Uncanny Valley – Anna Wiener

In her mid-twenties, at the height of tech industry idealism, Anna Wiener—stuck, broke, and looking for meaning in her work, like any good millennial–left a job in book publishing for the promise of the new digital economy. She moved from New York to San Francisco, where she landed at a big-data startup in the heart of the Silicon Valley bubble: a world of surreal extravagance, dubious success, and fresh-faced entrepreneurs hell-bent on domination, glory, and, of course, progress.

Anna arrived amidst a massive cultural shift, as the tech industry rapidly transformed into a locus of wealth and power rivaling Wall Street. But amid the company ski vacations and in-office speakeasies, boyish camaraderie and ride-or-die corporate fealty, a new Silicon Valley began to emerge: one in far over its head, one that enriched itself at the expense of the idyllic future it claimed to be building.

Part coming-age-story, part portrait of an already-bygone era, Anna Wiener’s memoir is a rare first-person glimpse into high-flying, reckless startup culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance, wild fortune, and accelerating political power. With wit, candor, and heart, Anna deftly charts the tech industry’s shift from self-appointed world savior to democracy-endangering liability, alongside a personal narrative of aspiration, ambivalence, and disillusionment.

Unsparing and incisive, Uncanny Valley is a cautionary tale, and a revelatory interrogation of a world reckoning with consequences its unwitting designers are only beginning to understand.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

First off, I just have to say how much I LOVE the cover! It’s eye-catching and fits the subject perfectly…although to clarify just in case, know that this book is not about robots and AI (not directly, anyway), but about Silicon Valley during the growth years.

This was one of my most anticipated reads of early 2020 (can’t believe I posted that in January, seems like a lifetime ago). How’d it stack up? I was maybe a little disappointed by it overall, but it was still an entertaining and informative read.

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The Things We Cannot Say – Kelly Rimmer

In 1942, Europe remains in the relentless grip of war. Just beyond the tents of the Russian refugee camp she calls home, a young woman speaks her wedding vows. It’s a decision that will alter her destiny…and it’s a lie that will remain buried until the next century.

Since she was nine years old, Alina Dziak knew she would marry her best friend, Tomasz. Now fifteen and engaged, Alina is unconcerned by reports of Nazi soldiers at the Polish border, believing her neighbors that they pose no real threat, and dreams instead of the day Tomasz returns from college in Warsaw so they can be married. But little by little, injustice by brutal injustice, the Nazi occupation takes hold, and Alina’s tiny rural village, its families, are divided by fear and hate. Then, as the fabric of their lives is slowly picked apart, Tomasz disappears. Where Alina used to measure time between visits from her beloved, now she measures the spaces between hope and despair, waiting for word from Tomasz and avoiding the attentions of the soldiers who patrol her parents’ farm. But for now, even deafening silence is preferable to grief.

Slipping between Nazi-occupied Poland and the frenetic pace of modern life, Kelly Rimmer creates an emotional and finely wrought narrative that weaves together two women’s stories into a tapestry of perseverance, loyalty, love and honor. The Things We Cannot Say is an unshakable reminder of the devastation when truth is silenced…and how it can take a lifetime to find our voice before we learn to trust it. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

If you like WWII-era historical fiction, you’ll love this book. There’s romance, political intrigue, LOTS of heartfelt emotion and heartache, and to boot, it’s well-written and fast-paced. It’s told from two perspectives: Alina as a young woman during the war, and Alice in present-day discovering her grandmother’s past, which culminates in an unexpected trip to Poland and a shocking family secret (put that way, almost sounds like Buzzfeed clickbait). The idea behind it is pretty original (to me, at least), and I enjoyed reading it.

So why is my rating so mixed?

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Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This was a fun one. After finishing, I totally understand why a lot of people couldn’t stand it and DNF’ed, but I just took it at face value and enjoyed it for the light, easy read that it was. Is Kya’s situation unrealistic? Absolutely. Are there excessive descriptions of nature alongside weak dialogue and flat characters? Definitely. But there was also enough heart in the story itself that I could suspend my disbelief and just appreciate the beauty of the marsh.

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Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” So begins Italo Calvino’s compilation of fragmentary urban images. As Marco tells the khan about Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” the spider-web city of Octavia, and other marvelous burgs, it may be that he is creating them all out of his imagination, or perhaps he is recreating fine details of his native Venice over and over again, or perhaps he is simply recounting some of the myriad possible forms a city might take.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Invisible Cities is one of the strangest, most haunting books I’ve ever read. There’s no particular plot; every page is just a short, lyrical description of an imaginary city Marco Polo passes on his travels. Some of these cities are more realistic than others – marble palaces, frangipane trees, bustling markets. Others are completely impossibly and theoretical – a city delicately and entirely strung up between two cliff walls that knows one day it will fall into the abyss; a city that breathes earth instead of air; a city that is so crowded that people blot out the place and even the sky.

One of my favorite cities is Beersheba, whose residents believe in a heavenly, celestial city above made of gold and silver and glittering diamond, and a hell-like city underground made of waste and tar and trash. They strive every day to worship the city above and abhor the city below; but what they don’t know is that their greed and superficiality has blinded them, and that the city below is actually the one made of gold, while the city above is made of trash.

Intent on piling up its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet aflutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heaven long-tailed comets fly-past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.

Invisible Cities

Even though it’s short (only 160 pages or so), it isn’t the type of book you read in one sitting. I found that I could only digest a few cities at a time, in order to think about them more closely and visualize them in my mind. Maybe that’s how it was meant to be read – slowly, savoring every city individually and appreciating all the beauties or horrors of each one.

P.S. Artist Colleen Corradi Brannigan painted each city. The works are chaotic and stunning.

The Week in Passing

You guys, what a week it has been. Amy Cooper, George Floyd, and now violent riots and protests happening all across the country 😔 In a way, I feel like the country’s been long overdue for a major correction as far as our attitudes and behavior towards race go – whether these events will be the ones to trigger it, I guess we’ll only see.

Like a lot of people, I’m feeling intensely sad and frustrated and angry all at once. I’ve been seeing and reading all the BLM content on Instagram and sharing what I can on my own feed. The most important thing I’ve learned the past few days, something that I’ve thought about a lot now, is that simply being non-racist isn’t enough anymore and we must be more directly anti-racist. Police brutality is nothing new – there are photos from the 1960s and earlier that look eerily similar to the protests now (the only difference is that people were better dressed back then!) – and it doesn’t need to be said that racial issues have persisted over the generations as well, but as the saying goes, you’d be a fool to keep trying the same thing and expecting different results. We are the fool now. We’re distantly aware that implicit racism surrounds us every day, but we tell ourselves “I know I’m not racist” and keep our heads down because we aren’t personally affected. I’m guilty of it myself. But…this is the approach we’ve operated under for the past several decades; it clearly hasn’t worked and there hasn’t been enough change, and at that point we have to try something new, like taking a more active role in defeating such systematic racism.

Honestly I didn’t think I’d be so affected by all of this, precisely because of the above. Whenever this has happened in the past – Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, etc – I’ve felt the requisite sadness and indignation, but never did anything about it because I resignedly thought, “This is just going to happen again – I hate it all but can’t do anything”. But I’m starting to learn now that we can. For example, we can…

  • donate to causes that support black communities
  • educate ourselves through books and articles by black authors who describe in excruciating detail what it’s like to live every day in America
  • spread awareness on social media
  • make a commitment to shop more from black and other minority business owners
  • there’s an excellent list on Medium on 30 ways people perpetuate racism every day, usually implicitly, that I think everyone should read over and consider how often (not if) they engage in any of the items. The title says it’s written forAsian Americans, but honestly it applies to most people

I didn’t expect this to post to get as long as it did! But I had to write down some of the thoughts swirling around right now. There’s a lot going on even without the specter of coronavirus still overhead (after seeing how PACKED the NYC protests have been, I’m totally preparing for another spike in cases in 1-2 weeks), but I really hope people start thinking about these long-pervasive issues more. Maybe this is the start of a sea change or maybe it’s just another blip, but either way, I believe we’re headed for change, no matter how slowly.

Highs of the week

Making a new section to put down things I appreciate/am grateful for/am just happy about!

Food is always gonna be one of my highs 😆 My friend sent me a box of doughnuts from a local bakery because she knew I’d had a hard week, and that was the sweetest thing! (literally) We also cooked a ton this week – these beef empanadas that turned out fantastic, walnut brownies from Dorie Greenspan (I love that anything by Dorie always turns out well), pasta al limone by Frank Prizinsano who’s famous for not using recipes, and a GIGANTIC crunch wrap that took an epic 5 hours and served 14!!! (B somehow missed that and made the entire thing…for two people). And yesterday I made a quick batch of rose sangria at noon…and thus the day drinking started. Also discovered one of my favorite new accounts grossypelosi, who shot the frittata above. It just looks SO GOOD. drools

What I’m reading

What I’m watching

  • Never Have I EverSuch a fun watch! The main character Devi was so sassy and relatable and and full of life, and I thought the whole series was a pretty good reflection of what high school is actually like – chaotic, stressful, more than a lil messy. And I’d be remiss to not mention the Asian American representation of course. It’s so refreshing to see more Asian actors on the screen, let a series almost entirely Asian/minority, especially done in such a realistic way!
  • Beauty and the Baker – I’m still on early episodes but I’m already low key obsessed with this show. A middle-class baker happens to meet one of the most famous celebrities/models at a restaurant after he turns down his girlfriend’s wedding proposal, but as they’re falling in love they have to navigate the many class and wealth differences. It’s criminally underrated!! If you’re looking for a super cute romcom series that’s actually good, this is it.
  • Too Hot to Handle – Finally watched the last episode where they all reunite, what a wild ride haha. I’m pretty sure Harry’s ring-pop proposal to Francesca over Zoom was a joke?! Maybe for publicity?? But at the same time, I can’t be sure. Anyway, this was such a perfect trashy series to stream in the background 😂

Hope you’re all safe from whatever it might be these days – viruses, riots, murder hornets?!? Have a good weekend!