Business: Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston. The book features a wide range of tech entrepreneurs in a simple but highly effective format: plain old interviews. Hearing about the early days of companies like Apple, Flickr, Yahoo, PayPal, 37Signals, TripAdvisor and TiVo is juicy enough without the need for editorial embellishments. Luckily the author, Livingston, is wise and confident enough to stay out of the way of the terrific stories she skillfully uncovers. The vision, character, and thought process of each founder shine through without any need for synthesis. A gem to be read in small chunks. To blast through it would waste the material and make it blend into one big mush. Better to savor each story individually.
Autobiography: Through the Children’s Gate by Adam Gopnik. The longstanding New Yorker writer earlier wrote From Paris to the Moon, a lovely tale of his family’s five year sojourn in Paris. Now Gopnik takes their subsequent five years in New York and applies the same treatment: a satisfying mix of personal stories and general New York history and trivia. Gopnik is at is his best when describing the humble and every day (even if he occasionally stumbles a bit too far into proud papa territory). He falls down a bit for me in his over-use of literary and art references. I lose his meaning when he goes on for two pages about an obscure film or artist or book; part of me is glad for the education the former art critic Gopnik provides, and the other part just wants to scream “Get back to the point! Tell me what happened to the pet fish!” Speaking of stories, Gopnik tells a tale about Bluey the beta fish that was so funny I read it out loud to my sons. He takes what could have been a one paragraph ordinary family event and dissects its every nuance and deliciously angst-ridden detail. Seinfeld-esque. There are several share-worthy stories in this book—don’t read it when you are all alone. That would be a waste.
Novels: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This British gem was lent to me by a visiting Irish pal—I don’t think it has really broken into the US market—but it should. The brutally honest, poignant, heartbreaking tale of a family whose oldest son goes “Columbine” at his upstate New York high school. The story is written as a series of letters from the boy’s mother to her husband—a structure which feels both original and suspenseful throughout the book. The mother, Eva, a wry and skeptical New Yorker and entrepreneur, faces the unfathomable and the un-sayable. Try as she might—and she tries very hard—she doesn’t ever like her son. Eva relates her life story with a clear eye, a broken heart, and a true gift for describing the intricate facets of parent-child and marital relationships. A harrowing page-turner that left me scarred by association.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. The story of Lily and Snow Flower, two contractually bound life-long friends, or laotong, in 19th century rural China. Fascinating to read of a society whose respect and regard for a friendship between two women exceeds even that of marriage. As seven-year-olds living in different villages, Lily and Snow Flower are paired by a diviner and a match-maker and forever united in their love, loyalty, and duty to each other. Fate, husbands (portrayed sympathetically), children, war, and divergent fortunes intervene, but the laotong relationship prevails. I wanted this book to be twice as long—both to allow more complexity in the telling of an interesting historical tale, but also to allow more development of the characters. But a great summer dock or beach read.