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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/493434.L_entrata_in_guerra> 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 intelligence. 2. "Solaris" by Stanislaw Lem <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/95558.Solaris> <http://www.amazon.com/Solaris/dp/0156027607> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/183381.More_Tales_Of_The_Unexpected> <http://www.amazon.com/More-Tales-Unexpected/dp/0140056068> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12936.Gathering_Blue> <http://www.amazon.com/Gathering-Blue/dp/0547904142> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17213951-noise?> <http://www.amazon.com/Noise/dp/0062283073> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18077903-creativity-inc> <http://www.amazon.com/Creativity-Inc/dp/0812993012> 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, July 6, 2014
Sunday, June 1, 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/86658.The_Secret_Agent> <http://www.amazon.com/The-Secret-Agent/dp/0141441585> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2024223.Armageddon_in_Retrospect> <http://www.amazon.com/Armageddon-Retrospect/dp/0425226891> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22175.Strange_Pilgrims> <http://www.amazon.com/Strange-Pilgrims/dp/1400034698> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17707768-jony-ive> <http://www.amazon.com/Jony-Ive/dp/159184617X> 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
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.
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Reviews of four books read last month. 1. "This Is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel Levitin <http://www.amazon.com/This-Your-Brain-Music/dp/0452288525> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Help/dp/0857860267> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/After-Collapse/dp/B005V1ZKEO> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Carol/dp/1493680943> 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
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 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ERax7RFq6w> <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEZ3lSurNCI> * "The Kreutzer Sonata": A sonata for violin and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed here by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COGcCBJAC6I> * "Into Dust" by Mazzy Star <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vO30b_SxLzE> 1. "The Crane Wife" by Patrick Ness <http://www.amazon.com/The-Crane-Wife/dp/1594205477> 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 working? 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Kreutzer-Sonata-Stories/dp/0140449604> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Dust/dp/1490904387> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/The-Power-Habit/dp/081298160X> 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" <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3cp8LERM70>