Sunday, March 2, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, February 2014

Reviews of four books read last month: two novels, a collection of
short stories, and a book about habits.

Suggested musical accompaniment:
* "The Crane Wife" by The Decemberists, which includes a couple of
  songs inspired by the original folktale
* "The Kreutzer Sonata": A sonata for violin and piano by Ludwig van
  Beethoven, performed here by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis
* "Into Dust" by Mazzy Star

1. "The Crane Wife" by Patrick Ness

George Duncan is a middle-aged divorcee who runs a printing business
in London. One night, awoken by a noise, he finds a injured crane in
his backyard. The bird has an arrow in its wing.  George manages to
remove it, then the bird flies off. The next day, a strange woman
with a Japanese name visits George's shop. Kumiko notices that George
makes sculptures by carving old books, and she offers to collaborate
with him to produce a series of artwork tiles. These tiles soon
become highly sought after, and George and Kumiko's chemistry
blossoms into romance. But, throughout, Kumiko still has an air of
mystery about her. Where did she come from? Why does she spend so
much time away, and why doesn't she let anyone see her while she's

This novel is based on a Japanese folktale of the same name. In
addition to the modern setting, the novel adds other characters,
in particular George's ex-wife, his daughter, Amanda, who has a
complicated situation with the father of her child, and her self-
absorbed workmates. All the characters are carrying wounds that
haven't fully healed. I enjoyed the writing style, and the story
moved along quite well. If you don't mind a bit of magical realism,
this is a novel worth reading.

2. "The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories" by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy wrote a fair bit about marriage, most notably in the novel
"Anna Karenina". This collection includes four short stories written
at various points in the author's career on the themes of love, lust,
marriage, jealousy and betrayal. For brevity, I will only talk about
the title story. The narrator is a passenger on a long train ride. He
describes his bachelor days, his marriage, and what drove him to
jealous rage and murder. His story is basically a rant, and an attempt
to justify his actions. He has controversial views, for example, he
thinks sex is a filthy act worthy only of animals, not humans. He also
sounds like a proto-feminist: "They've emancipated woman in the
universities and the legislative assemblies, but they still regard her
as an object of pleasure. Teach her, as is done in our society, to
consider herself in the same light, and she will forever remain an
inferior being."

Apparently, the author did not live according to his characters'
convictions, and failed to live up to the puritanical quotations from
the Gospels included at the start of two of the short stories. But,
he was only human, after all, and just as flawed as his characters.
Don't let that stop you from reading these though-provoking stories.

3. "Dust" by Hugh Howey

This novel completes the Silo Trilogy. "Wool" set the scene,
describing life in one of 50 underground silos (Silo 18) that
preserved humanity after nuclear war rendered the atmosphere toxic.
"Shift" filled in the backstory, describing the people responsible
for building the silos. "Dust" picks up the story from the end of
"Wool", when the heroine, Juliette Nichols, manages to return to
Silo 18. She was sent "outside", which usually means death.
Spoiler: she survives thanks to a functioning protective suit. She
discovers Silo 17 and its handful of survivors. She vows to come
back for them if she returns to Silo 18. After being elected Mayor
of Silo 18, she has a plan to dig an underground tunnel connecting
Silos 17 and 18. She's also been talking on the radio to Donald
Keene in Silo 1, an original architect of the silos. In "Shift" we
learnt he was awakened from cryo-sleep. After piecing together the
true purpose of the silos, he was horrified. He wants to help
Juliette and the other survivors in Silo 18, but only manages to
come across as a threat. Juliette makes shocking discoveries of
her own, and when Silo 18 is "shut down", she is intent on getting
revenge on the inhabitants of Silo 1.

Overall, I found this a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. The
characters undergo some growth. Lots of questions were answered,
such as the true purpose of the lotteries, the servers, the gases
and the periodic "cleanings". At around 1500 pages, the trilogy is
a big investment of time, but worth it in my opinion.

4. "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg

The author uses research in neurology and psychology to examine why
habits form and how we can change them. The key to habit formation
is the habit loop: cue-routine-reward. The cue is the automatic
trigger for the habit. The routine is the behaviour itself. The
reward is what reminds you about the pattern. The conventional
approach for dealing with habits put the focus on the behaviour or
routine. Recent findings suggest a more effective approach is to
address the cue and the reward. The author proposes a four step
framework for changing bad habits and replacing them with good habits:
 1. Identify the routine or behaviour you want to change.
 2. Experiment with rewards to find out what's actually being craved.
 3. Isolate the cue, which triggers the habit.
 4. Have a plan to avoid the bad habit cue, which may include creating
    a better replacement habit.

Comprehensive end notes are included. The author was part of the The
New York Times team which did a hit job on Apple to win a Pulitzer
Prize. Hmmm, seems like they couldn't resist the temptation to use
sensationalism (routine) to get a reward. But I'm willing to forgive
that bit of shoddy journalism to recommend this book.

Related talk: "The Power of Habit: Charles Duhigg at TEDxTeachersCollege"