Category Archives: New York Times Notable

Uncanny Valley: Why Was This Book Such a Big Deal?

I think we are meant to be shocked reading Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley to discover the Silicon Valley and the tech industry is toxic for women, or that tech companies are tracking and using our data (for nefarious purposes) or that most of the CEOs of companies are young and some of them are mean. I think.

Wiener leaves her shitty job in publishing in New York, moves to Silicon Valley, learns about computers and software and does customer relations. She’s good at her job because she has feelings and emotional intelligence and apparently none of the programmers do. She gets paid well but always feels a little uncomfortable (but not that uncomfortable) about how much money she makes. She buys fancy boots. Her boss makes her cry once and it is Traumatic.

I don’t know. I just didn’t care about most of it, and didn’t find any of it particularly revealing or surprising. Like I think we’re supposed to be Shocked at gentrification and the San Fransisco housing crisis. Or floored by the revelations that companies are selling our data (the only time I’ve known anyone to be upset about data collection is when the Canadian government created the Covid App and suddenly every one I know was Deeply Concerned about the government possibly having a tiny bit of data). Or horrified by the dismal state of diversity in the tech sector. And I mean, we should be outraged by all of it, but the book doesn’t make a case for outrage. It’s more “hey, did you know this was happening?” Which maybe it’s not a fair complaint to ask a memoir to be about action rather than description, but Wiener’s ‘conclusion’ of dropping out of the tech sector to turn to writing hardly seems an inspiring course for the world.

Oh. I do think Wiener has a spot on eye for describing whole classes of white men by the way they dress and shave. [Which let us pause and consider whether this kind of synecdoche would be okay if it was for any other group].

But sure. It’s on a bunch of best of lists and maybe it is very, very good and I missed the point. But for this reader I just shrugged and thought yeah.

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Filed under New York Times Notable, Non-fiction

Say Nothing: I Read Some Non-Fiction

Is it ‘non fiction’? ‘non-fiction’? ‘nonfiction’? I have so much to learn.

I started with Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing and it was an education. Turns out nonfiction (or non-fiction) is… good. Or THIS book was good. It was also long. Is all of nonfiction long? (Don’t answer that. I’m currently reading a memoir and it’s only medium to short. Maybe memoirs are short? And books about the IRA are long? [Sorry, M., the memoir is not one from your list – but they’re coming!]).

I liked it because I learned some things about Ireland and the IRA but there was also a lot of murder mystery. Less character than I like. Though still some characters. Because there were people.

Guys. When I try to write book reviews about nonfiction it reads like I’m stoned. I am not stoned. Though I did just eat a lot of really salty popcorn?

Okay let me try this again. It’s a book about Belfast and Northern Ireland in the 60s-2010s and the people Disappeared by the IRA through these years and the who and how of their Disappearance. I didn’t know most of the things in the book because I didn’t know anything about the Troubles. And now I know some things!

So yes. So far nonfiction: I learned some things, enjoyed the reading, and am concerned that all of it may be Very Long.

I hope my next review is better. Or else this 2021 resolution of 1 in 5 is going to ruin me as a reviewer. I WILL IMPROVE.

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Filed under New York Times Notable, Non-fiction, Prize Winner

The Beauty of Your Face: In which I yearn to believe in something. anything.

Sahar Mustafah’s The Beauty of Your Face is excellent. It opens with a school shooter attacking a Muslim school for girls and then whips back in time to follow the childhood of the school’s principal, Palestinian American, Afaf Raman as she grows up with a missing sister and ostracized for her race and religion, and then finds herself a community and purpose through Islam and teaching. [how’s that for a run-on sentence, mom]

Part of what makes the book so good, like Louise Penny, are the descriptions of food. I wanted to eat every time I was reading.

I jest (sort of). No. What made it so compelling for me was the sense of purpose faith brings to Afaf, and the ways the discovery and commitment to this faith changes her relationships with her family, as well as her understanding of herself. As a devote atheist I am genuinely mystified by those who believe in God, even while I recognize, at least in this book, what that belief – at its best – offers. Which is not to say Afaf’s experience of Islam is uncomplicated, or her belief blind and unquestioning. Indeed, in the most obvious way her very life is at stake in her commitment. More, that the novel offers faith as something earned and difficult, but also as security, comfort and community. It was enough to make this heretical Unitarian soul yearn for the days of open churches so I might go and sing with other people the atheist song of a biological life and a radical enjoyment of the present moment and the people in it as all you can count on. Alas. Perhaps next year.

Until then, I commend you to The Beauty of Your Face for its exquisite writing, engrossing plot and nuanced portrait of a family. That sounds like a gross back-cover endorsement. But really – it’s very good.

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Filed under Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

The Children’s Bible: Also for atheists

Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible hits a little close. The novel follows a rag-tag group of children after environmental catastrophes – flood! – destroy their homes. Having to keep themselves, and their drug-stupor parents, alive they hole up and quarantine themselves, scratching out a new existence after society collapses.

Though it may be painful to read because of its indictment of our collective inaction on global warming, and the profound arrogance of having children amid such certain devastation, it is nevertheless, very, very good.

I grew up in the United and Anglican churches before quitting God and becoming a Unitarian (I feel compelled to offer that not all Unitarians are atheists. #joinus). But even if I hadn’t spent formative years hearing Biblical stories, the Biblical references and adaptations are drawn from the biggest and brightest of stories (Eden, Noah’s ark, the 10 commandments, the birth of Jesus, Revelations, etc) so anyone who has watched The Simpsons should have enough of a command of the allusions to appreciate the plot. That said, Millet does well to make these moments smooth and uses well timed diction to remind the reader that a Biblical Moment is happening.

Aside from mirroring these Biblical scenes I’m not sure the ‘point’ of having the plot follow that of the Bible. I guess because we are in End Times now? Or maybe to remind us that there is no God, or if there is, it’s a God who has opted for a non-interventionist approach, and it falls to us to make change. Okay, yeah, that seems a plausible reason.

The best part of the book is its argument for art and literature. It’s suggestion that we bundles of molecules, we who are destined to reunite with the water and mountains (poisoned though they may be by our garbage) find purpose and solace in writing. And of course reading.

After writing out my Christmas cards most of which began and ended with WHAT A YEAR, I’m very happy to recommend this book as a sort of 2020 solace. Like it admits and takes as its premise that everything is shit, and that there is no ‘but’ to that sentence. So you may as well read.

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Filed under Bestseller, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner