Book Review: Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

Book Review: Headstrong by Rachel SwabyHeadstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science--and the World by Rachel Swaby
Published by Broadway Books on April 7, 2015
Genres: Biography, Non Fiction
Pages: 288
Format: Paperback
Source: Blogging For Books
5 Stars
Fifty-two inspiring and insightful profiles of history’s brightest female scientists.

In 2013, the New York Times published an obituary for Yvonne Brill. It began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” It wasn’t until the second paragraph that readers discovered why the Times had devoted several hundred words to her life: Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites in orbit, and had recently been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Among the questions the obituary—and consequent outcry—prompted were, Who are the role models for today’s female scientists, and where can we find the stories that cast them in their true light?

Headstrong delivers a powerful, global, and engaging response. Covering Nobel Prize winners and major innovators, as well as lesser-known but hugely significant scientists who influence our every day, Rachel Swaby’s vibrant profiles span centuries of courageous thinkers and illustrate how each one’s ideas developed, from their first moment of scientific engagement through the research and discovery for which they’re best known. This fascinating tour reveals these 52 women at their best—while encouraging and inspiring a new generation of girls to put on their lab coats.

Book Review:

HEADSTRONG: 52 WOMEN WHO CHANGED SCIENCE — AND THE WORLD is a needed book. I wish it wasn’t, but it is. Even in 2015, women still struggle to make their way in male dominated fields like physics, astronomy, computer science, mathematics, etc.

I experienced discrimination based on my gender when I was a computer science student. I’ve been told I’m not a “real geek” because I’m a girl. Although I’m no Yvonne Brill — the inspiration for this book, whose accomplishments as a rocket scientist were overshadowed by her domestic abilities by the New York Times — I understood the struggle every woman mentioned in this book went through. And I’m ashamed to say I’d heard of maybe 4 out of the 52.

HEADSTRONG is separated into 7 sections: medicine, biology and the environment, genetics and development, physics, earth and stars, math and technology, and invention. To be included in the book, the author picked “only scientists whose life’s work has already been completed (xiii).” Due to that, the author admits the book is not very diverse, as opportunities opened up first for white women. She also didn’t include Marie Curie, because if you think of a woman scientist, that’s likely the one you picture. But did you know Marie Curie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, also won a Nobel Prize?

The profiles are relatively short, 3-5 pages, and focus on the woman’s contributions to her field. I read one or two sections a night and felt like I learned a ton about women in science. For example, I never knew a woman invented Kevlar, or wrinkle free cotton, or the Apgar score. The profiles are easy enough to understand for young girls, and interesting enough to hold the attention of older readers.

What will you learn?

Socialize with the author:

Rachel Swaby:

– leeanna

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara CooneyThe Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney
Published by Crown Publishing on October 14, 2014
Genres: Biography
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging For Books
5 Stars
An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.

Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt's throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt's second female pharaoh.

Hatshepsut had successfully negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority, and her reign saw one of Ancient Egypt’s most prolific building periods. Scholars have long speculated as to why her images were destroyed within a few decades of her death, all but erasing evidence of her rule. Constructing a rich narrative history using the artifacts that remain, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney offers a remarkable interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly but methodically consolidated power—and why she fell from public favor just as quickly. The Woman Who Would Be King traces the unconventional life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh and explores our complicated reactions to women in power.

Book Review:

Lately I’ve been on an ancient Egypt reading kick. It’s so bad I’ve been rereading a couple of historical fiction novels over and over. So Kara Cooney’s biography of Hatshepsut, THE WOMAN WHO WOULD BE KING, came along at an excellent time for me.

Actually, I would have enjoyed it anytime, because I found THE WOMAN WHO WOULD BE KING to be an enjoyable read. It’s quite informative, covering from before Hatshepsut’s birth to after her death. This gives as complete a picture as possible about the world she lived in, the customs of the 18th dynasty, religious practices, etc. I find that kind of thing fascinating.

In the Author’s Note, Kara Cooney explains that any biography of Hatshepsut will have little certainty, because of the time that has passed and because so much of Hatshepsut’s reign was erased. So there’s a fair amount of conjecture and speculation in THE WOMAN WHO WOULD BE KING, but with Cooney’s background, I think she’s qualified to do so, and she’s careful to mention when she’s venturing into the realm of guessing, and to back up those guesses with reasons.

This book is very readable and easy to understand. I’d recommend it for readers new to Hatshepsut, or others who want a deeper look into her kingship and how she forged it. I was only vaguely familiar with Hatshepsut before, but now I feel like I know a lot more. Such as how religion and ruling power were connected, and how Hatshepsut used her understanding of the gods and their mysteries to pave her way to being pharaoh, not just a regent.

THE WOMAN WHO WOULD BE KING includes a section of photographs of statues, Hatshepsut’s obelisk, temples, and temple reliefs that helped me visualize Hatshepsut’s many building projects. The footnotes at the end are also interesting reading, all 30+ pages. Lastly, the author includes a long list of books to turn to for further reading.

When I finished THE WOMAN WHO WOULD BE KING, I wished I could take Cooney’s course on women and power at UCLA. I’m really into the idea that one of the reasons Hatshepsut was forgotten is because she did everything right: no scandals to mar her reign, successful military and trade campaigns instead of disasters, and a peaceful death.

Socialize with the author:

Kara Cooney:

– leeanna

Book Review: Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling

Title: Marie Curie and Her Daughters
Author: Shelley Emling
Release Date: August 21, 2012
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Source: Library
Series? No
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography
Page Count: 219


A new portrait of the two-time Nobel winner and her two daughters

Focusing on the first family in science, this biography of Marie Curie plumbs the recesses of her relationships with her two daughters, extraordinary in their own right, and presents the legendary scientist to us in a fresh way.

Although the common image is that of a shy introvert toiling away in her laboratory, highly praised science writer Shelley Emling shows how Marie Curie was nothing short of an iconoclast. Her affair with a younger and married man drew the enmity of a xenophobic French establishment, who denied her entry to the Academy of Sciences and tried to expel her from France. But she was determined to live life how she saw fit, and passed on her resilience to her daughters. Emling draws on personal letters released by Curie’s only granddaughter to show how Marie influenced her daughters yet let them blaze their own paths. Irene followed her mother’s footsteps into science and was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission. Eve traveled the world as a foreign correspondent and then moved on to humanitarian missions.

Emling also shows how Curie, following World War I, turned to America for help. Few people know about Curie’s close friendship with American journalist Missy Meloney, who arranged speaking tours across the country for Marie and Eve and Irene. Months on the road, charming audiences both large and small, endeared the Curies to American women and established a lifelong relationship with the United States that formed one of the strongest connections of Marie’s life. Without the financial support of American women, Marie might not have been able to go on with her research.

Continuing the family story into the third generation, Emling also interviews Marie Curie’s granddaughter Helene Joliot-Curie, who is an accomplished physicist in her own right. She reveals why her grandmother was a lot more than just a scientist and how Marie’s trips to America forever changed her. Factually rich, personal and original, this is an engrossing story about the most famous woman in science that rips the cover off the myth and reveals the real person, friend, and mother behind it. (summary from goodreads)

My Review:
I’ve been interested in Marie Curie ever since I wrote a paper on her in college, and I thought Marie Curie and Her Daughters would be an interesting read, especially since I knew nothing about her daughters.

The book picks up after Pierre’s death, and has only hints about Marie’s early life. There’s not a lot mentioned on Irene and Eve’s childhoods either, other than that they were often away from their mother because she was so busy with her work, and that she was concerned about their education. I think it would have been informative to have more on the childhoods of all three women, so readers could compare and contrast.

Although I did learn a lot about Irene and Eve, and even about Marie’s life after winning the Nobel Prize, the book wasn’t enjoyable as I’d hoped it would be. The last few chapters dragged on. I think Marie Curie and Her Daughters is best read joint with another biography of Marie Curie, so as to get a more complete and informative picture of her life.

It’s an adequate book, and informative on the personal lives of all three Curie women, but I was left wanting more after I finished it.

– leeanna

Book Review: The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir

the life of elizabeth IInfo:
Title: The Life of Elizabeth I
Author: Alison Weir
Release Date: October 5, 1999
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Source: Own
Series? No
Genre: Biography
Page Count: 560


Perhaps the most influential sovereign England has ever known, Queen Elizabeth I remained an extremely private person throughout her reign, keeping her own counsel and sharing secrets with no one–not even her closest, most trusted advisers. Now, in this brilliantly researched, fascinating new book, acclaimed biographer Alison Weir shares provocative new interpretations and fresh insights on this enigmatic figure.

Against a lavish backdrop of pageantry and passion, intrigue and war, Weir dispels the myths surrounding Elizabeth I and examines the contradictions of her character. Elizabeth I loved the Earl of Leicester, but did she conspire to murder his wife? She called herself the Virgin Queen, but how chaste was she through dozens of liaisons? She never married–was her choice to remain single tied to the chilling fate of her mother, Anne Boleyn? An enthralling epic that is also an amazingly intimate portrait, The Life of Elizabeth I is a mesmerizing, stunning reading experience. (summary from goodreads)

My Review:
I’ve read a lot of Alison Weir’s books on the Tudors (five in the past few weeks), and The Life of Elizabeth I is the worst I’ve ever read. Instead of a biography, I feel like I was reading a soap opera, or an episode of the Bachelorette. A gigantic chunk of the book was taken up by Elizabeth’s betrothals, and while I understand that those were a part of her attempts to keep England in good diplomatic relationships, it just wasn’t well done.

I had a ton of confusion while reading, for a few reasons. Anytime a person gained a new title, such as when Robert Dudley became the Earl of Leicester, he was referred to as Leicester after. It was hard to remember who was who, and who had what title. The passage of time was another big headache. The biography is poorly organized. I had no sense of the chronology of Elizabeth’s reign, nor how old she was when many of the events occurred.

The Life of Elizabeth I isn’t about her life. It’s about the lives of everyone around her, and all their petty dramas. I learned virtually nothing, and as someone that has enjoyed Alison Weir’s other books, I was shocked by the poor quality of this one.

Rating: 1 owl

Socialize with the author:
Alison Weir:

– leeanna

Mini Reviews: Appetite for Life, Snow White and the Huntsman

appetite for lifeAppetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child
by Noel Riley Fitch

Julia Child became a household name when she entered the lives of millions of Americans through our hearts and kitchens. Yet few know the richly varied private life that lies behind this icon, whose statuesque height and warmly enthused warble have become synonymous with the art of cooking.

In this biography we meet the earthy and outrageous Julia, who, at age eighty-five, remains a complex role model. More… (summary from goodreads)

Mini Review:
If you’ve read my blog at all, you’ve probably seen me mention My Life in France by Julia Child at least once. It’s a book I adore. The writing is fun, Julia’s personality shines through on every page, and it’s a fascinating tale of how Mastering the Art of French Cooking came to be.

Ever since reading My Life in France, I’ve devoured as many books on Julia Child as I can find. None have come close to that book for me. Appetite for Life is not a biography I would recommend unless you are interested in every minute detail of Julia’s early life. I do like that level of detail, but not for hundreds of pages.

I feel that an inordinate portion of the book is focused on her early life. Julia lived to the age of 91, yet the book largely glosses over her later life. It goes from listing every dinner party guest and their history to “that year Julia …”

The writing was dull. As I said, there was none of the magic of My Life in France. The writer had an amazing subject to work with, yet I didn’t get any of Julia’s personality in this biography.

Rating: 2 owls

snow white and the huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman
by Lily Blake

A breathtaking new vision of a legendary tale. Snow White is the only person in the land fairer than the evil queen who is out to destroy her. But what the wicked ruler never imagined is that the young woman threatening her reign has been training in the art of war with a huntsman who was dispatched to kill her. (summary from goodreads)

Mini Review:
Tie-in books are hit and miss, usually miss.

Snow White and the Huntsman was a definite miss. I really wanted to like it, because I was so excited about the movie. The trailers looked amazing!

I read the book to tide me over until the movie comes out on DVD, as I won’t be seeing it in the theatre. But reading the tie-in made me not want to see the movie at all. The story, which seemed so cool and different in the trailers, was boiled down to a lackluster tale that went from A to B to C.

The writing is what bothered me the most. The characters are flat and never really developed. They’re inconsistent, too. For example, Snow White was locked up in a tower for ten years. Yet a few days after escaping, she’s trekking through the woods all day and learning to fight. The author goes from harping on her weak body to totally forgetting it.

A day after finishing the book, and I’ve already forgotten most of it. Not quite the experience I was hoping for. I’ll still check the movie out, but now I’m not so sad about my decision to wait for it on DVD.

Rating: 1 owl

Mini Review: Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith

In honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I’m posting a short review of one of the biographies I read about her this year.

elizabeth the queenElizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch
by Sally Bedell Smith

From the moment of her ascension to the throne in 1952 at the age of twenty-five, Queen Elizabeth II has been the object of unparalleled scrutiny. But through the fog of glamour and gossip, how well do we really know the world’s most famous monarch? Drawing on numerous interviews and never-before-revealed documents, acclaimed biographer Sally Bedell Smith pulls back the curtain to show in intimate detail the public and private lives of Queen Elizabeth II, who has led her country and Commonwealth through the wars and upheavals of the last sixty years with unparalleled composure, intelligence, and grace.

In Elizabeth the Queen, we meet the young girl who suddenly becomes “heiress presumptive” when her uncle abdicates the throne. We meet the thirteen-year-old Lilibet as she falls in love with a young navy cadet named Philip and becomes determined to marry him, even though her parents prefer wealthier English aristocrats. We see the teenage Lilibet repairing army trucks during World War II and standing with Winston Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on V-E Day. We see the young Queen struggling to balance the demands of her job with her role as the mother of two young children. Sally Bedell Smith brings us inside the palace doors and into the Queen’s daily routines—the “red boxes” of documents she reviews each day, the weekly meetings she has had with twelve prime ministers, her physically demanding tours abroad, and the constant scrutiny of the press—as well as her personal relationships: with Prince Philip, her husband of sixty-four years and the love of her life; her children and their often-disastrous marriages; her grandchildren and friends.

Compulsively readable and scrupulously researched, Elizabeth the Queen is a close-up view of a woman we’ve known only from a distance, illuminating the lively personality, sense of humor, and canny intelligence with which she meets the most demanding work and family obligations. It is also a fascinating window into life at the center of the last great monarchy. (from goodreads)

“Elizabeth the Queen” is a very readable biography. I’ll agree that it is “compulsively readable,” as I read it two and a half times. I learned a lot more about Queen Elizabeth than I have in other biographies I’ve read recently.

However, I have one major complaint. The author is very pro monarchy. Smith paints Queen Elizabeth in an extremely positive light, making many allowances for mistakes she has made over the years. For example, I was surprised by the harsh treatment of Diana. Diana is portrayed as an attention seeking villain with a personality disorder.

The book gives a good picture of what the Queen actually does, as well as showing a human, personal side of her. But the biased writing kind of ruined it for me. I kept thinking “Really? The royal family can do no wrong?” in the back of my mind while reading.

I also read another biography (The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Andrew Marr) of the Queen this year, one I received from Amazon Vine. While I thought both books were overly positive, I preferred Sally Bedell Smith’s book because it gave more insight into the Queen’s personal life.


Book 132: Oprah: A Biography

Oprah: A BiographyOprah: A Biography, by Kitty Kelley

This book is like watching reality television. It’s so bad, but you just can’t stop.

I can’t find one redeeming thing about this book; the author is clearly biased against her subject, writing one negative chapter after another. Anything good Oprah has done is mentioned briefly, and followed by pages of criticism on why she did it, why it wasn’t good enough, etc. There are also a large amount of pages devoted to describing Oprah’s lavish lifestyle, including the money spent to decorate her houses, her wardrobe, trips, expensive shopping sprees, etc.

Kelley focuses on the seedier side of Oprah’s life, the “dark secrets” she claims the celebrity talk show host is hiding. Oprah is probably hiding secrets, but I’ll do more reading before I believe everything Kelley wrote.

That said, I somehow couldn’t quit reading, but the whole time I was, my brain kept telling me, “Brain cells are dying!” Sensationalism at its best.

Well wait, there might indeed be one redeeming feature of this biography. Hopefully it will encourage people to take a deeper look at Oprah, and read between the lines a little.


Book 126: The Children of Henry VIII

Children of Henry VIIIThe Children of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir

“The Children of Henry VIII” is a nonfiction history that reads like a narrative. One interesting, engrossing, detail-filled narrative. The book follows the ascent of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I to the English throne. Also covered are the men around the throne, such as John Dudley, Thomas Cranmer, Edward Courtenay, Philip II, etc.

The basic story is known by many, especially fans of the Tudor period. Weir’s book is perfect for lovers of historical fiction, because this history is so easily readable, yet also very educational. The author clearly did her research, and includes abundant source material in the text, including quotes from letters and privy purse accounts; and also tells the reader the importance of the historical material. I found myself reading late into the night.

I was a little sad when I finished this book; I greatly liked living in the world Weir recreated, an England awash in political and religious machinations. An uncertain world, to be sure. And while I knew the outcome, who would succeed who, I wasn’t sure of the exact route each monarch took. For example, my view of Edward and Mary changed quite a bit after reading Weir’s book; I used to think Edward was a sickly boy, and Mary heartless, but I learned that wasn’t necessarily true.

Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the Tudor dynasty.


Book 121: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little WomenLouisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen

“Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women” is a fascinating biography into the life of the author of the classic “Little Women,” and also an in-depth look at her family. Reisen provides an extremely complete picture of Louisa’s unusual childhood, and how it influenced her later publications.

The beginning of the book focuses on her father, Bronson Alcott, an unusual man for his time; he was one of the early Transcendentalists, and counted Emerson and Thoreau among his friends. Bronson focused on philosophy, experimental teaching, and lecturing rather than supporting his family; the Alcotts moved over twenty times while Louisa was a child. Often a wild, unruly child, Louisa had a rocky relationship with her father, but was a mini clone of her mother. It was Abby Alcott, Louisa’s mother, who encouraged her to write as a way to express her feelings.

Well aware of her family’s financial troubles as a child, Louisa’s goal as an adult was to fully support her family, while trying to have a measure of independence for herself. Her start in writing came after publishing a book of children’s stories, and indeed, her most successful novels would be written for youngsters. But Reisen explains to readers that Louisa wrote thrillers under pseudonyms, and they were rather popular – and likely her preferred format. Louisa would strive all of her adult life to write one great novel that she could be proud of, and never thought “Little Women” was that book, even though it was her biggest cashcow. And with Louisa’s drive to earn earn earn, money was often the deciding factor in what she wrote.

Louisa is a tragic figure: she spent her entire life being pushed one way or another, feeling obligated to help family and friends at the expense of her own personal life. She literally wore herself out and died at the relatively young age of 55. She took care of her sisters, mother, father, and friends; and even when she was fully supported by her writing, she never really got to enjoy the fruit of her labor.

Reisen paints an interesting and educational picture of Louisa’s life. While remembered mainly for “Little Women,” Louisa was so much more than just a children’s author. She was a feminist, an abolitionist, a poet, a Civil War nurse, philanthropist, and so on. I learned so much while reading this book, and not just about Louisa, but also about the Transcendentalists and the Civil War era. And while it could be easy to fall into hero worship, Reisen is careful to point out the flaws in Louisa’s character, penning a realistic image.

The biography starts out a little slow, but if you give it a chance for a few chapters, I think you’ll be pulled into a wonderful tale. Reisen makes use of abundant source material, including many quotes from Louisa’s journals and poetry, but weaves them seamlessly into the narrative. I learned a lot, and had an enjoyable time doing so.


Book 94: The Story of Blima

The Story of BlimaThe Story of Blima: A Holocaust Survivor, by Shirley Russak Wachtel

“The Story of Blima” is a very slim book, weighing in at 133 pages. But the subject matter is heavy, and while you’ll likely read the book quickly, Blima and her story will stay in your mind for a while.

The book takes place between the years of 1936 and 1947 and covers Blima’s life before, during, and after the Holocaust. Captured off the street of her hometown by the Nazis, Blima is imprisoned in a forced labor camp for the majority of the war. The recollections of camp life are short but harrowing; instead the book mainly focuses on Blima’s attempts to rebuild her life after being freed. The difficulty and tragedy of attempting to find surviving family members is heartbreaking to read.

A note in the book says that “The Story of Blima” is taken from a larger work, “My Mother’s Shoes”, which I am now trying to find. The story and book are written by Blima’s daughter.