Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Nudist on the Late Shift (Po Bronson)

When I first moved out to California, it was the summer of 2001. It wasn't the best time in the tech industry---the bubble had burst, as people were fond of saying, and you could go to work every day with a strong chance you (or a coworker) would be laid off. I managed to quickly (and luckily) find a job that wasn't in the tech industry, but I watched others I knew who were. I still love to have Jim retell stories from the two Internet companies he worked for: the one who had a man in management who had been seriously involved in the 1980's radio payola scam and the other that treated its employees to a party on a yacht and soon after began laying people off until they were down to a handful. There's relics from that time all over the area: The old Silicon Graphics building is now the Computer History Museum and there were public auctions of expensive office furniture and computers. But of all the companies that failed, many succeeded and are still around today. Both Yahoo! and Google are two of the main powerhouses that compete with each other in terms of employee benefits (including, in Google's case, free gourmet, onsite prepared meals).

But the experience of the late 1990s, that feeling that anyone can be a millionaire with a great idea, that excitement, is gone. In The Nudist on the Late Shift: and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley, Po Bronson captures the spirit of that time by presenting indepth studies of people who gave everything to be a part of it. Bronson, who used to be an investment banker (so understands the money side of these businesses) and also writes for Wired (so understands the tech side), also knows a thing or two about writing for real peole (those of us who do not know the intricacies of venture capitalists and Java programming).

An East coast reporter asks Bronson to capture the "Silicon Valley experience," and he realizes right away how different the experience is depending on who you are and where you work. "The experiences of working in, say, the New Age human potential culture at Apple is vastly different from working for Intel, where employees go through what is called 'confrontation training,' in which they learn to call one another names and brutally speak their minds, believing that only through conflict will good ideas emerge." He visits the Yahoo! campus and meets the co-founder of Yahoo! David Filo. Bronson asks Filo if he still sleeps under his desk (there's a famous picture of him under his cubicle, covered in a blanket, and surrounded by paper). Filo's answer? "Not much anymore. No room." "I did find amusing," Bronson says, "that he no longer slept under his desk not because he had doubled his money since then [for reference, at this point Filo is a billionaire], but because his trash heap had doubled in size and squeezed him out."

Reading the book you'll have the themepark thrill ride experience of watching a company try to become an IPO (I'm not kidding! Bronson makes it thrilling!). You meet amazing people through Bronson--the cofounder of Hotmail whose obstacle to his startup ventures became the startup idea, Java programmers who would rather be squirrel hunting in Tennesee, and salespeople, including Jim Yares. "What makes Jim Yares so Northern Californiaesque is that he grew up in the South, where congeniality is so nurtured it seems natured. Jim Yares is touchy-feely, but he's not sticky. He doesn't ooze any vibe. He is porch, a wicker chair, and a summer breeze." And you also meet a sixty-year-old woman who spearheads a tech dealer company. Bronson refers to her as "Mom," who has "because of a lifetime smoking Parliaments 100 has one lung left, fights emphysema, and a tube runs from her nostrils down to a portable respirator at her side." And this lady "is known as the number one closer in the software business."

I first heard of this book when I saw it at a used/new bookstore in Palo Alto last weekend. I had heard Po Bronson's name before, but I didn't really know what he wrote and had never read his stuff before. I feel like I'm on my way to becoming a real fan of his work, though. I thought The Nudist on the Late Shift (and yes, there is a real nudist) did an excellent job of capturing what that time here in the Valley was like, and I can't wait to read more of his work. (p.s. Bronson also has an excellent Web site that is worth a look.)

Next book up: Hidden Kitchens by Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Marriage, A History (Stephanie Coontz)

Marriage, A History, by Stephanie Coontz caught my eye on the New Book Rack at the library because of the title and the photograph on the cover. If I had actually opened the book (which is near Harry Potter--size in bulk) and seen the small font size and tight leading (which for nonpublishing geeks is the vertical space between the rows of text), I probably would have put it back on the shelf (but I’m glad I didn’t).

Near the beginning of the book, Coontz asserts that the reason many people get married today (that being for love) would have been thought absurd throughout most of history. Marriage was too important politically and economically to base it on something so irrational as love. She also offers many more reasonable alternatives to the myth that “marriage was invented for the protection of women.” (In other words, think cave men protection wives and children from wooly mammoths.) This was especially popular in the 1950s to the 1970s “because it closely resembled the male breadwinner/female homemaker family to which they were accustomed.”

I also found it interesting that the beginnings of dating had the women in control of the courtship. In the early 1900s, a young woman could “call” on a man to come to her home for some chaperoned conversation. (It was truly improper for him to suggest to be invited.) However, when official dating arrived, it took place in public, and since things in public cost money (and women had a “second-class economic status”), the man paid and hence became the one in charge.

Coontz isn’t taking the word “history” lightly. She means it, and she starts way back with the early humans and continues until today. I have to admit that it got a little too historical and academic for me after Chapter 4, and after carrying it in my backpack for a couple of days, I quickly realized that the weight of the book was far more than the progress I was making in it every day, so I left it at home and instead carried my much lighter Sudoku book on my commute, which only aggravated my current Sudoku addiction.

Luckily I picked up the book again and skipped ahead to Chapter 12 at the turn of the 20th century. (For those interested in the skipped chapters, they covered early Christians to the Victorians.) As this book is full of information, I’d say it’s probably not the best book to read cover to cover but instead to pick what interests you most and start there.

Coontz points out that people all throughout history people have believed marriage to be in crisis (and 2004 was not the first year that same-sex marriage was discussed). She gives detailed information and questioning behind the statistics and presents a lot of the information in a worldwide context. It’s a fascinating book on an equally fascinating topic.

Update: Read something great? Interesting in a book but don’t have time to check it out yourself? Or just not sure you’d like it? There is a new link on the sidebar where you can post book recommendations. Enjoy!

Next book up: The Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Sweetheart Season (Karen Joy Fowler)

In The Sweetheart Season, Fowler brings alive a small town in upper Minnesota (in the middle of nowhere) right after World War II , a town full of young women--all the men gone from the war. These young women work in the town's mill, the main source of livelihood in the town, whose public persona is the fictional (yet very real to the mill's owner) character Maggie Collins, a sort of Betty Crocker. Besides being a whiz in the kitchen, Maggie was a popular magazine columnist where people wrote her such letters as "Dear Maggie, No one in my family will eat the end pieces of a loaf of bread. I have always eaten them myself, because I believe waste is wicked, particularly when so many in Europe are going without, but I don't really like them either and eating them makes me feel put upon. Any suggestions?"

The Jane Austen Book Club is sparse in many ways compared with The Sweetheart Season. This book is full of many characters, lots of tangents that weave their way slowly back to the main action some times, and full of lots of description. This book ebbs and flows in its action but is always entertaining and quite funny in places. There's the mill owner's wife who adopts Ghandi's teaching (during an American era where they're not sure what to do with a green salad or when to serve it during the meal and all the vegetables have meat in them), the mill owner himself who is searching for an ape who can bowl (yes, bowl, as in bowling), and Maggie Collins' recipes for keeping wallpaper clean (use a slice of bread) and polishing copper pots (ketchup, of course).

It's probably not a big surprise that I enjoyed this book: the girls work in the Scientific Kitchen at the mill where they test recipes all day and they also form a baseball team that travels around to surrounding towns. To end, here's a small excerpt from the beginning of the book. This sentence caught my attention and I knew I was in for a great read:

"He was not a local; he couldn't know that in 1882 Miss Opal May had thrown herself over the falls on the day of her own wedding, all dressed in white, and that her veil had been found more than five miles downstream with two fish netted inside it, and that Jeb Tarken had eaten one of the fish and from that day forward suffered from nightmares of suffocation that startled him awake, making him ditch the blankets and gasp for air."

Next book up: Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz

Sunday, January 08, 2006

American Fried (Calvin Trillin)

After an especially busy day at work, I was packing up my stuff to go home and glanced at Calvin Trillin's book in my backpack. I immediately felt like hugging it. I can't say too many books get that kind of reaction from me, but there's just something about Trillin's writing style that is so comforting and entertaining, I can't get enough of it.

I looked for Calvin Trillin's Tummy Trilogy at the library (which is a collection of his first three books), but they only had the abridged version on audiobook, so I realized I'm going to have to read these early books free standing. The copy of first book, American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater, that the library had was very 1970s--a Penguin paperback with lots of handdrawn illustrations on the cover and on the chapter opening pages. My knowledge of American food history, which mostly dates the many versions of beef eaten by my family in my childhood and the extreme lack of anything remotely ethnic in our Midwestern town, is slim. In fact, I was worried that Trillin probably didn't have much to talk about in terms of food in the 1970s.

But Trillin believed then, just as he does now, in grass-roots food. He points out that at the time (before celebrity chefs and TV shows touting home-grown specialties) no one wanted to be special: If you were a food writer/food lover visiting a town, the locals would want to take you to their fancy "French" restaurant (the kind of thing that could make Trillin shudder) instead of letting you sample their great soul food. In American Fried, he searches for the best crawfish in New Orleans, tries a lot of chili in Cincinnati, has arguments with friends about who serves the best hamburger in the country, all while traipsing around New York city for the perfect bagel, fresh cream cheese, and mozerella.

There are a lot of things in this book that date it to its time. For one, when he mentions prices, sometimes I had a hard time telling if it was a high price or a low price (for example, he mentions eating "second-rate cheeseburgers" in New York that cost $1.75 each, which I'm guessing was expensive at the time). Also, he mentions that someone had collected information on 400 New York restaurants on a computer in California (this was revolutionary at the time), and the pre-Internet restaurant buzz was all about what favorite dive was exposed in the New York Times (to be ruined for all time by the great press, now fussy eaters would come there, Trillin and his friends lament) or a local restaurant newsletter for the devout.

Though Trillin is to me a democratic food man, he does still have some pretentions. This is also true of his wife, as he points out humorously: "There was a tense moment, I remember, the first time our older daughter asked for ketchup. 'How did you know about ketchup?' Alice asked, after informing her that we didn't have any. 'Those wild kids down the street probably told her,' I said. 'Maybe we oughtn't let her play with them any more."

But Trillin's main concern, above all else, is taste. He points out when someone scoffs at a dish for not being authentic, he doesn't really care if it's authentic. He asks, But did you like it? How did it make you feel?

Other good books: I'm probably going to work my way through all the Calvin Trillin food books available at the library because I really enjoy his work (see the previous review of Feeding a Yen). But I should point out that Trillin does not just write about food. He has been a New Yorker staff writer for many years, writing about food, politics, or whatever else he is interested in, and you can read all his works in that magazine in the newly available The Complete New Yorker, which has a fairly hefty price tag but is completely worth it if you enjoy the New Yorker (it has the entire archive of the magazine available digitally with great search capabilities). Trillin has also composed a book on the Bush administration that is in rhyme called Obliviously on He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme.

Next book up: The Sweetheart Season by Karen Joy Fowler

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Areas of My Expertise (John Hodgman), by Guest Reviewer Jim

This is one of those eccentric books that defies classification; on the cover it bills itself as “An almanac of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE compiled with instructive annotation and arranged in useful order by me, JOHN HODGMAN, a PROFESSIONAL WRITER, in THE AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE, WHICH INCLUDE: Matters Historical, Matters Literary, Matters Cryptozoological, Hobo Matters, Food, Drink & Cheese (a Kind of Food), Squirrels & Lobsters & Eels, Haircuts, Utopias, What Will Happen in the Future, and Most Other Subjects,” which is pretty good for starters.

Hodgman, who for those This American Life fans out there was also responsible for the brilliant "Flight vs. Invisibility" piece (available in streaming audio here and on their Crimebusters & Crossed Wires collection), and who also had a pretty funny recent appearance on the Daily Show, has turned out a lunatic and frequently hilarious invented collection of facts, historical essays, advice, predictions, and more (that it’s all made up is “an astonishing innovation that allows each entry to contain many more truths than if it were merely factual”), including entries like the following:

  • The Fifty-Five Dramatic Situations (“Young, handsome cyborg Army officer kills his own family, blames hippies”; “Snakes lie in wait”)
  • When Writing, Please Avoid These Failed Palindromes (“Slow speed: deep owls”)
  • Diversions for the Asthmatic Child Who Cannot Play in the Snow
  • History’s Worst Men’s Haircuts
  • Short Words for Use on Submarines to Preserve Oxygen (“Counsie: The staff Creative Writing Counselor”)
  • Nine Presidents Who Had Hooks for Hands
  • Colonial Jobs Involving Eels (“Once our nation’s rivers were glossy and black with majestic herds of eels, but they proved too tempting a food source, and many found them to be just too spooky to tolerate”)
Elsewhere can be found discussions of lobster-claw vs. pigeon-foot deformities, ninja cons, lycanthropic transformation timetables, methods of predicting the future, extensive elucidation of the Depression-era “hobo wars” (they succeeded only in taking the Secretary of the Treasury), and some of the greatest photos and Zen-like captions ever put to paper. Hodgman has a particular obsession with hoboes (“I am not talking about the unfortunate homeless souls who do not choose that life, but those few willful wanderers and train-riding tricksters who still believe the hobo wars are going on”), and had the sheer insanity or genius or both to include a now-infamous list of 700 hobo names.

You can’t fill 230 pages with this stuff and hit every time, and it slowed a bit chugging into the finish line, but I probably had a higher laugh-out-loud-per-page ratio with this than any book I’ve read in the last five years. And at long last I know how to interpret the ominous portent of a cat consorting with a skunk.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Wedding (Imraan Coovadia)

Well, I plucked this book from the library shelves in a hurry last time I was at the library (which was a few days before Christmas), and I had good intentions. It's not a particularly long book, and I should have finished it days ago. But it was Christmas and Jim's family was here, and, thanks to Jim's grandparents, I got hooked on the new puzzle craze Sudoku (which I hadn't heard of before) and spent the flights to and from Arizona doing that instead of reading this book. And then it was New Year's Eve, which we spent with my oldest sister and her husband playing Cranium, which I'm declaring one of the most fun games ever, and next thing I knew, we were back in San Jose where giant Pacific winds tried to blow us away and suceeded in knocking over our fence and lots of trees. And there was rain. Lots and lots of rain. All of which I found more exciting than this book.

The Wedding by Imraan Coovadia is an Indian book-length fairy tale of sorts, but if you're like me, a short, 2-3 page fairy tale is all you need. Ever. I once decided I was going to sit down and read a book of Brothers Grimm fairy tales like a regular book and quickly learned that wasn't going to work at all. They were too short, too similar, and there were too many of them. So given that experience, The Wedding probably was not a good choice.

The story is about the narrator's grandfather and how he met the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, married her, and how she did everything in her power to get him to leave her alone. That's the gist, and I'm certain that someone who really enjoyed the book would give a completely different synopsis. There's lots and lots of dialogue that's often filled with colloquialisms and little other description (lots of "fiddlesticks" and "ur-ur mans"). Again, not really my style. I finished it not really sure what I was supposed to take away from it, but glad to be done.

Have a mentioned how much fun Sudoku is? I recommend it highly.

Next book up: This will either be American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater by Calvin Trillin or The Sweetheart Season by Karen Joy Fowler. I have both of these books on hold and need to stop by the library to pick them up. (After my experience with The Wedding, I decided to reward myself with a couple of tried and true authors.)