PJs, looking annoyed

For heaven’s sake let this poor woman take a nap!

You can find great commentary on this episode at
https://roxybisquaint.livejournal.com/54214.html

 

Next month we’ll look at three episodes in which, as The Doctor says, “Everybody lives” – episodes of hope and our beleaguered characters getting a freaking break for once. Persist!

Between the Lines Book Club: Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

between the lines book club logoThis week does not feel like Fall but my calendar informs me that we are now in September. Time for our next book club pick! We’ll be reading Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women. You can read along and leave comments below, or join us at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM on September 23.

The field of astronomy has a long tradition of using people, usually women (because they could be paid less than men) to make mathematical calculations. The people were known as “computers” before mechanical computers existed. Hidden Figures tells the stories of the human computers who worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from WWII through the 1960s. These women were responsible for the math behind the early days of space flight.

In particular, the book focuses on Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden. The women dealt with racism and sexism, as well as with personal challenges. The book became the basis for a hit movie, Hidden Figures, which starred Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae.

You can read my review of the book at Smart bitches, Trashy Books. See you in September!

Movie Review: Colossal

MV5BMTY2NTExOTA2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTMwMjE2MTI@._V1_UY268_CR1,0,182,268_AL_Colossal, an indie movie that is out on iTunes, must have been a hell of a movie to market. It’s billed as a dark comedy, but it’s mostly a drama, and it involves alcoholism, abuse, misogyny, and kaiju. It’s not a romance (IT’S SO NOT A ROMANCE!) but it may be of interest to some of our readers who like good acting and stories about prickly female characters who develop a sense of serious fucking agency. Also there are kaiju.

 

At the start of the film we meet Gloria, played by Anne Hathaway. Since losing her job she’s embraced alcoholism and her boyfriend, Tim, kicks her out of their apartment. For the record, in my opinion, having lived with and alcoholic, Tim is 100% correct in booting her out and he even thoughtfully packs up her stuff and says she can keep the luggage. Alas, we will hear more from Tim, who, like any codependent, is addicted to the very same drama that he hates just as Gloria is addicted to alcohol.

 

Gloria moves back to her hometown where her parents own a conveniently empty house. The house is not only empty of people but also of furniture and some of the funniest moments come from Gloria’s ongoing war with an evil air mattress. Gloria quickly meets a childhood friend, Oscar, played by Jason Sudeikis. Oscar gives her a job at the bar he owns and every night after work Oscar, his two buddies, and Gloria drink all night. Gloria staggers home through the same park in the mornings, a point with become significant when a kaiju appears in Seoul. It always appears at the same time of day, but it doesn’t appear every day. It doesn’t stay long. Eventually, Gloria realizes that the kaiju does the same movements she does – it essentially IS her. This dramatically changes her own behavior and her relationships to the men in her life.

 

So let’s sum up – there are kaiju (no spoilers, but the plural is not a typo) but it’s not really a kaiju movie. The kaiju don’t get a lot of screentime and the explanation for their existence is pretty sketchy. It’s magical realism, not science fiction. There’s comedy (that air mattress is a gift that just keeps giving) but the movie isn’t a comedy. The longer the movie goes on, the more it become like a thriller. Oscar is a terrifically terrifying character, the “I’m such a nice guy” misogynist who gaslights and abuses Gloria at every turn until SPOILER she gains the upper hand in a way that seems totally obvious in retrospect but which I did not see coming at all.

 

One of the interesting things about this movie is that it doesn’t try to make Gloria “likeable.” She drinks to the point of blackouts regularly. She lies so often it’s alike a reflex – she lies even when she doesn’t have to lie. She’s manipulative. When Tim the Codependent describes her as “a mess” he’s not wrong. Meanwhile, Tim keeps putting her down in ways that have nothing to do with her drinking, her bar friends enable her, and Oscar wants to control her. Gloria is surrounded by douchebags but she still has to take responsibility for her own behavior.

 

Gloria has a lot of flaws but she does draw the line at killing hundreds of people by passing out on them, and her desire to keep Seoul safe forces her to take responsibility for her own life. She stops drinking, she figures out how to make amends to the people of Seoul, and then fucking Oscar has to fuck everything the fuck up and she has to figure out how to deal with his incredibly terrifying and debasing shit.

 

The end of the movie is ambiguous, but I interpret it is saying that some battles can be neatly wrapped up and others are going to be a life-long effort. Sure Gloria kicks patriarchy’s ass in the most amazing and satisfying way, but she’s still an alcoholic who has just begun the process of recovery.

 

I have not seen much online discussion about the fact that in this movie, Koreans are essentially props in Gloria’s story. I cannot emphasize enough that there is a long history of white media placing white people in the forefront of stories that involve people of color, and of using the people of color to further the character development of the white characters. For some examples of this pattern, check out TV tropes’ pages on “mighty whitey,” “magical negro,” and “white man’s burden.”

 

You’d think the Internet would be aflame with rage about using an entire Asian city to help a white woman fight patriarchy, but it’s been fairly quiet as far as I can tell. I think this is because the kaiju element works so well thematically in a variety of ways. Here’s why I think it works thematically, keeping in mind that my perspective is that of a white viewer:

 

  • The general tone of the movie is one of magical realism, which suggests that we are not intended to view Koreans as props in the real world just as we are not supposed to worry about how the kaiju can exist.
  • The sight of the kaiju and robot duking it out in Seoul sits perfectly with the tradition of kaiju films.
  • The kaiju battles taking place far away reinforces Gloria’s sense of isolation.
  • Alcoholics have a hard time accepting the ways that their drinking affects other people. A turning point for Gloria is the realization that her drinking is hurting others. The fact that Gloria can feel empathy and responsibility towards people she does not know is a crucial difference between her and Oscar, who embraces the idea of using the residents of Seoul as his toys and his hostages. Gloria is essentially refusing to participate in the concept of the disposable other. Although she desperately wants to save Seoul, her actions are less about being a white savior and more about confronting the consequences of her own behavior and fighting her own oppressor.

 

I also think it’s significant that Gloria’s first contact after the climactic battle is with a woman. It’s the first time that we see Gloria interact with a woman in a significant and empathetic way. I like to think that this is a sign that the sisterhood is powerful and that, as they say, “friendship is magic.”

 

This was a painful and anxiety-producing moment to watch. Strong trigger warnings for alcoholism, misogyny, emotional abuse and manipulation, and physical violence. There’s a moment when Oscar tries to bully Gloria into drinking a beer when I truly thought I might have to turn the movie off and walk away (I have baggage on this topic).

 

However, ultimately this movie was incredibly satisfying. I was so proud of Gloria for smashing the patriarchy and facing her own issues. I was delighted by her solution to the Oscar problem. I liked the loopy, weird way that the movie was constructed and I loved the acting. The horror around the ‘nice guy’ who is a misogynist predator was truly terrifying and Gloria’s victory was a true fist-pumping moment. Bitches who like genre-busting narratives with ‘unlikeable’ female heroines and “FEMINISM HELL YEA” messages will love this movie – just know that it’s neither a comedy nor a romance.

August, by Helen Hunt Jackson

IMG_2291This poem, which is in public domain, showed up on poets.org. It’s a great site for finding poems, and gives you the option to sign up for a poem a day. What will my poem be tomorrow, I wonder?

August, by Helen Hunt Jackson

Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.
Weak subterfuge! Each mocking day doth fleece
A blossom, and lay bare her poverty.
Poor middle-agèd summer! Vain this show!
Whole fields of golden-rod cannot offset
One meadow with a single violet;
And well the singing thrush and lily know,
Spite of all artifice which her regret
Can deck in splendid guise, their time to go!

Between the Lines Book Club: A Timeline

between the lines book club logoThis month we are reading In the Garden of Beasts, by Eric Larson. We will meet in person to discuss the book at Arden Dimick Library on August 26, 2017 at 10:30AM.

In the Garden of Beasts describes the lives of the Dodd family, who were Ambassadors to Germany from 1933 to 1937. For your reference, here is a timeline of Hitler’s rise to power so you can see where the Dodd years fell in the development of the Third Reich. This timeline is condensed from a much more detailed one at Open Learn.

1920: Hitler becomes the head of propaganda for the German Worker’s Party and changes the party’s name to the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party (NAZI).

1925 – 1926: Publishes Mein Kampf while in prison for political activities.

1930 – 1933: The Nazi Party rises in prominence.

1933: Enabling Act passed following the Reichstag Fire. This act gives Hitler full legislative powers for four years. Hitler bans all other political parties and trade unions.

1933: William Dodd appointed US Ambassador, stationed in Berlin.

1934: Paul von Hindenburg, Germany’s elected president, dies. Hitler names himself head of state with the support of the military.

1935: Hitler re-arms the military and introduces military conscription.

1937: Dodd leaves Berlin and resigns as Ambassador.

1938: Crystal Night, a night of terror which is often thought of as the beginning of the Holocaust.

1941: The United States of America enters WWII.