The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the…

coverThe Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture — By John Battelle
Battelle is the founder of the influential The Industry Standard, and cofounding editor of Wired, so he’s been in a great position to watch Internet trends and companies come and go, and to look at what he calls “the cultural anthropology of search.” For it is Search that’s the true subject of the book, not the the corporate history of Google, although of course the two have been inextricably entwined.

Battelle tells some great stories here, and is good at putting things into perspective. His view of the past is interesting, and this look into the future of what he calls “the database of intentions” is both thrilling and scary.

John Battelle’s Searchblog — Highly recommended

The Lost Night: A Daughter’s Search for the Truth of Her Father’s Murder

coverThe Lost Night: A Daughter’s Search for the Truth of Her Father’s Murder — By Rachel Howard

It happened in Merced, California, late one June night in 1986. Ten year old Rachel’s stepbrother woke her up to a confusing scene, and the sight of a floor soaked in blood and her father clutching his throat. He was stabbed in his bed by an unknown assailant. Rachel returns to Fresno to live with her hardworking, preoccupied mother, drug-using, abusive stepfather, and her younger half-brother.

This is a memoir of growing up in difficult and unstable circumstances, in several different versions of family. Rachel falters along the way, but when her life starts to come together and she is looking forward to marriage, she decides to try to put together the pieces of her past. She reconnects with members of her father’s family, her father’s second and third wives and her former stepbrother. She never learns much more about her father’s murder, but she does come to some kind of peace with the past.

Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food

coverFinding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food — By Susan Marks

There never was a real Betty Crocker. The wise and competent advisor to generations of American housewives was created in 1921 by the PR team promoting Gold Medal flour. She wasn’t the first fictional spokesperson for a domestic product, but she became the most well-known and the most loved. One reason for her rise to such heights of fame was the the fact that Gold Medal bought its own radio station, and in 1924, Betty Crocker became a radio star.

Housewives across the nation tuned in to learn about cooking and much more. When the Depression struck, Betty Crocker was there ideas for how to stretch limited budgets. When World War II came along, Betty was there to support women on the homefront, with recipes to minimize the use of rationed food, time-saving ideas for women who were doing war work outside the home, and suggestions for cookies and other goodies to send to the armed forces. In the fifties, Betty was introducing the use of modern packaged mixes. For a time, Betty was everywhere, even in Hollywood gathering recipes from the stars. In 1945, Fortune magazine named her one of the most famous women in America, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt!

This book is light and anecdotal, an easy read, but it provides an interesting look at some aspects of women’s lives and domestic history. The most engaging parts of the books are the excerpts from letters and from Betty Crocker’s advise and commentary.

Finding Betty Crocker

coverFinding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food — By Susan Marks

There never was a real Betty Crocker. The wise and competent advisor to generations of American housewives was created in 1921 by the PR team promoting Gold Medal flour. She wasn’t the first fictional spokesperson for a domestic product, but she became the most well-known and the most loved. One reason for her rise to such heights of fame was the the fact that Gold Medal bought its own radio station, and in 1924, Betty Crocker became a radio star.
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The Great American Road Trip: U.S. 1, Maine to Florida

coverThe Great American Road Trip: U.S. 1, Maine to Florida by Peter Genovese

I’ve always been fascinated by Route 1. There’s just something wonderful about the idea of a single ribbon of highway stretching between the Canadian border in Maine and the tropical pleasures of Key West, Florida.

Published in 1999, this great guidebook is a little dated, but it’s still the most useful book on the topic, as well as fun reading! There are also lots of pictures, both black and white and in color, that really capture the beauty, the magic and the wonderful weirdness to be found along the road. The Amazon page includes an interesting interview with the author.

Secret Frequencies : A New York Education — By…

Secret Frequencies : A New York Education — By John Skoyles

During the summer before his senior year of high school, John Skoyles started spending time with his shady but charismatic uncle, who was determined to show him the real New York. Meanwhile, his seductive single aunt got him a job working with her at Paramount Studios in Times Square, and also opened his eyes in many ways.

This is just my kind of book in so many ways. I am always attracted to dysfunctional family memoirs, especially coming of age ones. And, for some reason, I tend to like books that are about the adventures of a single summer. I always want to read anything that can be described using phrases like, “It was the summer that would change everything…”, especially in the summer.

And I love books about New York, especially books about “the real New York.” John Skoyles is just about my age, and so his New York summer in the 1960s corresponds pretty closely to my own time in New York. I love books and movies about New York in the sixties…including ones as dark as Joe and Midnight Cowboy.

But I really disliked this book, and I don’t really know why. I just found this whole family to be depressing, and the author’s “adventures” just seemed tawdry.

Lipstick Jihad : A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran

coverLipstick Jihad : A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran — By Azadeh Moaveni

Azadeh Moaveni grew up in San Jose, California, the daughter of Iranian exiles. As with most children of immigrants, she feels sometimes feels torn between two worlds, the American world of her classmates, and the Iranian world of her divorced parents and large extended family. She has strong memories of a summer spent visiting relatives in Tehran, and in college she develops a strong interest in her Iranian heritage. She becomes a reporter for Time magazine, and, after a stint in Cairo, she is assigned to work in Tehran.

This personal memoir describes her life in Tehran between 2000 and 2002, a life that is confusing, complicated and fascinating. In many ways, she finds herself an outsider in Tehran, but she’s surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, and she makes a strange but not altogether unrewarding life for herself.

Moaveni recounts her own adventures here in a personal, chatty, irreverent style that will amuse some readers and annoy others. Her chapter titles, for example, include “I’m too sexy for my veil” and “Not without my mimosa.” This book is as youthful, outrageous, funny, honest, brave and flawed as its author.

This book is being compared to other recent books on women in Iran, but the book that it most reminda me of is not about Iran or the Middle East, but China– Red China Blues: My Life from Mao to Now, by another journalist, Jan Wong. That’s actually a much better book, by a much older writer describing a much longer period of her life.

Interview with the Azadeh Moaveni — Mother Jones, March, 2005

Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything — By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Nothing profound here, and, as the authors themselves point out, there’s no unifying theme. But I can see why this book has become so popular. Like some of my other favorite recent books, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point, Blink and Everything Bad is Good for You, this book is a zippy, fun read, with a breezy, magazine style.

I did have the feeling that the book could have benefited from a little more editing. I did get tired of reading about how incredibly unique and brilliant Steven Levitt is. The issues discussed in the book were interesting, and I admire Levitt’s insight and creative interpretation of data. But none of these cases is as simple as some of Levitt’s explanations suggest. His conclusions seemed sound based on the available data, but larger studies and other types of analysis might reveal different correlations and interpretation. I wasn’t convinced that Levitt had “solved” any of these mysteries once and for all.

But despite my reservations, I really did enjoyed this book. I learned some things. I had never read about Stetson Kennedy and how he used the Superman radio program to break the power of the Ku Klux Klan, and now I want to read his The Klan Unmasked. I had never read about Sudhir Venkatesh and his experiences with a Chicago gang, but now I want to read his American Project.

And I guess that’s why I consider this book a success– not because I thought it solved any mysteries, but because it made me want to learn more.

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Matter

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Matter — By Steven Johnson

This is an interesting and provocative book about popular culture, especially video games and television programs, and how they’ve become increasingly complex and challenging intellectually. The presentation is definitely one-sided, and I don’t agree with everything he says, but I found this book both entertaining and enlightening.

As a librarian, I was especially interested in the parts about video games. There’s a lot here about the false and pointless comparisons between the benefits of reading books and playing video games, and the dismissive and/or patronizing attitude that so many people have about games, usually based on the most superficial of knowledge about the way people actually experience the games. He’s especially good, I believe, at showing how pointless it is to focus on the specific content of the games (dragons, princesses, drive-by shootings or whatever) and to judge them by standards developed for, and more appropriate to, literary works.

He reminds us of McLuhan’s observation that new media is always rejected as “pseudo” and inferior by those raised on the old media, who always tend to judge the new by comparison to the old, and not on its own terms. His focus, as the title implies, is on the intellectual challenge of playing today’s complex and difficult games, and the benefits of that kind of cognitive workout.

The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests A…

The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves — By Annie Murphy Paul

This is a fascinating, sometimes disturbing, look at the world of personality tests and how they are used. The author’s approach is generally historical and personal, and sometimes gossipy, showing how tests like the Rorschach inkblots, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Myers-Briggs, and other tests were developed, how they became popular, and why their accuracy and validity is open to question (to say the least.) This book is at least as interesting in terms of cultural history as it is in terms of public policy.

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