Mini-reviews of books I read last month. If I spent more time, I could probably make the reviews shorter ;) 1. "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" by Haruki Murakami <http://www.amazon.com/Hard-Boiled-Wonderland-End-World/dp/0679743464> Another month, another Murakami. The structure of this book tells two stories in alternating chapters. The first story, "Hard-Boiled Wonder- land", is set in the mid 1980s. The narrator is a Calcutec working for "the System", which is engaged in an information war with the Semiotecs of "the Factory". He's part of a secret program where people's brains were altered so their subconscious can be used to encrypt information. While this sounds like a cyberpunk thriller, the hi-tech references are a convenience to set the scene. In fact, as the story unfolds there are more references to popular and rock music and cooking than to computers and technology. The other story, "The End of the World", is very different in style and setting. The narrator of this story is trapped in a strange place called the Town. A condition of entry was that he be physically separated from his shadow. He is given the role of Dreamreader, and he spends his days in the Library reading dreams encoded in the skulls of the Beasts. Occasionally he's allowed to meet with his shadow, who is quietly plotting their freedom. These two different story lines are related somehow, but I won't say much more to prevent spoilers. Overall, this is another refreshingly different, entertaining and insightful novel by Murakami. Be warned: I'll be reading more Murakami in the months ahead. 2. "Point Omega" by Don DeLillo <http://www.amazon.com/Point-Omega/dp/1439169950> This novella is set in modern-day America. Jim Finley is a filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about Richard Elster, a retired academic and military advisor, and his role in an ongoing war. They discuss the documentary at Elster's ranch in the California desert. The grandiose scenery gives a philosophical air to their conversations, emphasising timelessness and insignificance in the big scheme of things. Then, out of the blue, the story takes a different tack when Elster's daughter (who had been taking timeout from a relationship at the ranch) goes missing. This forces Elster to snap out of his reflective, ponderous state and become the concerned father. The unresolved ending of the main story left me a bit unsettled, but maybe that's the point? Maybe I need more time to think about it, especially given how the story is book-ended by descriptions of two visits to an art installation, "24 Hour Psycho", <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/24_Hour_Psycho> where Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller "Psycho" is played silently in slow motion at two frames per second. The viewer is forced to concentrate for longer to follow what's happening, often revealing things that would normally slip one's notice at normal speed. 3. "Silk" ("Seta") by Alessandro Baricco <http://www.amazon.com/Silk/dp/0307277976> This short novel tells a simple story with an economy of words. It's set in the mid-19th century. Herve is a silk merchant who travels each year from his home in France to a secret and hostile region in Japan to buy silkworm eggs. While there he becomes enchanted by the mistress of the local chief. In addition to the sparsity, there are a few brief passages where whole sentences are repeated, such as the description of Herve's trek across continents. Each major point on the annual journey is mentioned, with slight differences (for example with how a particular lake is called by the locals). These journeys could've been described in greater detail, easily filling the book out to several hundred pages, but that would detract from the main story. In "Silk", only the final journey home is described in a little more detail, since events made it necessary to take a very different route. I'd previously read the English translation of this novella. After reading and enjoying Baricco's other books, I wanted to re-read it, this time in the original Italian, to see if it still stands up. It definitely does! There was a mediocre movie made based on this book, starring some skinny actress. But trust me, the book is way better. 4. "Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming" by Peter Seibel <http://www.amazon.com/Coders-at-Work/dp/1430219483> This is a collection of edited interviews with pioneering computer programmers. It provides interesting insights into how different people write the software that underly the systems in use today. Topics generally covered in each interview include: how they got started with computers, how they tackle solving problems, finding and fixing bugs, testing and reading code, plus more philosophical issues, such as: is programming science, engineering, art, craft, or some combination? Definitely worth reading if you work in IT, or are looking to. I'd also suggest it is mandatory reading for people working in jobs that deal with programmers (e.g. recruiting agencies), so they can get a better understanding of what makes programmers tick. 5. "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh <http://www.amazon.com/Brideshead-Revisited/dp/0316042994> This nostalgic novel is set during the years leading up to World War II. The story starts when Captain Charles Ryder is helping set up an army camp at Brideshead, an estate he visited often. This triggers him to reminisce... In those days he was student turned socialite painter. He met Sebastian Flyte, a minor member of the British aristocracy, while studying at Oxford. He becomes close to the whole Flyte family, who unusually for English aristocracy are very Catholic. In the first half we see Sebastian waste his life away drinking to excess. Everyone tries unsuccessfully to help him. The tangled romantic lives of the Flytes are a chief focus of the second half of the book. Overall, I found this book a bit disappointing. I was intrigued by the subtitle, "The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder", but the book itself failed to live up to my expectations. The writing style was a bit too purple for my taste. Many of the characters are dealing with the consequences of their Faith or lack of it, but I found their journeys a bit unremarkable. The book reminded me of another novel set in the same era, "The Razor's Edge" by W. Somerset Maugham, where the central character is seeking spiritual meaning. While the writing in that book was also a bit ponderous, I did find it more interesting. I couldn't really relate to any of the characters in "Brideshead Revisited", and I failed to get interested in the inevitable decline of the English aristocracy. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's "The Leopard", was much more interesting in its portrayal of the decline of the Italian aristocracy in the mid-19th century. One of the Flyte in- laws is involved in politics, so there is a bit of discussion about the uncertainty in Europe at the time. But the novel lacked the critique present in George Orwell's novels.