Sunday, February 2, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, January 2014

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

1. "Angelmaker" by Nick Harkaway

Joe Spork, single and in his late thirties, barely makes a living
repairing mechanical devices from a bygone era. Most of the things
he fixes are harmless, but one day he unwittingly reassembles a
doomsday device for a client. The "Angelmaker", among other things,
distorts time and compels people to tell the truth. This triggers
panic among world leaders. It also plays into the hands of an evil
despot, Shem Shem Tsien (the Opium King), who seems to have cheated
death in his quest to "become God".

After learning that he may be responsible for the end of the world,
Spork teams up with a female octogenarian and former superspy to
thwart Tsien's plans. He enlists his late father's former colleagues,
both criminal and legitimate. Together they have to deal with shady
secret government agents and the Order of Ruskinites before they can
confront Tsien. Along the way, Spork finds the love of his life and
some inconvenient truths about his family: the double-life of his
paternal grandmother and the real motivation for his father's
criminal career.

This novel mostly succeeds in blending espionage, gangsters and
science fiction, with a dash of humour. My only major criticism is
that the ending of this swash-buckling thriller seemed a bit
contrived. Overall, I enjoyed this book, although not as much as
the author's first novel, "The Gone-Away World".

2. "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson

Having seeing several movies and TV shows based on this classic
Victorian novel, I never felt the need to read the original. As it
happens, Stevenson's novella is a bit different to how the story
has been portrayed on screen. In addition the dual nature of the
individual comprising the title characters, the novella considers
the events from two viewpoints. Firstly, there is the account by
Jekyll's friend and attorney, Utterson. The developing relationship
between the doctor and the objectionable Mr Hyde has troubled
Utterson. Why has the respected Jekyll given Hyde unfettered access
to his home and laboratory, even going so far as naming him as his
sole beneficiary? When Hyde is linked with assaults and a murder,
Utterson feels duty-bound to warn Jekyll to sever his ties with
Hyde. The doctor gets a chance to explain his side of the story in
the final chapter.

This story examines the internal struggles between good and evil in
all of us, using the emergence of pharmaceuticals to take the idea
to extremes.

3. "The Giver" by Lois Lowry

This story is set in a future where there is no war, no suffering
and no disease. All aspects of society and life are carefully planned.
Children gain additional privileges, responsibilities and toys, at
specified annual milestones. When they reach twelve years old, their
lives so far are assessed and their future roles in the Community are
assigned. For example, if a child shows skill and aptitude for
building things, he or she will be groomed as an engineer. Someone
who is good with younger children might be trained as a teacher. But
the Community is not the utopia it appears to be: people are
constantly medicated to avoid pain; feelings are suppressed and
unpleasant memories are erased to maintain emotional stability;
euphemisms are used to cover up euthanasia and death. Everyone
experiences a comfortable "sameness", sacrificing colour, music and

Jonas, the main character, has demonstrated some special skills, and
is assigned the important role of the "Receiver of Memory". He will
be trained by the "Giver", and become the sole repository of
emotional memories for the Community. Later, in times of crisis or
when difficult decisions need to be made, he may be called on to
provide advice by drawing from that memory. Once Jonas becomes aware
of what really is happening in the Community, he decides to rebel.

This novella is generally considered a young adult's book, but the
themes are challenging and universal enough for any reader. It
reminded me a bit of Brave New World, focussing on children growing
up in an apparent utopia. The author has written sequels which
further explore the themes in this book.

4. "Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck

The opening lines set the scene: "Cannery Row in Monterey in
California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light,
a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered
and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped
pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of
corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and
little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."

Everybody loves Doc, a marine biologist who prepares exhibits for
various museums around the country. He's done lots of little things
to help his fellow inhabitants of Cannery Row: Lee Chong, a Chinese
immigrant, runs the local grocery; Dora Flood is owner/operator of
an establishment called the Bear Flag Restaurant, which is actually
the local whorehouse; Mack is a middle-aged layabout and leader of
"the boys", who try to do as little work as possible so they enjoy
the good things in life. Mack suggests they all throw a party at
Doc's place. But despite good intentions, things take a farcical
turn, when gatecrashers arrive, fights break out, and Doc's place
gets trashed. The people of Cannery Row decide to make amends by
preparing a surprise birthday for Doc, but will they learn from
their mistakes?

This was an enjoyable look at life, friendship and simple pleasures
in working class America in the 1930s.

5. "You Are Not So Smart" by David McRaney

Using research in psychology, cognition and neuroscience, the author
explains why we often make irrational decisions. The book contains
are 48 brief chapters, each examining one particular way we delude
ourselves. Examples include: Priming (our unconscious minds are
easily influenced by certain words and situations), Confirmation bias
(we tend to focus on things that confirm our beliefs rather than
consider evidence that challenges them), Hindsight bias (we look back
on things we've just learned and assume we knew or believed them all
along), Groupthink, Conformity, the Dunning-Kruger Effect (we're bad
at estimating our competency and the difficulty of a task), the
Bystander Effect, and Learned Helplessness. The author presents the
results of many pivotal studies and experiments that helped verify
our various cognitive biases and delusions.

If you're interested in this subject matter, I recommend you listen
to the author's podcast, named after the book:

Overall, this is a great introduction to cognitive and evolutionary
psychology, exposing the many foibles of our minds. We're not as
smart as we think we are. But that's ok, we're only human. I look
forward to reading the follow-up, "You Are Now Less Dumb".