Monday, July 5, 2010

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, June 2010

It's been a while since I've posted book reviews.  Unfortunately, I
haven't found the time to write in-depth reviews worthy of the good
books I've been reading.  Maybe one day.  In the meantime, I'll have
to make do with brief summaries/impressions of books, starting with
those I've read in the past month.

1. "After the Quake" by Haruki Murakami

A collection of short stories by Japanese author Haruki Murakami.  The
six stories share the theme of how various people respond to the major
earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995.  There's a surreal element to some of
the stories, which is part of the author's style.

Back in March I read a full-length novel by Murakami, "The Wind-up Bird
Chronicle".  That was a very interesting and enjoyable read, and a novel
I'd like to write a proper review for.  Murakami creates intriguing
characters, and writes about aspects of Japanese society: alienation in
the modern era, honour and duty, and the influence of the West.  I look
forward to reading more of Murakami's work in the future.

2. "Lustrum" by Robert Harris

A dramatisation of the life of the great ancient Roman orator Cicero,
and sequel to "Imperium".  In particular, this book covers a five year
period (the literal "lustrum" of the title) starting with Cicero's year
as Roman Consul (equivalent to a co-President of the Republic).  As in
the first novel of the series, the reader learns a lot about government
and politics of the Roman Republic, before it became an empire.  The
novel shows Cicero often using pragmatism while wrestling his principles
during the corrupt and brutal times he lived in.  One could argue that
the modern era is just as corrupt, it's just that some of those wielding
power today resort to more subtle and sophisticated techniques.

My earlier review of "Imperium" can be found at:

3. "What the Dog Saw, and Other Adventures" by Malcolm Gladwell

A collection of articles written for The New Yorker magazine over the
past decade or so.  Like Gladwell's other books I've found some of the
topics more thought-provoking and well-argued than others.  Topics
covered include: what makes products or people successful, the problem
with information overload, why some people panic and others choke, the
importance (or otherwise) of talent, and the problems with traditional
job interviews.  A couple of articles stood out for me: why dogs behave
the way around certain people; and Gladwell's argument that, despite the
recent prominence of profiling in criminal cases, the practice is not
much better than the work of psychics.

There's also a chapter about Nassim Taleb's ideas about managing risk.
I've read and recommend both of Taleb's books, "Fooled By Randomness"
and "The Black Swan".

I've also read Gladwell's other books: "The Tipping Point", "Blink" and
"Outliers".  I wasn't that convinced with "Blink", but I found the core
arguments of the other two quite plausible.

My reviews of Gladwell's "Outliers" and Taleb's "Fooled By Randomness":

4. "Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour"
   by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman

This book looks at how humans can often make irrational decisions in
their everyday lives.  The authors cite many examples across various
situations and studies, and identify how and why we are "swayed" from
being logical or rational.  The authors argue that by better under-
standing these psychological factors, we can learn to avoid making
bad decisions.

The book covers some of the same turf as Dan Ariely's "Predictably
Irrational", which I've also reviewed and recommend:

5. "The Wonder of Whiffling: And other extraordinary words in the
    English language" by Adam Jacot de Boinod

By the author of "The Meaning of Tingo", this book focusses on obscure
and strange words in the English language.  For example, an "anecdotard"
is an old man given to telling stories.  Phrases are organised by topic,
and sometimes cite the era and source.  For example, P.G. Wodehouse came
up with "whiffled", meaning drunk, in a 1927 story.

There's a (small) section on workplace buzzwords, which probably
deserved greater coverage.  I guess that's one of the failings of this
book and the rest of the series: it can only scrape the surface and
sometimes leaves you wanting more.  Also, the lack of indexes and
pointers to other reference materials mean the books aren't as useful
as they could be for research purposes.

My review of "The Meaning of Tingo":
The author also compiled a follow-up to the original Tingo book,
"Toujours Tingo".

6. "The Twenty-three Days of the City of Alba: Stories" by Beppe Fenoglio

A collection of short stories by Italian author, Beppe Fenoglio.  Most
of the stories relate to the author's experience as a member of the
partisan anti-fascist resistance at the end of WW2.  Fenoglio does not
attempt to glorify the partisans, but rather to portray them as ordinary
people thrust into extraordinary situations by the war.

Earlier this year I read one of Fenoglio's novels, "A Private Affair".
It's about a partisan's quest, against the backdrop of a guerilla war,
to seek out an old friend so that he an ask him about a private matter.
Overall, I found the novel even more satisfying than the short stories,
and worthy of a review in its own right.

I was prompted to read Fenoglio's work after seeing a mention by my
favourite author, Italo Calvino.  According to Calvino, Fenoglio's
stories best capture the everyday lives, struggles and motivations of
the partisans.