Monthly Archives: December 2019

*** How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi

How to Be an Antiracist weaves a solid theoretical description of racism with a very personal memoir of how he came to term with each aspect, starting as a third grader who noticed that the teacher called on the white students much more often than others–and bravely pointed that out to her. (Many of the experiences he relates show him in decidedly non-hero roles, which makes the book all the more credible and interesting.)

Not surprisingly, it’s a lot more difficult to be an antiracist than simply not be a racist, and I wish that the book had more practical suggestions on how to proceed, but it’s thought- and action-provoking.

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Filed under Non fiction

*** The Legal Limit by Martin Clark

The Legal Limit stars two brothers raised by a brutal father. One has lapsed into drug dealing and the occasional killing; the other is a judge, vaulted into middle-class respectability but with a streak of wildness, well hidden. The drug-dealer brother’s eagerness to escape a long prison sentence he mostly brought on himself leads him to threaten his brother in ways that place his whole life in danger. The story takes us over the course of many years, and the reader may have been better served by an abrupt switch from the distant, secret past to the present, but it’s an engrossing story with complex characters and plenty of gray areas.

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*** Guest House for Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni

Ever wondered about the women (and teenagers) who left pretty comfortable lives in the West to join ISIS? The author of  Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS interviewed a dozen of them and describes their lives, before and after they moved to Syria, with compassion and a level of detail that allows to see the wide variety of reasons why they went, from devotion to adventure, from love to economic deprivation. Their future, and the future of their children, is very uncertain as their countries won’t take them back, for the most part. After reading the book you will want to find a better way for all of them.

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Filed under Non fiction

** The Happiness Effect by Donna Freitas

The author of The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost is a college professor who conducted surveys with undergraduate students to better understand their use of social media. Her findings are interesting: college students are quite careful with social media and, for the most part, carefully curate their profiles so as not to run afoul of future employers. And they are also well aware that social media is a constructed happy place where triumphs are shared and defeats and struggles hidden. That does not mean that they do not suffer as they see their peers’ airbrushed lives. And, of course, they seek more anonymous and fleeting methods of communication so they can really be themselves, not so successful and not so kind, either.

I had two annoyances with the book. One is that the author occasionally tries to generalize her findings to all young people, even when her own results make it clear that college students use social media differently. For instance non-college students, with different job aspirations, seem to use Facebook much more freely to share their entire lives, including wild parties for instance. And she seems to rely entirely on her observations, even when quantitative proof is surely at hand, if she sought it. Still, an interesting view at how sophisticated college students can be with social media. Their parents could learn from their skills.

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Filed under Non fiction

*** The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt

The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History tells the stories of the female artists who, when allowed by a fiercely male-dominated system, contributed essential story lines and lovely details to Disney movies. Think Dumbo’s “Baby Mine” song, or Cinderella’s mice. It’s astonishing that their names did not appear in the credits, as did many of their male counterparts’, that they worked on minute salaries, and that they were the first to be fired when the studio hit financial troubles. Along the way, the author also talks about the many technological changes that transformed animated movies–and we get to revisit all the classic movies. A treat.

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Filed under Non fiction

** A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes

 

A Tall History of Sugar is the dreamlike story of two unusual Jamaican children who band together to survive school and beyond, lose each other but eventually reconnect, all against the backdrop of Jamaica’s becoming an independent country. I found the beginning beguiling, if a little obscure. The author uses a lot of Jamaican patois, which slows down the reading speed considerably, and the story is too fantastic for my taste, but it will transport you into another world.

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Filed under New fiction

*** The Code by Margaret O’Mara

The author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America does not think much of the suburbs South of San Francisco: they are smoggy (mostly not, actually), featureless (she has a point here), and dotted with boring tilt-up buildings (that’s changing, fast). But she is not too interested in the land, more the remarkable transformation of it into the worldwide hub of technology. She tells a well-researched story of how mavericks came to populate the valley previously known for its orchards and eventually created a remarkable climate where startups could flourish, although mostly fail, and change the world. I particularly enjoyed the way she described the relationships between Silicon Valley and politics, from hands-off beginnings to strong lobbying efforts.

I was very surprised that no mention is made at all or Oracle or Salesforce (or any B2B software firms). Interesting choice.

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Filed under Non fiction

* How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

I did not enjoy this “Best Book of the Year”. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy basically recycles old wisdom, sometimes with a schoolmarmish tone, to assure us that we do not need to be tied to social media, that busy-ness should be fought, and that social media has insidious consequences. Amen, and not sure why we need a book for this. The unexpectedly charming part of the book is the author’s description of specific creeks, parks, even trees in the San Francisco area, where she lives, that should push us to go find them, sans phone of course.

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Filed under Non fiction

** How to Treat People by Molly Case

How to Treat People: A Nurse’s Notes is an earnest account of a British nurse’s worklife, intertwined with an account of her father’s medical journey. The overall effect is a little too workmanlike. My favorite parts of the books are when she describes the exquisite are and efforts deployed by her and other nurses to communicate with difficult, resistant patients, gently convincing them to submit to the treatments. There are many difficult patients out there!

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Filed under Non fiction

* Religion as We Know It by Jack Miles

I must admit that I probably missed the entire point of Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story. It seems to be n addition to another book, The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and probably best appreciated by readers of that book. The learned author does provide some good pointers on the difficulty of defining religion in the first place, and the history of the study of religion.

If one chooses to quote Camus in French, it would be good to engage a proofreader.

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Filed under Non fiction