Tag Archives: 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge

WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS by Andrew David MacDonald

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald is a novel about siblings trying to make their way through life despite a lot of adversity. Zelda and Gert’s parents are gone – their mother, an alcoholic, died of cancer and their father disappeared when they were young. Zelda was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, compromising her mental development and limiting her independence. She is obsessed with Vikings, and turns to Viking culture and rules to guide her throughout life.

Why I picked it up: I got When We Were Vikings as an ARC at Book Expo last year and recently started seeing reviews as its January publication day approached. I’ve seen comparisons to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which I enjoyed a lot.

Zelda and Gert have a lot going against them. They’re young and living on their own, having moved out of their uncle’s apartment after he started sexually abusing Zelda. Gert has dropped out of college and now deals drugs in order to support them, and Zelda, who spends her days either at the community center or seeing a therapist or hanging out at home, is dependent on Gert for everything.

When Zelda discovers that Gert is no longer attending classes, she draws inspiration from her beloved Vikings to try turn his life around while contributing more substantially to their home. She gets a job, experiments with having a boyfriend, and tries to repel the shady characters who have started invading their already fragile household, thanks to Gert’s new livelihood.

Zelda is an interesting narrator: she is articulate, engaged and compelling, but she is also naive and has poor judgment. MacDonald walks a fine line here – he has to make Zelda complex enough to feel invested in, but if she comes across as too smart, she’s not plausible as a character. For the most part, I think he did a good job achieving this balance. There were a few times when she seemed too sophisticated and used words that she wouldn’t have known, but in general MacDonald did a good job creating a consistent character.

Gert and Zelda are flawed but fundamentally good people who have been dealt some tough cards. I felt a sense of dread as the book went on, worrying about what was going to happen to them and how they would get through it. (Hint: it’s never good when a gun appears in a book.) When We Were Vikings is a touching novel and Zelda a winning protagonist. I also learned a lot about Vikings. It could have used a little more editing and the end is a bit abrupt (and unrealistic), but for a debut novel, When We Were Vikings was pretty impressive. And Macdonald did a very nice of getting into a woman’s head.

I listened to When We Were Vikings on audio. The narrator, Phoebe Strole, had a perky, upbeat delivery that at times was incongruous with what was happening in the book, but her narration gave Zelda a naivete and optimism that was entirely consistent with her character. I recommend the audio version.

When We Were Vikings was Book #6 of 2020 and satisfies the Debut Novel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

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.