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.

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.

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.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, March 2014

Reviews of four books read last month.

1. "This Is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel Levitin

Music and psychology come together in this very interesting and
informative book by a former musician and record producer. The
author wanted to learn more about how music affects us, so in
the 1990s he changed careers and studied psychology. Music theory,
psycho-acoustics, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience are
interwoven into a relatively easy to read book. Highly recommended
for anyone with more than a passing interest in music and its
affect on our emotions and thoughts. It helps if the reader has
basic knowledge of classical and rock music. If the book came in
an electronic format with embedded audio snippets, it would make
the book even more accessible.

2. "Help!" by Oliver Burkeman

Self-help is a booming area these days. The never-ending search for
happiness has spawned an industry of gurus. The author writes a
column on psychology which critically examines alleged solutions
to the troubles of modern living. Many profits, I mean, prophets
of "positive thinking", such as Rhonda Byrne and Anthony Robbins,
are skewered, often humorously. But the author isn't just negative:
ideas from ancient philosophies and modern "lifehacks", supported
by scientific studies, can make us a bit happier, or at least more
productive. I can also recommend the author's more recent book,
"The Antidote", which looks more deeply into philosophies that can
help us cope with what life throws our way.

3. "After the Collapse" by Paul di Filippo

This is a collection of short stories by the author who coined the
term "ribofunk" (a biotech-based subgenre of sci-fi). As the
collection's title suggests, each of the six stories has a post-
apocalyptic angle. In the first story, climate change has forced
humans to live nearer to the poles. Survivors coexist with
genetically-modified human/cat hybrids, or "furries". "Keeks"
(super-geeks), have their own agenda, and want to force human
evolution in a specific direction. In another story, set in the
near future, America has split into two countries: "Agnostica" and
"Faithland". In this story, a teenage girl is considering defecting
because she likes the country music that originated in Faithland.
Other stories look at virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
Overall, an interesting collection of stories about how we might
adapt in the event of a global crisis.

4. "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens

Ebenezer Scrooge, the central character of this Victorian-era
novella, has become synonymous with miserliness and misanthropy.
He hates Christmas, dismissing it as "humbug". After being visited
by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet To Come, he
finds a path to redemption. A simple story, told well. While I'm
familiar with several of Dickens' stories, this is the first I've
read. After "testing the waters", I'll probably try some of the
author's beefier novels in the future.

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"