Reviews of books read last month: three great short novels by renowned authors, a book advocating working away from traditional offices, and a book about the development of the Italian language. 1. "Rosshalde" by Herman Hesse <http://www.amazon.com/Rosshalde/dp/0312422296> <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10064.Rosshalde> Johann Veraguth is a successful painter who lives in a country manor (Rosshalde) with his wife and young son, Pierre. Another much older son, Albert, is away at boarding school. Their marriage has been loveless for a while, to the extent that Johann and his wife spend most of their days in different parts of the estate. Young Pierre is caught in the middle as the parents compete for his affection. Johann's latest painting bluntly portrays the household situation: Pierre in the centre, "tranquilly happy and without suspicion of the cloud hanging over him", flanked by the parents sitting "in rigid symmetry, severe sorrowful images of loneliness". After a brief visit by a longtime friend, Johann decides he should accept an invitation to take a spiritual adventure in India. He hopes this would at least reduce the tension at Rosshalde. Before he can leave, tragedy strikes, which temporarily brings unity to the family. This is not an uplifting story, but it is thought-provoking and poignant. I've read and enjoyed most of the author's other novels, and found this one rewarding as well. 2. "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene <http://www.amazon.com/Quiet-American/dp/0143039024> <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3698.The_Quiet_American> This novel is set in the early 1950s in Vietnam. The narrator, Thomas Fowler, is an English journalist covering the war between the colonial French and the Viet Cong. He's escaping a failing marriage, and has taken up a local girl, Phuong, as his lover. This arrangement is soon complicated when a young American, Alden Pyle, starts working at the so-called "American Economic Mission". Pyle meets Phuong, whose sister works at the mission, and falls for her. He bluntly but politely makes it clear to Fowler that he intends to marry her. Soon we discover that Pyle is a supporter of some rather naive foreign policy ideals. He is involved in some intrigue, conspiring with a "Third Force" to break the deadlock in the colonial war. Fowler becomes suspicious of Pyle's real agenda in Vietnam, and wouldn't be too upset if his rival came to a sticky end. The love triangle gets complicated when Pyle risks his own life to save Fowler after a Viet Cong attack. Pyle argues he wouldn't want to win the battle for Phuong's affection by default. This creates an unusual bond between the two men. Prescient at times, this controversial novel depicts the tense and complex political situation in Vietnam at the time. I also found the description of various cultural and religious traditions in Vietnam interesting. 3. "Leaf Storm" by Gabriel García Márquez <http://www.amazon.com/Leaf-Storm/dp/B00HVPSXT2> <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3038606-leaf-storm> This novel is set in the early 20th century in a fictional Colombian town of Macondo. The story is told from the viewpoints of three different narrators: the "Colonel", his daughter Isabel, and her son. This regular change in narrator, along with the use of several flashbacks, can make the story difficult to follow. The main story revolves around a mysterious retired French doctor who came to live in the town. His actions over the years made him universally reviled by the rest of the citizens of Macondo. He rented a room in the Colonel's house and soon started an affair with the indigenous maid. When she got pregnant, he performed an abortion secretly. He moved into another house with her where they "lived in sin". When the doctor refused to treat wounded soldiers, the townspeople would've had him lynched had the Colonel not intervened. Years later, when the doctor commits suicide, the Colonel stands up for him, taking responsibility for his burial. The impending funeral is the focal point of the three narrators: they are the only people from Macondo in attendance. The Colonel in particular feels duty-bound to pay his respects, in light of a key event from their past. The author, one of the giants of Latin American literature, passed away recently. Credited with popularising magical realism, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I've read and recommend two of his other classic novels: "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera". By the way, the story's title is a metaphor for how the banana company came to Macondo, bringing temporary prosperity, only to depart a few years later, leaving its discarded trash behind. Perhaps the the leaf storm metaphor also applies to the doctor's stay in Macondo? 4. "Remote: Office Not Required" by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson <http://www.amazon.com/Remote/dp/0804137501> <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17316682-remote> The goal of this book is to promote the benefits of allowing workers to work off-site. It addresses the major complaints and arguments that are often used against allowing remote workers. The authors are two founders of a successful web development company, 37signals. They practice what they preach: the head office is in Chicago, the main developer lives and works in Denmark, and several other staff live and work in other parts of the US and the world. Modern technology can help collaboration: email, instant messaging, teleconferencing, file sharing services, web-based project management tools. They argue that traditional work environments and practices, including cubicles, open plans, desk phones and status meetings, actually reduce productivity. Remote workers can avoid unnecessary interruptions and focus on their work. It has some advice dealing with feelings of isolation, which is a problem when working away from clients and colleagues. Overall, this book presents a good case for allowing employees to work remotely. Personally, I've had the opportunity to work off- site, and agree that most times this is very effective for the type of work I do. However, I can see how more extroverted or socially-oriented managers and employees would not be as comfortable with remote work. 5. "La Bella Lingua" by Dianne Hales <http://www.amazon.com/La-Bella-Lingua/dp/0767927702> <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4951923-la-bella-lingua> The author is an American journalist who decided to learn Italian, and began what she calls her love affair with the language and Italian culture. This book looks at the historical development of the Italian language, which started out as a localised Tuscan dialect of Latin. She examines the language's founding trio of literary titans: Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. These writers bucked the convention of the 14th century, preferring to write their major works in the vernacular rather than the official Latin. This entertaining book also looks at other influential aspects of the Italian language: Renaissance artists, baroque and classical musicians, Italian unification and culinary chroniclers of the 1800s, through to 20th century cinema. This book should appeal to anyone interested in Italian history, culture and the development of language. The writing style is light and highly readable. There's even an amusing chapter on "irreverent Italian", covering insults and swearing.