Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, September 2011

Mini-reviews of books I read last month.  Only one novel, but it's a
classic.  The non-fiction books include a couple on writers and writing.

1. "Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert

This is justifiably regarded as a classic novel from the mid 19th
century.  Set in provincial France, the central character is Emma
Bovary, beautiful second wife of inept rural doctor, Charles Bovary.
Emma is actually the third "Madame Bovary" of the novel, the first
being her mother-in-law, and the second being her husband's short-
lived first wife.

The main plot takes place when Charles and Emma move to Yonville.
Charles had hoped the change of scenery would cure Emma's boredom.
But, even after the birth of their daughter, Emma remained disappointed
and disillusioned with her life.  She was lost in romantic delusion,
born from the novels of her youth.  She consoles herself with
extravagant purchases and ultimately adultery, in the vain hope of
obtaining fulfilment.

The scandalous subject of adultery made this a very controversial novel
in its day.  The nascent feminism and the debate between faith and
reason give the novel historical significance.  That said, it took a
while for me to get into it, and it didn't quite work for me.  Flaubert
was meticulous with his language, taking five years to write "Madame
Bovary", so something may have been lost through this ("new") English
translation.  It didn't help that I found it hard to relate to any of
the characters.  The author had a dim view of bourgeoisie, and this
shows in the way the characters are portrayed.

I couldn't help compare Emma's plight with that of the title character
in Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina".  These two tragic fictional women have
much in common, as well as some important differences.  I felt more
sympathetic to Anna than Emma.  The supporting characters in "Anna
Karenina" were also better defined, some having deeper philosophical
convictions.  These reasons may explain why I enjoyed "Anna Karenina"
more than "Madame Bovary".  Both are worth reading.

2. "On Writing" by Stephen King

King is a prolific author of popular suspense, horror and fantasy
novels.  The first section of the book is a brief memoir, covering
King's development as a writer from his childhood days to his early
breakthroughs.  His father left when he was two, so King and his older
brother were raised by his mother.  He had health problems when he was
young, but found he loved writing.  Years of constant practice, and
persistence in the face of rejection, finally brought success.

The second section of the book provides practical advice to aspiring
writers.  For example, the Great Commandment is to "read a lot, write
a lot".  There's also advice on drafts and revisions.  King reiterates
the difficult advice of "killing your darlings" to help pacing.  He
also suggests avoiding adverbs.  Throughout the book he reveals how he
comes up with some of the ideas for his stories.  Often it was a case
of bringing together two or more concepts to form an original scenario.

Since I don't usually read horror or fantasy, I haven't read any of
King's work.  However, over the years I've seen many films based on his
novels and short stories, including: "Carrie", "Christine", "Misery",
"The Shawshank Redemption", "The Shining" and "Stand By Me".  I might
check out some of his novels one day, such as "The Stand" .

3. "Just My Type" by Simon Garfield

This book provides an overview of printing and typography, from
Gutenberg to the computer age.  In covers basics like the difference
between "serif" and "sans serif".  It describes the origins of many of
the fonts in use today, including the ever-present Helvetica (and its
clones), the newsworthy Times New Roman, the cinematic Trajan, and the
gimmicky Comic Sans.

There are chapters on font design, legibility versus readability, and
even a countdown of the "worst fonts in the world".  Mini chapters
called "fontbreaks" focus on specific fonts, many of which you may see
regularly without knowing.  For example, Optima has become associated
with perfumes and cosmetics.

Warning: after reading this book, you might become type-obsessed, unable
to resist "fontspotting".  The book helps out there too, referencing a
web site and an iPhone app called "What The Font" that help identify
You can also check out YouTube for movies dedicated to fonts and
typography, as well as the trailer for a film about the most widely use
font, "Helvetica".

Having only a passing interest in typography, I intended to just flip
through this book.  But I found it so interesting and easy to read that
I ended up reading the whole thing.

4. "Hermit in Paris" by Italo Calvino

This is a posthumous collection of autobiographical pieces by my
favourite writer, Italo Calvino.  He was born in Cuba in 1923, to
Italian scientist parents.  The family moved back to San Remo, Italy
in 1925.  Calvino joined the Partisans and fought against the Fascists
in World War II.  Having a passion for literature, after the War he
started working at a publishing house in Turin and eventually became
a writer.  His principle mentor was Cesare Pavese.

An "American Diary" is the single biggest section, covering Calvino's
sponsored trip to the US in 1959/1960.  He was working for Einaudi
publishers at the time.  After a few weeks in New York, he visited
Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New Mexico, Texas,
Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia.  Some entries are interesting, and
show Calvino's gradual warming to the US.  The style of the entries
is quite frank, intended for his colleagues back in Italy rather than
for publication.  There are occasional interesting meditations and
observations, prefiguring those in "Palomar" and other novels, such
as one about the enormous tailfins of American cars of that era.

The title lead me to expect more details about the time Calvino spent
in Paris with his wife and daughter.  It was during his Paris years
that he wrote the novels I enjoyed most, but unfortunately the title
essay was too brief.  There was no discussion of the books written in
this period, and no mention of Oulipo (a loose gathering of experimental
writers).  Instead, the majority of the remaining pieces focus on his
political views.  Calvino was staunchly pro-Communism in his formative
years.  He gradually became disillusioned with Communism during the
1950s as he (along with many others) came to terms with the true nature
of Stalinism.

Overall, this is a rather patchy collection.  Fortunately, Calvino
wrote other autobiographical pieces, such as some memoirs collected in
"The Road to San Giovanni".  He also wrote about literature and writing
in "Six Memos for the Next Millennium", "The Uses of Literature" and
"Why Read the Classics?"

5. "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us"
   by Daniel H. Pink

The author argues that there's a gap between the science and practice
of motivation.  Businesses still seem to manage people based on outdated
"carrot and stick" techniques, suited to a time when work was boring and
repetitive.  Creative or knowledge work requires a new approach, one
that promotes autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Research has consistently
shown that old motivation techniques can actually do more harm when
applied to the wrong circumstances.  Quoting Edward Deci: "When money
is used as an external reward for some activity, the subject loses
intrinsic interest for the activity".

Throughout the book, the author cites numerous studies to support a
new approach.  For example, Deci and Ryan point out the importance of
autonomy in self-determination theory.  And the research of Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi shows how engagement and "flow" promote mastery.
Fortunately, there are some employers which have been paying attention
to the science.  For example, the book cites Google's "20% time" (an
idea borrowed from 3M's "15% time" in the 1950s) as a positive example
of modern motivation.  However, Google seems to remain influenced by
old ideas, as evidenced by tying annual bonuses to its "social"

For the time-challenged, Dan Pink has given a TED talk on motivation:
There's also a clever RSA Animated clip for "Drive":