Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, June 2011

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: a couple of novels, including
probably the most violent book I've ever read, plus two non-fiction
books.  All worth reading, though "Blood Meridian" may not be to
everyone's taste.  Regarding "Simplicity": the process of writing
reviews is an attempt to try to describe the books and express my
thoughts as clearly and concisely as possible.  Unfortunately, I
rarely muster the necessary skill and time to achieve those goals.

1. "Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West"
   by Cormac McCarthy

This novel is set in the mid-1800s in south-western US and Mexico.  It
starts with the story of the Kid, a teenage boy who has run away from
his home in Tennessee.  In Texas he witnesses a preacher get slandered
and slaughtered by a mob.  Later he gets into a bar fight.  He joins an
"irregular" army, which goes to Mexico only to be routed by Comanches.
This last event is described almost completely in a single page-long
sentence.  The Kid survives but finds himself in a Mexican jail.  There
he is recruited into "Captain" Glanton's gang, hired by the local
authorities to collect the scalps of Apaches who have been raiding
Mexican towns.

Included in this ragtag bunch is the tall, hairless, almost superhuman
"Judge" Holden.  Lawyer, self-proclaimed "scientist" and philosopher,
the Judge talks eloquently to the men about nature, destiny, morality
and war.  He says: "War is the ultimate game because war is at last a
forcing of the unity of existence. War is god".  Later he adds: "Moral
law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the
powerful in favor of the weak".  The men may start out in awe of the
Judge, but eventually they become wary of him.

This is an extremely violent novel.  The brutality of the outlaws is in
stark contrast to the breathtaking beauty of the natural surroundings
which bear witness to their acts of horror.  Disturbingly, the story is
based on historical accounts of the real Glanton gang, which rampaged
through Texas, Mexico, Arizona and California.

Despite the violence, I found it a compelling story rich with imagery.
McCarthy's writing is distinctive and poetic.  While reading I was
reminded of characters in his other novels.  The lawless Glanton Gang
reminded me of the outlaws in "The Road".  The Kid reminded me of the
tragic young runaway in "All The Pretty Horses".  And the ruthlessness
of the Judge reminded me of the uncompromising Anton Chigurh in "No
Country For Old Men".

2. "The Laws of Simplicity" by John Maeda

This book describes ten laws of simplicity for business, technology, and
design.  There are also three keys to achieving simplicity in the
technology domain.  The laws include: reduce, organise, time, learn, and
context.  These are summarised by the tenth law, "The One: Simplicity is
about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful".  The book's
website provides an overview of the laws:

This slim book includes many relevant examples, such as the evolution of
the iPod scroll wheel and buttons and Google's search UI.  But, as some
reviewers have pointed out, the author suffers from a failure to follow
his own advice.  The author admits he trimmed down the number of laws
down to ten, but even then there are still too many to remember easily.
Also, the use of cute acronyms for steps or techniques actually
complicates things: SHE -> "Simplify, Hide, Embody" (Reduce); and SLIP
-> Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritize (Organise).  These acronyms don't
always appear to be related to the law.  That said, the book has some
good, albeit obvious, advice.

3. "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" by Oliver Sacks

This is an eye-opening book, written by noted neurologist Oliver Sacks.
Drawing from many cases over his career, he describes his patients'
struggles with various neurological disorders.  While the cases are
generally tragic, there are moments where some patients are able to
transcend their condition and express themselves artistically or
otherwise.  The cases also help readers get a better understanding of
what's happening to sufferers of various conditions, such as amnesia,
Parkinson's and Tourette's.

Sacks references some of his predecessors, such as colleague and mentor,
Russian neuropsychologist and developmental psychologist Alexander
Luria.  He's written other books related to his work, including
Musicophilia which I read and reviewed in 2009.

4. "Dance Dance Dance" by Haruki Murakami

This is the followup to "A Wild Sheep Chase".  Set four years later,
the narrator still hasn't come to terms with the disappearance of his
girlfriend, Kiki.  He confesses: "I've lost and I'm lost and I'm

He suddenly feels the urge to return to the Dolphin Hotel on Hokkaido,
where he last saw Kiki at the start of his "wild sheep chase".  When he
arrives he discovers the quaint old hotel has been replaced by the
imposing Hotel Dauphin, headquarters of a global chain of luxury hotels.
There he meets two people who will have a big impact on him.  First, he
meets Yumiyoshi, a receptionist at the hotel.  He falls in love with
her, but fears she too will eventually "disappear".  She tells him about
the time she inadvertently discovered a secret floor in the hotel.

He also meets Yuki, a young girl who's been abandoned by her absent-
minded mother and international photographer.  She just took off on
assignment in Kathmandu, leaving her daughter alone at the hotel.  Since
the narrator is about to return to Tokyo, Yumiyoshi asks if he can take
Yuki back home with him.  He finds out Yuki's parents are divorced, so
rather than leave Yuki alone he takes her to her father's home.  Her
father happens to be a writer of bland best-sellers, named Hiraku
Makimura (an anagram of Haruki Murakami in case you missed it).

This novel features elements of the supernatural.  Yuki has some latent
psychic abilities, and the narrator "sees dead people".  The Sheep Man
returns in a few scenes, being a bit like a spiritual totem for the
narrator.  In one of their "encounters", the Sheep Man says: "No
promises you're gonna be happy... So you gotta dance.  Dance so it all
keeps spinning".

As expected, there are other familiar Murakami references, such as music
(classical and classic rock, with the Eighties rock and pop preferred by
the teenager) and cooking.  It also shares several themes, such as loss.
Overall, I found the characters and themes were more satisfying than
those in "A Wild Sheep Chase".