I wonder how Corey Pein, the author of Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley would describe California’s Gold Rush. He would find much to bemoan: the fantastic hopes of newcomers who believed there were fortunes to be made, the long work hours, the unbelievable cost of housing, the swindling and backroom dealings, and the harsh realization that the only ones making a reliable living are those that sold shovels and jeans. And that’s exactly what the book is about: how dreamers of riches find themselves lining the pockets of unscrupulous property owners and promoters of “startup boot camps” while gentrifying neighborhoods push out blue-collar workers much like the Gold Rush crowd systematically removed Native Americans that were in the way.
I’m not sure why we need a book-length expose to show that Silicon Valley is in an economic bubble, with all the problems attending to economic bubbles. And some facts are curiously wrong: it’s true that commuter trains are unconscionably slow in these parts, but it does not take three hours to go from San Francisco to Mountain View.
America’s prisons and jails are full of mental patients who would likely fare much better in therapeutic settings (and their reassignment would allow police and correctional officers to focus on maintaining peace and order rather than serving as reluctant and mostly untrained mental health providers). Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness describes both the failures of the system and some promising experiments driven by various police departments and prisons. Unfortunately the author chooses to multiply similar examples, even when a point has been made successfully, and she does not do a great job of isolating the real causes of the problem, beyond indicating a general lack of treatment facilities and funding. It would be very helpful to have better metrics and analysis of the root cause.
Butter: A Rich History is really a cookbook with a history prologue, but is delightful even if, like me, you pretty much skip the cookbook. The author takes us from the Asian steppes to Ireland, along the way covering the technology of butter, butter art (Tibetan sacred art, not the amateurish decorations of Midwestern country fairs), butter as medicine, and the complicated science behind the health benefits of eating butter versus margarine. It’s all very delicious and I suppose reading and making the recipes would only enhance the pleasure.
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!
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.
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.