Mini-reviews of books I read last month. The highlight was definitely "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. 1. "Zero History" by William Gibson <http://www.amazon.com/Zero-History/dp/0399156828> 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 unbelievable. 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Snow-Goose/dp/0394445937> 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 courage. 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Road/dp/0307476316> "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 <http://www.amazon.com/Curious-Benjamin-Stories/dp/0143105493> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Inviting-Silence/dp/0974240508> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Memex-Hypertext/dp/0125232705> 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 vision. 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 general.