Saturday, January 1, 2011

Book mini-reviews from 2010

I've been wanting to mini-review the books I read in 2010 and New Years Day is a great time for that so here goes. I hope I don't forget too many of them, and they are in no particular order.

Life of Pi, Yann Martell

I started reading this years ago and wasn't at all interested in the first few pages, but a friend of mine urged me to try it again so I did. The quality of the writing is truly breathtaking; I sometimes take notes of my favourite parts, but there were so . I can't say much about the story without spoiling it, but I can say that although the story has a mundane start (a schoolboy talks about his life as the son of a zookeeper in India) it soon spins off into a dizzying adventure.

Very readable, full of vivid detail and exciting.

Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martell

I was excited to read Martell's latest book, as it is a long awaited sequel to his prize winning Life of Pi. Surprisingly, this is a very different kind of book. The narrator is a succesful author, who has written a prize winning book and is trying to write a worthy sequel. Hm, sound familiar? The protagonist finds an interesting looking taxidermist store and befriends the owner. In fact, befriend is not quite the word since the store owner has very poor people skills to say the least. Nevertheless, recognizing his customer is a famous author, asks him for help writing his book "Beatrice and Virgil" which is an allegorical tail alluding to the Hollocaust.

Just like Life of Pi the writing is beautiful, but this is a very different kind of book to the adventure novel that Life of Pi is. This is more of a pondering and thoughtful story, where you're never quite sure whether you are hearing the words of the real life author, the books narrator, or the characters within the book. Can we say it's like the movie Inception, without the action and the girl?

Worth a read for sure.

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Beautifully written tale of a shepherd who leaves home to find his fortune. The core philosophy of the book is that if you really want something, the Universe will help you get it. Presumably you have to take the risks and put the effort in also.

Thanks to a friend for lending me this (she had 10 of them on her for a book club), and I read it in a day. Partly because it's short, and partly because I didn't want to stop reading.

Blink, Malcolm Gladwell

Having read "The Tipping Point" a while back I was keen to check out anything by Gladwell. Blink is about the subconscious and very rapid abilities of the human mind. There are examples of how succesful professionals working in Marriage Guidance, law enforcement, art valuation and medical diagnosis, use very short periods of experience to make succesful judgements. This being contrary to our expectations that a slow rigorous analysis should yield better solutions. It appears that in many cases, our gut feel is right.

Just like his previous books he talks with authority and depth on the subject, spinning his research into fascinating yarns that makes it a very enjoyable and informative read.

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

Just as in Blink, the anecdotes are richly detailed and compelling. This book is about the people that succeeded in life in a big way, and why. Comparing them with others around them that had the same level of intelligence or diligence, yet not the right environment. We like to think that hard work and talent can get you to the top, but this book explores the uncomfortable truth that the right school, the right neighborhood, the right race can make all the difference. Would Bill Gates have been the man he was if he hadn't had access to one of the very few time sharing computers in the US? If he hadn't had family connections to get his first programming work?

In addition to exploring the successes and how they may have been aided by their situation in life, he explores the failures. Christopher Langan, an extremely bright man with an IQ of 196 who now works on a horse farm. Born into an environment with nobody to help him, he had to find his own way. According to Gladwell the lack of an appropriate environment prevented Langan from achieving the academic and worldly success he could have had.

I can't help feeling that his examples of success are extreme "lottery win" kind of life stories not that applicable to 99.99% of most of the population. The same goes for Langan's story. How many people with exceptional minds would fail to get a scholarship and into a good college today? Only a very few outliers I would expect.

Summer Blonde, Adrian Tomine

This is one of many graphic novels I picked up in Vancouver Public Library, where they have an excellent selection. Summer Blonde is a collection of four short stories. They are pretty dark and gritty exposes of the lives of regular people. Both the characters and the artwork have a fine detail that makes it believable. The stories are of peoples difficulties relating to each other.

A Drifting Life, Yoshihiro Tatsumi

This is a beautiful looking book that I've seen in local bookstores a few times but didn't think it looked worth the $50 Canadian coverprice. Having picked it up at Vancouver Public Library I think I was right, but it was definitely a good read. In this manga work, Tatsumi writes the story of his late teens and early professional life. Full of detail and fascinating insights into the hard work and thought processes that go into becoming a huge success at what you do. Also you can enjoy it as a coming of age story, as Tatsumi and his peers emerge from their teens and become men in the real world. Even if you're not particularly interested in the technical and philosophical ideas of manga as Tatsumi discovers and relates them in the book, it's a very entertaining read.

Thirteen Tale, Diane Setterfield

One of the few I reviewed right after reading it. See here

Real World Haskell, O'Sullivan

A nice, fat, accessible book on Haskell. Just as the title promises it's filled with real world applicable code. For example a functioning bar code reader is developed, as well as examples of GUI, DB and web programming.

The beginning is well paced and I advanced quickly, but the mid-section of the book becomes a bit harder to follow and you find the code jumping through abstract looking hoops in order to complete the most basic of imperative tasks. I don't know if that's just the way Haskell is, or whether the authors just think that way.
Definitely worth using this book to kickstart your Haskell learning if you want to use the language.

The World According to Garp, John Fielding

Thanks to a twitter friend, I discovered this excellent John Fielding 1978 book. Something like a cross between Henry James and the UK's Tom Sharpe, this is funny, sexually explicit tale following the weird and exciting life of Garp, the illegitimate son of a large than life, rebellious and independent nurse. Like the author, who also spent time in Vienna, Garp and his mother also spend time in that city, but most of the story takes place in the up-market boarding school where Garp's mother takes care of the students.

Highly enjoyable, I look forward to reading more by Fielding.

Inu Yasha and Fruits Basket

Two of the biggest selling manga series, and I checked them out due to their ubiquity. Neither of them compelled me to read past the second book. They are probably aimed at teenage girls, but regardless I wasn't entertained in the least.

Genshiken, Shimoku Kio

This story of a group of Otaku college students who join and run a club called "The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture" is now my favourite manga series (although I have not read many), and I truly wish it were longer.

It follows the group through their college lives as they hang out, play video games, create and sell their own fan fiction and deal with the school administrators. Highly nerdy, it even includes reviews of characters from an imaginary video game at the end of each chapter. The characters are great, the story is epic in its lack of excitement, and yet compelling as hell. I love it.

Darwins Radio, Greg Bear

This scifi tale reads more like a Tom Clancy thriller, as scientists try to find a solution to a virus that is causing women to miscarry. It's about the characters conflicts with government agencies and corporate politics rather than futuristic science, and I didn't enjoy it that much. It was interesting to read up on some of the science behind the book though...

Effective Java, Joshua Bloch

I read this book as I'm currently working a Java server that is designed to handle 10 to 50 thousand users at one time, so efficiency and concurrency is vital. Bloch is a fantastic communicator, and the book is very to the point, organised in highly effective (sorry) way.

That's all for now, there's another few I've forgotten that will appear in a later post.