Sunday, September 18, 2016

Lunch at the Piccadilly, by Clyde Edgerton

This short novel revolves around Carl, a middle-aged single man who is taking care of his favorite aunt, Lil Olive. After falling in the bathtub (twice) she's been placed in a convalescent home to recover. She hopes to return to her apartment one day, and drive again, but Carl knows that her hopes are not likely to materialize. As Lil and Carl chat with the many residents of her home, we learn about their very different personalities and back stories.

This is a low-key but charming book. The ladies' adventures and conversations are humorous, spiced up with their eccentric personalities and hearing difficulties. A newcomer (a retired preacher) makes waves with his sermons, but he also befriends Carl and teaches him how to play the guitar. Carl develops a crush on one of the home's employees, Anna, and takes her out on a date. His Aunt Lil steals a car and takes her girlfriends out shopping. As the story progresses it's clear that Lil is in the beginning stages of dementia. Lunch at the Piccadilly is humorous and touching. Edgerton's writing is enjoyable and fun, but also empathetic and caring. He doesn't try to tie up all the loose ends of the story; like real life, we don't always know how things end for everyone.

Clyde Edgerton. Lunch at the Piccadilly. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003. Advance uncorrected proof. 251 pages. ISBN 1565121953.

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, by Samuel Arbesman

According to the blurb, Overcomplicated "offers a fresh, insightful field guide to living with complex technologies that defy human comprehension." Author Samuel Arbesman is "Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital, a science and technology venture capital firm." He begins Overcomplicated by giving many examples of how technology has gotten so complex that in many cases, no one entirely understands how certain things work. As examples he gives the 2015 crash of the New York Stock Exchange and the grounding of United Airlines planes on the same day. Computer bugs were blamed for these problems, and Arbesman uses these and other examples to show that computer code that has been developed and added to over decades may have bugs that cause significant problems over time, but which no one truly understands.

Arbesman takes the reader on a philosophical and theoretical journey. He distinguishes between the meanings of "complex" and "complicated." He explains the differences between the approaches of biology and physics to learning and discovery, and places technology in the biological realm. He discusses the difference between a sense of mystery and a sense of wonder in the face of technology. Mystery implies a sense of magic; when we don't understand how something works, it appears to be magic. Wonder, on the other hand, is the "ability to marvel and to feel a sense of the numinous in the world around us" (p. 172). He concludes with a discussion of humility, and recommends that we retain a sense of wonder and humility in the face of technology that is too complicated for us to understand.

Arbesman's goal seems to be to allay readers' fears about the ever-increasing complexity of technology today. Although this was an interesting book, in my case he didn't quite succeed. His tales of technology gone wrong and explanations that no one truly understands how things work were not reassuring. His recommendation that we accept technology's complexity with humility and a sense of wonder isn't comforting at all!

Samuel Arbesman. Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension. New York: Current/Penguin Random House, 2016. 244 pages. ISBN 9781591847762.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

With Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance reveals what drives a large swath of our population from the south to the upper Midwest. By telling the story of his own extended family, he helps readers understand how geography, religion, and culture have created an environment that is both impoverished and proud of itself.

Vance's grandparents grew up in Eastern Kentucky to families that were large, poor, and tough. His grandmother (Mamaw) and grandfather (Papaw) fled Kentucky for Middletown, Ohio, when she became pregnant. They wed at a very young age, and although they lost their first baby, stayed together for decades. Two of their children managed to do well, but Vance's mother struggled with alcohol, drugs, and too many relationships throughout her life (and continues to do so). Vance shares his life story with us, recounting how he and his sister survived in spite of their circumstances. He attributes his sister with acting as the parent throughout much of his childhood, and his Mamaw with being the force that helped him overcome it all. When he was close to dropping out of high school, his Mamaw insisted that he move in with her and she forced him to straighten out and finish high school. When they began to look at colleges, the financial aid forms and high cost of college proved overwhelming, so Vance decided to go into the Marines. He attributes his four years in the Marines, some of which he spent in Iraq, with giving him discipline and helping him learn about the world. After the Marines, he powered through an undergraduate degree at Ohio State in two years, and enrolled at Yale University Law School, where he met his future wife.

Aside from Vance's personal story, what I found most interesting about Hillbilly Elegy is the historical and sociological background. He compares the migration of poor, working class whites from Kentucky and similar regions to areas in Ohio and Michigan to the migration of African Americans from the South to the North earlier in the 20th century. These displaced, working class whites moved to take advantage of the growth of industry in these areas, and then their descendants were left with no prospects when the factories closed decades later. Many of these areas in the Midwest then became drug-ridden, economically declining areas of poverty. Vance's depiction of the depression and hopelessness of this region is unforgettable.

J.D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages. ISBN 9780062300546.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, by Dan Lyons

Dan Lyons was a journalist for many years, most recently for Newsweek, before he was fired in 2012. He worked for a while as a writer for a technology news website, but it was less than ideal because it required him to commute to San Francisco from Boston every week. Eventually he decided to leave journalism and take a job in marketing for a technology company called HubSpot.

Disrupted tells the story of Mr. Lyons' 18 or so months at HubSpot, where in his early 50s, he's an old man surrounded by co-workers whose average age is 26. His job is to write the kind of click-bait blog posts that will get readers to provide their contact information. They will later be cold-called by a sales representative who will try to sell them web content management and other services. Mr. Lyons is disappointed that the job was not as creative as he had hoped, and every suggestion that he makes to managers is rejected or co-opted by someone else. His slightly cynical attitude doesn't go over well with his co-workers who have been brainwashed into thinking they're working for the best company in the world. He finds some of the company's management techniques ludicrous, such as bringing a teddy bear to meetings to represent the customer, and he makes the mistake of sharing his opinions about them. Over time, Mr. Lyons is marginalized and given work that is more appropriate for an administrative assistant. The environment becomes so toxic for him that he begins to look for another job. Once he has an offer, he gives six weeks' notice, but then is immediately fired.

While I found his culture shock and personality clashes humorous, what I liked most about this book was its analysis of what seems like a scam in the technology industry. Companies are formed, they offer a product or service, most of the influx of cash from venture capitalists go into marketing and sales so that they can demonstrate an increase in revenue, and then they go public. Meanwhile, they never make a profit. The founders and venture capitalists make a big profit, but the employees and investors make very little. Many of these companies have existed for years but have never made a profit. I don't know how they get away with it! I recommend this book to anyone who's interested in the technology industry, business, management, or marketing.

Dan Lyons. Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. New York: Hachette, 2016. 258 pages. ISBN 0316306089.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King

Trisha is a nine-year old girl hiking on the Appalachian Trail with her mother and brother Pete. Post-divorce, her mother is always arranging weekend outings with her two children. Trisha loves the outings, but Pete complains constantly. Tiring of the bickering going on between them, Trisha allows herself to fall behind, and then becomes lost when she leaves the trail and tries to find her way back by a short cut. As night approaches, she realizes that she has to conserve her food and find someplace safe to sleep. She becomes convinced that she's being watched by something in the woods, and as she finds the corpses of animals that have been killed, her fear grows. Over the course of the week that she wanders in the woods, she faces falls, insects, hunger, thirst, and rain. She sees the monster that's following her, and we're never sure whether she's hallucinating from the effects of fear and weakness, or whether there's really a monster out there.

Throughout Trisha's ordeal, she uses her Walkman to keep her courage. She's a big fan of the Red Sox, and especially of pitcher Tom Gordon. He becomes her conversational companion as she walks miles every day trying to find civilization again, and the broadcast Red Sox games help her in the evenings when she's alone. She's careful to conserve her batteries to make them last as long as needed, but she falls asleep one night with the radio on, and she's finally all alone in the woods.

This is a short novel (224 pages) but completely riveting. Almost no monsters or supernatural happenings at all; the most frightening things in this book are being completely alone in the dark, and completely lost in the world. Stephen King is always an excellent writer and this book is no exception. I would recommend this to anyone who is a King fan, or enjoys a good fright.

Stephen King. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. New York: Scribner, 1999. 224 pages. ISBN 0684867621.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson

Another Brooklyn begins as middle-aged August returns home for her father's funeral. She spends some time with her brother, but is drawn back to the past where she remembers her friends from childhood when she first moved to Brooklyn from Tennessee. August, her father, and her brother lived in an apartment building in Brooklyn during the 1970s. Through these flashbacks we learn that August's mother became severely depressed after her own brother was killed during the Vietnam War. August believes that eventually her mother would be joining them in Brooklyn. In the meantime, she and her brother are enrolled in school and begin to build a life in Brooklyn.

August's most important childhood memories come from her friendship with three other girls, Gigi, Sylvia, and Angela. Through their stories, she shares with the reader the many facets of life in Brooklyn in the 1970s. From music to politics, religion, romance, drugs, and crime, she explores the many forces that affected her and her friends and family. It is only later that we learn that her mother committed suicide before they left Tennessee, and it took August many years to accept that fact herself. Most heart-wrenching for August, however, is the way her small group of friends came apart as they grew up. It seems that she has never had another close friendship since that time in her youth.

This is a very slight book, but it packs a big emotional punch for the reader. What comes across the most is the sense of sadness and loss. How losing a parent at a young age and being thrown into a difficult new situation can be so isolating to a young child. Author Jacqueline Woodson usually writes for a young adult audience, so it's understandable how she can write so eloquently about childhood sadness and suffering. At the same time, she's able to bring 1970s culture in Brooklyn to life. I really enjoyed Another Brooklyn and highly recommend it.

Jacqueline Woodson. Another Brooklyn. New York: Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016. 171 pages. ISBN 9780062359988.