Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks, born in 1917, was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and selected to succeed Carl Sandburg as Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois.


At age 13, she published her first poem in a children’s magazine, and by the time she was 16, she had published some 75 poems. She started going to poetry workshops, and in 1943 received her first award for her work.

Her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 to wide acclaim. With her second book, Annie Allen (1950), she became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Brooks’s work became more political as she got older, displaying what National Observer contributor Bruce Cook termed “an intense awareness of the problems of color and justice.”

She wrote in 1972:

There is indeed a new black today. He is different from any the world has known. He’s a tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his own brothers he is not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the schooled white; not the kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders, some of them very kind, with special portfolio, special savvy. But I cannot say anything other, because nothing other is the truth.”

You can see a difference in tone between these two poems, the first published in 1959, and the second in 1980:

We Real Cool (1959)


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.”

Primer For Blacks (1980)

is a title,
is a preoccupation,
is a commitment Blacks
are to comprehend—
and in which you are
to perceive your Glory.

The conscious shout
of all that is white is
“It’s Great to be white.”
The conscious shout
of the slack in Black is
“It’s Great to be white.”
Thus all that is white
has white strength and yours.

The word Black
has geographic power,
pulls everybody in:
Blacks here—
Blacks there—
Blacks wherever they may be.
And remember, you Blacks, what they told you—
remember your Education:
“one Drop—one Drop
maketh a brand new Black.”
         Oh mighty Drop.
______And because they have given us kindly
so many more of our people

stretches over the land.
the Black of it,
the rust-red of it,
the milk and cream of it,
the tan and yellow-tan of it,
the deep-brown middle-brown high-brown of it,
the “olive” and ochre of it—
marches on.

The huge, the pungent object of our prime out-ride
is to Comprehend,
to salute and to Love the fact that we are Black,
which is our “ultimate Reality,”
which is the lone ground
from which our meaningful metamorphosis,
from which our prosperous staccato,
group or individual, can rise.

Self-shriveled Blacks.
Begin with gaunt and marvelous concession:
YOU are our costume and our fundamental bone.
All of you—
you COLORED ones,
you NEGRO ones,
those of you who proudly cry
“I’m half INDian”—
those of you who proudly screech
“I’VE got the blood of George WASHington in MY veins”
ALL of you—
you proper Blacks,
you half-Blacks,
you wish-I-weren’t Blacks,
Niggeroes and Niggerenes.


Brooks died of cancer at the age of 83 in 2000.


Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of Two Books on Eleanor Roosevelt


Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a charming story, and boasts drawings by Brian Selznick. The book is about the friendship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the celebrated aviator Amelia Earhart, also conveying some of the ways in which both women were daring pioneers for their time.

At a dinner at the White House, Earhart offered to take the First Lady for a ride, and, in spite of opposition from the Secret Service, they set off to Baltimore. They were back at the White House in time for dessert – Eleanor Roosevelt’s angel food cake, the recipe for which is included at the end of the book. An Author’s Note at the end of the book provides the historical background for the largely unknown flight of the two women on April 20, 1933.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart

Evaluation: In addition to telling a great story, the illustrations by Selznick add immeasurably to the tale. Selznick did extensive research for the book; we learn that even the wallpaper and china patterns on the plates used at the dinner at the White House are authentic. Selznick, of course, is the award-winning author/illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Every book he illustrates is magical.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Scholastic Press, 1999


Eleanor: Quiet No More by Doreen Rappaport follows the pattern Rappaport has used in her other biographies for children: her biographical passages about the subject are punctuated with actual quotes by the biographee.

Rappaport’s book gives biographical data about ER, describing her unhappy childhood (her mother thought Eleanor was “ugly and too serious”), the death of both parents before she was ten, and how Eleanor then grew up in the loveless house of her grandmother.

When Eleanor was 15, she was sent away to boarding school, and was fortunate to have a teacher who believed in her and encouraged her. When Eleanor came home at 18, she was a different person, and one who had developed compassion for those with less than she had.

A distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proposed to her, and she became a politician’s wife, and then a behind-the-scenes politician herself. She continued to crusade for poor and minorities even after her husband died, meeting with world leaders and advocating for human rights.

End notes add a list of important dates in ER’s life, selected research sources, and suggested further reading.

The muted pastel illustrations by Gary Kelley are adeptly done.


Evaluation: Generally in her biographies Rappaport emphasizes the positive and elides the negative, but she does a more balanced job here (and in truth, there isn’t much negative to say about Eleanor Roosevelt).

Rating: 4/5

Published by Disney Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2009

Review of “100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know About Math and the Arts” by John D. Barrow

This author has written a number of wonderfully informative books on math and cosmology, of which we have read at least half. Although he is a theoretical physicist, he writes in a conversational style that is non-scientist-friendly.


In the introduction of this book Barrow gives a short summary of different views about what mathematics is. One view holds that it is “a set of eternal truths that already ‘exist’ in some real sense and are found by mathematicians. The second sees it as “an infinitely large game with rules, which we invent and whose consequences we then pursue.” A third opinion defines mathematics as “the catalogue of all possible patterns.” Moreover, although the number of possible patterns is infinite, it turns out that a very small number of simple patterns characterize much of reality. It is this third view that shows why art and mathematics actually have so much in common, because pleasing patterns tend to be associated with great works of art. As Manil Suri points out (in his discussion of Pi), “This is characteristic of mathematics, whereby elementary formulas can give rise to surprisingly varied phenomena.”

Barrow demonstrates this premise in very pithy chapters that can be read in any order, ranging on topics from the design of art galleries themselves to the works they contain; from music, to book design, to sculpture, literature, dance, and music. Some of the essays have very little to do with art as one might conventionally define it, but they are interesting nonetheless.

While Barrow writes clearly with a minimum of equations and the inclusion of many illustrations, it is a bit too “math-y” for my taste. For Jim, on the other hand, who spends many afternoons watching free online lectures on math and physics from Stanford, MIT, and The Kahn Academy, the short essays don’t seem math-y at all! He opines that except for one chapter (using a Taylor expansion to calculate the value of an infinite series), you won’t need any more math background than perhaps a familiarity with algebra.

In spite of any math deficiencies I may have compared to Jim, I do love discovering new aspects of the intersection of math and art and their surprising co-evolution. For those, like me, who find this book – which is witty and fairly elementary – fascinating but still not basic enough, I have two other recommendations that focus more on the art than on the math.

One is Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light by Leonard Slain (William Morrow Books, 1991) and the other is Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, And the Spiritual by Lynn Gamwell (Princeton University Press, 2002). Both emphasize the way in which paradigm changes in science spurred revolutions in art. Barrow’s emphasis is the opposite in a way; he shows you how art, or more specifically, patterns, reveal the math behind them.

The three of these books together would make a wonderful complement for anyone seeking to understand the close relationship between developments in math and in the arts.

Evaluation: Math and science fans will really enjoy this book, as will those who love finding out how the patterns that please us are not just random. Barrow also has very readable books on cosmology, such as The Infinite Book, and The Book of Universes.  In addition, he has written 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World, which is very similar in style and format to the book being reviewed here, and is also very entertaining.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2015

Note: I want to make special mention of his dedication “To Darcey and Guy who are still young enough to know everything.” Isn’t that the truth about kids!

Review of “The Forever Watch” by David Ramirez

This is a dark and creative science fiction novel about the spaceship Noah, carrying the remnants of Earth to a new planet, called “Canaan” for a new start. As the story begins, the ship has been traveling for 346 years, and is one-third of the way to Canaan.


Hana Dempsey, 30, is a talented City Planning Administrator on the Noah who begins a relationship below her social ranking (much to the chagrin of her friends) with a policeman, Leon Barrens. The two also embark on a professional collaboration after Hana agrees to use her computer talent to help Leon find out what happened to his former mentor, who suffered a gruesome death.

At first, Barrens believes the ship’s administration is covering up the existence of a sick, vicious killer, but they two keep finding more evidence that something much more sinister is afoot. The ship is not what they think it is, nor do the assumptions they have been taught about their lives turn out to be true. But the bigger question turns out to be: what if the truth is unbearable? Is the governing council of the ship really evil, or have they made the most rational, workable decision for the greatest good? And what is the moral course to take the information they have uncovered?

Discussion: This book is loaded with innovative story lines – maybe a bit too many to be contained in one book. (Ironically, in the story, characters suffer from having too much data at once stuffed into their heads. It seems almost like a complaint readers could make.) This book is: science fiction about the future of the Earth; a crime story; a love story; a study of small group dynamics; and a futuristic exposition (almost an “Expo” in fact) of the possibilities of technological advancements. Other subjects that weave through the story include genetic and gender determination, the fine line between wise governance and despotism, and the danger of not only having imperfect information, but the perils of having too much information as well.

In addition to the storyline overload, some of the riffs on computer networking seem overly obscure (and therefore overly elaborated upon).

I think the ending was supposed to be uplifting, but I found it hugely depressing. That was not a minus, however, but rather testimony to how vividly the author depicted the dilemma of Noah’s Ark.

On the positive side, the relationship between Hana and Leon was just lovely. I particularly liked the way Hana described how she and Leon relaxed after work together:

…once in a while, … we have coffee at a cheap cafe where nobody knows us…. He does not talk much about the simmering red inside of him, and I don’t talk about my blues; we just sit together, sometimes listening quietly to the amateur jazz performers on the stage, and sometimes, our fingers touch, and we don’t say ‘Bye.'”

And while there are possibly too many plot threads, I found most of them to be interesting and thought-provoking.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan, 2014

Women’s History Month – The Amelia Bloomer Project: Recommended Books for Children With Feminist Themes

Amelia Bloomer, born in 1818, was an American women’s rights and temperance advocate, who became, however, best-known for her efforts to reform women’s clothing styles.

Bloomer had only a few years of formal education, although at age 17 she became a school teacher. She must have exhibited writing skills, because her husband whom she married at age 22, attorney Dexter Bloomer, encouraged her to write for his New York newspaper, the “Seneca Falls County Courier.”

In 1848, Bloomer attended the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention. The following year, she became editor of the first newspaper for women, “The Lily.” It was published biweekly from 1849 until 1853. Although the newspaper began as a temperance journal, it increasingly extended its mix of contents. In it, for example, Bloomer opined:

The costume of women should be suited to her wants and necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance.”

Others in the feminist movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, adopted her ideas and also began to promote sensible and comfortable clothes for women. Articles on the clothing trend were picked up in “The New York Tribune.” More women wore the fashion which was promptly dubbed The Bloomer Costume or “Bloomers”.

Bloomer remained a suffrage pioneer and writer throughout her life, writing for a wide array of periodicals. Although Bloomer’s work was far less renowned than that of her contemporaries, she made many significant contributions to the women’s movement — her ideas of dress reform and her work in the temperance movement were notable. Moreover, The Lily was a voice for many women reformers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Among many tributes to her, The Amelia Bloomer Project, part of the Feminist Task Force of the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table, creates an annual book list recognizing children’s books with feminist themes published during the award year. You can access their recommendations here. This year’s Top Ten Recommended Books includes the books shown below. You can click on this link to access an annotated bibliography of these books, as well as lists of recommended books from previous years.


For St. Patrick’s Day: The Book of Kells

A day to celebrate Ireland is a good time to take a closer look at one of Ireland’s treasures, the Book of Kells. This richly decorated and illuminated medieval manuscript contains the four gospels in Latin using Celtic script. It is believed to have been the work of monks from Iona, who fled to Kells in AD 806 following a raid by Vikings. (The monastery at Kells in County Meath, Ireland, was set up by St. Columba in the 6th Century.) The book was moved to Trinity College in Dublin in the 17th Century, where it is on permanent display at Trinity College Library. It is considered to be a masterwork of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of “Insular illumination”. [The term derives from insula, the Latin term for “island”; insular art was that produced in this period in Great Britain and Ireland rather than in the rest of Europe. Most Insular art originates from the Irish monasticism of Celtic Christianity.]

Christ Enthroned

Christ Enthroned

The most famous page of the book (since 1953, bound in four volumes) is the Chi-Rho Monogram Page, shown below, which contains the first three words of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 18:1). (This first word, “XRI” is an abbreviation of “Christi.”)


You don’t even have to travel to Ireland anymore to see the book (although that would, of course, be optimal). Trinity College Library Dublin has put the entire Book of Kells online, free, in a digitized version using state of the art imaging technology. You can see it here. The Library also has a wonderful website, with news alerts about interesting scholarly books.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!


Review of “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World” by Steve LeVine

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

With all the geopolitical difficulties that come from a dependence on oil, and all the deleterious repercussions of car emissions, it would help a great deal if cars could all run on batteries. Thus, the efforts to realize such capabilities are not without interest or importance. One might well ask, what’s the holdup?


This book is the story of the effort by a fairly small group of scientists and engineers to invent, [actually, develop is a better descriptor], a battery sufficiently powerful, energetic, and dimensionally stable to provide power for a commercially viable automobile.

The author competently explains the electro-chemistry of batteries, in particular, the characteristics of lithium ion technology. It transpires that lithium based batteries have the greatest “energy density” [measured in kilowatt-hours per kilogram (kw-hr/kg)] of any known battery chemistry. This criterion is very important because a battery’s weight should be as light as possible for both the performance and the cost of any car it powers. Lithium-ion batteries developed for cell phones and other electronic devices typically have energy densities of less than 200 kw-hr/kg. General Motors estimated that a battery would have to have an energy density of nearly 400 kw-hr/kg to be an effective power plant for an automobile. Moreover, it would have to maintain that energy density through 1000 charging cycles.

Levine also does a good job of describing the technological hurdles that have to be overcome to reach those performance criteria. He focuses on the efforts of two institutions, Argonne National Laboratories, (a government-associated facility) and Envia Systems, Inc. (a Silicon Valley start-up company).

His description of the organizational and managerial struggles at both institutions, while accurate, did not interest me much. Who cares what building number at Argonne housed the battery team? And who cares whether various members of the team received promotions from A-6 to A-7? Dealing with petty jealousies may be an important aspect of research and development, but it makes for tedious reading or listening. Too much of the book is devoted to describing the managerial decisions taken at both institutions, and far too much is devoted to describing the preparation of a particular bid by Argonne to the Department of Energy.

Some of the tedium in the story might be justified if “the battery to save the world” had actually been developed. But, spoiler alert: alas, although the 400 kw-hr/kg criterion has been met in small, coin-sized cells, no large scale battery has yet been built that can maintain that energy density for more than a few cycles.

Part of the problem is that if you change any one part of a battery, there can be unforeseen consequences over time, which can’t be predicted by testing. Another challenge is finding the right composition of coatings for the batteries in order to stabilize the voltage. Efficient manufacturing processes represent yet another obstacle. There is much that can go wrong, and a great deal of money and effort is necessary to achieve success.

Thus, battery research must continue, and so the story has not yet ended. As of now, however, an affordable fully electric powered automobile is still a thing of the future. Elon Musk’s Tesla is a great performing car, but it is very expensive. Chevrolet’s Volt, while more affordable, is not fully electric. Stay tuned—on your battery powered radio.

A Tesla Roadster battery pack, via Getty Images.

A Tesla Roadster battery pack, via Getty Images.

Evaluation: This book may prove of most interest to those in fields of research and development, and especially in the management issues posed in those circumstances.

Rating: 3/5

A Note on the Audio Production: Narrator Mike Chamberlain does his best to keep listeners engaged in some difficult subject matter.

Run time: 10 hrs, 48 mins. Available as an unabridged digital download from Penguin Audio (2015).


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