Reviews of books I've read in the past month ... 1. "Zeno's Conscience" aka "Confessions of Zeno" by Italo Svevo (Original Italian title: "La coscienza di Zeno") <http://www.amazon.com/Zenos-Conscience/dp/0375727760> Zeno Cosini is a wealthy man, living in Trieste in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, his wealth was inherited rather than earned. In his old age he wants to rid himself of his various neuroses, so he decides to go to a psychiatrist. The doctor suggests that Zeno writes his memoirs to help with his treatment, and Zeno obliges. The novel consists of key episodes in Zeno's life, as he sees them. Zeno is a bit of an anti-hero. He stumbles through life, with no real plans or ambitions. He abandons studying chemistry to study business, then promptly abandons that too. He's a born quitter, and proud of it. He has even quit smoking - not once but many times in fact. When his father dies, Zeno inherits the family business. But he lacks the necessary skill (or desire), so he leaves the day-to-day running of the business to his father's accountant. He is taken under the wing of a successful businessman, who has four daughters. Zeno is attracted to the eldest of the daughters (Ada), but, in an amusing tale of courtship gone horribly wrong, Zeno ends up marrying the wrong sister (Augusta). Later, he declares he has fallen in love with his wife, despite her "defect". He manages to find a mistress too, and while he does feel guilty at times for this, he manages to rationalise it. Zeno ends up forming a business partnership with his former rival for Ada's affections, Guido. Guido is a more flamboyant character, and Zeno is quick to point out his flaws. For example, when Guido also takes a mistress, Zeno privately condemns him for it. According to Zeno, when he was with his mistress, he was conscious of the fact that he was betraying Augusta, and it bothered him. In contrast, according to Zeno, Guido felt no guilt whatsoever about betraying Ada. So, Zeno thinks, his betrayal is somehow more noble (or at least, less dishonourable) than Guido's. The book opens with a note from Zeno's psychiatrist. According to the doctor, Zeno abruptly stops the treatment just as it gets interesting. Out of spite, the doctor says he has to published the memoirs. This short (fictional) preface gives a good sense of what to expect in the rest of the book. A reviewer on Amazon compares Zeno to a "turn-of-the-twentieth century" "proto-George Costanza" (from the TV show Seinfeld). I think he/she is onto something. In some ways the novel appears to be a book "about nothing". You like the characters despite their obvious defects. And you find yourself smiling or laughing at things you shouldn't be. A very enjoyable book. A note a the author. Svevo, like Zeno, lived in Trieste in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. He had a couple of books published by his late thirties, but they weren't great successes. Then, a decade later, he became a student of James Joyce, who was teaching English in Trieste. Joyce read Svevo's earlier novels and encouraged him to take up writing again. Eventually he did, and the result was "La coscienza di Zeno", which was published in 1923 and received critical acclaim. 2. "The Trial" by Franz Kafka <http://www.amazon.com/Trial-Franz-Kafka/dp/0805210407> Joseph K wakes up one morning to find he is under arrest. He is not told why he is under arrest, and during the trial itself the crime itself is never mentioned. But he is free to go about his life while his trial is in progress. As the trial proceeds, lots of strange things happen to Joseph K. The first session is held on a Sunday (so as to not interfere with his work) in an unmarked apartment building. The court proceedings are more like a circus. He later gets a big-shot lawyer to defend him, but he is concerned at the lack of progress. His best bet seems to get on good terms with the court painter, who also prepares portraits for the judges. The legal system described in the novel is extremely arbitrary. Guilt or innocence is not determined by the facts and presentation of the case, but rather by the amount of influence you can bring to bear on the court officials, either directly or through your lawyer. Three "positive" outcomes that an accused person can hope for are: definite acquittal (extremely difficult to achieve and thus very unlikely), ostensible acquittal (possible but the accused can be re-arrested and re-tried on the same charge at the whim of the court) or indefinite postponement (the final verdict is delayed but the accused remains on trial). There have been many interpretations of "The Trial". Is the novel a metaphor for the arbitrary nature of the world we live in? The bureau- cratic and corrupt legal system described in the novel represent all instruments of power, and the futility of trying to stand up to them. Is Kafka warning people to be vigilant against emerging totalitarianism (the book was published in the 1920s)? Or is K's "crime" a restatement of the concept of original sin, and the "trial" is actually a metaphor for life itself? All the trials and tribulations experienced culminate in an "execution". Maybe it's simply a horrible nightmare with no specific meaning intended? Whatever the interpretation, this is not an upbeat story. I recommend reading it when the sun is shining and birds are singing, otherwise it might depress you. It's not only the the subject that makes this a difficult book to read. The manuscript was incomplete when the author died. The edition I read included an appendix of deleted passages, referenced in the body of the text by numbered footnotes. There are also fragments of incomplete chapters. The suggested reading order for the chapters has been disputed by academics, and the edition includes an alternative running order for the chapters and fragments. 3. "Shakespeare: The World as Stage" by Bill Bryson <http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-World-Stage/dp/0060740221> Despite William Shakespeare's great success, not a lot about the man himself is known. Bill Bryson has put together a brief biography of the playwright, based on the little hard information available from public records and the history of the times he lived in. I'm not really into Shakespearean theatre, but I am interested in some of the themes and inspirations in his works. Unfortunately, this book didn't shed much light on the works themselves. The chapter on "The Plays" was too brief and general. The last chapter, on the speculation that Shakespeare's play were really written by someone else, was quite interesting, however. This book is probably only for fans or students. 4. "Are Your Lights On?: A treatise on the definition of diverse problems" by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg <http://www.amazon.com/Are-Your-Lights-On/dp/0932633161> This is a humorous book about how to approach problem-solving. It uses anecdotes and illustrations to help teach that, sometimes, part of the problem is finding the real cause rather than merely identifying the symptoms.