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The Girl Explorers, by Jayne Zanglein


I do love travel, as you’ve probably gathered by the number of globetrotting tomes that have made it into my weekly reviews. And I’ve long enjoyed the tales of daring women who undertook adventures around the world, having read books by or about such adventurers as Gertrude BellIsabella BirdNellie BlyIsabelle EberhardtAlexandra David-NéelDervla Murphy, and Freya Stark. What is nice about The Girl Explorers, by Jayne Zanglein, first published in 2021, is that it doesn’t retell the stories of those famous women. There are many more stories to be told!

The author was led to her research by finding the story of Blair Niles.

I was immediately taken aback by this woman. Blair was born on a Virginia plantation in 1880, surrounded by freed slaves. Nearly two decades earlier, her maternal grandfather, a Virginia congressman [Roger Atkinson Pryor], had provoked the Confederacy into launching the Civil War against the Union. When Blair was a child, her mother started a mixed-race night school to educate Blair, her brothers, and the children of the household’s former slaves. She did this to expose her children to diverse viewpoints at a time when the family could not afford to send them off to school. Because of her mother’s influence, and in spite of her grandfather’s reputation, Blair became an advocate for marginalized and oppressed people.

Although Blair is remembered as the author of the first compassionate book about gay people in Harlem (Strange Brother), her books on the brutal treatment of prisoners in French Guiana (Condemned to Devil’s Island), the uprising of slaves during the Haitian Revolution (Black Haiti: A Biography of Africa’s Eldest Daughter), and the mutiny of the Amistad slave ship (East by Day) have been forgotten. Also overlooked is Blair’s role in founding the Society of Women Geographers, an organization with more than 500 members worldwide that will soon celebrate its one hundredth anniversary.

She helped found that organization because the famous Explorers Club, founded in 1904 as both a professional society to promote scientific exploration and a hangout for gents to swap tall tales, refused to admit women. The head of that latter organization, Roy Chapman Andrews, had declared women “temperamentally unfit” for exploration.

Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer

I enjoyed Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer, by Kathy Kleiman, published last July. In truth, I’m not really a tech kind of guy, and so much of the bulk of the story, taking us through the programming puzzles that had to be worked out in the early days of computers, was more background noise to me (although Kleiman does a very good job of explaining for those who are interested.)

The most fascinating parts of the book for me were the Preface and the Epilogue. She begins the book by detailing the long, painstaking discovery of this story. It began with her curiosity about a single black-and-white photograph of the room-sized ENIAC computer built on the University of Pennsylvania campus in the 1940s. There were six people in the room: two men and four women, but the caption only identified the men. Kleiman, herself a woman interested in computing, was intrigued. As she writes, she’d knew about Ada Lovelace, who worked on early programming theory in the Nineteenth Century, and with Captain Grace Hopper of the US Navy, who was credited with some early programming work in the 1940s. But who were these other women? A deep dive into musty archives turned up some more photographs, but still with no identification of the women.

She turned for advice to Dr. Gwen Bell, cofounder of the Computer Museum. Surely another computer-oriented woman would be interested and perhaps have some insight. But her answer?

“They’re refrigerator ladies,” she said.

“What’s a refrigerator lady?” I asked, baffled as to what she was talking about.

“They’re models,” she responded, rolling her eyes. Like the Frigidaire models of the 1950s, who opened the doors of the new refrigerators with a flourish in black-and-white TV commercials, these women were just posed in front of ENIAC to make it look good. At least, that’s what Dr. Bell thought.

Well, no, they weren’t simply models posed to give visual interest to the walls of knobs, wires and lights. There were six women, erased from history, who did much of the early programming that made this early computer a success. The bulk of the book is devoted to meeting these women from various walks of life, recruited by the government for secret work in developing ways the computer could help the World War Two effort. There were no instructions to follow, no programming languages to base their work on. They created ENIAC’s programming on their own, overcoming multiple puzzles and roadblocks along the way. It is a fascinating story, well told.

In the epilogue, Kleiman relates how she finally tracked down the identities of these women, some of whom were still alive and who she interviewed. You would think the world would be gratified to have this lost history rescued, but the book ends with a kicker. She was the target of vehement pushback from many in the computing industry. William Aspray, a senior researcher with the Charles Babbage Institute, accused her of revisionist history. Nathan Ensmenger published a book entitled The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, which featured a white man standing in front of a massive computer on its cover. He dismissed the women programmers as “glorified clerical workers” and bloviated that they “were obviously low on the intellectual and professional status hierarchy.” Another book, ENIAC in Action: Making and Remaking the Modern Computer, by Thomas Haigh, Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope, was equally dismissive, labeling them mere “operators.”

Thanks to Kleiman for this fascinating history and setting the record straight.

They Knew, by Sarah Kendzior

If you’re expecting to simply kick back and cackle to yourself over the insane conspiracy ravings of MAGA and QAnon adherents, Sarah Kendzior’s They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent will disappoint. Oh, there’s plenty of that rightwing insanity dissected in the book, to be sure, but Kendzior takes a much deeper dive into the history and practice of conspiracy theories in America, and at some point you're sure to be set to squirming about something you believe no matter where you lie on the political spectrum.

She sets the scene early in the book with an example undercutting the liberal tendency to blame vaccine mistrust primarily on voter partisanship, an oversimplification that ignores the fact that there are nearly as many voters identifying as ‘Independent’ as there are ‘Republican,’ and that the most-vaccinated segment of the population—White Boomers—is also one of the top Trump-supporting segments. Indeed, the whole idea of ‘Red States’ is a misdirection: she calls them “gerrymandered hostage states run by hard-right Republican legislatures that disregard the public will.” So what is going on, if not a purely partisan divide? “[A]n epidemic of disillusionment and distrust so vast it stretches into paralysis.”

What is happening in Missouri is the result of having been lied to so many times about matters of life or death that the desire to die on your own terms outweighs the desire to get tricked into choosing it. What is happening here is the aftermath of predatory big pharma dynasties like the Sacklers swooping into your state and promising you relief in the form of opioids, assuring you they are safe, and leaving your community addicted and decimated while they laugh and profit off your pain and seek permanent immunity in the courts. What is happening here is recognition that if something were indeed wrong with a new and experimental vaccine, there would be no recourse and no justice, because political officials do not care if you die. What is happening here is abandonment as a way of life, from the streets of St. Louis to the hills of the Ozarks, and the knowledge that making a wrong move in a broken healthcare system is a gamble too expensive to take. What is happening here is not only people falling for conspiracies but remembering the times their loved ones had faith in the system and faith made a fool of them, at the cost of their survival.

In short, “of course people will flock to conspiracy theories when nearly every powerful actor is lying, obfuscating, or profiteering off pain.”

To be clear, Kendzior’s primary target is the blatant authoritarian criminality of the Trump regime, whose dangerous election she had predicted as early as the Fall of 2015. In her previous book, 2020’s Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, she called it “a reality show featuring villains from every major political scandal of the past 40 years—Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial collapse—in recurring roles and revivals...a Celebrity Apprentice of federal felons and disgraced operatives dragged out of the shadows and thrust back into the spotlight.”

Your Best Year Yet! 2023 and every other year

The End is Near. The end of the year, that is, and if you’re the type who makes New Year’s resolutions, it’s the time to think about what you want to do better. You are not alone. Self-improvement books continue to have a huge market, and its only getting bigger. According to NPD Bookscan, sales in this publishing category nearly doubled between 2013 and 2019. I’ll give Trump credit for the latter years of that period: he offered people a window into how truly awful a human being could be, and no doubt spurred many to seek the path of not becoming Trump. More recent years have seen continued growth, as people deal with the fallout from Covid-19: the loss of connection, of certainty, of loved ones, of routine and expectations. The number of self-improvement titles in print is pushing 100,000.

I’ve never been a big consumer of self-help titles. I have a soft spot for the book in this diary’s title: Your Best Year Yet!: Ten Questions for Making the Next Twelve Months Your Most Successful Ever, by Jinny Ditzler. Part of that has to do with how I acquired it: In late 1999, after years of working in restaurants, I had just taken my first bookstore job, with the Barbara’s Bestsellers outlet in the Philadelphia International Airport. The company generously gave all its employees a one-hundred-dollar gift certificate for Christmas. I only remember two of the books I bought: my first Bukowski, Hot Water Music (the link is to the 2002 printing), and the new printing of Your Best Year Yet!, published on January 1st, 2000. The latter book just seemed right, given that I’d just switched career paths, and, well, it was the dawn of the year 2000, a New Year’s on steroids.

I can’t say I’ve ever used the book in any comprehensive way. Still, at this time of year, I usually find myself browsing through it as a way of refreshing my appreciation of the past and affirming my hopes for the future. It’s a nice little book in the genre. She doesn’t so much tell you what you should do, but rather, asks you to do the work yourself. The format is ten questions to ask yourself over the course of three hours, to ponder where you’ve come from and where you want to go.

  1. What did I accomplish?
  2. What were my biggest disappointments?
  3. What did I learn.
  4. How do I limit myself, and how do I stop?
  5. What are my personal values?
  6. What roles do I play in my life?
  7. Which role is my major focus for the next year?
  8. What are my goals for each role?
  9. What are my top ten goals for the next year?
  10. How can I make sure I achieve them?

So, basically, take stock, create a narrative about your life, and set goals. The essence of every self-help book out there. But if you’re going to read one, Ditzler’s is a congenial and valuable start.

Taxi from Another Planet, by Charles S. Cockell

I said it in my review back in May of David George Haskell’s Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution's Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction: “I already live on a knife-edge of awe, stunned disbelief and overwhelmed incomprehension when it comes to the natural world we inhabit.”

But I keep trying understand more, and so I turned to Taxi from Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe, by Charles S. Cockell. With this book, I go beyond “the natural world we inhabit” and journey into both the origins of life on Earth as well as the farthest reaches of the universe. And I make the trip by taxi!

Kudos to the author, who is a Very Serious Astrobiologist with the University of Edinburgh, and to Harvard University Press, a Very Serious Publisher, for presenting some Very Serious Science into such an entertaining and even whimsical package. It has become almost hackneyed for journalists to pay tribute to taxi drivers as sources of inspiration and information. The author of this book happily latches on to the tradition, initially inspired by a question posed by one particular driver in 2016:

Taxi drivers are linked into the collective mind of our civilization in a way few of us are. They feel the pulse of human thought...Unencumbered by a cartload of academic knowledge, technical detail, and the conservatism bred by uncertainty, taxi drivers have clear perspectives on the sorts of questions that most people find significant. Sometimes, they offer an entirely new point of view…. Name a single academic who would stand in front of 200 university students and ask, as though it were a profound question, whether there were alien taxi drivers. Yet here we were. 

And off we go in the first chapter of the book, examining various theories of whether life on Earth is unique, or whether it is just one node of a universal pattern that would be replicated countless times, with lifeforms dropping the flag in their taxis as they ferry others around on countless planets throughout the universe. What exactly is it that triggers, as he calls it, the “transition from mere chemistry to biology.”

README.txt: A Memoir, by Chelsea Manning

I picked up Chelsea Manning’s new book README.txt: A Memoir at the library on a whim, and I’m glad I did, as I've found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. You probably know the basics of her story: while still living as a male in 2010, she used her position as an intelligence analyst in the US Army to download hundreds of thousands of diplomatic and military documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which she then shared with the world. She was caught, charged and convicted to 35 years in prison. At the beginning of her sentence, she came out as transgender and fought to be allowed to transition. In 2017, President Obama commuted her sentence.

With stolen documents and potential exposed secrets in the news, and as someone with a transgender granddaughter, the book called out to me.

She’s a good writer, and her account of her life before all this happened is engaging, especially as it intersects with some of the historical events of her youth. She grew up in Crescent, a small town just north of Oklahoma City, where she and her older sister had to deal with parents who drank, and a father who could be violent. She describes their politics, such as they were, as a sort of conservative libertarianism, suspicious of government, and her description of the roots of their thinking seemed to paint a direct line to the dangerous and deluded anti-government MAGA crowd of today:

What really bothered him, and a lot of people like him...was that the government had killed people, including women and children, in Waco, Texas, during their botched intervention there in 1993, when I was six. The words Waco, David Koresh, Janet Reno, and ATF left most of us with a bitter taste. Our community shared a pervasive fear of the feds coming in again and interfering in our lives, taking away our firearms, going from house to house and forcing a new way of life on conservative, working-class people. I don’t think people who are not from that part of the world understand just what a formative event the stand-off at Waco was, or that it still feels like recent, urgent history to many.

The following year, when she was seven, she heard a loud boom outside. It was the explosion, thirty miles away, of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, where rightwing terrorist Timothy McVeigh had set off an explosive mix of agricultural fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other chemicals in a rented Ryder truck. 168 people died, including women and 19 children. Manning learned at a young age that violence could be random and could come from many sources.

Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees, by Jared Farmer

I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting any of the truly ancient trees of the world. The closest I came was during my boyhood in 1960s San Jose, California, where we would sometimes visit Big Basin State Park, home to some 1800-year-old redwoods. A wildfire ravaged 97% of the park in 2020, destroying the historic structures and altering the landscape...but many of the venerable redwoods survived.

Still, the idea of ancient trees is alluring, and so I took a look at Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees, by Jared Farmer, published today.  It is an exclusive club—only about 25 species of plants can naturally produce organisms that live for a millennium or longer. And while redwoods are the best known, there are other venerable species, such as olive, baobab. cedar, gingko and pipal, though often their lengthy lives are aided by human intervention. Olive trees, for example, have natural aids to longevity: their low-maintenance hardiness allows them to survive drought and poor soil, and their structure, with different branches connected to different root systems, allows them to survive even as part of them die. But human intervention grafting and pruning assists their long loves. Because of their sectional growth patterns and trunk structures, it is difficult to determine the age of olive trees. The oldest are believed to be the eight trees within the Garden of Olives in Jerusalem. Gingkoes are another hardy specimen and are believed to be able to live for a thousand years. One notable gingko tree survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima less than a mile from ground zero.

The book meanders around the world and across time in a vaguely thematic fashion, mixing natural and human history. Chapter Four, for example, is titled Pacific Fires, and visits, California, Chile, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan. Unlike the smaller long-lived trees like olive and gingko, the Pacific Rim is home to the towering giants like Sequoias, alerces, kauri and sugi cypress, and the tales told here are of destruction versus preservation, both of the trees and of the indigenous population who lived in these forests.

Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph

Last week was my 67th birthday, so Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph, by Richard Lacayo and published today, seemed to be a vitalizing choice.

The book gives a quick sweeping overview of artists who have worked to a ripe old age.

It’s surprising how many artists have lived well past seventy. Even in centuries when life expectancy, held in check by bad hygiene, poor nutrition, and guessing-game medicine, was a fraction of what it is now, they often made it to a remarkable age. For every Raphael or Van Gogh who left this world in his or her thirties, there’s a very long A-list of artists who reached their eighties and nineties, And older….

Better still, many of those men and women remained productive to the end. Almost by definition artists are people who spend a lifetime doing what they love. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Coming af Age, her book-length examination of later life: “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence, political, intellectual or creative work.” If it’s true, as some researchers tell us, that contentment correlated with longevity, is it any surprise that the people who do this kind of thing for a living rarely retire? “Happiness is work.” Words the aging Paul Cézanne fixed to the wall of his studio in Provence.

Throughout history, countless artists have lived in accord with Cézanne’s motto. Crippled by arthritis, the elderly Auguste Renoir went on painting with his hands strapped tightly on bandages. On the day before he died he completed a still life. Until nearly the end of her long life, in 2010, Louise Bourgeois drew almost every day. (Or night—she was an insomniac and drawing helped her sleep.) Around 12515, the year before he died, Giovanni Bellini produced his first full-length nude, an elegant young woman coolly appraising her own charms in a hand-held mirror. He was eighty-five when he had the pleasure of revisiting her image regularly in his studio, gently touching her up with his brush.

But the book then develops its themes by focusing on six artists: the Italian Renaissance painter Titian; Francisco José de Goya, Spanish painter of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries; the French painters Claude Monet and Henri Matisse, from the 19th and 20th Centuries; the 20th Century American painter Edward Hopper; and the 20th Century American sculptor Louise Nevelson.

Starry Messenger, by Neal deGrasse Tyson

I must be getting old and sentimental. There were times while reading astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson’s new book Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization that I found myself getting a bit misty-eyed. Sometimes it was a reaction to specific images, as he recounts the social impact of our first looks at our earthly home floating in the vast tapestry of space There was the photo taken by the astronauts of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission, the first to circle the moon in preparation for the landing the following year, our first view from a distance far enough away to see Earth as a whole. I remember watching live on television that Christmas Eve as they livestreamed their view of Earth while reciting the first few verses of the Book of Genesis. deGrasse also discusses the 1990 picture sent back from the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it passed Neptune nearly 4 billion miles away. Now the earth is just a tiny ‘pale blue dot,’ in the words of science writer Carl Sagan, barely visible at all.

Other times, my emotional response came more from a yearning for humankind to communicate and collaborate better, since despite our differences, our varying experiences and cultures, we’re all HERE, sharing this amazing little ball of life, the only one we have so far identified, our home that sustains us through an intricate interplay of physics, chemistry and biology.

This is the theme of the book: how science could and should inspire us to get along better. It is a theme that runs unevenly through the book’s ten chapters. Sometimes the point is pounded, as in the chapter entitled Conflict and Resolution, which begins:

One of the great features of a working democracy is that we get to disagree without killing one another. What happens when democracy fails. What happens when we hold no tolerance for views that differ from our own….Do we long for a world where the moral code, our values and our judgments—all that we believe are right and wrong—are deemed correct and unassailable.

This kicks off a discussion which encompasses global conflicts over politics, religion and resources, nuclear arms, climate denialism, vax deniers and more. Sometimes he finds ways to point to ways that those with opposing views each can be seen as having some validity, other times he condemns science denial. And woven throughout is always some intriguing science. For example, when discussing conflict over resources, he points out that space, with its solar energy, freshwater comets and metal-laden asteroids, is an abundant future source of our needs. A single large asteroid contains more rare-earth metals that have been mined in all our history on Earth.

Other chapters emphasize the science, with the politics lightly woven in. One example is Risk and Reward, about statistics and probability, and the very human tendency to misunderstand and ignore them. Here we get the amusing anecdote of a convention in Las Vegas hosting 4000 physicists. The casino had one of its least profitable stretch of days ever. Why? The scientists understood the laws of probability too well to be tempted to gamble.

Overall, it’s a fun book. deGrasse writes in a style that almost feels like you’re having a discussion in a bar. We debate the ins and outs of most of the great challenges of the day, from racial politics to vegetarianism, We learn endless amusing tidbits. Most astronauts in our space exploration years orbited Earth at a distance of a mere 250 miles, not much more than the distance from New York to Washington. It would take four hundred million pints of ice cream to give you a lethal dose of the of any residual amounts of the herbicide glyphosate that might be in it, but it would take only 20 pints to give you a lethal dose of sugar. The population of India is 40% vegetarian, the UK is 20%, and the US is only 5%. Even meat-loving Argentina has 12% of its population declaring themselves vegetarian.

He believes in science, and argues that we all would be better off if we did so as well.

Against White Feminism, by Rafia Zakaria


I Ain’t the Right Kind of Feminist

by Cheryl West, 1983

First Off I’m too confused

Secondly you know my blackness envelops me

Thirdly my articulateness fails me

When the marching feminists come by

I walk with them for a while

And then I trip over pebbles I didn’t see

My sexist heels are probably too high

I’m stuck in the sidewalk cracks


Oh where Oh where has my feminism gone

Don’t you know it’s chasing after my


Somewhere in the white sea

Once again, your boomer generation white guy diarist is diving into a book he hopes will push his boundaries and expand his point of view, and I thank you for joining me. Now available in paperback, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, by Rafia Zakaria, is a deep, passionate and learned demand for intersectionality, for the voices and the experiences of women of color to take center stage against a feminism that for too long has been dominated by the viewpoints of white, usually well-to-do women.

Did the book push my boundaries? Surprisingly, not to the extent I expected. While totally informative, very well-researched and passionate in its advocacy, it at times feels like a survey of the literature for an audience of white feminists. Throughout the book, Zakaria offers personal examples of being dismissed by those white feminists, as in an uncomfortable meeting at a Manhattan wine bar, or at a conference where she had believed she was invited to give a lecture on feminism in Pakistan, but instead was directed to dress in native garb and hawk trinkets representing her culture.

These lived experiences were, on the one hand, appalling examples of microaggressions and overt disdain white feminists exhibit towards women of color, and yet they felt somehow out of place within the greater scholarly survey in which they were embedded. They seemed intended to get the readers’ attention: ‘Hey! See how you treat us? Now, it’s your turn to listen to us.’ But this is a minor complaint, so bear with me.