UNCANNY VALLEY by Anna Wiener

Anna Wiener was a twentysomething living in Brooklyn in the 2010s and working in publishing when, on a whim, she applied to work for a tech startup in the e-book space. After a few months there, she decided to move to San Francisco and try her luck in the promised land of tech. Uncanny Valley is Wiener’s memoir about working at two startups in San Francisco and her take on the digital economy and what it’s like to experience it from the inside.

Why I picked it: I love memoirs, and I work for a tech startup so I figured I’d recognize some of what she describes. I am fascinated – always have been – with anything Internet-related, so this was a no-brainer.

Off the bat: Wiener is a beautiful writer. What I would give to have her talent! She writes so eloquently about San Francisco, her colleagues, the work she did – she made it poetic. About SF: “The city, trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected heterosexual masculinity.” About a cabinet secretary: “I wondered what it was like to lead a life of public service – climbing the ladder, accumulating credentials, walking the thinnest lines, probably owning a tuxedo – only to find himself catering to the growing power of Silicon Valley, with its baby tyrants, all the one-hit wonders who had dropped out of school and become their own bosses and thought they knew how the world worked.”

So I thought the first half of this book was brilliant. Wiener depicted so well the culture shock in the tech world, her vacillation between wanting to belong and questioning the value of her work, and the occasional absurdity of the digital economy. She also raises legitimate questions about privacy and the amount of personal information available to employees at all levels of the companies she worked for, a data analytics startup and an open source sharing site (unnamed, but it’s Github). I relished every page, nodding in recognition at times, eagerly absorbing information at others.

The second half of the book took a turn, though, and became somewhat meandering and lost its purpose. Wiener has general complaints about how women are treated in tech, but she doesn’t base them in her own experience beyond a few limited examples. She is restless in her customer success manager role, far removed from and considered less important than her developer colleagues’, but she doesn’t seem to have a sense for what she’d rather be doing. She’s sort of along for the ride. Aside from Weiner’s high-level doomsday warnings about the dangers posed by “the social network everyone hates” and the monetization of data and erosion of privacy, it’s hard to get at her agenda.

So Uncanny Valley was a mixed bag for me. I *loved* a lot of it, but in the end was left a bit empty. On balance, though, I’d recommend picking it up.

Uncanny Valley was Book #2 of 2020 and also satisfied the Non-Fiction category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

WEATHER by Jenny Offill

These are trying times for parents of young kids. How do you focus on the minutiae of child rearing when there are so many really big things to worry about? That’s the subject of Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather. I loved her last book, Dept. of Speculation, which documented a failing marriage through short paragraphs and wry observations that verged on poetry. Weather is written in a similar style. Once again told from the point of view of a young mother, Weather takes on Trump’s America and the heightened anxiety we now live with.

Lizzie, once a graduate student full of promise, now works as a librarian at a university, with a side gig of helping a former professor answer emails about her doomsday podcast. Lizzie’s brother, an addict, is a constant worry to her as well, even after he marries and has a baby. She and her husband live in Brooklyn with their young son. Not a lot actually happens in the book – this is not for people who like plot-driven novels – but like Dept. of Speculation, Weather is full of breathtaking insight, wit and honesty. Lizzie’s mind ping pongs among the mundane and the philosophical, the personal and the universal, exploring the challenge of how to balance macro fears like climate change and impending disaster with modern life and its daily banalities.

I love, love, love Jenny Offill. I dogeared so many pages of Weather – there’s a gem of brilliance on almost every page. I often laughed – or grimaced – in recognition, and I read slowly so as to savor the experience. And if I didn’t have a bazillion other books to read, I’d probably start this one over again today.

It was a long wait for another Jenny Offill book, but it was worth it. (Actually, this doesn’t come out for another month – sorry – but you can pre-order now!)

Weather was Book #1 of 2020 and counts in the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge as a Book By An Author I Love.

First Book 2020

Every year, Sheila at Book Journey hosts First Book, where she invites readers to send in photos of them with their first read of the year. I’ve participated the last 4 years, and am excited to do so this year too. So give Book Journey a visit and see what people are reading on the first day of 2020. Thank you Sheila for keeping up this fun tradition!

Here’s my pick: Weather, by Jenny Offill. I was a huge fan of her last book, Dept. of Speculation, and this one is written in a similar style. I am really looking forward to it. It comes out in February 2020, but I am too excited to read it to wait another month. In this picture, I am standing outside Oracle Park in San Francisco on a chilly, grey, wet day (hence the frizzy hair). We were in California for a week over break and are now headed home.

Happy new year, everyone! What is your First Book of 2020?

THE WIVES by Tarryn Fisher

My final read of 2019 was The Wives by Tarryn Fisher. (This book comes out today! I never time reviews this well. Yay, me.) The Wives is a psychological thriller about a woman – “Thursday” – who is the second wife in a plural marriage. She sees her husband Seth once a week on Thursdays when he comes to Seattle, and the rest of the week he is with Wives 1 and 3 in Portland. Thursday is deeply in love with Seth, and for a while is contented to stay in a marriage where she shares her husband with two other women she has never met. But she is also lonely and depressed, and as her dissatisfaction with her marriage increases, she grows curious and ultimately obsessed with learning more about the other two women she sees as her competition.

When Thursday finds a clue as to the identity of Wife #3, she tracks her down and invents an excuse to meet her. She sees bruises on Wife #3 and starts to worry that Seth may not be who he seems. As the book progresses, her obsession with getting to know the other two wives grows and her behavior grows more risky. Are they in danger? And is Seth responsible for troubles she has faced in her own life? Is she in love, or in denial?

I sped through The Wives on vacation. It grabs you from the beginning with the polygamy premise – hard to resist – and takes off from there. I don’t want to spoil the plot or give away how it resolves, but I can say that by the end I found it unsatisfying and kind of a silly book. There are a lot of loose ends that go untied, as well as some frustrating stereotyping about women and mental health. I am generally not a big fan of psychological thrillers, and while The Wives kept my attention, it left me feeling empty in the end.

The Wives was a December BOTM pick and most reviews on Goodreads are very positive, so this may be my continuing challenge with psychological thrillers.

Last book of 2019!! Here’s to a great reading year in 2020.

2019 Reading Year In Review

This year I surpassed my reading goal of 60 books – my highest goal ever – and ended at 64. It was a pretty good year in reading, but not amazing. There were a lot of books that I really loved, so the highs were very high. But as I scroll through my list, I see just as many books that were just OK and didn’t leave much impact on me. The 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge also slowed me down in the last few months as I ticked the last categories off the list. I am hoping to avoid a challenge-related reading slowdown next year with the new categories in the 2020 challenge that will hopefully sustain my reading energy all year. I will also continue to be very deliberate with my reading choices in order to improve my satisfaction with the books I read.

I increased my non-fiction and my male author counts, both of which were goals for 2019. For 2020, I am setting a goal of 60 books again. Hopefully I will surpass it once more, but this year was definitely a stretch and I don’t want to get too ambitious for 2020.

Here are my overall stats for 2019:

Books finished: 64
Fiction: 54
Non-fiction: 10
Male authors: 14
Audiobooks: 21
Repeat authors: 
Taylor Jenkins Reid, Karen Thompson Walker, Lynda Cohen Loigman, Dani Shapiro, Sally Thorne, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Patchett, Colson Whitehead, Halle Butler, Katherine Center, Agatha Christie, J. Ryan Stradal, Jean Kwok, Stephen McCauley, Kevin Wilson

Here are a few superlatives for the year:

Best Books: I listed my top 10 best reads of 2019 in a separate blog post, so I won’t repeat them here.

Best AudiobooksBecoming by Michelle Obama, Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

Books I Could Not Put Down: Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes, Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, Forever Is The Worst Long Time by Camille Pagan, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, Becoming by Michelle Obama

Books That Should Be Required Reading: The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett Graff, There There by Tommy Orange, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Book That Made Me Feel Stupid: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Thank you all for reading along with me in 2019. 2020 will be my 14th (!) year of blogging and I am grateful to you all for supporting EDIWTB and sharing it with your friends!

Happy 2020!!

NOTHING TO SEE HERE by Kevin Wilson

Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson is a strange book about twin 10 year-olds who burst into flames when they are upset or agitated. Lillian, a thirtysomething woman who lives at home with her mother in a dead-end life, is summoned by her former best friend Madison to come to her opulent home in Tennessee because she needs a favor. It turns out Madison’s twin stepchildren, who have the strange firestarting ailment, are in need of a nanny after the death of their mother. Their father, Madison’s husband, is a senator with bigger aspirations, and the couple needs to keep the kids’ flames under wraps so as not to torpedo his future confirmation hearings.

Strange premise, right?

I finished Nothing To See Here today and I am really not sure how I feel about it. I’ve read a number of reviews that call it heartwarming and funny, and I definitely don’t agree with those. Lillian is lonely and depressed, and while her connection to her young charges is touching, her life is not a happy one. The kids have been ignored and/or isolated their whole life, and they are not terribly interesting or compelling beyond being worthy of sympathy. The relationship between Madison and Lillian turns out to be more complicated than it seemed at first, but while the two dance around each other, they don’t get seem to get anywhere. I feel like Wilson developed this firestarting conceit but didn’t know what to do with it after the first 100 pages, because beyond the kids developing a relationship with Lillian, they don’t change all that much and the firestarting doesn’t go away.

I liked Wilson’s writing – it is wry and direct, and his dialogue rings true. But this book just didn’t make much of a mark for me and I actually found it kind of boring. His previous book, Perfect Little World (reviewed here), was much more substantive and had a lot to say about parenting and relationships. Nothing To See Here was more superficial and while it was odd and original, I finished it and wondered, “What was the point of that?” I am still not sure of the answer.

I am in the minority here. Nothing To See Here was a Read With Jenna pick and a BOTM selection, and according to my book club, was sold out at our bookstore on the day we selected it as our January read because it was so hot. So clearly it has found an enthusiastic audience – just not me.

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid

I am on vacation, trying to get in the last reviews of 2019, so this will be short. Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid is a novel about two women: Alix, a white mom of two and motivational speaker/writer who has recently moved from NYC to Philly, and Emira, her African-American nanny. Late one night, Alix calls Emira to ask if she take her three year-old daughter Briar out of the house because it has been egged and they need to call the police. Emira comes to get Briar and they head to a nearby market that is open late, and while there she is detained by a security guard who questions why she is there with a white child and whether she has taken Briar without permission. This racist incident sets the book in motion.

Alix has a weird fascination with Emira that borders on an obsession. She wants to get to know Emira better and help develop in her the qualities she has built a career on encouraging in other young women, yet she also fears Emira will quit and is downright clingy with her. Emira, meanwhile, is puzzled by her boss’ new intensity of attention and is herself trying to become an adult with her own health insurance and career goals. When Emira’s new boyfriend turns out to be someone from Alix’s past, things get more complicated, quickly, as the two women navigate some

There is a lot to Such A Fun Age – Reid explores issues of race, privilege, motherhood and professional success and identity through relatable characters and authentic dialogue and situations. Alix, while well-intentioned, is clumsy and clueless, and watching her flail through her relationship with Emira can be funny, if cringey. Emira’s perspective gives the book its depth and heft. It is an easy, quick read with more going on than appears on the surface.

Such A Fun Age is a buzzy book that is going to get a lot of attention, soon.

I mostly listened to Such A Fun Age on audio. It was narrated by Nicole Lewis, who did a good job with a range of voices (including Briar’s). My only quibble is that Emira’s coming to terms with what she wants from her life is a big part of the book, but Lewis made Emira sound more aloof and immature than she came across in print. I needed to have confidence in Emira’s judgment and personal growth, and I had a hard time doing that with the audio version, where she seemed indifferent to everything.