Tag Archives: Boston authors

Books for reading and giving away

Sometimes I read recent books by Boston authors and describe them in this column. The following three books fit the Boston criteria, but vary widely in their subject matter. One of them might be just what you are looking for either for yourself or a holiday gift.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt

Ms. Holt, a resident of Roslindale, has done a prodigious amount of research for this book about formerly obscure women, talented in mathematics, who worked together in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California beginning in the 1940s.
She tells how they grew as a team, working under the guidance of an older woman who earned their loyalty. Calculating over and over to make sure they were accurate, they first worked on paper, then on huge, early IBM computers and finally on individual PCs.
We read about Wernher von Braun’s visits. Von Braun, as you know, was a premier rocket scientist in Germany during World War II, but was welcomed to the U.S. afterward to move American rocket science forward. Hmmmm. That’s what the rocket girls also thought—hmmm.
The author revisits the milestones of rocket history, Sputnik, the fire that killed Gus Grissom, Roger Chafee and Ed White on the launch pad, moon landings, the explorations of Mars and deep space.
Naturally, being women, the rocket girls’ domestic lives influenced their success. Those whose husbands shared the burdens of maintaining a household and raising children had greater success than the women whose husbands were non-participants. The latter typically divorced.
Holt has a good story to tell and she tells it well. My only problem was keeping the characters straight because there are so many of them.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. After all, it is rocket science, and we can all enjoy the women’s story.

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy

There is so much to like about this book. It takes place in Boston in the 1950s. You’ll recognize where the locations of the action. It’s got the tribes of Boston doing what the tribes do, but it is not as cliché-ridden as, let’s say, Ben Affleck’s movies. A bonus is that the book is filled with 1950s photographs, adding to the sense of time and place.
The sentences are good. This team knows how to write. For example, “She chopped some parsley, filled a pot with water and placed it on the stove top, then opened the fridge, peering in, but, as if she had forgotten what she was looking for, closed the door and shuffled back over to the stove and turned on the gas to boil the water.” That long sentence, filled with prosaic detail, hints at the character’s intention to put up with her situation.
But I could not finish the book. I realized that reviewers rarely divulge their biases or preferences. But I will: I can take only so much violence, sadism and mayhem. This book was too much for me.
The story ends on a high note, or as high as these characters can get. I know because I read the last pages.
If you can stomach such characteristics then you won’t be disappointed by the book’s pace, story telling or interesting characters. So it’s up to you, as it always is.

Make Way for Nancy by Nancy Schön

The sculptor who fashioned Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings for the Boston Public Garden does a fine job of telling her story and that of her creations, even though she warns readers that she is a sculptor, not a writer. She also tells the story of public art, its squabbles, its setbacks and successes and the difficulties of getting funding.
While she’s most famous in Boston for the ducklings, you’ll learn she has created bronze prairie dogs, bears, dragons, owls and pussycats, giraffes and Greek goddesses for display in the U.S. as well as in Moscow, where the only copy of the ducklings statues stands.
She fashioned the ducklings as close to the original drawings as possible. But her other animals are often pared-down versions that project movement and intention. An example is the dynamic Tortoise and the Hare pairing in Copley Square. How can she get bronze to look so lively? We learn how the project moved in fits and starts and how long it took to install it, finally in 1995 near the Boston Marathon finish line. Before that these heavy pieces made a trip to Washington and back, as well as taking a trip to Symphony Hall.
We learn how Schön creates her pieces, starting with a skeleton of plumbing pipes and ending with the finishing after the foundry casts them. She includes a bit of Boston history, a lot about art and, best of all, some insight into the life of a determined, talented, happy woman. We can use a bit of happiness in this world.
One complaint—the book’s layout and quality are not up to the typical standards of the publisher, David Godine. The pages, filled with awkward spacing and widows and orphans, look as if the book designer flowed the text without checking the result. The photos are interesting, but look as if no one took the time to Photoshop them. Strange.

Good reads

Every year about this time I recommend a few books about Boston or by Boston authors that might make good holiday gifts for your friends or relatives. Here are three for you to consider.


Winter Storms by Elin Hilderbrand


This book is not literature. But it is also not junk, as I feared. It was quick and fun.

The story follows an extended family whose members have complicated, theatrical lives. One has two boyfriends, one is at war, another is in jail, still another is a news anchor. All are in touch with one another—old lovers, step-children, former spouses, half siblings. All have a base in Nantucket, where the author must spend much time. She also lives in downtown Boston.

The story has a strong sense of place, which is both good and bad. The book captures the spirit of Nantucket. Beacon Hill also gets a mention, but the distance between one character’s home and Whole Foods is wrong. Readers lose the narrative when they follow a character through well-known terrain if the author doesn’t get it right.

This is the third book in a trilogy, but it is easy to get up to speed on the characters. If you lived in a family like this you’d be exhausted from the drama. But as a read, this family provides imaginative entertainment. This book would be a nice gift for a female friend who likes some fluff—but good fluff—in her life.


Boots on the Ground; Flats in the Boardroom by Grace Crunican and Elizabeth Levin


Few women worked in the transportation sector when the authors began their careers. This book tells the stories of some of these pioneering women. They were business majors, planning specialists, community organizers, political neophytes, civil engineers. They ended up running airports, railroads, consulting companies and transit authorities.

Similar threads weave through the stories. All faced low expectations, discrimination and unfair treatment. They also found mentors, both female and male, who helped them develop their skills and find new connections. They usually give their parents credit for their drive. Their family life often suffered from their job responsibilities. Their connections served them well when they wanted or needed to change jobs. One of the biggest obstacles to their success was counteracting the attitude of many public officials that transportation for the public deserved little respect—it was for the “other.” Some officials call those of us who use public transportation the “transit dependent,” as if we were in need of an intervention or a 12-step program. The reader quickly understands that to those officials, the people who matter drive cars.

The stories are compelling even though they are laced with the alphabet soup of transportation acronyms. The authors helpfully include at the end of the book a guide to these pesky strings of letters. The stories are short, which is both an advantage and a problem. The reader gets an interesting, fast-paced telling of a person’s professional life. But skipping over certain details means leaving questions unanswered. “Then-husbands” come and go, and we’d like to know more. Especially frustrating is former MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott’s portrayal. She came to Massachusetts well-prepared, with success behind her. When the 2015 winter blizzards crippled the T, Scott took the fall for the agency, which surely had been in disarray prior to her arrival. But we don’t understand what happened from Scott’s point of view.

In addition to Scott, several women who are profiled came from or worked in Massachusetts, so this book could have great interest for those who want to be reminded of the state’s history over the last 30 years. It would be a good gift for those people and also for teenage or college-age girls contemplating a career in transportation.


The Lively Place by Stephen Kendrick


I wish this delightful book about Mount Auburn Cemetery were a coffee table book, though that might have been too expensive to produce. The writing is eloquent, picturesque, all about nature as well as death. Photographs would have illustrated the writer’s already vivid prose, especially since the book’s structure is based on the seasons. As it is, we’ll make do with the rich interweaving of Mount Auburn’s facets and the charming black and white drawings.

The author is the minister of the First Church of Boston and has acquainted himself well with Mount Auburn. While he describes the people who have walked its paths and occupied its earth, he also muses on the history of horticulture, the history of Boston, the beginnings of Transcendentalism, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the nature of decay, the obsession with birding, the pleasure of walking and the innovation in burials that created Mount Auburn and that continues even today with the cemetery’s “green” burials designed to assist in the movement from dust to dust.

Almost anyone with an inquiring mind will like this book, so bestow it liberally this holiday season.