Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, May 2011

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: five novels and one non-
fiction.  By coincidence, some of the novels have lead male characters
in middle age, possibly having a crisis.  Some feature only children,
who read.  Hmmm.  My highlight would probably be "The Sunset Limited".

1. "Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart

This novel is set in the near-future, when America's foreign debt
reaches a critical level and social networks dominate the thoughts of
post Generation Xers.  It's written from the points of view of the two
lead characters.  Lenny Abramov is an overweight, forty-something
salesman of "Indefinite Life Extension" to "High Net Worth Individuals"
(HMWIs).  The only son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he's the self-
appointed "last reader on Earth".  Entries in his diary form the bulk of
the novel.  The object of his affection is Eunice Park, a twenty-
something daughter of Korean immigrants.  Her texts and emails accompany
(and reality-check) Lenny's lovestruck narrative.

The first few pages were promising.  Lenny starts his diary off by
declaring "I am never going to die".  Recent advances in pharmaceuticals
mean people can extend their lives indefinitely, as long as they have
enough money.  He challenges the idea that "life is a journey", and
critiques Whitney Houston's song "Children are the Future".  Having
decided to live forever, he states he wants to spend it with Eunice.
But first he has to win her love.

The first two thirds of the novel describe the sad state of the world:
the decline of culture, shallow social interactions, and rampant
consumerism.  We also learn more about the characters, their friends and
family.  The early promise of something fresh starts fading.  When the
inevitable economic/political crisis hits, the story seems to fall
apart.  Lenny's self-obsession becomes unbearable, although Eunice
partially redeems her shallowness and immaturity somewhat.

Ultimately, the novel failed to live up to the hype.  Hailed by some as
a modern reinvention of Orwell's "1984", I found it more in the vein of
Ben Elton's dystopian novels: entertaining with some clever satire, but
not a classic.  Lenny's mentions of works by Chekhov and Kundera were
not enough to make up for the overall disappointment.

2. "Lo stralisco" by Roberto Piumini

The story is set a few hundred years ago in Turkey.  Sakumat is a
painter with a reputation for depicting vivid scenes in an otherwise
dull part of the world.  His fame spreads, and one day the lord of a
nearby region requests an audience.  Sakumat travels with an envoy to
Ganuan's palace.

The lord's young son, Madurer, suffers from a rare condition which
confine him to the palace.  Ganuan wants Sakumat to paint the interior
of the palace so that Madurer can at least see pictures of things beyond
the palace.  Sakumat accepts, and he and Madurer spend many days
talking, designing and painting the walls.  Eventually, every available
bit of space is covered with colourful scenes inspired by books,
memories, or simply from their imagination.

This is a short novel, mainly aimed at young readers.  The story is
rather simple, but engaging and powerful nonetheless.  Unfortunately, it
hasn't been translated into English.  The title, "lo stralisco", refers
to a type of plant that glows in the night.

3. "The Sunset Limited" by Cormac McCarthy

This novel is set in a room in a tenement in New York.  There are only
two characters in one extended scene.  "Black" is an ex-convict who has
found faith.  "White" is an atheist professor.  More than simply
referring to skin colour, the choice of names reflects the opposing
extremes of their views on life.  Black has just rescued White who had
jumped into the path of the Sunset Limited train.  Black takes White to
his room and they engage in an intense debate about life, faith,
intellectualism and meaningfulness.  Black tries to convince White that
life is worth living.  White remains adamant that life has no meaning,
and is determined to end his.

The story has been staged as a play, and was recently made into a movie
starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones.

Given the subject matter, the dialogue gets very deep at times.  But
it's not a long novel, and the earnestness of the characters keeps the
story moving.  Definitely a thought-provoking book.

4. "Poor People" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This short novel is set in St Petersburg in the mid 19th century.  It's
written as a series of letters between the two main characters.  Makar
is a middle-aged bachelor working as a lowly copyist in the civil
service.  Varenka is a sickly, unfortunate young woman, struggling to
make ends meet.  After Varenka is cast aside by a suitor, Makar resolves
to restore her honour by marrying her.  They start writing letters to
each other, and he sends her money to help her get by.  But as his own
situation worsens, he begins to lose hope and turns to drink.  In one
letter Makar writes: "Poor people are capricious - that's the way nature
arranges it".  Things get so bad that she ends up having to send him

This was Dostoyevsky's first novel.  Written from the points of view of
everyday "poor folk", it became quite popular in its day.  There are
references to earlier great Russian writers as well as lesser
contemporaries.  In fact, Makar shares the same job as Gogol's antihero
in "The Overcoat".  Dostoyevsky takes a more sympathetic stance to his
character's plight.  It offers a taste of the themes that would be
examined in more detail in his later masterpieces.

5. "South of the Border, West of the Sun" by Haruki Murakami

The narrator, Hajime, is in his thirties and is having a midlife crisis.
He's married to the daughter of a wealthy businessman, has two young
daughters, and runs some popular nightclubs.  But he's haunted by the
memories of girlfriends past.

His first childhood girlfriend, Shimamoto, was an only child like he
was.  She had a lame leg.  They both felt like outcasts and quickly
formed a friendship in school.  However, they lost touch when he changed
schools.  His next girlfriend is Izumi.  They're together through high
school, but he cheats on her.  They break up by the time he leaves for
university.  A series of meaningless relationships follows, continuing
when he starts a boring job.  He feels that he keeps making the same
mistake, hurting other people, and in doing so hurting himself.

Eventually he meets his wife.  With the support of his wealthy father-
in-law, he takes a risk and opens a jazz club.  The club becomes a big
success.  His life seems to finally be on track.  But then he starts
thinking about his first loves.

This early Murakami novel shares much of the intimate, introspective
feel of "Norwegian Wood".  But there are some surreal touches: Shimamoto
usually appears on the scene when it happens to be raining heavily.  As
in the rest of his work, music features heavily:  The title references a
jazz hit, jazz bands perform at Hajime's clubs, and classical pieces are
mentioned.  Overall, another enjoyable and thought-provoking work by

6. "Being Geek: The Software Developer's Career Handbook"
   by Michael Lopp

The book's subtitle sums it up quite well.  The author has worked for
some of Silicon Valley's leading companies (Apple, Netscape, Borland)
over the past twenty years.  Using the pseudonym Rands, he has a popular
blog, "Rands in Repose", covering software development and management: .

The book has a good mix of anecdotes and solid advice.  Topics include:
how to prepare for interviews; how to deal with difficult managers,
coworkers and subordinates; and when to start looking for your next gig.
For "normal" readers, the book includes a handy chapter that describes
how to understand the geeks in their lives.