Sunday, July 6, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, June 2014

Reviews of books read last month: two collections of short stories,
two science fiction novels, a book about the impact of noise on
history, and a book about creativity.

1. "Into the War" by Italo Calvino

This is a collection of three of the author's early short stories.
The protagonists are mostly youths living in northern Italy during
WW2, something the author experienced himself. There's building
tension between supporters of the government and its war, and those
who are less convinced. Either way, everyone tries to live their
lives as best they can.

These stories show many of the traits of Calvino's writing style
that I've admired in his later, major works: clarity, humour and

2. "Solaris" by Stanislaw Lem

Kris Kelvin has just arrived at a space station in orbit around
the planet Solaris. There are signs of an unusual intelligence in
the planet's ocean, which has triggered much debate back on Earth
in the decades since Solaris was discovered. But, instead of
encountering the aliens directly, it appears that whatever life
exists on the planet is choosing to "make contact" by making
manifest the memories, dreams and fears of the visitors.

This story gets quite philosophical and psychological at times
about sentience and life. It's been made into movies, firstly by
Tarkovsky in the USSR, and more recently by Hollywood. Not an
easy book to read, but definitely thought-provoking.

3. "More Tales of the Unexpected" by Roald Dahl

While the author is mostly known for his novels aimed at children,
he also wrote many short stories with a twist for older audiences.
This collection is a bit uneven, but still delivers good
entertainment value. If you haven't read them already, try the
original "Tales of the Unexpected" collection first.

4. "Gathering Blue" by Lois Lowry

This short novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future where technology
is primitive. Kira is a crippled teenage girl with a talent for
weaving and embroidery. Having already lost her father, her future
becomes shaky when her mother dies. Everyone is struggling to survive,
and there's not a lot of sentimentality in the village. Normally,
those who can't fend for themselves are cast out. But Kira's talent
saves her, and she is taken in by one of the village leaders. At her
new home, she finds another adoptee, Thomas, a talented carver who
also lost his parents. However, there is something sinister about
their village leadership and its plans for Kira, Thomas and other
talented orphans.

This type of story seems popular these days (e.g. "The Hunger Games").
The author's earlier novella, "The Giver", will be released as a movie
this year.

5. "Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening" by David Hendy

This is a companion book to a BBC Radio 4 series about the history
of sound and its importance to civilisation. It covers many aspects
of sound and noise, from cave dwellers to the 21st century. The world
is a noisy place, and the sounds of speech, music, machinery,
weaponry, bells and nature can all touch, affect and even control us.
According to the author: "In a very real sense, being within earshot
of a sound was what made you a citizen or subject. With radio, the
distances involved were dramatically transformed". Improved
communications technology helps keep people in touch, but has a
downside of making the spread of propaganda easier.

6. "Creativity, Inc." by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

Written by a founder and executive of Pixar Animation (one of Steve
Jobs's other tech startups), this book provides advice on how to
foster creativity in the workplace. Catmull draws on his somewhat
accidental 30 year career as an animation studio chief executive.
In the conclusion he argues: "Unleashing creativity requires that
we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to
clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates
fear. Doing all these things won't necessarily make the job of
managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn't the goal;
excellence is."

This is not the typical business book, and much of the advice extends
to anyone who wants to work in a creative environment. In a touching
afterword, he provides a personal view of the Steve Jobs he knew and
worked with for three decades.