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 <http://www.amazon.com/Super-Sad-True-Love-Story/dp/0812977866> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Lo-stralisco/dp/8879268678> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Sunset-Limited/dp/0307278360> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Poor-People/dp/1843910233> 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 money. 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 <http://www.amazon.com/South-Border-West-Sun/dp/0679767398> 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 Murakami. 6. "Being Geek: The Software Developer's Career Handbook" by Michael Lopp <http://www.amazon.com/Being-Geek/dp/0596155409> 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: http://randsinrepose.com/ . 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.