Sunday, May 4, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.