Monday, January 3, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, December 2010

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

1. "Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels" by Aldo Buzzi

This is a collection of essays by a former Italian architect turned
publisher.  The style reminded me a bit of Bill Bryson's: comprehensive
with a dry sense of humour.  The first essay, "Chekhov in Sondrio", can
be read as a crash-course in Russian culture and history.  It has lots
of useful background information, such as the 14 levels of the Russian
bureaucratic hierarchy, the many types of vodka and when to drink them,
food, architecture and history, all woven together using references from
Russian literature (the greats and the lesser-known).  The other essays
are similarly interesting, fun and informative.

2. "Something for the Weekend" by Jamie Oliver

This is a cut-down (Penguin 70s) version of a cookbook by that lad of an
English chef, Jamie Oliver.  If you're familiar with his TV shows and
books, you'll know what to expect, and as you read the recipes you will
probably hear his voice and see him goof around in your mind.  There's a
cross-section of dishes and drinks in this selection, including an
interesting twist on pancakes which I'll probably try soon.

3. "Maxims and Reflections" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe, born in 1749, was a pioneering German writer and polymath.  His
most famous work is "Faust", an epic poem.  This book collects many of
his thoughts and beliefs on many topics, including art, science, ethics,
religion and architecture.  Some are a little too specific and dated,
even arcane.  But many are still quite timely and relevant today.  I'll
probably write a post soon listing some of my favourites.  Here are a
couple of examples:
  476: "A great failing: to see yourself as more than you are and to
        value yourself at less than your true worth."
  1188: "He who has the understanding to declare his limitations is
         closest to perfection."

4. "More iPhone 3 Development: Tackling iPhone SDK 3"
    by David Mark and Jeff LaMarche

In my ongoing quest to become an independent software developer, I
worked through this book on iPhone software development (if you're not
into this sort of stuff, skip to the last book :).  It continues on from
"Beginning iPhone 3 Development" by the same authors.  This book covers
Core Data, web and network interaction, maps and accessing the iPod
music library.  As a training guide it wasn't as satisfying as its
predecessor, possibly from being a bit rushed?  The first seven chapters
are devoted to building a reasonable-sized application, and so you have
to make sure everything is working properly before you can move on.
Being able to download the source code helped, but the book probably
could be improved with smaller code-build cycles to provide more
feedback earlier.  On the plus side, the style is often witty, with some
interesting example projects and helpful advice.

5. "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

Many words have been written about this classic of Russian literature,
so I'll limit myself to a brief overview and offer some humble thoughts.

This is an absorbing tale of the lives and loves of some members of
Russian aristocracy in the 19th century.  The title character is married
to a prominent politician and statesmen, but she no longer loves him.
She's fallen for Count Vronsky, a young and promising military officer.
Meanwhile Kitty, another young member of the nobility, thinks she is in
love with Vronsky.  Alas, poor old Levin, a member of the landed gentry,
has fallen for Kitty.  The resolution of these love entanglements is
essentially the plot of the novel.  Anna struggles to divorce herself
from the proud and stubborn Karenin.  Levin revels in the country life,
but realises he will have to move to the city to win Kitty's hand.

But this is not just a tale about romance.  The author's views on
economics, politics, art, culture, lifestyle and spirituality are
embodied in the thoughts and actions of the characters, in particular
those of Levin (a derivative of Leo).  There's some deep stuff going on,
and you'll probably learn some interesting historical facts too.  My
only real criticism is that the story is mostly about the aristocracy.
This contrasts with Dostoyevsky's work, which usually deals with the
lower classes living in same era.  Overall, if you can find the time,
it's definitely worth the effort.