Review: How the Internet Happened by Brian McCullough

Title: How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone
Author: Brian McCullough
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: In How the Internet Happened, Brian McCullough chronicles the birth of the internet era for the first time, beginning in a dusty Illinois basement in the early nineties and ending with the introduction of the iPhone fifteen years later. Depicting the lives of now-famous innovators like Netscape’s Marc Andreessen and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, McCullough reveals surprising quirks and unknown tales as he tracks both the technology and the culture around it. Cinematic in detail and unprecedented in scope, the result explores how the internet fostered disruption and innovation and helps redefine an era that changed every part of our lives.


In How the Internet Happened, author Brian McCullough covers “the Internet Era, that period of time from roughly 1993 through 2008 when computers and technology itself stopped being esoteric and started becoming vital and indispensable.” In choosing a very specific social moment (the Internet, capital I) and then narrowing it down even further (via a 15-year period), McCullough is able to craft a solidly-written micro-history which hasn’t yet been explored quite so succinctly. Each chapter is devoted to only a few years at a time, and McCullough further focuses and explains history through case-studies of well-known companies. (I’m sure you could just read select chapters, but the book is fun in its entirety.)

My favorite parts were those that focused on events of which I had no active memories; although I was alive in 1993 and got my first email in 1997/8, I don’t really remember anything pre-2000. Like, my family used AOL, but I had no idea that around 1995, ten dollars a month netted users only five hours of dial-up. Like, how do I even convert that into 2019 usage?? I probably spend five hours online a day. Also, learning that Netscape “pioneered…informal work culture” maybe only because its employees were men in their mid-twenties was fascinating. Like, do we as a culture associate a frat-house mentality with Silicon Valley start-ups because of Netscape or did HBO’s Silicon Valley take its aesthetic from Facebook… which took its own aesthetic from Netscape… whose employees were literally 23-year-old “post-college bros”?? McCullough’s chatty, accessible narration really only annoyed me in the book’s later chapters, possibly because I remembered exactly what he was writing about and thus didn’t need him to cover such minute details anymore. His use of “whore” as a verb was questionable, though. (As in “Today—however uneasily—it seems we’ve accepted the notion that “free” web services make their money by whoring out our personal information to marketers and advertisers.”) Like, dude, were their zero other options for the sentiment you wanted to convey??

Overall, though, How the Internet Happened was a veritable time machine back to my youth. It was my childhood, stationed in front of a tan HP desktop with a floppy disc drive and external speakers that attached to the side of the monitor (!!!), logging onto AOL and hoping nobody picked up the phone by accident. It was my lonely adolescence, holed up in my bedroom on DeadJournal and DiaryLand and LiveJournal writing god-knows-what into the ether. It was seeing people in my high school walking through the halls in-between classes listening to music on their iPod Photo and wanting one. It was being most excited for my college to hurry-up-already and send me my email credentials so that I could finally sign-up for Facebook after everyone in my high school had already done so.

It was the realization that I am who I am because of the internet, but that the internet is what it is because of users like me.

Further reading: McCullough references a lot of sources in his notes, but the Internet History Podcast and The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson sounded the most promising. (Also, Halt and Catch Fire because of feels.)

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Title: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Rating: ★★★
Summary: Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as ‘Human Computers’, calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts, these ‘coloured computers’ used pencil and paper to write the equations that would launch rockets and astronauts into space. Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of mankind’s greatest adventure with the intimate stories of five courageous women whose work forever changed the world.


Published only months prior to its theatrical film release, Hidden Figures is pretty much what its subtitle implies: a heretofore unexplored look at the numerous black female mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA during the Space Race and beyond. I may have been spoiled from watching the movie first, but the book ends up falling flat, stretched too thin in Margot Lee Shetterly’s attempt to reference twenty years worth of history in under 300 pages. The film has a much better structure, so just knowing that a coherent story featuring three protagonists who only briefly intersect is possible makes Lee Shetterly’s narrative jumbled in comparison. There’s simply too much information and too many players at work to try and remember all of it. (And Lee Shetterly does try to reference all of it.)

I may also be judging Hidden Figures too critically. For example, Lee Shetterly writes in the the book’s epilogue:

That even Katherine Johnson’s remarkable achievements can’t quite match some of the myths that have grown up around her is a sign of the strength of the vacuum caused by the long absence of African Americans from mainstream history. For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.

Maybe this book doesn’t live up to my expectations, though, because there has been nothing like it. Could Lee Shetterly have expanded her narrative in some places rather than in others? Yes—but in providing a macro focus, she allows her protagonists to become more multi-faceted; they weren’t just but also. I mean, there were numerous threads Lee Shetterly could have tugged on to satisfy my desire for a more nuanced social critique as it related to gender roles and skin color. She also could have whittled down her protagonists to the three highlighted in the film, or maybe even two or just one. (But, then again, would I have even read that book? Picked up a biography of a women I didn’t recognize?)

Part of the problem I had with Hidden Figures is that there was too much information—but this isn’t a problem Lee Shetterly should have to fix alone. The mere existence of the book is a testament to the fact that different stories need to be told by diverse authors. A different author’s take on Lee Shetterly’s subject would have been a different reading experience, but it probably wouldn’t have had the same pathos or narrative urgency. In her hands, this story becomes her story, and in telling her story, she makes us care about something no one seemed to care about before.

So here’s to more of those stories. Thanks, Margot, for being the First. (Hopefully you won’t stay the Only.)

Review: Fear by Bob Woodward

Title: Fear: Trump in the White House
Author: Bob Woodward
Rating: ★★★
Summary: Bob Woodward reveals in unprecedented detail the harrowing life inside President Donald Trump’s White House and precisely how he makes decisions on major foreign and domestic policies. Woodward draws from hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand sources, meeting notes, personal diaries, files, and documents. The focus is on the explosive debates and the decision-making in the Oval Office, the Situation Room, Air Force One, and the White House residence. Fear is the most intimate portrait of a sitting president ever published during the president’s first years in office.


Bob Woodward’s latest is an exhaustive behind-the-scenes account of the current White House from about July 2016 to March 2018, and he does not pull punches. All aspects of Trump are covered (for good or ill), and most of the book reads like the transcript of Woodward following these people around for hundreds of hours. The prologue asserts that “the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader… It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world. What follows is that story.” And, yes, the next 300 or so pages basically is that story, although with less flair than I was expecting.

think I wanted Woodward’s journalistic analysis of what went on during the first year of Trump’s presidency instead of just ‘this happened and then this happened and while all of that was happening this also happened.’ Simply listing things point by point did prove some of my assumptions correct, though, so even if it was nice to know for sure what’s been happening behind closed doors, it was also, like, so worrying, too. (E.g.: “I want to apologize to you for a very fucked-up Republican majority. Congress is going to fuck up your presidency. We have no idea what we’re doing.” Or even, “Trump had no understanding of how government functioned.” Great! So awesome!!)

I haven’t read All the President’s Men, but I’ve heard such good things that I went into Fear hoping for another Watergate 2.0. But maybe this book is just too soon. The Watergate break-in is a single narrative with a set group of people over a defined period of time, and All the President’s Men was written after it had already ended. Can anyone accurately comment on something in the middle of it happening? Are we simply asking too much if we can’t even agree on which story to cover? I mean, keeping up with the news can often feel overwhelming, but I feel like I have to do it because so much happens all the time. Fear did help fill in some gaps I had, but it also (literally) put me to sleep.

Should you read it? I don’t know. Maybe. It took a lot of brain power to get through and stopped commenting on events after March of this year – and so much has happened in just eight months! –  but Woodward is such a good journalist that Fear read like a really great exposé, albeit one whose relevance or longevity has yet to be determined.

Monthly Wrap-Up: September/October 2018

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What did you read??

Review: Call Them by Their True Names by Rebecca Solnit

Title: Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Rating: ★★★½
Summary: In this powerful and wide-ranging collection of essays, Solnit turns her attention to battles over meaning, place, language, and belonging at the heart of the defining crises of our time. She explores the way emotions shape political life, electoral politics, police shootings and gentrification, the life of an extraordinary man on death row, the pipeline protest at Standing Rock, and the existential threat posed by climate change. To get to the root of these American crises, she counters the despair of our age with a dose of solidarity, creativity, and hope.


I always go into Rebecca Solnit essays expecting so much, mostly because it takes all of my brain power to focus on both the subject of her words and the particular way she writes them. In the foreword to her newest collection, Solnit writes that “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, [and] obliviousness.” Naming something means acknowledgment, and acknowledgment inspires action. This theme runs through each essay, and Solnit encourages us to explore with her. How do our reactions to events help define both them and ourselves? In what ways can we make connections between experiences and history?

Although Solnit included essays written years ago, they still feel pertinent, book-ended by injustices that happened only months prior. And I think that’s why I enjoy her writing so much: she’s able to react to something in the moment as well as from a historical perspective. She’s published collections consistently every few years, and her commentary always brings a breath of fresh air to what otherwise is a shitty situation.

(Solnit is a regular contributor to Lit Hub should you desire more of her writing.)

Review: Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

Title: Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession
Author: Alice Bolin
Rating: ★★
Summary: In this poignant collection, Alice Bolin examines the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead or alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories — investigating the implications of our cultural fixations and her own role as a consumer and creator. Reminiscent of the piercing insight of Rebecca Solnit and the critical skill of Hilton Als, Bolin constructs a sharp, incisive, and revelatory dialogue on the portrayal of women in media and their roles in our culture.


To me, the subtitle of Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession advertises itself as a cohesive essay collection emphasizing both dead girls and the men and women who obsess over them. But this kind of reflection only happens in the prologue and first section. Otherwise, the book focuses mainly on Bolin’s first few years in Los Angeles – the public transportation she takes to her job, the various (and often nightmarish) roommates she meets while subletting, her first real relationship with a man she later dumps – while peppering in numerous reflections on Joan Didion and her father’s own obsession with Swedish procedurals.

Which I suppose is all fine and good – except, this is not what I wanted out of an essay collected entitled Dead Girls.

I wanted a book-length exploration of the Dead Girl Trope, not Bolin’s singular cultural awakening to her own obsession. The summary even states that the book “begins by exploring the trope of dead women in fiction and ends by interrogating…the persistent injustices [living women] suffer.” But only a couple of essays “explore the trope of dead women in fiction” while none even touch on the Dead Girl Trope in real life. (Because here’s a handful of women off the top of my head that weren’t mentioned once: Kitty Genovese, Natalie Holloway, Jon-Benet Ramsey, Nicole Brown Simpson.) Then the whole middle is a forgettable ride through LA before Bolin and her summary cross paths again, and she “ends” on the “persistent injustices” advertised. (I mean… a book explicitly about dead girls needs more dead girls, right?)

And it’s not that Bolin doesn’t touch on Dead Girls elsewhere; she’s actually written some really great pieces about the trope, listed on her website, as well as a piece for Vulture regarding the ethical dilemma true crime fans (should) face as they consume their obsession. She even mentions this absence in the final essay of Dead Girls, writing, “That day was when I slowly began to realize that my book was maybe not about the noir but about those forces of which the noir was a symptom.”

Cool?

I enjoyed Bolin’s writing, but her essay collection ultimately failed in its intended purpose. If only the rest of the book had lived up to this one particular quote from the prologue: “Violent men’s grievances are born out of a conviction of their personal righteousness and innocence: they are never the instigators; they are only righting what has been done to them.” That is what I’d hoped for; instead, I read about a twenty-something moving to LA and “finding herself.”

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Title: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
Author: Michelle McNamara
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area. Three decades later, true crime journalist Michelle McNamara was determined to find the violent psychopath by poring over police reports, interviewing victims, and embedding herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth.


I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is one of only a handful of true-crime books to pop into the public consciousness*: perhaps because its author, Michelle McNamara, passed away while writing it, but also because a task force arrested their Golden State Killer suspect in April 2018 and now, four months later, he still seems like The One. The book is, on one hand, a straight-forward work of true crime, detailing the then-distinct crime sprees of the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, and, on the other, McNamara’s five-year journey to uncover the man she renames the Golden State Killer.

Although McNamara’s skill at writing shines through her facts thoroughly researched, her transitions and anecdotes and compassion there among the heinous crimes referenced throughout I found myself reading in fits and starts. The book engrossing one afternoon and then forgotten for the next several. Only on the third week of reading did I settle on some kind of answer: once I finished I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, my journey with Michelle would be over. Realizing in hindsight how close she came to answers, noticing how similar her methods of discovery were to what actually happened… the expectation of failure was almost worse than the actual crimes.

Knowing that Michelle would ultimately fail, that she would get so close and still come up short… that’s what hit me most after reading. Not the ten plus people the Golden State Killer murdered. Not the fifty-plus rapes or sexual assaults he perpetrated. Not the almost forty years of silence. It’s the irony of the thing; that McNamara almost became a victim of the Golden State Killer herself.

Note: McNamara’s website, True Crime Diary, is still available for perusal, as is her article for Los Angeles Magazine, “In the Footsteps of a Killer.” The New York Times also wrote an op-ed prior to the book’s release that’s worth a read.

* Others include The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson), Helter Skelter (Vincent Buglilosi),  In Cold Blood (Truman Capote), Killers of the Flower Moon (David Grann), and The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule.