The author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts has a very, very sick mother — but most importantly she has decided to join the circus! After practicing fire eating, she signs up and discovers stupefyingly long hours, dangerous working conditions, certainly unpleasant ones, and an unforgettable cast of characters and situations.
This is the book for you if you’ve always wondered how to carry a snake on your shoulders, or light lightbulbs with your tongue. Also how a season with a carnival troupe can be exhilarating and perhaps life-changing.
Stray City stars a woman who escaped the strictures of her conservative Catholic family to live openly as a lesbian in Portland. At first, she explores the tight-knit lesbian community there, but she soon becomes pregnant after an untimely hookup and her life changes to a staid (and to me tedious) domesticity, in which she seems unable to discern that her daughter will one day be very curious about her dad. While I loved the adventurous first part of the novel, the rest seemed to be cribbed straight out of a lackluster women’s magazine.
The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good describes U.S. government policies immediately after WWII, at a time when government was expanding rapidly to provide more social benefits and access to higher education in the wake of the war and the Depression that preceded it. It’s very interesting to read this account in a time when government is usually perceived to be too big, and the historian-author is also a gifted story-teller, which makes for an enjoyable experience.
Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree is a book with modest aim, pitched towards young readers but highly enjoyable for adults, of the science and politics behind the revival of the American chestnut tree. After a fungus infestation, scientists identified the issue and painstakingly crossed the species with others to create a resistant tree. Inspiring!
The Revolving Door of Life continues the adventures of Bertie, which I’m reading slightly out of order. It does not matter, since each book is a compilation of meditations on the small things in life. In this installment, Bertie’s mom is away so he enjoys a much more normal young boy’s life with this grandmother’s indulgent care. And the Association of Scottish Nudists is plotting to exclude members from outside Edinburgh, proving that politics can infect any gathering of humans.
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is a memoir in the form of, yes, 17 brushes with death! The stories alternate from recent to distant past, and as they unfold we discover more details about the author’s disastrous childhood encephalitis, her worldwide wanderings, and her daughter’s deathly allergies. So yes, you DO want to read about 17 brushes with death; don’t be squeamish.
In the well-worn format of contrasting personal experience with general research, Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain tells of the author’s years-long search for relief from endometriosis pain and the more general problem of women’s pain being dismissed as either exaggerated or all in their heads.
The author makes a great point that women’s pain is dismissed too easily, but the issue may be more complicated than that, namely that, once physicians have ruled out all the causes they can think about (or, more modestly, that they can test), they then declare that the issue is psychological. And there is not much of an incentive to keep searching for the root cause in a system that’s fee-based, and for a patient that is not insured to boot.
Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech raises all kinds of issues with our reliance on processes embedded in technology: silently racist or sexist online forms, emotion-deaf social network notifications, prejudices baked into algorithms, and of course the lack of diversity of the industry that creates all these tools.
It’s good to talk about problems. What’s not so good about this book is that the author seems to have just one mode: total outrage. And while some of the things she reports on are indeed outrageous (why should women or people of color be excluded from Silicon Valley’s hiring networks?), others are just mechanized versions of offline errors, or poor execution by a relatively new industry. Those sexist online forms? They are just the latest embodiment of sexist hard-copy forms. Not a reason to keep them as they are, for sure, but hardly cause for outrage. The social network that reminds you of your mother’s death a year ago? Terrible choice, but someone (armies of someones!) is hard at work to make sure that you will look at the app today, and they know that death reminders don’t work too well for that.
A more nuanced approach would better highlight the central, ugly truth: self-learning machines will readily recognize and amplify biases in the data they survey. So if all the computer programmers are while males, they will form a very strong concept of programmers as white males. Pretty much the thinking from which we work hard to de-program ourselves…
The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai collects the stories of three Mumbai couples, from courtship to about a decade into their marriages. They have different religions and ages, and all middle class. And they struggle, with affairs and stepfamilies, and general unease at having married someone they no longer recognize. I suppose one could enjoy the voyeur’s view of these couples’ lives. I found the stories mostly dull.
A Forest in the Clouds: My Year Among the Mountain Gorillas in the Remote Enclave of Dian Fossey is the raw account of a year the author spent at the research center headed by Dian Fossey, filled with the abusive and disordered antics of its head. (It’s quite a relief when she leaves for several months for a trip around the world!) The author manages to convey both the magic of working with the animals, including an orphaned baby he helped raise, and the hardships of working for a very difficult boss. The book could use a good editor, but the story is fascinating.