Sunday, June 1, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, May 2014

Reviews of books read last month: a spy novel, two collections of
short stories, and an unofficial biography of Apple's lead designer.

1. "The Secret Agent" by Joseph Conrad

This novel was written in the early 20th century. Verloc is a French
emigre runs a little shop/newsagency with his wife. The shop seems to
be a front for selling dubious material. Verloc has delusions of being
a revolutionary, and associates with anarchists and foreign officials.
So far, his activities have been mostly harmless, such as spreading
propaganda through his shop. But his handler at the foreign embassy
demands more than just talk to justify his retainer: blow up the
Greenwich Observatory. Unfortunately, things don't go quite to plan,
resulting in the accidental death of Verloc's mentally retarded
brother-in-law. It doesn't take long for Chief Inspector Heat to
suspect Verloc.

This was a short novel, but I found it overly verbose at times. The
plot was interesting, but the characters were too dark and unlikeable.
It wasn't until the last few chapters that the story started to grab
me - too late. Generally, I've been underwhelmed by Conrad's writing.
My disappointment with this book could be that it suffered in
comparison with G. K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday", which
has similar settings and themes, but was much more enjoyable.

2. "Armageddon in Retrospect" by Kurt Vonnegut

This is a collection of short stories and other writings, released
posthumously. They all share the themes of war and peace. The author
was himself a prisoner of the Germans in WW2, and was in Dresden when
the allies firebombed the city into the Stone Age. This experience
obviously left a mark on the young American (with a German name), as
most of his work contains strong anti-war sentiments.

This collection of stories, while inconsistent in quality, does have a
few gems. And the author's trademark satire and humour helped keep my
interest. Perhaps a better introduction to the author's work is his
breakthrough novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five".

3. "Strange Pilgrims" by Gabriel García Márquez

This is a collection of short stories on the theme of Latin Americans
who find themselves in Europe: an ex-President in exile visiting a
Swiss hospital for an operation and being preyed upon by fellow
migrants, children on vacation in Sicily with their parents and being
looked after by a strange young German governess, and a Colombian man
who travels to Rome in the hope of having his sister declared a saint.
For me, the most memorable story was about a young woman, Maria, whose
car broke down outside Barcelona. No one stops to help her, except for
a bus driver, who lets her come on board. She just wants to be taken
somewhere so she can call her husband to let him know she'll be late.
As it happens, the bus is taking its passengers to a sanatorium. The
staff assume she is also a new inmate, so she finds herself admitted.

This collection was a bit uneven, but the author's trademark style
still shines through. It's a pretty good introduction to his work,
if you're not yet willing to tackle his classic novels.

4. "Jony Ive" by Leander Kahney

This is an unofficial biography of the head of Apple's design team,
Jony Ive. Born and educated in England, Ive had already established a
reputation for inspired and groundbreaking designs before moving to
the US. But it is at Apple where he made a name for himself, helping
develop a string of hit products: iMacs, iPods, iPhones and iPads.
He's generally described as mild-mannered and humble, but also
obsessed with craftsmanship and willing to stand by his principles.
The book also provides interesting insights into Apple's design
processes. A hallmark of the second Steve Jobs era as Apple CEO was
a shift in emphasis from design as an afterthought to the idea of
design and technical implementation going hand-in-hand to provide
simple and harmonious products. People can argue about the merits of
Apple's approach, but it does seem to be working. While the author
likes playing up the role of his fellow Englishman, reading this book
gives me the sense that Apple's success is the result of a talented
team of several highly motivated people. The book also suggests
Apple's obsession with perfection stops it from releasing concept
products. In contrast, I would argue, that companies such as Google
and Microsoft try to bolster their image with publicity stunts (e.g.
Google Glass, Nexus Q and self-driving cars).

The author based the book on interviews with many of Ive's former
colleagues, as well as other information in the public domain. While
the author has met with Ive, these were chance meetings. Hopefully,
we will someday be able to read official biographies of Ive and his
current colleagues. Until then, this book will have to do and readers
will need to take the contents with a grain of salt.