Sunday, September 4, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, August 2011

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: three novels and one non-
fiction.  All quite solid, though nothing stands out as must-read.

1. "Suttree" by Cormac McCarthy

This rather epic novel is set in the 1950s, in and around Knoxville,
Tennessee.  The title character, Cornelius Suttree, has turned his back
on a life of privilege.  Instead he's chosen a hand-to-mouth existence
as a fisherman, living in a houseboat on the Tennessee River.  Suttree
spends his days with down-and-outs: drifters, petty thieves, prostitutes
and other fringe-dwellers.  This leads to colourful situations, but not
without risks.  For example, one night he goes out with friends, gets
drunk and falls asleep in the car.  Some of the group decide to do a
robbery, but they get caught and sent to the workhouse (a low security
prison where inmates do manual labour).

While this is a rather gritty, almost depressing novel, there are some
lighter moments.  One of the recurring characters, Gene Harrogate, is a
youth who gets himself arrested for performing indecent acts with water-
melons.  He gets sent to the workhouse, where he meets Suttree.  After
his release he hatches some harebrained schemes.  For example, when he
hears about a bounty for potentially rabid bats, he baits a colony of
bats hoping to claim a sizeable reward.  Another scheme involves
tunnelling through a series of caves under the city in the hope of
reaching the bank.

Comparisons with other novels are often made.  Descriptions of daily
struggles for the basics like food and shelter make it feel like a
Steinbeck Depression-era novel.  The depictions of characters and
capers along the Tennessee River are reminiscent of Twain's "Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn".  And the denseness of prose recalls Joyce's
"Ulysses" (a book I haven't dared tackle yet).  Some reviewers and
critics argue that this semi-autobiographical novel is McCarthy's best
work.  Unfortunately, I'm not inclined to agree.  While the language is
often poetic, the novel's length and looseness in structure make it a
bit heavy going.  Maybe I need more time for reflection?  For anyone
wanting to dip their toes into McCarthy's work, I'd recommend starting
with "The Road" and "No Country For Old Men".

2. "After Dark" by Haruki Murakami

This novel is set in the early hours of a single morning in downtown
Tokyo.  While most of the city sleeps, an interesting and diverse
collection of characters get involved in some drama.  Mari, a student,
is hanging out at an all-night restaurant to avoid going home.  She
feels guilt for not being very close to her older sister, Eri, who
sleeps for days at a time.  In fact, Eri sleeps so deeply that she's
dubbed "Sleeping Beauty".  Takahashi, a uni student and amateur
trombonist, is taking a break from late night band practice.  He
recognises Mari from high school when they hung out once.

Meanwhile, IT worker Shirokawa prefers to pull all-nighters at the
office rather than be at home with his wife and kids.  Sometimes he
takes time out, picks up a call girl and visits the Hotel Alphaville,
a "love hotel" managed by Kaoru, a retired female wrestler.  On the
night in question, Shirokawa beats up his "date", a young Chinese woman
and illegal immigrant.  Takahashi knows Kaoru, and often drops by the
Alphaville which is close to where his band practises.  Takahashi
happens to visit shortly after the Chinese girl is found unconscious.
He remembers that Mari speaks Chinese, so he returns to the restaurant
to ask her to help translate.

The story is broken up into short chapters which follow parallel story
lines.  The chapters describing Eri's sleep are a little surreal.  I
found the characters intriguing, but I felt something was missing.  The
coincidences made the plot appear a bit too contrived.  Perhaps it was
too short, not allowing the characters enough room to develop?  While
not my favourite Murakami novel, it's still worth reading.

3. "Un borghese piccolo piccolo" by Vincenzo Cerami

The title of this short novel literally translates as "a lower lower
middle-class man".  It's the story of Giovanni Vivaldi (no relation to
the Baroque composer).  Over the years he's managed to progress from a
peasant farmer in Abruzzi to a job as a government bureaucrat in Rome.
When the novel begins he's approaching retirement.  His only son, Mario
has just completed his Accounting degree.  He is eager to give his son's
career off to a good start.  One obstacle remains, namely the entrance
exam for the Ministry.  Giovanni is willing to go so far as join the
Masons if that can help his son.

Halfway through the novel something happens to dramatically upset
Giovanni's careful plans.  A rather bizarre chain of events follows,
both tragic and comic.  The novel was made into a film not long after
the book was published in the late 1970s.  The film stars Alberto Sordi,
and goes by the English title "A Very Little Man".

4. "Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions"
   by Guy Kawasaki

This book by 1980s Apple marketing evangelist Guy Kawasaki tries to
explain what it is about certain people and products that enchants us.
In some ways, it's an updated version of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win
Friends and Influence People", but goes beyond personal factors to
products and services.

It should be noted that the emphasis here is to enchant people, not
manipulate them.  A product or cause must be noble for enchantment to
be long-lasting.  It's possible to use the advice provided in the book
to sell questionable products, but customers aren't likely to be fooled
again.  The book covers a lot of ground in short order, with the main
points being: likability, trustworthiness and a valid cause.  It also
looks at how the latest communication technology can help enchant

Given the author's background, Apple is mentioned quite a bit throughout
the book.  Everyone who knows me knows I've been a Apple fan for years.
But that wasn't always the case.  Back in the 1980s I actually loathed
Apple, believing the company overcharged for inferior products.  All
that changed in the early 1990s when I used a Mac for more than a few
minutes.  There was such attention to detail that I'd never experienced
with any computer I'd used before.  Apple enchanted me then and
continues to enchant me.  Well, mostly.  Apple mice are a bit ordinary,
but everything else is great.  Meanwhile virtually every other
manufacturer has disappointed me or let me down, with a wide range of
products: e.g. VCRs, DVD players, printers, mobile phones and toasters.

The book is aimed mostly at entrepreneurs, but there's good advice for
employees too.  There's even a chapter on how to resist enchantment.