Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, July 2010

Mini-reviews of books I read last month...

1. "Zodiac" by Neal Stephenson

This novel is described as an eco-triller: think Rainbow Warrior meets
Bourne Identity.  Written by renowned cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson,
perhaps it should be classed as enviropunk?  Our hero, Sangamon Taylor
(S.T.), is a rogue chemist who works for environmental activists who
expose pollution and other dirty deeds of big corporations.  He think
he's found evidence of organochlorines dumped into the Boston harbour.
Although they've been at the bottom of the harbour for years, the drums
have only recently started leaking.  The company knew this would happen,
and was secretly taking steps to clean up the mess before being found
out.  An experimental program was started to genetically engineer super-
bugs to consume the dioxins and convert them to safer compounds.
Unfortunately, things don't go quite to plan, and it all starts getting

A pacy and enjoyable page-turner.  Like later, more well-known books by
the author, there's exposition of some technical topics, in this case
organic chemistry.  However, as a novel I don't think it stands up as
well as against "Cryptonomicon", which is probably my favourite
Stephenson novel.   Later stuff hasn't been as consistent, and tend to
be overlong, like his most recent novel, "Anathem".  In that novel, I
was intrigued by the set-up of another world and different way of life,
but once the story moved to the real "action", I found it became tedious
and lacked believability.  I might re-read the two classic cyberpunk
novels which initially got me hooked on the author: "Snow Crash" and
"The Diamond Age".  It will be interesting to see if they still stand
up, or if they simply captured the spirit of the age.

2. "Scale" by Will Self

This is a little collection of loosely-connected short stories.  The
common theme, or perhaps more precisely, the common word, is "scale".
In the title story the narrator is a man who confesses to having lost
his sense of "scale".  Other stories mention the word in different
senses, such as the scales of a frill-necked lizard, bathroom scales,
and the ever-present issue of crusty scales on the inside a kettle.

I found the stories slightly off-beat.  I might check out a more
complete set of the author's short stories.

3. "Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

Another solid, imaginative novel by one of my current favourite authors,
Haruki Murakami.  There are two parallel story lines, which are resolved
by the end of the novel.  One plot line follows the coming of age of a
young Japanese boy, while the other follows an old man's final adventure.
The boy, adopts the name "Kafka" and runs away from home.  His mission is
to become "the world's toughest fifteen-year-old."  Nakata, the old man,
was involved in a mysterious incident during World War II, when he
suddenly lost consciousness along with his classmates while out on an
excursion.  Unlike the others though, he lapsed into a coma and awoke to
having lost the ability to read and write.  However, he seems to have
picked up the ability to talk to cats, which allowed him to earn some
extra money as a finder of lost cats.

Like Murakami's other novels, music plays a part in the lives of the
protagonists.  For example, a character is introduced to Beethoven early
in the story and becomes obsessed with the man and his music.  The guy
is fascinated by one piece in particular, the 40+ minute epic "Archduke"
trio.  Other typical Murakami touches are present, such as supernatural
abilities and otherwise ordinary-looking people inwardly living
unconventional lives.

4. "The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol" by Nikolai Gogol

This is a collection of short stories by early-19th Century Russian
author, Nikolai Gogol.  His writing is considered a pre-cursor to the
works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka.

The early stories are set in rural Ukraine, and many of the characters
were superstitious people who fear witches and devils.  While these
stories paint an interesting picture of life on the Russian frontier,
they didn't really grab me.

The later stories were set in the then Russian capital of St Petersburg,
and I enjoyed these more.  A famous example is "The Nose", about a man
whose nose decides to take off one morning and live a life of its own.
Along with "The Overcoat", in which a character has a mean existence
while dealing futilely with bureaucrats, is a fore-runner of some of
Kafka's famous work almost a century later.  Soon I hope to read Gogol's
classic novel, "Dead Souls".

5. "Il tempo invecchia in fretta: Nove storie" by Antonio Tabucchi

This is an intriguing collection of nine stories by Antonio Tabucchi,
(who wrote "Pereira Sustains").  This collection's title roughly
translates as "Time Ages Hastily", and the stories share the theme of
the passing of time and how people struggle to deal with it.  The
central characters in each of the stories has gone though difficult
times, such as living in a police state, surviving a concentration camp,
or restoring peace after war in the Balkans.

One of my favourites was about a man recovering from his war-time
injuries on a beach by the Adriatic Sea.  He has regular conversations
with a young girl who is also holidaying there with her parents.  She's
a bit of a naive idealist, while he cautions against ideals and what
they can lead to.  Things lighten up when the man reveals he's studying
cloud formations, and he teaches her how to predict the future from the