Books 2007

Back in January, I read and reviewed The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, by Nick Hornby. It’s a book in which Nick Hornby, monthly, writes about all the books he has read that month, with great wit and humour. I immediately (a) vowed to do the same on this blog and (b) moved into a phase where the only things I read were books I was ashamed to tell anyone I was reading. Not a good combination. So since then, I have reviewed exactly one adult book on this blog.

So to get myself out of my funk, this page is going to be a list, with brief commentary on all the books that I’ve read for the first time this year.

I don’t usually talk about fiction on this blog, but for completeness:

We need to talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.  Five stars

This book was awarded the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005, which meant I was scared that it was a bit too literary for me. It wasn’t. It is the story of a mother (spoiler, but it’s on the cover) whose son turns out to be a serial killer. I found it completely compelling, and after I’d got about half way, couldn’t put it down. Opinions seem to be divided about whether the mother’s character is convincing as a mother who finds it difficult to love her child from the beginning. I did find her convincing, but partly because the writing about her decision to have a child in the first place was the most honest writing of that dilemma I have seen anywhere. Brilliant.

The boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. Four stars.

This is described as a fable. It doesn’t give much away to say that the striped pyjamas refers to the holocaust. I’ve read a few reviews that complain about the overly naive main character (a nine year old boy in Nazi Germany who doesn’t really seem to understand what is going on). I’m probably too willing to suspend disbelief in my fiction reading, but it worked for me. I found this completely haunting, and I found it difficult to stop thinking about it for the next few days after I finished it.

The curious incident of the dog in the nightime by Mark Haddon. Four stars.

A mystery book, in which the narrator is a 15 year old boy with autism. I’ve read a fair bit about autism (one of my cousins is somewhat autistic, and since reading about the San Francisco epidemic, I’ve been worried about my boys’ genetic material, as the sons of two fairly geeky types). Although the descriptions seemed accurate, the internal narrative and self awareness shown by the narrator didn’t quite ring true for me. That said, it was a very enjoyable read, particularly stuffed, as it was, with mathematical puzzles.

Shaman’s Crossing, and The Forest Mage, by Robin Hobb. Two stars

These are parts one and two of a new series by Robin Hobb, who used to be one of my favourite fantasy writers. I find it difficult to deconstruct why I haven’t enjoyed this series, as she does have her usual complex characters, with moral dilemmas and shades of grey, and an interesting new world. Nevertheless, I found it a bit of a chore to read through to the end, and I wasn’t particularly excited to find out what happens next. I did buy book two (as opposed to borrowing as I did with book one), but that was only because I was feeling particularly sorry for myself and in need of a book at the time.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J K Rowling. Four stars

I don’t know that I can say much more about this than has been said already. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it was the best of the series.

Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson. Three and a half stars

Before this, I had only read Gibson’s classic, Neuromancer, which I found hard going. I’ve re-read it a few times since, and still found it hard going, but been more and more impressed by the way in which it founded a new genre and way of thinking. Unfortunately, Gibson doesn’t think there is much more to say and is searching for his new theme. This is a good book, enjoyable, with some interesting concepts, but isn’t going to blow anyone away.

The Patience of the Spider, by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Satarelli. Four stars.

This is part of the Inspector Montalbano series, a detective series set in Sicily. It’s not great literature, but always a great read, and very atmospheric. So much so that we are going to Sicily on our next holiday. This particular one was quite weird to read, as I had seen the Italian TV version (subtitled) already, and the subtitler wasn’t nearly as good a translator as Stephen Satarelli.

Lean Mean Thirteen, by Janet Evanovich, three stars.

Lightweight hilarious crime fiction set in New Jersey. Part of a series (as you can tell from the title) which is becoming more and more far fetched (a la Carl Hiassen) as the series goes on. That’s the thing I like about it. The part that is becoming a bit boring, is that Evanovich has set up a great sexual tension will-they-won’t-they relationship between Stephanie Plum (the female bondsman heroine) and her two great loves – policeman and almost fiance Joe Morelli and the mysterious, sexy Ranger (who is a seriously competent private security type). It’s hard to sustain the love triangle even remotely plausibly through 13 books, and that is the one part of the plot that Evanovich tries to make somewhat realistic. But if she let Plum decide properly between the two of them, the series would be over. And that would also be a shame.

Spook Country, by William Gibson. Three stars.

See my other William Gibson above – still a good read, but not as original and unsettling as his cyberpunk novels were.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon.

A hardboiled detective novel set in an alternative history in which the Jewish refugees settled in Alaska, after a very different World War II, rather than Israel or anywhere else in the world which remained closed to to them. There were too many in-jokes for me. I felt I would have appreciated it much much more if I spoke a bit of Yiddish, or at least had spent some time in the company of someone who did, or someone who was from that culture. A good read, but it didn’t make me want to recommend it to all my friends.

And now for the non fiction, some of which I may review properly later.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Three stars

I have had a review of this in my drafts folder ever since I read it. I think because I wanted to get it right, and I don’t really know enough about philosophy to argue my case convincingly. As an atheist (recovering agnostic) I found this book too strident for my taste, and too inclined to gloss over the hard parts (for example he spent a long time taking apart the inconsistencies and downright nastiness of the Old Testament of the Bible, and fairly much glossed over the New Testament’s messages, in trying to prove his point that a religion (as described in its sacred teachings) doesn’t give you a complete moral code. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and changing their mind about religion; it’s preaching to the converted (so to speak).

The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford. Four stars

Enjoyable, clearly cashing in on the success of Freakonomics. A set of different ways in which you can use economics to understand the way the world works. I found the best chapter to be the one on coffee prices – analysing the price of your cup of coffee into its components (only a small part being the actual ingredients) but showing why it was all about supply and demand; if we demand convenience, then we have to expect people to profit from it. The most interesting thing about his chapter for me was the description of how, in setting prices, shops attempt to distinguish between people who are willing to pay more by using pricing signals (like large cups, special syrups etc), since they can’t actually ask people to pay as much as they would would be willing to on an individual basis. A fun read, but not as good as Freakonomics.

Gittinomics by Ross Gittins. Four stars

In the name of the book, Ross Gittins is also clearly cashing in on Freakonomics. But the book itself is more of a meditation on life, society, and what makes us happiest. An easy read, but nothing especially new for those who read his columns.

Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Five stars

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Four stars

These too books were fantastic; written by a hedge fund trader who wants to be a philospher (and is pretty close to succeeding, at least to a non philosopher). Mediations on the nature of randomness, and why we humans find it so hard to believe in it. We particularly need to see patterns where non exist, and we consistently refuse to understand how often extreme events really happen. Both great reads, but Fooled by Randomness is better, because it is more fulled by passion.

Saving Australia by Bob Wurth. Three stars

I bought this after seeing the Curtin miniseries – a story of the scariest part of Australia’s World War II experience. This book is a vignette – telling the story of the relationship between the Japanese ambassador to Australia and John Curtin, Australia’s prime minister. The Japanese ambassador became somewhat more of a pacifist after the experience, but it is hard to tell how much from the available evidence. The book itself shows all the signs of originally being an academic paper, so not an easy read, but a fascinating one.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo, by Marjorie Williams. Four stars

I had never heard of Marjorie Williams, until I read a review of this book by Elizabeth at Half Changed World. She was a journalist who reported on Washington mostly during the late 80s and 90s. So half this book is a set of profiles of the players. Fascinating. My favourite was the profile of Jeb Bush, written during the 2000 campaign. Since pretty much all I know about him is his role in the Florida vote counting controversy, it shed a different light to read that he was the policy wonk of the family, and that George Bush was more of the johnny-come-lately (even though George is the older by six years). She also wrote a marvellous essay taking feminist commentators to task (by name) for letting Bill Clinton off the hook far too lightly for the kind of patterned abuse of sexual power behaviour that no right wing politician would ever be allowed by the commentariat.

Sadly, she was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2001, and died in 2005, and her essay about the diagnosis experience is heart stopping. As part of that essay she talks about her changed relationship with time, once she really understood it was limited. Something that’s made me reflect on how often I waste my time doing things I’d rather not be doing.

Mindset: the new psychology of success by Carol Dweck. Four stars

I bought this after reading the article about Carol Dweck’s research (see my post about it here). I found the book faintly disappointing – it reads very much like a self-help book (which is, of course, what it is), which is a style I usually avoid. That said, though, the idea of changing your mindset to a growth one (defining as seeking out challenge, because learning from your failures makes you grow, rather than avoiding challenge, because it might prove you’re not as good as you thought) is one which I’d really like to explore. Since I read the article, I have been trying to learn chess with my boys (something I previously used to avoid, as everyone used to tell me how good a chess player I should be) and I’m enjoying it!

The Death and life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. Four stars. Reviewed here.

I first heard of Jane Jacobs when she died last year. I’m going to blog about this. It was a wonderfully refreshing rant about cities, published in 1961 – what makes them work and what was wrong with all of the town planning policies of the time. From the raves when she died, I was expecting it to be more relevent to me. The combination of being nearly 50 years old, and written in another country which had/has some quite different town planning issues meant that it wasn’t quite as transplantable as I expected. Hence only four rather than five stars.

John Curtin: a Life, by David Day. Five stars

The definitive biography of a man many Australians rate as our greatest ever prime minister.  A period, and a cast of characters that I knew shamefully little about until the ABC series earlier this year, when I searched out reading material.

Midnight in Sicily, by Peter Robb. Four stars

I’m cheating, as this is a re-read, but it’s nearly ten years since I read it the first time. This book was one reason I wanted to visit Sicily (as we did this year) – it is a wonderful guide to both the place, but also the tortuous political and legal situation in Sicily – as much as it is possible, it is a guide to how the Mafia has come to the position it held in Sicily in the 60s 70s and 80s, and the heroism of the many Sicilians who fought back with every remedy (mostly the law) that was in their power. It didn’t blow me away as a book as much the second time, but I think that’s because I knew most of the facts, so I could read for style as well content. And the style is a bit overblown – possibly suiting the langorous, decaying, Sicily Robb tries to portray, but hard going.

Strategy and the Fat Smoker, by David Maister. Four stars. Reviewed here

The latest management book from professional services guru, David Maister. An easy, thought provoking read, as always.

Walking the Camino, A modern pilgrimage to Santiago, by Tony Kevin. Three and a half stars

Tony Kevin walked the Camino (the pilgrimage to Santiago, in north west Spain) the hard way, all the way (the Camino Mozarabe) from Granada. This book is his story. Very readable, and it made me want to walk (at least some of the way), but Kevin struggled with the parts of the book he clearly wanted to write the most – the spiritual parts of the pilgrimage, and what it meant to him. Enjoyable (and I should add – it was given to Mr Penguin for his birthday, and I immediately appropriated it before he could read a word).

Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Four and a half stars.

I first came across the concept of Flow in my previous job, where it was presented to us as a concept that will help you manage people better – to try and stretch people just enough but not too much. But it is much more than that. Briefly, Csikszentmihalyi has spent his professional life researching what makes people happy, and his conclusion is that what he describes as the state of Flow will make people happiest – “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” I found this book thought provoking, in the way in which it extended the concept to many different ways.

Immigrants, why your country needs them, by Philippe Legrain. Four stars. Reviewed here

So I’ll leave this post up for the rest of the year, and add to it as I read anything else.

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