I loved A Long Way From Home, which takes us, very literally, around Australia in a madcap road race on dubious roads and in standard cars. We all root for a couple who wants the recognition to start a dealership, assisted by a fired schoolteacher who will discover his roots, very unexpectedly, during the trip. It’s the 1950s and the brutal treatment of Aborigines is just coming to be known, if still tolerated, and the second part of the story dwells heavily on that topic.
Written in alternate chapters penned by the wife, a fast and fearless driver battling the usual sexist strictures of the time and the navigator, the schoolteacher, the book is full of well-observed details of daily life even as the competitors race around Australia (and you will be sorely tempted to follow along on your favorite maps app). I could have done without some of the more elegiac chapters at the end of the book but I still warmly recommend it.
Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad tells the stories of the author, her mother, and her grandmother, who were all born in Trinidad and eventually moved to the US. It’s not a pretty story, as her grandfather was a violent man who ran roughshod over his family, her father, although less extreme, was also abusive, and the overall climate of Trinidad, as described in the book, is also laced with violence, especially against women.
I found the book very sad, and eventually without much direction. It was also challenging to read as it features large chunks of dialog in Trinidad dialect.
The Mothers tells a not-so-original story, of a teenager getting unexpectedly pregnant, and indeed the best part of the book, story-wise, comes at the beginning, when she is trying to find her way after her mother’s suicide and her father’s complete shutdown. But what makes the story interesting is the counterpoint, Greek chorus style, of the mothers of the title, her church’s older women, who keep the church together and also know, or think they know, everything. The book is full of their comments and asides, some just seriously funny and others deep.
The Ninth Hour tells the life of a woman born in Brooklyn in the early 20th Century after her father committed suicide and her mother came to work at a convent, on charity and under the protection of a formidable nun.
I found that the story sometimes veered towards awkwardly anachronistic feminism, and sometimes the other way, extolling the never-failing sanctity of the nuns, but the ending is certainly unexpected (a murder!) and it’s useful to remember how nuns served as social workers and nurses at a time when other help just was not available.
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.
Careers for Women starts well, in the typing pool of the PR department of the New York Port Authority, the heroine a young woman who dreams of a career and is inspired by her female boss. But the story is really about another coworker, a single mother with a secret and a grudge, and a dark end. The descriptions of the 50s work environment are so good I would have liked more of it, and less of the sadly familiar single-mom struggles. And the fictional setting did not have to focus on the beginnings of the World Trade Center either, I think. Surely New York has many more stories that those around this tragic icon.
New People goes on (and on) about the doubts and second thoughts of a young woman about to be married to her college boyfriend. She seems to have everything going for her — except that she just cannot be sure he is the right persona and pursues, crazily, a poet she barely knows, in secret of her boyfriend of course. There are some funny moment, especially when she is mistaken for the babysitter of the poet’s neighbor, but only a handful. If you like to read about the (puny) inner life of a confused young New Yorker, this is the book for you.
Not for me.