Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology is presented as a memoir but is organized as a series of essays, roughly chronological to be sure but more essays than biography. The author is a woman who started in the technology field in the early 80s, so a pioneer. My favorite parts of the book are the ones where she talks about how her work, whether it’s the byzantine hierarchy between assembly coders and application coders, the frenzy around Y2k, or the quest to find and fix a bug that eluded other programmers for years (really! and she makes it as fun as a treasure hunt, which it is).
The essays when she reflects about the consequences of technological advances are less successful, in my mind. Sure, gentrification happened in her neighborhood (she has a wonderful story of a little city park morphing from skid row to white tablecloths, and back, during the 2000 bubble, which illustrates the hubris of the time perfectly) but that does not mean that technology is bad — or good, for that matter.
Still, I would recommend this book to anyone working in the tech world today, for a historical perspective and also a strong description of what it’s like as a woman to work in a man-dominated world.
My Lovely Wife in the Psych in the Psych Yard is the memoir of a man whose wife had several episodes of severe breakdowns, each involving lengthy hospitalizations, uncertain prognoses, and tremendous burdens on him as he tried to care for her and their son. It’s a weighty subject matter, and the author does not avoid the horrors of mental illness, the weaknesses of the psychiatric medical system, or the hardships on caregivers. He gives us an honest recounting of a very hard time, and we can only admire his pluck, and his wife’s.
To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines is a series of essays about raising an autistic son, which, as the title suggests, includes a touching story about his dialogs with Siri but the essays go much beyond his interaction with machines. There are lovely moments about how he “helps” the doormen in the building, painful interactions with teachers and principals, and interminable efforts to teach him basic life behaviors. And since her son has a twin, there is the constant contrast with his brother, whose interests and concerns are utterly different, but who displays remarkable kindness towards his brother. But the best part of the book is how the author understands, and makes us understand, how her son looks at the world and how his behaviors are completely logical based on his world view.
Before you get too excited, $500 probably no longer buys a house in Detroit, gentrification making headway even in a city that is a shell of its former self, and $500 buys you not so much a house, but a shell, gutted of all its valuable parts and in need of massive amounts of rehab work. The author of A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City tells his amazing adventure trying (and eventually succeeding) in rebuilding a beautiful house, which among other feats required him to spend a winter there with no heat (and a Halloween night with a gun, ready to defend the house against violent pranksters in a city where police may take an hour to arrive).
The story includes the interactions with his neighbors, who initially view this young white man with suspicion but turn out to be incredibly helpful. It also includes commentary about the reasons for urban blight, which is the least successful part of the book. (And I could not help but notice that he is not exactly helping the city coffers by not pulling any permits for his building work.) But the overall adventure is well told and full of hope for a rebirth of Detroit and other similar cities.
In Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home, Amy Dickinson steps away from her column and talks about her life, including how she moved far away from her small town in New York state but returned eventually to take care of her ailing mother, and, unexpectedly, find love (and the complications of stepdaughters). There’s a lot of adventure but all described with great kindness to all around her.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit tells the story of a man who disappeared into the Maine woods and lived there, alone, for 27 years, helping himself to various supplies from the many vacation cabins around him, but eluding discovery despite maintaining an elaborate camp — and surviving Maine’s notorious old winters.
The author spoke with the hermit himself (not surprisingly, a man of a few words!) and describes extensively how he managed to survive, which makes for a strong and enjoyable narrative. The musings into why someone would stay alone for so long are less successful but give pause and respect to those who want to lead a truly different life.
The cover of GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human is not lying: the author did have prosthetics made so he could gambol with goats in the Swiss Alps (and eat grass, which turned out not to be a good plan!) The narrative is hilarious, ranging from visiting a shaman to determine what animal he should select to replace the elephant he thought he would inhabit, reflecting on the goats’ sense of hierarchy and how he will fit into it, dissecting goats and examining the contents of their many stomachs — all with a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor. This book will make you laugh, and also think about what it means to be human (and goat).