Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, March 2012

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: another mix of fiction and
non-fiction.  The pick is probably the so-called "weird" fiction novel,
"The City & the City" by English author, China Miéville.

1. "The Elephant Vanishes" by Haruki Murakami

This is a collection of seventeen short stories by Japanese author,
Haruki Murakami.  My favourite short stories were: "TV People", about
mysterious little people who install TV sets while nobody is supposed
to be looking; "The Dancing Dwarf", where a man who works in an elephant
factory allows a dwarf to possess him so he can dance with a pretty
woman; and the title story, which describes the impossible case of a
vanishing elephant.

Many of the other stories also have a surreal take or some other twist.
In "The Kangaroo Communique", a man working in a customer services
department responds to a complaint via an audio recording after seeing
kangaroos at the zoo.  In another, a man's request for an authentic
lederhosen prompted his wife to leave him when she saw another man
wearing them. And an otherwise sensible man gets his kicks by burning
abandoned barns in the middle of nowhere.  Another story is essentially
the opening of what would become a novel, "The Wind-up Bird Chronicles",
which I enjoyed.

Overall, a fairly diverse mix.  Most work quite well, but I didn't
enjoy them all as much as I'd hoped.  Perhaps I prefer reading
Murakami's novels, where he really lets his story ideas rip.

2. "The Year 3000: A Dream" by Paolo Mantegazza

This brief, futuristic novel was published in 1897.  The author was a
leading Italian anthropologist, and the novel depicts a rather utopian
vision: the world has been united, with a single language, women have
attained relative equality, science has continued advancing, and illness
has been eliminated.

A young couple is travelling from Rome to Andropolis, the capital of
the United Planetary States, to celebrate their "mating union".  They
spend an interesting stopover in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) which comprises
many city-states having governments of all types, ranging from the
tyrannical to the egalitarian.  When they reach Andropolis, they visit
the Government Palace, divided into the wings: Land, Health, School,
Commerce and Industry.  Each of these is described, along with the
nature of religion and culture in the year 3000.  Arguably it foretells
the Great War in Europe, and the subsequent trend to unification of the
European states.  Air travel and euthanasia are also foreshadowed.

This was an interesting view of the future.  The author's utopian tone
is probably reflective of the optimism of the late 1800s, and contrasts
with the preference for dystopian novels in the 20th Century.

3. "The City & the City" by China Miéville

This is a bizarre tale of two cities.  To the outside observer, Besźel
and Ul Qoma share exactly the same geographic location on the edge of
Eastern Europe.  But culturally and politically the two city-states are
very different, and both governments want it to remain that way.  Some
regions are solely Besźel or Ul Qoma, but there exist so-called cross-
hatched streets and other areas that technically belong to both,
depending on who is observing.  By consensus, citizens of one city are
not allowed to see those of the other.  It also their responsibility to
"unsee" buildings, cars and any other objects from the other city.
There are no physical barriers between the cities, but rather there's
a virtual border.  Enforcing this political and social separation is a
powerful and secretive organisation known as "Breach".

The narrator and chief protagonist is Tyador Borlú, an inspector with
the Besź Extreme Crime Squad.  A young woman, a PhD student from Canada,
is found murdered in the back streets of Besź.  She's officially a
resident of Ul Qoma, so this appears to be a cross-border violation
case for Breach.  But surveillance footage materialises, showing the
van her body was found in had passed through the only official crossing
point between the two cities.  This means no breach had occurred,
leaving it to the Besź police to find the killer.  After investigating
locally, Borlú goes through an indoctrination program before he can
visit Ul Qoma to continue the investigation.  It appears the woman had
strong and dangerous ideas regarding the origin of the two cities.  She
also believed in the existence of Orciny, a third city between Besźel
and Ul Qoma.  Add ultra-nationalists from both cities, unificationists,
foreign interests, and the spectre of Breach to the mix, the plot soon
develops into an intriguing web of conspiracy theories and subterfuge.

Described as "weird" fiction, it was joint winner of the 2010 Hugo
Award for best sci-fi novel.  The dual nature of the cities takes a
while to understand and accept, but it makes for an interesting take
on the standard murder mystery.  An enjoyable read.

4. "Quiet Your Mind" by John Selby

This is a book that tries to help the reader relax.  It's subtitle
is "how to calm upsetting thoughts and regain harmony".  It describes
the inner workings of the brain, from the primitive "lizard" brain to
the higher cognitive functions and beyond.  The explanations range from
the scientific to the metaphysical.  Depending on your views, some
sections may need to be taken with a grain of salt.  But the core of
the book makes some solid arguments that our thinking can get us into
trouble.  Judging, worrying, stress in the home and at work, poor diet,
drugs and the lack of exercise can impair our reasoning.  Insomnia,
anxiety, depression and other problems can develop.  By understanding
better how we think, and through the use of meditation, we can
overcome such problems.

Overall, an interesting look into the workings of the mind.  In
particular, I found the meditation techniques quite effective.  They
have helped me cope with tinnitus and to sleep better.

5. "Metaprogramming Ruby" by Paolo Perrotta

I read this book in my ongoing quest to become a better Ruby programmer.
It covers some of the same ground as "Eloquent Ruby", which I reviewed
last month.  As the title suggests, the emphasis is on metaprogramming:
writing code that writes and modifies itself dynamically.  This ability
helps make Ruby more expressive and flexible than other languages
(e.g. Java).

The book is divided into two major parts.  Part I is structured as a
week-long induction where you, as the new hire, are paired with an
experienced Ruby coder.  Together you look at the basic Ruby constructs:
objects, methods, blocks and classes.  Then it describes metaprogramming
in more detail.  Part II delves into the source of a prominent exponent
of metaprogramming in Ruby, the Rails web framework.  In particular, it
describes how the ActiveRecord class tracks attributes, does validation,
manages relationships and persists data.  Programmers new to Rails often
describe these features as "magical".  But in reality, Rails has well
executed examples of metaprogramming.

Appendices complete the book: common idioms, domain-specific languages,
and a summary of the magical metaprogramming "spells" covered throughout
the book.  Overall, an entertaining and thorough description of what
makes Ruby so powerful, expressive and fun.