Photo of Jesmyn Ward at Politics and Prose, Washington D.C.
Review by Paula Farmer
JESMYN WARD PENS A NEW CLASSIC
Just a few paragraphs in to Jesmyn Ward’s novel “Sing Unburied, Sing,” and it’s easy to understand why it was the winner of this year’s National Book Award. It is a beautiful and haunting story that takes the reader from the home of a small non-traditional family in Mississippi, to a road trip and back. Although it is a contemporary story, it has the feel of something taking place in the deep South of the 60s or 70s. Maybe it is the absence of middle-class angst, chatter and technology that transcends time. Or it could be attributed to the fact that the featured family is from a poor rural area of costal Mississippi. Characters are not downloading apps or talking on their smart phones. The pacing is slower, thoughtful, but by no means lacking movement or intrigue. Ward’s distinct style is intimate, raw and literary. Whatever it is, it works, and then some. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” has the makings of a modern classic in the vein of “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
This is Ward’s first novel since her other National Book Award winning novel “Salvage the Bones.” For “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” readers are taken on journey of hope and struggle that is both epic and personal as seen from the point of view of several key characters, both alive and dead. 12-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla are the offspring of a bi-racial couple, their mother, Leonie, who is Black, and their father, Michael, is white. They live with their maternal grandparents (Pop and Mam) and their young, drug-addicted mother while their father is serving time in a predominantly Black prison several hundred miles away. Leonie is not only tormented by her emotional and drug addition demons, she is also haunted and comforted by visions of her dead brother. Although she does not have a maternalistic bone in her body, she decides to include her children on a road trip to pick up their father who’s been recently released. The trip is fraught with danger and personal growth. They eventually return home having to confront the reality of their new family dynamics, life and death. Not only does Leonie’s ghost reappear, but Jojo begins to have vision of Richie, a ghost of his own.
Last night, Richie crawled under the house and sang. I listened to it rise up through the floor, and I couldn’t sleep. Pop turned his backc to us as he slept and coughed, over and over again. Kayla woke to whimpering every half hour, and I shushed her over the sound of the singing. We all slept late, but Pop has risen by the time I get up from the sofa. Kayla throws her arm over where I slept, and I pull the sheet over her. It’s almost noon when I walk out to the yard, to see the boy crouched in the tree outside Mam’s window. Somewhere out in the back, I hear Pop’s axe swish and thud.
Ward’s themes of family, racism, addiction and incarceration are woven together seamlessly and beautifully. It all results in an emotional knock out of a new American classic.
Review by Paula Farmer
If you think Silicon Valley and the tech industry as we know it today was started and made up only by the likes of Steve Wozniak in a garage, or Mark Zuckerberg deciding if coeds were hot or not, think again. Leslie Berlin’s book “Troublemakers,” who’s title comes from a famous Steve Job’s quote, is about a phenomenon that took place in a once obscure area between Redwood City and San Jose, California. A community now known as Silicon Valley. It used to be quiet, agricultural and sparsely populated, but between 1969 and the early 80s it burst into a tech mainstay, filling up with freeways, houses and people. “Troublemakers,” chronicles that period when “pioneers of the semiconductor industry passed the baton to younger up and comers developing innovations that would one day occupy the center of our lives. These years marked Silicon Valley’s coming of age.” It’s hard to believe, but in 1969 not only did the name Silicon Valley not exist, but the tech boom and mindset was unheard of. It would be two years before the region, known then for its fruit orchards and bucolic setting, gained its moniker.
The book begins with the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and concludes in 1983 just as the world, not only companies and governments, starts to feel the impact of the tech innovators and their inventions. Berlin conveys this critical period of the Valley in transition through the stories of several key real life characters. People like Fawn Alverez who started picking plums when she was 12-years-old, but as a young teen got her foot in the door on the manufacturing side of ROLM. She worked her way up the ladder, saw many changes in the industry, and by the mid-to-late 80s when ROLM was bought by IBM, she was functioning as Chief of Staff. Prior to Bob Swanson’s success as a prominent venture capitalist who cofounded Genentech, he was struggling and homeless. Bob Taylor, a prominent character throughout the book, started in D.C. working for the government at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), but ended up across the country as a catalyst in tech as described in the book.
Taylor felt that as long as he was working for ARPA, he was supporting what was happening in Vietnam... At about the same time, Dave Evans, a principal investigator who had established the University of Utah’s graphics center, offered Tayor a job coordinating a number of computing research projects from around the university. The job did not fire Taylor’s imagination, but it was in his general field of interest, offered by a friend, and located well outside of the Pentagon... The West itself was also a big draw. Bob Taylor headed west.
From there, Taylor would go on to make technology history as lovingly outlined by Berlin for Wired Magazine earlier this year upon his death.
In 1972, Taylor midwifed the birth of the modern personal computer at Xerox PARC.
But just as important as these innovations: Taylor built one of the greatest teams in the history of high-technology and kept it together for years. Heroic lone-wolf entrepreneurs may be the preferred heroes of narratives spun by the media, but history has shown us that teams—and the networks that come from them—are the true engines behind innovation in Silicon Valley and far beyond. No one understood this better than Bob Taylor.
Profiles such as these in “Troublemakers” interestingly convey an intimate portrayal of those little known movers in shakers. Berlin, herself supplies alarming statistics about the people in the tech industry, the industry itself, and the place they call home. In the early 70s, you could buy a simple house in Silicon Valley for $60,000. That same home is at least worth 2 million dollars! Furthermore, she gives historical reference and context to tremendous contribution immigrants have on the industry, who by the way, make up 70 per cent of the industry. It is an industry that is clearly built on a constant refresh from around the world. Although this is a book rich in history about a specific industry, you don’t have to work in that field or even have an interest in it, to appreciate what Berlin has accomplished in “Troublemakers.”
It’s an exciting, intriguing read that shines a light on all those birthplace of gadgets we store our lives in; those things, seen and not seen, that are such a pervasive part of our world. There was probably no one better suited to tell this story than Leslie Berlin. Among many other things, she is a project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. She has been a Prototype columnist for the New York Times and a member of the advisory committee to the Lemelson Center for the study of invention and innovation at the Smithsonian. For better or worse, Silicon Valley, in one form or another, is here to stay. Before we decide its near future fate based on recent criticisms such as Russian voter interference, we can journey through it’s past, thanks to Leslie Berlin.
Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.Steve Jobs