Sunday, January 5, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, December 2013

Reviews of books read last month: two novellas, a novel, and two
non-fiction books.

1. "Indian Nocturne" by Antonio Tabucchi

The narrator is an Italian nicknamed Roux (short for "rouxinol",
Portuguese for nightingale). His friend, Xavier, went missing in
India. Roux, determined to find out what happened to Xavier, travels
across India, retracing his friend's steps. He starts in Bombay
(Mumbai) on the west coast, crosses the country to Madras (Chennai)
on the east coast, then ends up back on the west coast in Goa. He
encounters a wide spectrum of Indians and their culture: poverty and
luxury, rural and metropolitan settings, and diverse religious
beliefs. He travels by taxi, boat, train and bus, meeting some
interesting locals and foreigners along the way.

A contemplative novella, which incorporates philosophy and literary

2. "Annabel Scheme" by Robin Sloan

This book is set in the near future in San Francisco. Annabel Scheme
is a private investigator, specialising in cyber and occult cases
(usually simultaneously). Search giant Grail (loosely modelled on the
advertising company we know as Google) has its HQ, called the Shard,
in a trendy part of town. The brief use of a network of quantum
computers generated a "quantum cloud" around the Shard, and the area
became known as Fog City. Strange things happened there: for example,
people could randomly pop in and out of existence. Annabel, with the
help of her virtual assistant Hu, start off investigating why a long-
dead singer's voice can be heard on what appear to be brand new
recordings. This case is solved quickly, but more weirdness lies
ahead when the Falafel King is murdered, then appears to live on in a
multiplayer online game set in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.

Lots of other interesting ideas are presented in this novella,
including augmented reality, a website called (think
eBay, except for selling organs to demons in return for favours), and
the ghost of a man, electrocuted in 1879, who lives in the the city's
electrical grid.

3. "Three Men in a Boat" by Jerome K. Jerome

Written in 1889, this novel is about of a group of hypochondriacs
who decide to go on a two-week boat ride and camping trip along the
Thames. The narrator's mischievous fox terrier, Montmorency (Monty)
goes with them on their comical adventure. But first they need to
agree what supplies to take with them, which leads to amusing
arguments. The book is part travelogue through historic Thames
sites, including the alleged site of the signing of the Magna Carta,
and various inns that Elizabeth I and other historical figures
apparently visited. When they eventually get on the boat, they get
themselves into some funny situations, compounded by their rather
delicate natures. Many digressions describe other events in their
past, and provide further insight into the lives of the three men
(and the dog).

I guess the style of humour is not everyone's cup of tea. But at
least it's a relatively short novel, and it does include some
interesting historical and cultural tidbits.

4. "Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception"
   by Claudia Hammond

This book looks at the psychology, neurology and physiology of time
perception. It includes results of scientific studies and anecdotes
from people who's perception of time have been altered, including a
journalist kept hostage for four months, a base-jumper who experienced
a life-threatening situation, and a man who voluntarily spent two
months in a dark ice cave. Factors affecting our perception of the
passing of time include: fear, depression, fever and boredom.
Different people have different internal concepts of time and how they
move through it. The book also considers why a watched kettle appears
to never boil, and why time seems to speed up when you get older. The
author proposes the "holiday paradox": time flies when your having an
enjoyable holiday, but novel experiences create memories that make the
holiday seem longer in retrospect.

A deeper review of the book:
The author's RSA talk:

5. "Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes" by Maria Konnikova

This book shows how the adventures of the fictional detective
Sherlock Homes can help us become clearer thinkers. The author
argues that Holmes' metaphor of the "brain attic" is borne out by
modern research in psychology and neuroscience. The book covers the
brain's two modes of thinking, System 1 and System 2, relabelling
them as System Watson and System Holmes respectively. System Watson
provides immediate and automatic responses, often triggered by the
fight-or-flight part of our brain. System Holmes involves more
considered analysis, is slower with a higher energy cost, but is
often more accurate. Distractions, including multitasking, affect
our thinking. Sherlock's use of mindfulness can improve our critical
thinking. Cognitive biases also distort our thinking. We can adopt
Sherlock's techniques of introducing some distance, keeping an open
mind and remaining objective can help overcome biases.

A deeper review of the book:
The author's RSA talk: