Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work is the clever title of a book that reviews famous sex-discrimination lawsuits that followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which beside protecting the rights of minorities also contained provision (Title VII) to protect women against discrimination. We find mothers who are denied jobs because they have young children (when fathers would get said jobs, no questions asked, state troopers who must weigh more than most women, regardless of their ability to run, or fight, and would-be partners in consulting firms that are just not “lady-like enough” to become partners — along with a string of victims of more or less egregious sexual harassment. We’ve come a long way, painfully for all the plaintiffs who all waited years for justice, got very little money, and had moved to other careers, for the most part, by the time the final judgements came down.
(I found the detailed rendering of the legal maneuvers tedious, hence the two-star rating. Still think the book is worth reading, if you are comfortable flipping pages in the middle of each chapter.)
To close: the author notes that Title VII only applies to employers with less than 15 employees, which means that up to 20% of workers do not enjoy its protection. Maybe we should change that, right?
The Sisters Chase starts like a standard sob story about two orphaned girls, but it quickly evolves into a tale of blackmail, family secrets, and a dark heroine in the person of the older sister. Despite the plot twists, the story is surprisingly predictable after the initial shock, and the ending was, for me, way too sweet and packaged, but how wonderful it is to have a borderline sociopathic young woman at the center of the story.
I’m going to both recommend reading Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds and also warn potential readers that it is unreadable in parts, laden with jargon, acronyms, and technical details that seem not to bring much to the story. But every time we turn on driving directions on our phones, ride in a plane that reliably finds the airport, consult the weather app, eat food that was grown in the field tilled by a GPS-guided tractor, or any normal activity we barely think about, we are relying on technology that seemed indistinguishable from magic just a couple of decades ago. (Yes, children, we ancient ones used to use paper maps to get places. It worked, mostly.)
As most magical technologies, GPS started with underwhelming excitement. Air Force pilots, when presented with early versions, reacted with, “It tells you where you are. I know where I am, why do I need a damn satellite to tell me where I am?” It brings to mind the early forecasts for computer sales, doesn’t it? The best part of the book is the history of the industry, which quickly adapted military early research (and of course used the satellites that make it all possible). When the author tries to explain how our view of the world changes with the new technology, he is less successful.
I loved The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road. Written (well! unlike many bios) by a truck driver who specializes in so-called executive moves that can involve Chinese antiques and demanding owners, it takes us behind the scenes of the trucking industry. It starts with a terrifying descent from a Rockies pass (did you ever wonder about those runaway truck ramps? they don’t do much, apparently) but he also talks about truck stops, truckers’ finances, and the funny rivalries between sub-specialties (for some reason movers are despised).
The best parts of the book for me were his personal history and the complex processes that run the moving business. He describes how he got into trucking in the first place (dropping out of a fine college) and how each long-distance move, even in the rarefied executive realm, places the hauler in the center of a complex web of dispatchers, packers, loaders, and unloaders. A very satisfying look at an industry and a lifestyle I did not know much about.
Modern Gods is a split-personality book, attempting to tell the parallel stories of two sisters, one filming a bizarre cargo cult in Papua New Guinea and the other attempting to make peace with the discovery that her new husband was once a terrorist. The two stories could perhaps come together with some logical tie, except that they do not — and the cargo-cult film does not seem to really get anywhere except, as cults are likely to go, to a bad end.
That said, what happens to terrorists after they get out of prison is a very interesting theme, and the author shows nuanced perspectives from the perpetrator himself, his new wife (who surely asked too few questions ahead of time), and the community as a whole. I love that part.
The life story told in Called to Rise: A Life in Faithful Service to the Community That Made Me is fascinating, as we follow David Brown from a childhood with a single (and fierce!) mother all the way to the head of the Dallas police department. The personal story, complete with the tragic, drug-related deaths of a brother and his son , is haunting and inspiring at the same time.
The book is also interesting when it discusses policing approaches in large cities, although the language swarms with clichés and expressions that sound like they are coming straight from a (not so enlightened) soft skills training session. And overall the writing could use a good editing assist.
The heroine of The Answers, a woman with undiagnosed and expensive health concerns, and the bills to go with it, finds herself needing a second job to pay off her debts (how she can work when she is so ill is never made clear). So she enters a very strange, manipulative “job” working for a demanding filmmaker, which turns out to be even more manipulative and exploitative than she thought. This could be a standard “young woman gets conned” story, or perhaps an imaginative dystopia, but it seems to sit somewhere in the murky middle, and although her back story is told in skillful flashbacks, it was hard for me not to constantly questioned why she was so easily conned.
All By Myself, Alone probably required a good luxury cruise or two to research (do I sense a theme in author research?) and we certainly get treated to the recitation of over-the-top menus and cabin decor. That said, the lady with the emerald necklace is indeed murdered, as the curse of the necklace suggested, and suspects abound, all conveniently traveling on the same ship. I uncharacteristically figured out who did it early on but was very happy to turn the pages all the way to the end, not paying too much attention to the unlikely details. It’s all good fun.
Alexander McCall Smith must have given himself a nice trip to a lovely Tuscan trip to prepare to write My Italian Bulldozer. Good for him (and considering how fast he writes, he may written the whole thing from a lovely pensione in Montalcino, which he calls Fiore in the book), and good for us, since the story is delightful, starring a depressed Scottish writer and the unexpected bulldozer with which he ends up driving from the airport to said pensione. He will find an ambitious winemaker, trouble with his ex-girlfriend, and unexplained uses for the bulldozer. It’s fun and unpretentious, unlike other Tuscan travelogues.
Written by two MIT professors, Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future presents many examples of how machines of all kinds are taking over many tasks that seemed to require human decision-making (and often doing a better job than said humans!) , how platforms allow companies to harness other people’s efforts (think about the app available from Google or Apple) , and how crowdsourcing enables information sharing a la Wikipedia.
The authors are clearly bullish about technology, but they readily address the issues that technology brings. For instance, an algorithm may be just as racist as the patterns it has internalized (but, unlike some humans, can be reprogrammed easily). We may bemoan the loss of human interaction, but who would go into a bank to withdraw cash these days (who uses cash?). And corporations may generate vast amounts of revenue without investing in any tangible assets (think AirBnB). The best part about the book is the wealth of examples, from companies we all know well to more obscure applications — such as IBM’s Watson (retroactively) guessing which kinases will likely activate the p53 protein.