Monday, October 4, 2010

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, September 2010

Mini-reviews of books I read last month, including a double dose of
Murakami mayhem.

1. "A Wild Sheep Chase" by Haruki Murakami

The anonymous narrator works in advertising.  He's recently divorced,
but he's met a new girlfriend with three unusual jobs.  When the agency
publishes a pamphlet for an insurance company, an associate of a
notorious right wing politician pays him a visit.  The pamphlet contains
a harmless-looking photo of some sheep grazing on a remote mountainside.
The party heavy issues an ultimatum: find out where a photo was taken or
else he will ruin the narrator's business.  On closer inspection, one of
the sheep in the photo is very different from the others, having a star-
shaped birthmark.  Thus begins the "wild sheep chase" of the title.

The novel features many of the usual Murakami traits... for example,
outsiders in unusual situations.  This time though, there aren't many
musical references.  Some of the action verges on the surreal, with a
talking "sheep man" and people with supernatural powers.  Most of the
characters are referred to by nicknames or simple nouns: the Rat, the
Boss, the Sheep Professor, the girlfriend, J (the bar owner), the ex-
wife, etc.  This makes them feel more like caricatures rather than real
people - maybe that's the intent?

I have to admit this book didn't quite "work" for me like previous
Murakami novels I'd read.  Perhaps my expectations were too high?
Overall though, it was still an enjoyable read.

2. "Innocent House" by P. D. James

This story is actually part of a novel called "Original Sin".  There's a
suspicious death at the riverside offices of a publishing company.  A
recently-retrenched editor (apparently) chooses to kill herself in the
office of a colleague, leaving a plausible suicide note.  But other
deaths and mysterious events suggest something more sinister is at hand,
and pique the interest of poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh.

It's hard to properly review the book, since it is really an excerpt of
a larger work.  I read it to get a taste of the (famous) author's style.
It sets the scene well enough, and I was curious to see how things
panned out.  While I found it enjoyable enough, I'm not normally a fan
of crime novels.  I might get around to reading the full book if given
the chance and if I don't have anything else to read.

3. "Gli occhi dell'imperatore" ("The Eyes of the Emperor")
   by Laura Mancinelli

This historical novel is set in medieval times.  It is the story of
Bianca Lancia and her love for Frederick II of Swabia, son of Frederick
Barbarossa, and the Emperor referred to in the title.  Bianca was the
youngest daughter of a Piemontese Count, and destined for the nunnery.
One day, while riding in the woods near her family's castle, she meets
Frederick II.  She receives a falcon as a parting gift.  Every night
since that day, she would look out to the setting sun and remember his
eyes, in the belief that he likewise would return the gesture, and that
they would eventually be together again.

Many years pass, and when Frederick II's second wife dies, the now frail
emperor sends his most trusted knight, Tannhauser, to fetch Bianca. Much
of the territory between her home in northern Italy and Frederick's
castle in Puglia (the southern heal of Italy) is ruled by hostile
forces, so the entourage is forced to take a difficult route by sea and
over mountains.  Even within the borders of Frederick's dominion, they
still have to avoid capture by mercenaries and kidnappers.  The knight's
own interesting story is revealed during the journey.  When he finds
himself falling in love with Bianca, he ultimately chooses loyalty to
his emperor over his own happiness.

This was a short, interesting novel.  I appreciated how the story was
told in a simple style.  In fact, it reminded me a little of Baricco's
"Silk".  The author received the Rapallo Carige Prize for her book in

4. "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami

Many of the typical Murakami elements are present to some degree:
cooking, reading, cats, coming-of-age, music, isolation, wells.  But
this time there weren't any elements of the surreal.  In fact, the
style is more introspective than usual, dealing with dark topics as
the young people in the plot deal with growing up in the supposedly
liberating time of the late 1960s.

There are many music references, mostly the Beatles (as suggested by
the title) and some classical music.  The references to a couple of my
favourite novels ("The Catcher in the Rye" and "The Great Gatsby") also
struck a chord with me.  Being a coming-of-age story, it can get quite
racy at times.  Parts are also very gloomy, as some characters have to
deal with tragic events, such as terminally-ill parents, youth suicide
and mental illness.

While the novel may seem autobiographical in nature, the author denies
that his youth was anywhere near as eventful as what has been portrayed.
Nevertheless, being deeper and more personal in tone, I found this a
satisfying and interesting departure from the usual Murakami style.

5. "The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist"
   by Frederick P. Brooks

This is a collection of essays about the design process across various
disciplines, written by one of the pioneers of big-iron computers.  The
same author had earlier written a classic book on software engineering,
"The Mythical Man Month", and a key essay about there being "no silver
bullet" that can exponentially increase the productivity of programmers.

This new collection of essays also draw upon the author's experience in
house architecture, administration and book authoring.  In deriving
general principles about design, the essays are relevant to people
involved in any design activity.  Topics include: the nature of design,
design as a collaborative exercise, approaches to thinking about design,
and the assertion that formalised processes are no substitute for
individual talent.  Case studies are also provided.

The essays can get a bit technical, but are usually brief, to the point,
and full of interesting anecdotes.