Friday, March 26, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n5 -- less by andrew sean greer

I think I've been awed by every Pulitzer Prize winning book I've ever read. Except this one.

There are books that at first don't impress, books that you kind of have to trudge through, do the work, put in the investment, only for everything to unfold wonderfully toward the end, making every page worth it. This is one such book, only the payoff wasn't quite worth the effort.

That's not to say that this was a hard book to read, because it wasn't. It went down easy, like a Fresca. But, also like a Fresca, I just didn't finish it feeling like there was much nourishment there, just a fleeting, momentary reprieve from thirst--it was good, I wanted more, but there was no more to be had. 

It just seemed sort of...empty. 

3 of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n4 -- uncanny valley by anna wiener

 In the spring of 2001, I was finishing a two-year, full-time MBA at the University of Utah, interviewing for jobs, and applying to doctoral programs--which is to say that I was managing my chronic indecision regarding big, life-defining decisions by attempting to keep as many doors open as possible for as long as possible. Analysis paralysis masked with the respectability of productivity.

I never really liked choose-your-own-adventure books. I'd build up too much anxiety over the choices not made, running out of fingers attempting to follow all of the paths forward. It felt a bit like that.

One of the jobs I was interviewing for was with Accenture. They were hiring for their offices in San Francisco (mostly private-sector clients and lots of travel) and Sacramento (mostly public-sector clients and less travel). Eventually, I was offered a job in the Sacramento office. I also, eventually, turned it down, taking, it seemed to me at the time, the more noble road by delaying employment and continuing with school.

Since then (and it only now occurs to me that I'm writing this almost exactly 20 years later), I've often entertained flights of fancy imagining an alternative universe where I take that job.

Uncanny Valley is fuel to those flights.

The Silicon Valley that Anna Wiener writes about is half a generation removed from what I might have found, had I moved to California, completed a stint at Accenture, and then (as seems probable) moved on to some tech-oriented company in northern California...somewhere. So I looked for myself in her story, a decade, or a decade and a half into my career. Well, I looked not so much for myself as for the alternate universe self had I made a different decision in 2001. 

So, who would have I been? 

I imagine myself as one of those anonymous mid-career tech guys with a resume of diverse experience (all good jobs, but nothing amazing) that is hired by startup firms in a hire-anyone-that-breathes mode, and given a mid-management supervisory role with the assumption that my age and the diversity of my experience qualify me for that role. Once hired, I would maneuver and jockey for options and buyout deals that, should our company win the IPO or acquisition lottery, I'd make out well enough to retire away from "real" work or (more likely) survive long enough to get another, similar job with another, similar company.

But who would I be

Would I be kind? Would I ride bikes? Would I have embraced the sometimes ugly, hyper-masculine, bro-ethic culture of tech? Would I believe in the products of the companies I worked for? Would I believe in the companies? Would I feel like the tech innovations I worked on inched the world toward something more just and egalitarian? Or would I wallow in self-loathing and contempt for being part of a machine that existed only for itself--growing, innovating, multiplying, and perpetuating itself for no other reason than the creation of (or the illusion of the creation of) wealth? Would I care about such things?

Well, that's where Uncanny Valley took me.

Also, a lot of thinking about how much the house my parents bought in Palo Alto around 1967 would be worth now had they kept it. Or, if they hadn't been scared off by the cosmopolitan pulse of progress and retreated to Colorado a year later as they did. 

The decisions around which lives pivot... 

As I said, I never really liked choose-your-own-adventure books. Too much anxiety.

3.5 of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n3 -- deacon king kong by james mcbride

Review: 'Deacon King Kong,' By James McBride : NPR

The second work of fiction on the NYTimes list of 2020's top ten that I took on, Deacon King Kong was a delightfully fun read.

It wasn't what I thought it would be. It wasn't what I thought it would be a chapter in, and it wasn't what I thought it would be halfway through. It just sort of got more and more fun the further I read. 

And now I find myself thinking of what more to say about the book and I'm just not sure... Partly because I wouldn't want to give it away--I think the book will be all the more fun a read for someone who doesn't have any idea what's coming. Partly because the deeper stuff, the sort of deep stuff that any meaningful work of fiction has to offer about some shady corner of the human experience, is transmitted in the best way fiction can do it, accidentally--that is to say that the book covers some fairly heavy territory, but you maybe don't realize you've been there until you stop to reflect. There's no bashing us over the head with thick morality tales or long-winded speeches in this one. So, if I were to go on now, giving label and definition to that deeper stuff, it seems I'd be doing the fine art of the story a disservice. 

Anyway, if you like fiction, and you like fun, give this one a read. Strongly recommend.

4.5 of 5 stars.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

tiny book reviews (2021): two years eight months and twenty-eight nights, by salman rushdie

 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Rushdie novel).png

Sometimes you're in the middle of a book and it's just so good that you don't really want to pick it up again because you know the more you read the less of it you'll have. 

Sometimes you're in the middle of a book and it's just good enough that you can't wait to get done doing whatever you're doing that's keeping you from the book so you can get back to it.

Sometimes you're in the middle of a book and it's interesting enough, but maybe not quite the right thing for right now so you pick something else up instead. You know you'll finish it, just not right now.

And sometimes you're in the middle of the book and you hate it. And you hate that you hate it, but you still hate it. And you're fully committed to finishing the book, because that's who you are--you're a person who finishes books--but holy. cow. this. book. is. just. so. bad.

For me, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was that book. 


Honestly, I'm sure Salman Rushdie has written good stuff. He's a super well-respected author. One doesn't just _become_ that for nothing. But this particular book, for this particular reader, had nothing.

I read this book because Rushdie got a lot of mentions in Homeland Elegies. And I've never read any Rushdie. And I'm old enough to remember the controversy over The Satanic Verses (though I didn't really know any more about it or him than that). So I figured I'd read some Rushdie.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was what was available at my library. 

It's fantasy, I guess. Maybe you'd call it magical realism. Or someone might. A bit more magical than real, I think.

I got the sense that it was a parable of sorts. Or a retelling of some real history through myth. I think that's the point of magical realism. I didn't much care for One Hundred Years of Solitude because I didn't understand enough real Columbian social history to get it. I felt the same way reading this, except I didn't even know what continent I was on. 

And so I finished thinking that the book wasn't really written for me. It might be a great book...for a different reader. 

Then again, it may just be a crappy book.

It'll be a while before I can give Rushdie another try, but I will (probably with Midnight's Children). 

I feel like there's something here I need to know, like a dirt road you see meandering up that one particular draw--you trust there must be something up there and it's probably pretty awesome, but for whatever reason you've just never gone. 

Though, that might be the wrong metaphor--it might be that there's a whole other forest that I know next to nothing about, and that I've got to learn quite a bit more about that particular ecosystem before I can come to appreciate Rushdie trees.

I don't know. But I'll find out.

1 of 5 stars.

tiny book reviews (2021): homeland elegies, by ayad akhtar

With 'Homeland Elegies,' Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar cements himself as one  of America's most vital writers | The Seattle Times

At the end of last year, The New York Times published a list of its ten best books of 2020--five non-fiction and five fiction. This was the first of the ten I picked up. 

(Also, I may have actually finished it in 2020, but library records show that it wasn't returned until Jan 2, so I'm counting it for 2021.)

I really enjoyed this book. 

I'm not sure how much more I want to say about it than that. Still, I'll try.

It's a novel, but written as a memoir. I don't know enough about Akhtar to distinguish between what is autobiographical and what is not. I'm not sure that matters. What matters is that it reads true, as a memoir, so that you believe that you are reading stories about real people and true events. 

It's also about the relationships between fathers and sons. It's about politics. And it's about "making it."

It's also about what I would call a uniquely American life, in that the author is almost definitionally American, yet so much of the book is a narrative of the struggle of figuring out what that means, for him, as his identity bumps into his parents', who are immigrants, and his people, to the extent that his genealogy and national background define what "his people" means, and others' notions of an American is or should be.

Anyway, I loved it. And recommend it strongly. 

5 out of 5 stars.