Sunday, December 5, 2010

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, November 2010

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

1. "Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall" by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a collection of short stories by the Japanese-born and English-
raised author of "Remains of the Day".  As suggested by this book's
title and subtitle, each story is on the theme of music and evening.
Unfortunately most of the musicians portrayed are of the jazz-type,
rather than the classical I'd anticipated and usually associated with
"nocturnes".  Overall, I found the stories a little disappointing - I
couldn't get excited about fading, self-absorbed jazz musicians.  At
least one story was a bit memorable thanks to a bit of humour, with a
"Jazz Musician of the Year" trophy getting stuffed up a roast chicken
to avoid getting caught red-handed by security guards.

2. "Rework: Change The Way You Work Forever"
    by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

This is a sort-of "How To" guide on starting and running a business by
the founders and "rock stars" at 37signals (a web application company).
Essentially the authors debunk a lot of the received wisdom about
startups, e.g. don't prepare long term plans and you don't need venture
capital (in fact it's best to avoid it).  While some suggestions are
questionable, I did find some areas where I whole-heartedly agree, e.g.
focus on a few things and do them well, and meetings are wastes of time.
The book is an easy read, with short chapters that get to the point,
and plenty of pictures to reinforce the ideas.  Taken with a grain of
salt, there are some useful bits of advice here.  YMMV.

3. "At Home: A Short History of Private Life" by Bill Bryson

On the surface this book appears to be a history of household living,
with each chapter devoted to a single room in a house.  While the layout
of the book is indeed based on Bryson's current house, a converted
Victorian rectory in Norfolk, the author often goes off on tangents.
For example, in the kitchen chapter, after mentioning the ubiquity of
salt and pepper shakers, he goes on for several pages on the history of
various spices.  American-born Bryson got his start writing offbeat
travel-type books, but lately has been writing more about history and
popular sciences.  As a long-time Bryson fan I could forgive the many
long-winded digressions, but I was hoping he would stay on-topic a bit
more.  When he was, it is clear that household life before the modern
era was usually very tough for the average person.  We take a lot for
granted these days, travelling in air-conditioned vehicles between air-
conditioned homes and offices.  The history of the household can be
summarised as the steady improvement in comfort.  But perhaps we have
become too comfortable?

4. "Liars in Love" by Richard Yates

This is a collection of short stories by Richard Yates, who wrote
"Revolutionary Road".  I found that novel intriguing if not a little
disturbing, so was keen to read more works by the author.  In these
stories Yates again puts the post-WW2 "American Dream" under a critical
spotlight: frustrated ambitions, broken homes, superficial relationships.
The styles and themes of some of the stories reminded me of a couple of
my favourite American authors: J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Though arguably not quite at the same level of those two greats, overall
this is an interesting collection.

5. "Ten Thoughts About Time" by Bodil Jönsson

The subtitle of this collection of essays is "How to make more of the
time in your life".  While this may sound like one of those self-help
books on time-management, the author takes a more philosophical approach
to the thoroughly-modern problem of time "flying".  In one essay, she
writes that taking time out from our packed schedules and busy lifestyles
can be a useful way of controlling the pace of time.  In another chapter
she talks about "setup" time, in particular in the context of tackling
difficult and uninteresting tasks, which reminded me of "creative
procrastination".  The main criticism I have is that I found some parts
a bit rambling - perhaps this is a translation issue?  Apart from that I
found the author's personal thoughts on time quite interesting, and in
some cases resonated with my own.