Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, February 2011

Mini-reviews of books I read last month.  The highlight was definitely
"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.

1. "Zero History" by William Gibson

This book completes what has become known as the "Bigend" trilogy.
Hollis Henry, formerly of art band "The Curfew", has been lured by
marketing big-gun Hubertus Bigend to find out who's behind the exclusive
underground "Gabriel Hounds" fashion label.  Other characters from
previous books in the trilogy, such as translator/codebreaker Milgrim,
also feature.  Eventually the plot develops from a simple search for a
denim designer into a battle for the very existence of Bigend's Blue Ant
agency.  The hostage swap climax at the end of the novel arguably makes
good action movie material, but comes across as contrived and

Gibson's recent trend of brand name-dropping continues in this novel.
This time everyone's using iPhones and MacBook Airs, posting to Twitter.
Very current, at least for 2010, but even an Apple fanboy like myself
found this irritating.  Why would a so-called "visionary" author date
his work so readily?  Maybe he should ditch his MacBook and go back to
using a typewriter, thus forcing him to think in more abstract terms
again?  Or maybe he's tired of the cyberpunk label, and wants to be
recognised for writing "serious" literature?  The problem is, his recent
work fails to satisfy me on any level.  I think this book confirms that
I no longer consider myself a William Gibson fan.

2. "The Snow Goose" by Paul Gallico

This short story is about the unusual friendship between a reclusive
hunchback, a young girl and a snow goose.  The girl found the wounded
bird, and took it to the man who has a reputation for healing injured
birds.  The snow goose recovers and soon flies off to join its fellow
migrating snow geese.  But the bird never forgets what the man did for
him, and often returns to the lighthouse where the man lives.  Later,
when the man volunteers to help evacuate stranded soldiers on the
beaches of Dunkirk, the snow goose flies with him, acting as a lookout.
Possibly a bit sentimental, but still a good fable about friendship and

The edition I read included a second short story: "The Small Miracle".
Set in post-WW2 Assisi, it's a story about a young orphan.  He wants
to take his sick donkey to the crypt of Saint Francis and ask for a
miracle to cure her.  But before that can happen the boy has to deal
with the Church hierarchy to get approval.  In a way the boy's situation
parallels Saint Francis' own struggles with authority.  Another simple
but uplifting story, about faith and perseverance.

3. "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

"Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what
had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the
world."  These lines are from the opening paragraph of "The Road", a
story about an unnamed young boy and his father struggling to survive a
nuclear winter.  The world has become a bleak, unforgiving place, and
the lack of food has turned some survivors into lawless savages who do
terrible things.

The pair are travelling along a road in search of somewhere warmer.
Flashbacks are used to fill in some of the back-story.  Nothing is said
about what caused the end of civilisation as we know it.  The focus is
not on the global event, but rather on the personal story of the man and
his son.  The precariousness of their situation is clear: "Borrowed time
and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it."

The author received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007 for this novel.
It's not hard to see why.  While some may find the storyline depressing
and often disturbing, it is told in an engaging way.  The words are
well-crafted, and the themes about human strengths and weaknesses
(mostly the latter) are so compelling that you want to read on.  The man
knows he will die eventually and worries how his son will cope without
him.  They are "good guys", carrying "the fire" (or flame of humanity).
Ironically, in protecting his son, the man sometimes does questionable
things.  The boy seems to realise this, and starts asking things like:
"We'll always be the good guys, right?" There may be hope, after all.

The book was made into a movie, and is well worth a look if you don't
have much time to read.  The movie is faithful to the original story,
with solid performances and a great soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren
Ellis.  I found it helpful watching the movie a couple of weeks after
finishing the book.  I'll probably read more work by Cormac McCarthy in
the coming months.

4. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Six Other Stories"
   by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is collection of seven short stories by Fitzgerald, a preeminent
writer of the Jazz Age (between the World Wars).  "The Great Gatsby" is
one of my favourite novels.  The title story was recently made into a
movie.  I haven't seen it, and apparently there are major differences.

A varied collection of stories.  The twist in "Head an Shoulders" is
amusing, and the title story touches on some interesting themes about
age-related prejudices.  Other stories are cautionary tales.  Overall,
an entertaining mix, although not always politically-correct.

5. "Inviting Silence: Universal Principles of Meditation"
   by Gunilla Norris

This book provides simple advice on how people can use mediation to help
cope with the challenges of everyday life.  The need to be constantly
entertained and stimulated seems to make us afraid to embrace silence.
However, silence and meditation are useful.  The use of meditation is
common to various faiths, but this book doesn't focus on meditation
just as a religious aid.  It's a more general-purpose technique that can
help anybody deal with an otherwise busy lifestyle.

I found this book by chance while looking for something to read on a bus
trip home.  By coincidence, I had recently decided to cut down my TV
viewing (I still regularly watch a handful of programs, but usually
time-shifted).  This book reinforced what I'd experienced: quiet time
free of distractions not only helps me clear my mind and focus, but also
makes me feel less stressed and rushed.  As they say, it's the pause
that refreshes.

6. "From Memex to Hypertext" edited by James M. Nyce and Paul Kahn

This books collects essays written or inspired by Vannevar Bush, a
pioneer of the modern "information revolution".  Bush developed early
electromechanical computers, starting in the 1930s.  Later he started
thinking about the nature of education and scientific research, and
devised ways to help extend human ability using technology.  Key essays
"As We May Think" and "Memex 2", written for mainstream press, described
a literal desktop machine (i.e. the whole machine was built in the form
of a desk).  He called it the Memex, or memory extender.  The goal was
to provide a complete library in miniature, with tools to bring together
existing content and create new content, linked together in "trails".
Such machines, he argued, would help us learn as well as promote the
development of new ideas.

While the vision proved prescient, the technology described by Bush was
biased by his work with electromechanical or analog computers.  Instead,
interconnected digital computers would eventually deliver much of the

The book also contains essays that expand or restate Bush's vision, for
example "Program on Human Effectiveness" by Doug Engelbart and "As We
Will Think" by Ted Nelson.  Consequently, this book brings together the
foundation works on hypertext, a key component of the World Wide Web.
Well worth a read for anyone interested in the Web and technology in