Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, January 2013

Reviews of books read last month: three novels a non-fiction book.

After reading the books, some interesting connections emerged.  The
golden age of Venice (15th Century) connects the emergence of the
publishing industry in "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" with the
birth of book-keeping described in "Double Entry".  Mr Penumbra makes
this observation: "This city of ours (San Francisco)–it has taken me
too long to realize it, but we are the Venice of this world".  And
Murakami's "1Q84" is mentioned as one of the few recent titles sold
in "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore".

1. "1Q84" by Haruki Murakami

It's Tokyo, 1984.  Aomame is in a taxi on her way to an important
appointment.  The taxi is caught in a traffic jam on a highway, so
Aomame takes the driver's advice: she gets out of the car, climbs
down the nearby emergency escape, then takes the train to keep her
appointment.  We soon find out that she's an assassin.  The hit goes
according to plan, but afterwards she notices there are subtle
differences between the Japan she knew and the one she now finds
herself in.  The most striking is the appearance of a second,
smaller moon in the sky.  "Aomame decides to call this world 1Q84...
Q is for question mark. 'Like it or not, I'm here in the year 1Q84.
The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It's 1Q84 now. The air has
changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-
a-question-mark as soon as I can.'"

Meanwhile, Tengo is a would-be writer who pays the bills by working
as a maths teacher in a "cram" school.  One day, his editor offers
him an audacious proposal to rewrite a schoolgirl's patchy but
promising novel, then pretend that the rewritten manuscript was all
the girl's work.  Tengo reluctantly agrees, and the rewritten "Air
Chrysalis" becomes a best-seller.  Things start getting messy, though,
because the book reveals information about "The Little People" and
other details about the reclusive Sakigake cult.

As in most of Murakami's earlier novels, there are several other
complex and intriguing characters.  There's also the mysterious Leader
of the Sakigake cult, a wealthy old dowager who provides safe housing
for abuse victims, and Tamaru, her Korean-born butler/bodyguard.
Another key character is Ushikawa, a tenacious and odd-looking private
investigator, hired by the cult.

There are several literary references in the novel.  The quasi-police
state of Japan in 1Q84 obviously recalls Orwell's "1984".  Tengo
ponders: "Could I have somehow left the real world and entered the
world of 'Air Chrysalis' like Alice falling down the rabbit hole? Or
could the real world have been made over so as to match exactly the
story of 'Air Chrysalis'?"  The characters themselves read books or
novels, both real, such as "In Search of Lost Time" by Proust, and
fictional.  Aomame even thinks "... if that story is mine as well as
Tengo's, then I should be able to write the story line too. I should
be able to comment on what's there, maybe even rewrite part of it."
Music is another recurring feature of the author's work, and in this
novel Janáček's 'Sinfonietta' is a recurring work.

Originally written in three parts, this combined novel is a compelling
read.  At over 900 pages, I wouldn't recommend it as a reader's first
taste of Murakami.  Perhaps try "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" or "A
Wild Sheep Chase" before tackling "1Q84".

2. "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

This sci-fi novel is set in the future.  Andrew, nicknamed Ender, is
a "Third" (the third child under a two-child policy), and consequently
is bullied at school.  But the all-seeing powers-that-be sense he has
a unique combination of empathy and ruthlessness, so at the tender age
of six he is drafted into military school.  He's not the only kid there
- the orbiting Battle School is full of similarly-aged recruits,
pitting them in a zero-gravity war simulation in preparation for war
against the insect-like aliens (Formics, also called "buggers").

Ender quickly progresses through the ranks, and is soon sent to Command
School.  All the while, Commander Hyrum Graff is pulling the strings,
believing that Ender is destined to take up the crucial role of
Commander of Earth's fleet.  Given the high stakes, Graff is not afraid
to put Ender in extremely dangerous situations.  Ender knows that Graff
is both fast-tracking him as well as bending the rules to see if he can
cope: "They both laughed, and Ender had to remind himself that Graff
was only acting like a friend, that everything he did was a lie or a
cheat calculated to turn Ender into an efficient fighting machine".

Ender's older brother (Peter) and sister (Valentine) are also precocious
kids, and have their own parts to play in the story.  At one point,
where the two are discussing how to influence world politics, Valentine
says: "Peter, you're twelve".  Peter responds: "Not on the nets I'm not.
On the nets I can name myself anything I want, and so can you."

This award-winning novel does get violent at times.  Peter is clearly a
psychopath, and Ender has his own violent moments when he's backed into
a corner.  This is the first of a series of books, and it has been
adapted as a movie to be released this year.  While I enjoyed parts of
the book, such as the out-of-the-box battle tactics and strategies, I
don't like it enough to delve into the rest of the series.  Perhaps in
my high school and university days I would have been more keen.

3. "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

Clay Jannon is a graphic designer who has recently lost his job at a
failed startup.  He decides to apply as a clerk in a strange book
store run by a man called Mr Penumbra.  Not many current or popular
books are actually stocked and sold in this in San Francisco store.
In fact, most of the regular customers appear to come in to exchange
books in the special one-off collection, called the Waybacklist.  Clay
notices there's a distinct, repeated sequence to the books exchanged.
He suspects these customers belong to a secret society of readers, and
they are trying to decode a secret hidden in the Waybacklist books.

Clay wants to crack the code himself, and so he writes a program to
visualise the sequence of Waybacklist books based on their location
on the shelves.  Plotted in 3D, the sequence renders the bust of 15th
Century Venetian publishing pioneer Aldus Manutius.  Manutius turns
out to be the Founder of the secret society, called "Festina lente".
Identifying the face of the Founder is the first step in becoming a
"bound" member of the society.  Bound members have their own book,
called a codex vitae, added to Festina lente's main collection.  Clay
believes that the codex vitae of Manutius himself holds the key to the
ultimate secret.  He enlists the help of his artistic flatmate (Mat),
a wealthy entrepreneur and old school friend (Neel), and a prospective
girlfriend who happens to works at Google (Kat).  They soon discover
the location of the headquarters of Festina lente.  The plan is to get
into Festina lente's central library, make a copy of the Founder's
codex vitae, and use Google's computational power to crack the code
in the book.  Clay also discovers a connection between his favourite
book series, 'The Dragon-Song Chronicles', and Festina lente.

This was an enjoyable, fast-paced thriller.  It covers the techno-
logical history of publishing, from the birth of printed books and
typesetting, through to modern-day e-books and e-readers.  Other
geeky topics include old computers, databases, scanning, web sites,
3D modelling, data-processing and programming.  While an IT background
and knowledge of the history of printing aren't necessary, they do
help the reader get a better appreciation of what's happening, and
to better differentiate the real and fictional aspects of the story.

4. "Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world
    - and how their invention could make or break the planet"
   by Jane Gleeson-White

This book looks at the history of one of the under-appreciated
foundations of modern business, the double-entry accounting system.
Luca Pacioli is considered the "father" of the double-entry system.
He was a monk, mathematician, alchemist, and mentor of Leonardo da
Vinci.  He is credited with writing the first, definitive treatise on
the bookkeeping method, originally referred to as "the Venetian method",
and later as "the Italian method".

Double-entry bookkeeping, with it's internal checks and balance, still
underlies modern day bookkeeping.  Each financial transaction has two
(or more) effects on the fundamentals of a business (the assets,
liabilities and owner's equity), and these are reflected in the
accounts by balanced entries in the appropriate ledger accounts.  It
facilitates the measuring of profit over specific time periods, valuing
inventory, keeping track of debts and obligations, and calculating the
net worth of a business.  Originally designed to keep the accounts of
merchants' businesses from the 1300s, it has evolved as the nature of
business has expanded.  For example, during the industrial revolution,
double-entry was flexible enough to incorporate the apportioning the
costs of manufacturing large numbers of items.

However, this underlying flexibility and increasing complexity of
transactions can lead to different interpretations of the underlying
principles.  Infamously, in recent times, "creative" bookkeeping was
used to artificially inflate the value of companies such as Enron and
WorldCom.  Such scandals are not confined to the modern era.  In the
1800s, for example, dodgy accounting practices lead to various stock
price bubbles.  The formal profession of accounting emerged in the
United Kingdom in response to increased criticism of scandalous
accounting practices.  Governments have also responded by tightening
up and standardising the underlying accounting rules.  Keeping up with
the ever-increasing complexity of business transactions still remains
an issue for the profession and standard-setters.  It is the role of
independent auditors to check that financial statements have been
prepared in accordance with the standards.  But it is virtually
impossible to verify each and every transaction for large companies,
so typically smaller samples of transactions are actually audited.
Despite this limitation, there is still a public misconception that
auditors can "certify" a set of accounts.  Ultimately, auditors can
only give an opinion as to the truth of the accounts, but the so-
called "audit expectations gap" persists.

Even some of the economic assumptions underlying financial transactions
are open to debate, such as whether to include various intangibles such
as goodwill and risk, and how to value "externalities" such as drawing
down natural resources and pollution.  The author argues that these
challenges need to be addressed to better face future challenges, not
only to financial stability, but also to ecological sustainability.