Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, August 2010

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

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

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",
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

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

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

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.