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Radioactive

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout

by Lauren Redniss

It Books, 2010

208 pages

I’ve always been fascinated by Marie Curie. At a time when women’s education was confined primarily to the social graces and preparation for housekeeping, she made world-changing scientific discoveries.

But until I read Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, I knew only the basic outlines of Marie’s story: that she had worked with her husband in their joint lab, made key discoveries regarding radioactivity, won multiple Nobel Prizes, and died of cancer that stemmed from her work. Through Redniss’s book, I gained a much better understanding of just how fascinating, inspiring, and challenging Marie’s life really was.

Born Maria Sklodowska in 1860s Poland, Marie was always deeply interested in science – perhaps not surprisingly, given that her parents were both teachers. After working as a governess to earn funds for her own education, she moved to Paris, where comparatively progressive universities accepted women as full students (not just observers). She was already a talented scientist in her own right when she met Pierre Curie – the two were introduced by a mutual friend who was trying to help Marie find more lab space.

Their relationship is one of the most inspiring elements of Marie’s story. Pierre was smitten by her intelligence, willing even to follow her back to Poland and subordinate his own career to hers. They became attached to each other (“fell in love” isn’t really the right phrase) through their shared passion for scientific discovery, and Marie said in later years that it was as though they grew to share a single mind.

This notion that a strong and devoted marriage isn’t always about romance, and that husband and wife can work together as equals, is one that I think many girls need to hear. Even in today’s world, the emphasis for girls and women is still often on appearance and social appeal. For girls whose identity is more about their intelligence, the example of a relationship like the Curies’ is fresh air.

After just 11 years with Pierre, Marie’s life went into a tailspin. Pierre died in an accident, and Marie’s subsequent affair with a married student embroiled her in a scandal that threatened to destroy her career. I don’t support adultery in the least, but Redniss does an excellent job of drawing out the impact on Marie of the double standard of the times – while the academic and scientific communities called for all kinds of sanctions against her, no one batted an eye at her male contemporaries’ mistresses and illegitimate children.

Ultimately, the affair ended, and Marie turned her attention to raising her two daughters and continuing the work she’d done with Pierre. This was another inspiring element of her story, one I had been completely unfamiliar with. Marie didn’t just break ground for science, she raised two strong, intelligent women. One, Irene, became a scientist and Nobel laureate in her own right; her children, in turn, are leading scientists in France today. The other, Eve, became an influential writer, journalist, and humanitarian who received France’s Legion d’Honneur. For her part, Marie continue to work right up until her death, both on her own projects and as a scientific mentor to Irene.

Marie’s legacy (like that of her peer Einstein, whose discoveries also contributed to the development of the atomic bomb) is not without its complications. Redniss’s fascinating book interweaves Marie’s story with vignettes that tell the fallout – both literal and symbolic, both good and bad – of her discoveries. There are photos of mutated plants from nuclear disaster zones, a map of Chernobyl, interviews both with a nuclear weapons scientist and with patients whose lives were saved by radioactive therapies.

But whatever the impact of her work, her personal legacy – of boundless curiosity, determination, intelligence, and courage – is undoubtedly an inspiration.

Note: I recommend previewing this book before giving it to someone under the age of about 15 or 16. It contains content that some parents or teachers might find inappropriate for younger teens.

Every year around Thanksgiving, I share a post about an inspiring woman I’m grateful to have known.

There was never any doubt about what I’d study in college. When I looked at prospectuses, my first step was always to flip to the English department section, to see what courses they offered and what the English faculty’s credentials were. When I narrowed my list down to my top three, the strength of their English departments was one of my two deciding factors.

From the moment I stepped into the English building at my eventual alma mater, I felt at home. I was nervous, sure, but the building was old and homey, the professors were friendly and funny, and the older students were incredibly welcoming. That first semester, I took a special writing class that paired incoming first-years with older students as mentors. And right away, I noticed that a lot of our mentors seemed to be devoted to one of the professors in the department.

I’ll call her Professor M. They said she was incredibly smart, witty, and kind. That she challenged their assumptions and made Shakespeare – her specialty – seem fresh and new. It was my second semester before I caught a glimpse of her in the building. On top of all the wonderful qualities my fellow students raved about, she was beautiful, in a decidedly I-look-the-way-I-want kind of way.

For a girl who’d been raised almost exclusively with traditional ideas of feminity – and struggled with significant depression and anxiety for not fitting the mold – it was eye-opening and inspiring. I had to take a class from this professor.

There was just one problem: I didn’t really care about Shakespeare. So for my first two years, I mostly watched her from afar and occasionally gathered the nerve to have a conversation with her. I was like a star-struck girl who finds herself continually running into her favorite celebrity.

Then course requirements forced my hand. My college required the completion of a senior project to graduate, and (regardless of post-college plans) every junior and senior had to take seminars to prepare for graduate-level study and the creation of this project. Professors had the final say on the rosters for their seminars, and they tended to give priority for senior seminars to students who’d been with them at the junior level. I was determined to get into Professor M’s senior seminar, so I resigned myself to a junior seminar in Shakespeare.

I got lucky: that year, Professor M decided to debut “Bad Shakespeare,” which approached Shakespeare studies from an entirely new and challenging direction. It turned out to be one of the best classes I ever took.

Everything my fellow students had said about her was right. She was one of the leading scholars in her field, but she made it clear that she intended to learn from us as well as teach us. She was also incredibly witty and warm-hearted – when my beloved grandmother died my senior year and I burst into tears in Professor M’s office, she had just the right words of sympathy.

In her personal life, she defied many of the conventions I knew. Her husband was the one with the lesser degree. They were, by choice, the parents of just one child, and he was the primary parent-on-call. Professor M nevertheless had a close relationship with her daughter and was raising her to be just as smart and self-possessed as she was.

I’m sure she wasn’t perfect. She occasionally had flashes of temper, and she had a tinge of the over-confidence that can come from being at the top of your field.

But all in all, she gave me a glimpse of what was possible: the coupling of a successful career with a happy marriage and motherhood, strength in my own identity, and satisfaction in the work of the mind. Her example has hovered in my mind as inspiration anytime I’ve prepared to step outside the realm of what’s comfortable or familiar to me as a woman.

She died 11 years ago of cancer at the age of just 51. I was eight months pregnant at the time and unable to attend the memorial, but I heard from fellow alumni that the tributes were wonderful. I remember feeling crushed by the thought that future generations of students had lost the opportunity to learn from her.

But maybe they hadn’t. Some of Professor M’s students have gone on to become teachers, professors, and scholars in their own right. I’m sure they’ve carried pieces of her with them into their own classrooms, so that her legacy is still active. I know she still impacts me and, through me, my daughter. I’m grateful she was part of my life at a pivotal time – I wouldn’t be me without her.

Rise of the Rocket Girls

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars

by Nathalia Holt

Little, Brown & Company, 2016

352 pages

The space industry was a dominating presence in my early childhood. My father was a technical writer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), and my grandfather was retired from Aerojet, where he had helped to develop the fuel for the Saturn V moon rockets.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of visiting JPL on Family Day, peeking into clean rooms at satellites under construction and taking photos in front of scale models of spacecraft. I also loved dinner at my grandparents’ house, where Grandpa would often entertain us with stories of his Aerojet days.

Those stories were utterly fascinating, full of massive explosions and mad scientists – to the point that I sometimes wondered whether he might be embellishing things. Then about five years ago, I watched a documentary on the early Soviet space program. I sat mesmerized as an old Russian chemist told stories that could have come straight from my grandfather’s mouth. And the documentary makers had archival footage to back it up. It really had been as crazy as Grandpa described.

I was content as a kid just to listen to my father and grandfather’s stories, but ever since watching that documentary, I’ve wanted to learn more on my own. Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls caught my attention for that reason, and because it dovetailed with both my father and grandfather’s histories.

Rocket Girls tells the story of JPL and Aerojet’s women “computers” – mathematicians who manually performed the complex calculations that underpinned the early space program – and the evolution of their work into computer programming and space engineering. The two labs were founded by the same people and, in their early days, sometimes shared resources. Holt tells their joint history to the point of their divergence, then focuses exclusively on JPL.

According to Holt, it was not uncommon for companies to employ women computers in the 1940s and ’50s. Calculating was seen as a kind of secretarial function, despite the higher-level math skills required for it. Computers typically had some college training, though not necessarily a degree, and worked for a few years until they married or began having children.

JPL, however, was different. Its entire computer department – including the manager – was female, and the lab actively encouraged long-term career development for the women.The environment was certainly not perfect, especially in the lab’s earliest days, but overall, both JPL and the women computers continually broke new ground for professional equality. When computer programming entered the picture, the lab provided training so the women’s skills could evolve with the industry – other businesses simply laid off their women computers and gave the programming jobs to men. And at a time when it was common practice to fire a woman because of marriage or pregnancy, JPL offered flexible schedules and other unheard-of accommodations so the computers could combine motherhood with full-time employment.

It was this last thread of the story that most inspired me. I knew plenty of wonderful women growing up, but 80 percent of them (including my own mother) were full-time homemakers. Even after I graduated from college and had my own career, most of my female coworkers were either childless or had grown children. So when I went back to full-time employment a few years ago, I had almost no personal examples for juggling my joint roles of marketing director and mother to a young child.

Holt covers this juggling act at length, outlining the women’s struggles, coping mechanisms, and successes. She also delves into their reasons for persevering – how unsuited they felt to homemaking and the deep sense of fulfillment they gained from their work. This latter material was so important to me. I recognized myself in the women who needed the intellectual stimulation of challenging projects and the satisfaction of seeing them through to completion. It reminded me of something I said to my husband soon after returning to full-time employment: “I didn’t realize how desperately I needed to do something I feel good at, and be appreciated for it.”

Overall, it was quite an uplift to read the story of these smart, pioneering women who took the plunge into a new industry and paved the way for future generations of women engineers. Some of them stayed with NASA for decades – in fact, Susan Finley, who started her career in 1958, is still there. I came away from Rocket Girls with an “If they could do it, what’s my excuse?” mindset. It bolstered my determination to be the best version of myself, both as a mother and an employee, and my belief that it’s possible to do so.

Chasing Vermeer

Chasing Vermeer

by Blue Balliet; ill. by Brett Helquist

Scholastic, 2003

254 pages

Though there’s just one title, this is really a review of three books: Blue Balliet’s series of art mysteries starring three middle-school kids who live in modern-day Chicago.

I read the first book, Chasing Vermeer, with my daughter after a librarian friend recommended it. She mentioned it, and I picked it up, in part because she thought it might be a good Read Like a Girl book. Unfortunately, I ended up disappointed on that front.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book, and so did my daughter.

The story centers on Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay, two Chicago schoolmates and neighbors who become good friends as they solve the mystery of a stolen Vermeer painting.

The plot is engaging and well structured, the setting nicely articulated, the style just quirky enough to be fun but not trite. There are also authentic, positive depictions of family relationships and school – a nice balance to the wealth of post-apocalyptic, hyper-alienated fiction currently flooding the middle-grade market.

But Petra – the girl of the pair – isn’t really all that inspiring. She’s smart but not very strong, a relatively flat character who rarely takes the lead and needs frequent rescuing. Ultimately, I walked away feeling that both Petra and Balliet were holding out on me.

Then I read the next two books in the series, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game. By the time I was halfway through book two, Petra had become far more interesting. And by the time I finished book three, I was highly impressed.

In The Wright 3, Calder’s best friend Tommy (who has been living in New York) returns to Chicago and upsets the balance of Petra and Calder’s friendship. All three of the kids are interested in the plight of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie house, which is slated for demolition. But their ability to save it is hampered by the uneasy dynamics of their relationship – until Petra makes a conscious decision to be the mature one and foster meaningful cooperation within the group.

She does the same again in The Calder Game, when Calder disappears on a trip to England with his father. A large Alexander Calder sculpture disappears at the same time from the village where the Pillays are staying, and it’s up to Petra and Tommy to solve both mysteries.

Without Calder around, Petra and Tommy quickly fall into jealousy and mistrust of each other. They might have been able to cooperate on their previous adventure, but there is still no genuine friendship between the two of them. As before, Petra ends up being the first to realize the pettiness of their rivalry and the first to set it aside in favor of focused effort to find their mutual friend.

In the process, she figures out what is needed to build a true friendship with Tommy and deliberately moves in that direction. Eventually, he responds in kind, and they succeed in both solving the mysteries and forming a solid bond with each other.

Taken as a whole, then, the three books are definitely Read Like a Girl-worthy. Petra’s character arc – from bland, shrinking word nerd to confident, mature friend and leader – is both realistic and inspiring. It shows girls that the awkwardness and uncertainties of the preteen years can be managed and even overcome with confidence. And at a time when “mean girls” often rule the roost, it shows that true friendship, maturity, and kindness can win the day.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson

Penguin, 2014

352 pages

I don’t read a lot of poetry, and I’m not entirely sure why. When my poetry-loving friends put up Facebook posts sharing a favorite line or two from what they’re currently reading, I always think, “How beautiful. I really should read more poetry.”

Maybe verse is not my default because I like to get lost in books, and poetry feels very interruptive to me. I have a hard time gliding from poem to poem in a collection – my brain always has to make a clean stop and come up for air at the end of each poem.

The one exception is books that tell a story through a collection of individual poems. When I see a glowing review of one, I tend to go looking for it. That’s how I ended up with Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, the author’s memoir-in-verse.

I originally picked up the book because, as I’ve mentioned on this blog, I am very interested in the subject of race, and it was clear from the book’s title (and the review I read) that this was a major theme in Woodson’s story.

Woodson does indeed focus on race in the book, particularly on the differences between living in Ohio (where she was born), South Carolina (where she spent her early childhood), and New York City (where her family ultimately settled). As I would have expected for a memoir, she covers the intersection of social attitudes and movements with her family’s own history: her great-great-grandfather’s Union service during the Civil War, the enforced and de facto segregation of her grandparents’ town in South Carolina, her mother’s participation in the Civil Rights movement.

She also paints an incredibly clear picture of how issues connected with race flowed through and around her and her family’s daily lives and their ways of approaching the world. For instance, she explains her grandfather’s devotion to his expansive vegetable garden through the lens of his family history. The grandchild of slaves and the son of a sharecropper, he was the first of his lineage to freely work his own land and use the proceeds entirely as he wished. “So this is what he believes in,” she writes, “/your hands in the cool dirt/until the earth gives back to you/all that you’ve asked of it.”

Since before my daughter was born, my heart’s desire has been to raise a child who loves others for who they are, not for what society says they are worth. My husband and I want to instill compassion and humility so that she sees injustice, desires opportunity for others, and never feels entitled about her own privileges or opportunities.

So I was deeply touched and inspired by Woodson’s depiction of how her parents and grandparents worked to instill a sense of justice from the other side of the divide. How her mother whispered “We’re as good as anyone,” even as she moved with her children to the back of the bus. How her aunt shared a passion for civil disobedience over the dinner table. How her grandfather tells her she’s as much as part of the Civil Rights movement as anyone “Because you’re colored…/And just as good and bright and beautiful and free/as anybody./And nobody colored in the South is stopping/until everybody knows what’s true.”

I was also inspired by a completely different theme in Woodson’s story: her growth into a reader and writer. As I mentioned in my mini-review, this is what made the book one of my favorites from last year. Her poem “Hair Night,” where she describes listening to her sister read aloud as their grandmother straightens and braids their hair, literally brought me to tears (in the middle of the office break room, no less).

Woodson is like many poets: her facility with language is incredible. She has the knack for just the right turn of phrase – the perfectly chosen three or four words that create an entire mood and image out of nothing. So I was surprised to discover that she initially struggled with language, and even more surprised to discover that it did not in the least dampen her ambition to be a writer.

I’ve always loved words, too, but they came easily for me. I read fluently at age three and fell in love with Dickens at age seven. Writing down my thoughts has always felt natural and easy. So as I read Woodson’s description of words twisting on the page, letters not making it from pen to paper, I developed a strong admiration for her persistence and certainty. I remain inspired by her drive to master words and make them her life’s work, even though early signs said she’d never get there.

This was the other, less obvious dream of the title: her dream to become a writer. Reading her book was a wonderful reminder to me that apparently unreachable dreams can be achievable, and that we can share dreams with others across boundaries of race, place, and time.

A Life in Secrets

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

by Sarah Helm

Doubleday, 2006

493 pages

 

More than 15 years ago, at the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I read William Stevenson’s A Man Called Intrepid together. It was a fascinating story – the true tale of a secret WWII intelligence alliance between Churchill and FDR, and how that alliance gave rise to the two nations’ modern-day intelligence and counter-intelligence organizations.

On the periphery of that story was a group called the Special Operations Executive, or SOE. Formed in the early days of the war, the SOE recruited, trained, equipped, and supported resistance networks in Nazi-occupied countries. Its agents were sometimes British, sometimes deeply connected (through birth, parentage, or long-time residency) to the countries where they were deployed. They intercepted Nazi communications and committed acts of espionage that Churchill later said helped to shorten the war by “many months.”

The SOE was divided into sections by country, with F Section responsible for activities in France. Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets tells the story of F Section, its iron-willed intelligence officer Vera Atkins, and Atkins’ post-war effort to learn the fates of missing F Section agents.

I picked up the book thinking Atkins would be an inspiring figure for this blog, but I ended up feeling conflicted. The SOE, it turns out, badly bungled a lot of its work – many agents, especially in France and the Low Countries, fell into Nazi hands through clumsy lapses in security or the treachery of double agents. Despite numerous clear warnings of breaches, SOE continued to send new agents to connect with broken networks. In a number of cases, these courageous men and women literally parachuted straight into German hands.

At the center of this heartbreaking failure was Atkins, who saw the signs but never spoke up to persuade her boss that they were sending agents into near-certain death. Helm convincingly theorizes that this was a matter of self-preservation. Before joining SOE, Atkins had traveled to the Continent and paid a massive bribe to the Nazis to secure a Jewish cousin’s safe passage out of Europe. Atkins was afraid, Helm argues, that speaking against the SOE status quo would draw unwanted attention to her own past, which was already the matter of gossip because of her Jewish roots.

After the war, however, Atkins attempted to make something like amends. At a time when much of Continental Europe was still in ruins, she crossed the Channel to uncover the fate of SOE’s betrayed F Section agents. She was particularly determined to trace the women agents, who had been in her special care as they prepared to leave for their missions. In the process, she became a key war-crimes investigator and helped bring a number of Nazi leaders to justice.

For the rest of her life, Atkins was a study in contradictions. On the one hand, she refused to assist with efforts to uncover the root of the SOE’s failures, even though she had plenty of useful information. And she was famous among acquaintances for hiding her own mistakes and giving a confusingly cold shoulder to some of the descendants of fallen SOE agents. At the same time, however, she was equally dogged about obtaining deserved recognition for “her girls.” Many of the Continent’s memorials to SOE agents are there because Atkins advocated for them, even assisting with funding and designs.

What I did not feel conflicted about were the women SOE agents Helm profiles. Noor Inayat Khan, Denise Bloch, Violette Szabo, Yolande Beekman, and many others acted with tremendous courage at a time when their culture didn’t believe them capable of it. Their participation in SOE’s mission was technically illegal. Because the British military would be unwilling to admit culpability if they were discovered, they were told they would not receive even the assistance or protection that might be given to a male agent who was taken prisoner.

Yet they went anyway and proved themselves incredibly capable. Parachuted into occupied countries, they carried out espionage missions, rescued downed airmen, and served as radio operators and couriers under incredible danger. As for those who were captured, sent to concentration camps, and executed, eyewitnesses later told Atkins that they conducted themselves with tremendous dignity. For anyone reading A Life in Secrets, their stories are proof that women are capable of just as much heroism as men. Nobility of spirit doesn’t know a gender.

As for Atkins, perhaps there is something to learn from her story as well. Despite her disappointing choices, she was a rock in the storm for many of the women agents and their surviving loved ones. As Helm points out, she provided both emotional and financial support to some of these individuals until she died. And without her tenacity, the captured women agents would simply have been disavowed and their fates ignored. Instead, there are books written about them and stone memorials inscribed with their names.

Atkins’ position was a hard one. Because of the time in which she lived, she could not – or believed she could not – show any vulnerability. Though her choices were certainly her choices, they were also heavily influenced by the prejudices of her time and the treatment she received because she was seen as an intruder into a boys’ club. Her story, to me, is a reminder that we need to look for the good in others and cultivate it, encourage their strengths even if they don’t fit the profile we want. If someone had done that for Atkins, who knows how inspiring she might have turned out to be?

The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj

by Anne de Courcy

Harper, 2014

335 pages

To know me is to know that I am somewhat obsessed with Victorian England. I picked up a copy of A Christmas Carol at age 7, was mesmerized by the imagery and language and characters, and never looked back.

Since then, I’ve worked my way through Dickens, Trollope, Thomas Hardy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve dabbled with Elizabeth Gaskell and George MacDonald. On the American side, I devoured Louisa May Alcott because her books seemed such close kin to their British counterparts. I’ve also read my way through numerous non-fiction titles about the period, especially those focusing on Victorian domestic life and the lives of women.

So Anne de Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj was a natural choice for my book list. It promised to cover my favorite topics – domesticity and women’s lives – and to fill a gap in my knowledge. While India and Empire had always loomed large in the background of the Victorian stories I read (especially Trollope’s and Burnett’s), I hadn’t read much that directly covered life under the Raj.

In the event, I learned much more than I expected. Though the book focuses primarily on the 1880s-1920s, when the Raj was at its peak, de Courcy covers marriage customs all the way from the late 1700s to Indian independence in the 1940s.

The book’s title refers to the late 19th- and early 20th-century custom of sending droves of young women to India to hunt for husbands. Empire had greatly reduced the stock of eligible young men at home: many had been killed in Empire-building wars, and still more had been sent to police and administer England’s holdings overseas. So pragmatic middle- and upper-class parents simply packed up their daughters and sent them where the men were.

The practice was oxymoronic. Young middle- and upper-class women were not educated or equipped to handle life on their own – a typical well-bred girl ended her academic education in her early teens and was not taught how to look after herself or earn a living. Yet these same girls were sent off on months-long (sometimes harrowing) sea voyages to an unfamiliar country, where the climate, local population, and simple circumstances of life presented tremendous obstacles to their physical and mental health.

These were young women who had been conditioned to be weak and dependent. Society told them they were always on the verge of hysterics, incapable of functioning without the guidance and protection of a father or husband. But they rose to the occasion with aplomb.

Many turned the trip into a grand adventure. Most did get married, but they were more likely to do so on their own terms. They handled disease, natural disaster, and encounters with wild animals with admirable presence of mind. While their husbands went off on campaigns for months at a time, they took household matters in hand and sometimes traveled thousands of miles through hostile landscapes with just a servant to assist them.

England’s rule of India was far from unblemished. But there is no denying the spirit of women who were bred to be shrinking violets, yet made themselves strong as oaks. The lives they made for themselves helped me realize that, sometimes, victory comes by degrees. A step outside the box is still a step – it doesn’t lose all value simply because it’s not a leap. And it’s inspiration to do what we can with the resources we have, both around us and within ourselves.