"If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me." These words have been attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt's daught"If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me." These words have been attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt's daughter. This is the book about Silicon Valley that wants to sit next to Alice.
The result is a book that you may love or hate or anything in between, depending on whether you like this kind of book. My mother and I agreed that it's probably not the book for her, but, hey, my older brother might find it amusing.
On the positive side, Antonio Garcia Martinez has subject matter that's fascinating if, like me, you're interested in the ups and downs of business life in Silicon Valley: first, what it's like to be the CEO of a moderately successful (meaning, good enough to sell to another company within the first year) Y Combinator startup, and second, what it was like to work at Facebook during the great war with Google Plus. And he has a fast paced style, full of vivid metaphors, often simply crudely sexual but other times entertainingly drawn from Martinez's other life experiences (he ran with the bulls at Pamplona!). As someone who worked at a startup that was funded not by VC capital or angel investors but by parental deep pockets, I found some of the experiences familiar (I've seen corporate lawsuit maneuvering at the startup level), and others interesting to learn about.
On the negative side, Antonio Garcia Martinez comes off as a major jerk. Some of this appears to be deliberate. In his cynical and seamy look at Silicon Valley, he is himself as much a marketable character as anyone else in the book, and he takes as much glee in describing his own ability to be a "ruthless little shit when it counted" as he does in any of his take downs of "fascist" Facebook culture or of Silicon Valley as "The Land of Stateless Machines," where your past betrayals can be forgotten for present business. For all I know, he may be leaving out his better nature, actions that might make the real Martinez more deserving than the character in the book of the love of British Trader and of Israeli Psychologist. Maybe, like Kyu in Years of Rice and Salt, he will arrive in the Bardo to find his good and ill deeds evenly balanced, and reflect puzzled, like Kyu, that he doesn't recall any good deeds.
Still, even if played for reader eyeballs, I assume the Martinez character in the book isn't outright made up. And, between grumbling about the "entitlement feminism" of Silicon Valley women, cynically bashing of nearly everything and everybody, bragging about street racing in San Francisco (unlike the "pussies" who drive with some regard for other people's lives), and then, outside the city, crossing a double yellow line while going over 100 miles an hour to win the race, and expressing bitterness toward Facebook for the dastardly deed of compensating him well for two years, choosing another Ads product idea over his favorite, and letting him go with a generous severance package, well, there's not a lot to like in the narrator of this tale.
(And, by the way, whose fault was it, really, that you passed up a deal involving Twitter stock options for one involving Facebook stock grants, and then sold your Facebook stock short?)
Still, train wreck though the author may have been this book did keep me turning the pages. If you think you'd enjoy reading the Facebook story that's Paradise Lost told from the perspective of Lucifer, you may want to check this one out. If an unsympathetic narrator is a deal breaker for you, you might give it a pass. ...more
As I've just reviewed Years of Rice and Salt, this makes my second alternate history review of the day. It's a much more lighthearted alternate historAs I've just reviewed Years of Rice and Salt, this makes my second alternate history review of the day. It's a much more lighthearted alternate history than the last. While Robinson offers an epic sweep of multi-generational struggle against injustice, Paul Gazis takes us to a world where WWI ended much more quickly, and with less destruction, a world where gallant officers and sultry island maiden roam the South Pacific in airships, generally oblivious to the hints that H.P. Lovecraft's realms of horror may not, after all, be fictional. In fact, Lovecraft himself, in this alternate history, left writing behind for muscular adventure, so the characters may be forgiven for knowing nothing of his works.
What they do encounter, while ignoring the Deep Ones and the reason that Japanese tourists are so fond of photography, is a tangled web of conspiracy, in which nearly everyone not on the airship may be out to betray them to one faction or another, German or Russian. They face these dangers down with pluck and a stiff British upper lip.
Fun drawings, a fast-paced plot, and detailed research on everything from hang gliding to opera backing up the story make this an enjoyable read....more
I've been plotting out an alternate history in which Persian Jews at Pumbedita worked out the fleas on rats connection with plague, leading to a jumpI've been plotting out an alternate history in which Persian Jews at Pumbedita worked out the fleas on rats connection with plague, leading to a jump start in medical understanding that prevented both Justinian's Plague and the later Black Plague. So of course, as a model in alternate history writing, I had to check out the famous alternate history that takes the opposite tack: Not only does the plague happen, but it's far worse than the real life one, and wipes out almost the entire European population. This turns out, naturally, to be far better worked out than my version was ever likely to be. Thanks, Kim Robinson!
Part of alternate history is doing the research, and having the imagination, to work out the whole sweep of your history, once you've made that one key change. Another part is narrowing your focus. You may, like Steven Barnes in Lion's Blood, make your point of departure the defeat of Rome by Carthage, and then pick two characters, long after that event, to be the eyes through which the reader sees your role reversed world. Kim Robinson picks a different device to narrow his focus: reincarnation. We follow the same three people, each with a limited view of the world, but we follow them through centuries, on several different continents.
The result is a novel that, as its protagonists alternate between the Chinese and Muslim great powers, with occasional forays into other cultures such as India, Japan, and the Hodenausee, says interesting things about how the same personality types play out in different times and places, and how we view the other.
The protagonists, known in each incarnation by the same initials, confront their surroundings in similar ways, K being the voice of indignation against injustice, sometimes constructive and sometimes as destructive as the injustice he/she fights, B the more cheerful, accepting soul, the one who does the small tasks that keep things going for the others, I the rational, scientific minded one, and S their eternal foil, sometimes silly and other times cruel, but never really on their side. Only between lives will they recall that all are part of the same jati, linked in fate wherever they may wander.
As we flip between cultures, the characters sometimes look at the culture in which they lived their previous lives as a dreadful foe, and other times take inspiration from their past selves. And sometimes we learn something that escaped the notice of all the past lives, like the discovery, near the end of the book, that all along there has been a thriving Burmese civilization, with its own views of history, that the characters had not fully noticed until they were born in the right time and place to see it.
I was introduced to Neil Gaiman by Coraline, a dark children's fantasy story in which an idealized Other Mother and Father prove to be far more sinistI was introduced to Neil Gaiman by Coraline, a dark children's fantasy story in which an idealized Other Mother and Father prove to be far more sinister than the loving but sometimes distracted real mother and father. More recently, I just finished reading Trigger Warning, a collection of fantasy short stories, some dark and some not so dark. It offered an intriguing variety: An imaginary girl friend comes to life. A woman is afflicted with a form of madness peculiar to tourists in Jerusalem. A man seeks the murderer of his daughter. People are walled up and sacrificed to ancient gods. The years appear as soldiers, dodging something hidden behind the seconds. Fascinating stories. I loved it, and can't wait to read my next Neil Gaiman book....more
It's an odd feeling to read a history of the main regional groupings of colonial America and see the place you grew up left out, particularly odd whenIt's an odd feeling to read a history of the main regional groupings of colonial America and see the place you grew up left out, particularly odd when that place is one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the US. "Where's New York? How does New York fit into this scheme?" I kept asking. The answer became clear in the conclusion. Fischer had left New York City out (upstate New York he sees as fitting in culturally with New England) because it was, during colonial times, basically a growth from New Amsterdam, a city more Dutch than English in culture. And this book is the story of England's contribution to American culture, and the ways in which the different regional cultures of the UK influenced the different regional cultures of the US. This isn't, I realized as I read the book, actually my usual mental focus, as a New York raised daughter of a Greek immigrant; I tend to think more often about the Ellis Island experience, for all that I learned in school about colonial days. But I did find that his account explained some things that had puzzled me.
The choice gives a particular slant to Fischer's history. He emphasizes the ways in which existing culture shapes the economic choices of a region over the ways in which the means of production shape culture (no Marxist analysis here, where everything else would be superstructure to the economic base). He emphasizes the regional cultures brought to the New World over the ways in which the New World shaped these cultures: the ways in which Southern culture was predisposed to choose slavery more than the ways in which slavery changed Southern cavalier culture, the ways in which the borderland peoples chose a particular adaption to the frontier more than the ways in which the frontier changed borderland peoples, the ways in which non-Anglo-Americans adapted to existing regional cultures (JFK and Dukakis becoming New England Yankees and Barry Goldwater a representative of the borderland/Scots-Irish culture) more than the ways in which immigrants shifted American culture. If the short history at the end of the book about how the four cultures have been reflected in the Presidency were carried forward till the present, Barack Obama might appear as a representative of the middle America background of his Kansas born mother.
So does the book, as one skeptical friend wondered, attempt one single explanation of American history? I would say not. Fischer acknowledges the things he's leaving out (though in one case, when discussing Reconstruction, I think he allows too little for how that history might have been altered if ex-slaves had actually gotten those 40 acres and a mule), even as he chooses not to dwell on them. He isn't, after all, saying that American history can be reduced to the history of those four regional British cultures. Rather, he is saying that these four regional British cultures have had, and still have, a strong influence on our country. And for that, he makes a good case.
The strength of the book is in the description of all four cultures, and the ways in which all four are tied back to regions in England (and Scotland and northern Ireland in the case of the border people), class relations and historical events at the time of immigration.
In his account, I see explanations for genealogical, cultural, and political things, such as:
1) Why does every single line on my grandfather's father's family tree seem to go back to some ship arriving in New England from England sometime in the 1630s? It turns out it's because that's simply what New England was like, before the Irish potato famine immigration. It's the earliest of his four waves of immigration (there were very early settlers in Virginia, but their big wave came a little later), and *everyone* showed up not long after 1630.
2) Cahn's and Carbone's red and blue families? These turn out to look very much like New England families vs. Scots-Irish families, if you simply add birth control to New England families and weaken the power of the shotgun marriage in Scots-Irish families. New England families, if Fischer's account is right, *always* married later and more educated, while Scots-Irish families married younger and more often following a pregnancy.
3) Fischer describes sharp differences in the Gini coefficient of different parts of the country leading to differences in what tax money went for. New England, which strove for equality both by bringing in mostly middle class immigrants rather than rich or poor ones and by evenly distributing land, wound up with taxes going mostly for shared public goods like schools, while the South, the land of second sons of aristocrats and poor indentured servants (until it became also the part of the country with slaves) had a much more uneven distribution of wealth and therefore a larger portion of tax money going to the very poor. As I read that, it made sense that New England would wind up more tax friendly.
The cultures that are most familiar to me (Quaker and New England cultures) seemed well described, and the Southern cultures were made more explicable. On the whole a good book....more
There's a certain Henry Kissinger meets Glenn Greenwald quality to Thucydides. On the one hand, he describes the motives of the various parties in theThere's a certain Henry Kissinger meets Glenn Greenwald quality to Thucydides. On the one hand, he describes the motives of the various parties in the Peloponnesian War with a shrewd realism that reminds me of Machiavelli's _The Prince_; on the other hand, I think that reference to Machiavelli might give you the wrong impression if you think by it that his writing is like what people generally mean when they use the adjective "Machiavellian," for Thucydides' political realism is complemented by a keen sense of the cost of war, and, hence, the cost of overreaching empire.
The story covers decades of the most grueling war of ancient Greece (the one that ended in the destruction of Athens' empire) in a wide ranging way. You get the calamity of the plague that hit Athens, Thucydides' admiration of Pericles and his cynicism about the demagogues that followed him, the political maneuvering within Athens and the military maneuvering of both sides, and the disastrous decision to attack Syracuse. Along the way, you get everything from ancient crowd sourcing (estimating the height of a wall, in a siege, by having many people count the bricks at once) to the politics of scandal (a dubious charge of sacrilege that gets Alcibiades banished, although the fact that he promptly switches to assisting Sparta doesn't exactly make leave you sympathetic to him in his banishment), to the dramatic incident of the two ships, one sent to announce Athens' decision that all the men in rebellious Mytilene shall be put to death, and the second, arriving just as soon as the first proclamation has been read, on a mission of mercy to announce that Athens has revoked the first sentence....more
A book with a Greek-American narrator who's just about exactly my age (and hence the same age as I was when things like the invasion of Cyprus happeneA book with a Greek-American narrator who's just about exactly my age (and hence the same age as I was when things like the invasion of Cyprus happened), this novel plays both with gender and with the different ways immigrants do and don't assimilate in interesting ways....more