Downtown View:Books for Reading and Giving Away

By Karen Cord Taylor

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.


Karen’s Note:

Last week I did not mention that Stefanie Rocknak is the sculptor of Edgar Allan Poe’s statue. Thank you to Anne Goodrich for pointing this out.

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