Currently reading – Reviews, 2005
I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward. This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else—wider, deeper—may be considerably more interesting and important.
— Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun
Not so good
William Gibson, Neuromancer
What a blast of a way to finish the year. To think that Gibson wrote this over 20 years ago blows my mind. He's witty, a visionary, a damn good writer, and very funny. Reading this story is like diving head first into a kaleidoscope.
Ace Science Fiction, New York, 1994 (1984)
Derek M. Powazek, Design for Community
The subtitle of this book is the art of connecting real people in virtual places. I like that Mr. Powazek uses the word "art" to describe this process. Certainly the tools and technology are important, but the fundamental challenge is to create spaces where people can meet, share, find answers, and feel comfortable.
The book presents a wealth of experiential information about the process of creating online communities gleaned from Mr. Powazek's own work. Several other community creators share their own wisdom through interviews at the end of each chapter.
The topics cover all the essential questions such as content, design, tools, policies, and moderation. A very important chapter discusses barriers to entry, in other words, how to welcome the type of participants you seek while gently or firmly discouraging those who would disrupt or dilute the goals of the community.
The book ends with a discussion of what the future might bring and closes with an interview with the very brilliant technology visionary, Howard Reingold.
Any last thoughts [about the future of online communities]?
Well, of course the exciting thing about it is that it is up to us. It's not like everything else, from news to entertainment to buying a package. I think that what continues to be exciting about it is that people have the power to do it themselves.
[ More … ]
New Riders, Indianapolis, 2002
T. Jefferson Parker, Silent Joe
Joe is a man of few words, a watcher. Scarred as a child and left with a badly burned face, he has learned to stay in the shadows, observe, and try to understand himself and the world around him. When his adoptive father is murdered, he discovers that he has not seen and understood everything about his father and the people around him, and he struggles to unearth why he was murdered and by whom. A solid, soul-searching read.
Calm washed over me. My eyesight sharpened. I could see the outlines of the brush up ahead, far from the jittery beam of the flashlight. And my ears heard things I normally would not: the left-right pattern of Cowboy's footsteps behind me, the rustle of Kidney Man's coat as he pivoted to watch me. My head felt steady and my legs felt light.
Hyperion, New York, 2001
George Packer, The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq
As a patriotic duty, every American should read this book. Even after America's involvement in the Iraq War is finished, we will go to war again, probably sooner rather than later. As citizens, we need to be informed so that we never again repeat the folly that has been reasons and preparation for, and the execution of this war and its aftermath.
I've been reading George Packer's reports for several years now, but it is exponentially more powerful to read them all at once. He is a keen observer and reporter, and he has brought a deep understanding of the Iraq War to life. Kudos.
The story of the Iraq War is a story of ideas about the role of the United States in the world, and of the individuals who conceived and acted on them. It has roots deep in history, yet there was nothing inevitable about the war, and the mere fact of it still sometimes astounds me. During the nearly interminable buildup to war I never found the questions about it easy to answer, and the manner in which the country argued with itself seemed wholly inadequate to the scale of what we were about to get into. I first went to Iraq, and then kept going back, because I wanted to see past the abstractions to what the war meant in people's lives. Nothing, I felt in that summer of 2003, was fixed yet. The most important struggles were the ones going on inside the minds of Iraqis and Americans alike. The war's meaning would be the sum of all the ways that all of them understood one another and the event that had thrust them together.
The top civilians in the administration, and the top brass at the Pentagon, and the top officials in Iraq all held on to their positions and failed the men and women they had sent to carry out their policy. They failed in the most basic obligation to give those men and women what the needed. The slow, mismanaged arrival of armored vehicles and bulletproof plates for flak vests was only the most conspicuous demonstration of how the Iraq War, like every war—just or unjust, won or lost—became a conspiracy of the old and powerful against the young and dutiful.
I came to believe that those in the positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive.
Farrar Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2005
Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes
This is the only of Murakami's books of short stories that I have enjoyed, perhaps because the seventeen stories in this 300+ page book are longer and fuller than in the others. He explores a lot of emotional terrain in these stories, and takes us to those edges of sanity that he can describe more richly than any other writer I know. Good stuff.
Vintage, New York, 1993
Walter Mosley, Cinnamon kiss
Well, this book is getting perfect 5-star reviews at Amazon, with some readers saying it is Mosley's best Easy Rawlins book yet. But it just didn't grab me the way so many of Mosley's books have (both his Easy books and his others). I thought the previous book in this series, Little Scarlet, was one of his very best in the series.
The main thing that left me wanting in this book is that we only get the briefest glimpses of the other characters involved, as well as the places. Over the years, Mosley has given us great sketches of some of the other characters in his stories, like Daphne Monet and Momma Jo, and places like Watts after the riots of 1965 and the bayous near Pariah. I can still see these folks and places in my mind's eye even years after reading about them, and that's part of what has made these stories so rich for me. I'm not going to remember any of the places or secondary characters in this current book even a month from now.
Little Brown, New York, 2005
Ralph Helfer, Modoc
An astonishing true story about the life of an elephant named Modoc, and a boy named Bram, who was born at the same time and would become her mahout (handler/trainer) and companion for more than 70 years. Inseparable physically and spiritually, Modoc and Bram lived an exceptionally rich life filled with adventures and tragedies. Together, they touched many, many lives and had admirers around the world.
Their bond was one of deep love, mutual respect, and an intangible connection that made it possible for them to communicate with each other in a way that bridged the gap between human and animal. The book reveals the possibilities that are accessible through working with an animal using love and respect rather than wielding fear and the whip to control.
The only thing that detracts from the story is the occasional lapse into "The Greatest Show on Earth!" kind of hype. The story itself reveals what a great being Modoc was and what an incredible life these two lived, without the need of any additional hype. But given that the author is in the business of show business, the hype might be inescapable. In any case, this is a story well worth reading and absorbing.
Harper Perennial, New York, 1997
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
This book reminds me of another written by an Afghan, Kara Kush by Idries Shah. Both are teaching books: they use the format of a novel to help us to understand what is happening in Afghanistan and to Afghans. Idries Shah's book brought to life the terrors of the Soviet occupation; this book brings to light the terrors of the Taliban rule and the difficulties of living the life of a refugee, separated from your beloved homeland.
I think there are actually many levels in this book. I am guessing that, in addition to providing a bridge of understanding to non-Afghans, it also intentionally contains several messages for Afghan expatriates living in the U.S.
The story vividly brings to life Kabul before the Soviet invasion, the life of a refugee in the U.S., and Kabul under the Taliban. It also searches deeply into the soul, exploring issues of character, redemption, forgiveness, and acceptance. A fine story and an exceptional first effort by Hosseini.
And audio books? Well, they have a place, certainly, but I still very much prefer reading a book with its opportunities to pause and reflect, reread a line or section, flip back to a previously read passage, and to mark favorite passages. But when you are driving through the deserts of the West, an audio book is manna from heaven!
Unabridged Audio Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2003
Yann Martel, Life of Pi
A recent cross-country drive gave us the chance to listen to a couple audio books. It's a funny experience, driving through changing landscapes while listening to a story. In some way the two experiences become intertwined: whenever I think about driving through the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon, I'll probably picture a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker on a small life raft in the middle of the ocean!
This is a quite creative story about a boy who, after surviving a shipwreck, has to use his creative intelligence to figure out how to survive being on a life raft with a huge and lethal Bengal tiger. However, I have to be honest and admit it is way too graphic in some of its descriptions of horror for my taste. That ended up distracting from my overall enjoyment of the story.
Unabridged Audio Book, Highbridge, Minneapolis, 2002
Nicholas Shakespeare, The Dancer Upstairs
This story sweeps us along on the twelve-year journey of an honest, overwhelmed police detective, Rejas, who has been tasked to find a ruthless revolutionary whose movement is tearing apart a South American country ruled by a corrupt regime. While his city and country descend into fear and repression in the face of attacks and a harsh military crack down, and his marriage devolves into delusion, Rejas struggles to keep his doubts from overwhelming him and to stay focused on his adversary.
Shakespeare takes us into the soul of his characters and the unnamed yet familiar country in a way that reminds me of Gorky Park.
My father, a timid man with few close friends, believed that a part of the reason we love someone is because of the person we become when we're with them. When they're dead, we can never be that person again. It's that other person, my father would say, for whom we're grieving.
John Malkovich made his directorial debut with the 2002 movie based on this book. As is typical, the movie is more focused on surfaces while the book prowls beneath, but it is a quite good movie, none the less.
Nan A. Talese, New York, 1997
Robert Littell, The Debriefing
Littell gets compared to John le Carré, but Littell's story's don't grip me the way le Carreé's do. While both seem to see the world of espionage as a tragicomic folly, but Littell's attitude toward his subject comes off as a bit flippant while le Carré's stories leave me feeling the deep anguish of the situation.
"You've had bad luck in your time, but good luck comes to you as a matter of course. You've had so much, you think it's your due."
Overlook Press, New York, 2004 (1979)
Robert Littell, The Sisters
Littell writes with a sardonic style that seems almost humorous until you realize that his topic is deadly serious. His characters are quirky and somewhat comical, until they brutally kill their targets. And when you realize who the main target is in this story, it'll send a chill up your spine.
The Potter himself had never been convinced that the old man's wandering mind—he alighted on subjects like a butterfly, and left a butterfly's imprint on them—was worn thin. It might just as well have been his way of coping with a world glued together by a peculiar attitude toward power: confronted by hypocrisy, people simply shrugged.
Overlook Press, New York, 2003 (1986)
Robert Littell, The Company
This sprawling, 900-page, historical novel about the CIA tells a half dozen loosely related stories that follow its evolution from its inception through its involvement in the failed Russian coup that brought Yeltsin to power. It is, for the most part, a sad book about betrayal and death.
"The problem is he's a military man. Military men take it on faith that the shortest distance between two p-p-points is a straight line, which you and I, old boy, in our infinite wisdom, know to be a dodgy proposition. Me, I am an orthodox anti-Euclidean. There simply is no short distance between tow points. There's only a meander. Bob's never your uncle; you leave p-p-point A and only the devil know's where you're going to wind up."
"Men occasionally stumble over the truth but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened." (a Churchill dictum)
Overlook Press, New York, 2002
Richard Dawkins, interviewed in Salon.com by Gordy Slack
[T]he scientific worldview is a poetic worldview, it is almost a transcendental worldview. We are amazingly privileged to be born at all and to be granted a few decades—before we die forever—in which we can understand, appreciate and enjoy the universe. And those of us fortunate enough to be living today are even more privileged than those of earlier times. We have the benefit of those earlier centuries of scientific exploration. Through no talent of our own, we have the privilege of knowing far more than past centuries. Aristotle would be blown away by what any schoolchild could tell him today. That's the kind of privileged century in which we live. That's what gives my life meaning. And the fact that my life is finite, and that it's the only life I've got, makes me all the more eager to get up each morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into which I am so privileged to have been born.
April 28, 2005
Joel Spolsky, User Interface Design for Programmers
The best book I've read on this subject.
Usability, fundamentally, is a matter of bringing a bit of human rights into the world of computer-human interaction.… You have daily opportunities to show respect for humanity even with the most mundane software.… By focusing on usability, you show your respect for the happiness of the people who run your code.
My sense of user sympathy as a moral imperative (rather than just a way to sell more software) started when I heard a story from an Excel usability test. A woman came in to test the software. When she wasn't able to complete the assigned task, she actually broke down in tears. Ken Dye, the usability lab manager, told me he had to walk her around the idyllic Microsoft campus until she felt better. After that, we were always very careful to explain to usability participants that we were testing the product, not their performance, and we expected that they wouldn't be able to accomplish some tasks. Not that that helped. People feel miserable when they can't accomplish a task.
[ More … ]
Apress, Berkeley, 2001
Robert Littell, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter
An expose of the ludicrous and very deadly business of espionage and counterespionage.
"I'm inclined to agree with Avksentiev and the Intelligence people—that is, I'm inclined to believe that the Americans are signaling us that Lewinter is real, and he therefore must be false."
Zaitsev beckoned with his open hand, as if summoning an endless file of men to pass in review.
"Stand to attention, Yefgeny Mikhailovich, stand to attention and salute my biographical ifs."
Overlook, Woodstock, 2002
Robert Littell, The Visiting Professor
An amusing one-time read about finding love in the midst of theoretical chaos.
You maybe know the Jewish proverb: If you want to forget questions without answers, put on a shoe that is too tight.
Random House, New York, 1994
Banana Yoshimoto, Hardboiled & Hard Luck
Two short stories about coping with loss. Feels a bit thin after her recent Goodbye Tsugumi, which is a much richer effort.
Grove, New York, 2005
Robert Littell, Legends
Brilliant! Written with enough madness to be a tale of sanity in our deranged world. The glimpses into the situation in Russia horrified me, as usual. But then there's that incredible Russian spirit, burning strong after so much tragedy!
"Ever hear the story of the Russian peasant who was asked if he knew how to play the violin? I'm not sure, he replied. Never tried."
The boring cover does a complete disservice to the book, having virtually nothing to do with the story. Puzzling given how richly imaginative the story is.
Overlook, Woodstock, 2005
Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian
This book is in a genre I normally don't read—the story is about Vlad Tepes, a very nasty ruler of Wallchia known as Vlad the Impaler, the son of the Dragon, Dracula.
Ms. Kostova is a talented storyteller and keeps the tension burning throughout most of this 650-page book. In fact, I find it astonishing that this is her first book; there was only one chapter that bogged down, straying too far into dry historical research that could've been summarized in a paragraph or two for the purposes of the story.
If I liked the genre more, I certainly would have rated this book 5 or 6 stars.
Little Brown, New York, 2005
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
While two interesting topics form the backdrop for this story—the moral dilemma posed by cloning and the seduction of online gaming—ultimately I was left feeling disappointed: every last character is sad, the story lacks any hint of joy, and it seems to condone the "righteous" murder of civilians while demonizing science. It left a bad aftertaste.
Knopf, New York, 2005
Peter Abrahams, Oblivion
In the middle of the case, the detective in this story has a brain tumor and wakes up after the operation remembering nothing, not even his own name. Interesting concept, but I felt Abrahams used like a cheap trick: making it possible for him to stretch out a too simple plot into a full-length book. Then he topped it off with an improbable and syrupy happy ending. Too bad, it could have been a stellar book.
Despite all you learned about it—the coldness, cruelty and carelessness, culminating in the probable nonexistence of any ultimate meaning or comfort—life could be like this, beautiful.
William Morrow, New York, 2005
Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
This is the first time I've listened to an audio book, but I'm familiar with Sarah Vowell from her work on This American Life and really enjoy listening to her tell her stories.
I'm not really into history and there was, at times, far too much detail for me even in this abridged version of her book, but she has an amazing knack to bring her glimpse into the first three presidential assassination vibrantly alive.
If my teachers had used an approach like hers—lightening up the presentation without sacrificing accuracy or perspective—I might've found myself enchanted by school rather than bored to death by it.
Simon & Schuster Audio, New York, 2005
John le Carré, Single & Single
An engrossing read by an exceptional writer.
Scribner, New York, 1999
Stephen Denning, The Springboard
The most accessible book on Knowledge Management that I've come across.
When I read, I mark standout passages with Post-it flags; some books end up with none, many with one, a few a couple. This book ended up looking like a Post-it flag advertisement. In fact, there are so many passages I want to jot down for later review that I'm going to add them to a separate page so as not to overwhelm this page of this year's reviews.
Finding the source of light and creativity inside organizations means looking outside the existing structure.
The cover of this book does a disservice to the richness of its content.
Butterworth Heinemann, Boston, 2001
Alan Burdick, Out of Eden
I haven't yet read this book, but did read a review of it by Andrew O'Hehir on Salon.com, and this passage caught my eye.
Nature does not function precisely like clockwork, a tapestry, a cathedral, a pyramid, an airplane, or an international bank; metaphors are drawn from the world of human invention and knowledge, whereas nature is far larger than either of those things and has hardly begun to be understood.… Species disperse and invade, come and go, evolve and go extinct. Any organism can be an invader somewhere. Every ecosystem—or whatever one calls it can be invaded by something. This is true even in the absence of humankind. An ecosystem is stable over time not because the list of species remains forever the same, but because it varies—not in spite of disturbance, but because of it.
I've thought about this a lot, hearing about invasive plants living here in the mountains with me that I'm supposed to hate and tear out with vigilance, and watching non-native wild animals and birds slowly make inroads over the years. But I find I don't hate them and I can't figure out in my heart why I should revile a successful traveler. Isn't that what I am, after all? Isn't that what we all are? Isn't every last bit of life on this planet a successful traveler? Is our very planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe itself anything else?
Farrar, Straus and Giroux , New York, 2005
Barry Eisler, Rain Fall
A second read through …
"Do you know mono no aware?"
"I think so. 'The pathos of things,' right?"
"That's the usual translation. I like 'the sadness of being human.'"
I was surprised to find myself moved by the idea. "I hadn't thought of it that way," I said quietly.
"I remember once, when I was living in Chiba, I took a walk on a winter night. It was warm for winter, and I took off my jacket and sat in the playground of the school where I had gone as a little girl, all by myself, and watched the silhouettes of the tree branches against the sky. I had such a strong awareness that one day, I was going to be gone, but the trees would still be here, the moon would still be above them, shining down, and it made me cry, but a good kind of crying, because I knew it had to be that way. I had to accept it because that's the way things are. Things end. That's mono no aware."
Putnam, New York, 2002
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot
A passionate and balanced argument for why we must explore—and eventually migrate into—space.
Sagan's vision and enthusiasm paints a stark contrast to limited, unimaginative, and unscientific outlook of the current U.S. political leadership.
The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life's meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.
After a brief sedentary hiatus, we are resuming our ancient nomadic way of life.
Ballantine, New York, 1994
Banana Yoshimoto, Goodbye Tsugumi
A very sweet tale about an unusual seaside friendship.
The ponderosa pine trees are pollinating right now so every time there is the slightest breeze, the air is filled with a magical pale yellow mist, and everything is covered with a soft dust that gives off a subdued glow, creating a mood that is very appropriate for this book.
Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite writers.
Grove Press, New York, 2002
Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes
Vintage, New York, 1991 (1964)
Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun
While excited to pick up another Murakami book, I was also a bit melancholy knowing that this was my last unexplored story of his. Nearing the end I even found myself thinking, Shit! Only fifty more pages! and put the book down in a futile attempt to make the story last a bit longer.
I couldn't leave it down for more than a few moments. The random order in which I read his books left the best for last.
Compared to his others, this story is more ordinary and has none of the spicy, supernatural tangents. Hajime spends the first years of his life in an affluent, postwar Tokyo suburb. The only thing that is unusual about his life is that he is an only child in a neighborhood of 2- and 3-children families, and on this small pivot, Murakami builds the complexities of Hajime's character.
In grade school, Hajime meets the only other only child, Shimamoto, and they form a deep bond. When he is twelve, his family moves to another town and he loses touch with Shimamoto, but she never stops inhabiting his life.
In his 30s, he marries another woman and, with financial help from her wealthy father, he opens a jazz nightclub. The club is successful, his marriage is good, he has two daughters he loves, he enjoys his work. Yet there is a small wound of absence at the core of his being and he finds himself often yearning for Shimamoto, until one day she walks into his bar and his neatly successful life begins to unravel as he explores his obsession. His unraveling takes him to the point where his marriage, his family, his successes, his emotional stability, even his very life is threatened.
To tell you the truth, normally a story about some guy's unraveling wouldn't grab me. Yet Murakami describes Hajime's journey with a deftness that swept me away and left me astonished. I felt his emotions, boredoms, ecstasies, and anguishes deep, deep inside myself. This book instantly takes a place alongside my all-time favorites.
Knopf, New York, 1999
Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
This is one crazy roller-coaster ride of a story! What is consciousness? What is self? Where are the limits of imagination? A story that strives to push that boundary further out.
Once again, life had a lesson to teach me: It takes years to build up, it takes moments to destroy.
A couple weekends ago I was helping to build a portion of path for a sculpture walk that opens today in our town. It winds along just above the river at that point and we decided to define the path with river stones. I did something I'm usually very careful to avoid: I walked through end-of-winter brush I was unfamiliar with to gather the stones. After about an hour of this, a neighbor walked by and warned me that I was wandering around in a patch of poison ivy.
As a kid growing up in Minnesota, a haven of poison ivy, I was hyperallergic to it. So I've been very careful to avoid it since and it must've been 35 years since my last infection.
The rash came on slowly, just a small stripe on one wrist the next day. A few days later a patch broke out on the other wrist. A week after the exposure another small patch broke out on one of my knees. Then, yesterday, it exploded and several of the patches became superinfected. I had to leave work … I couldn't concentrate. My doctor prescribed steroids and antibiotics and I began that uncomfortable phase of sitting, trying not to move, enduring the slow-motion torture of waiting for it to begin healing.
Why am I bothering to share this horror story? Because the only possible way for me to distract myself under these circumstances is with a good book. This book took care of me yesterday afternoon and a good part of today by taking my mind on a very inventive journey far away from my body. I'm grateful! Fortunately, I have another Murakami and several other reads of promising potential stacked up next to me to get me through the next few days.
Vintage, New York, 1993
Dean Barrett, Kingdom of Make-Believe
Barrett may have first-hand experience of Thailand, but his writing style is, for my tastes, very stiff and awkward. I mean, how many guys do you know who would think this to themselves upon seeing again after many years a woman they had once loved but had lost: "It was a face of unusual proportions, poised somewhere between handsome and beautiful, yet one which reflected strength of character and natural charm without conforming to the expected norms and confining symmetry of visual appeal." Certainly not the kind of descriptive language I can relate to.
Village East Books, New York, 1999
John Burdett, Bangkok Tattoo
A worthy follow-up to his previous book about Sonchai Jitpleecheep and Bangkok. Burdett is obviously a keen and sensitive observer, someone who has lived deeply in Asia and has gleaned an understanding of what Asians see when they observe Westerners.
There is also an interesting perspective on how 9/11 and our response to it is seen by those who live outside the U.S. We are a young culture being observed by older cultures that are on the ascendant, cultures that don't share our values. I think there is going to be a significant power shift in the coming decade between the West and East. Understanding the East better might help us become flexible enough to deal with the changes that are coming.
The book's cover falls incredibly short of what it could've been.
Knopf, New York, 2005
Paul Eddy, Flint's Law
On second read, again mixed feelings about this book. An interesting glimpse into what it was like to live in a totalitarian regime (Eastern Germany), but the story sputters at the end and devolves into the one thing I hate most in a novel: a long-winded explanation of the plot by one of the characters as a way to wrap it up.
Putnam, New York, 2002
Haruki Murakami, After the Quake
This was the first of Murakami's books that I was not entranced by, perhaps because of the format: short stories. One thing I find very rich about his writing in general is how he develops his characters, but there just isn't time in these snippets for that to happen.
Vintage, New York, 2003
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
When I'm reading his books, I can't put them down. When I'm finished, I yearn for another. This is another strong story, although quite sad.
Vintage, New York, 2000
Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance
This guy spins amazing stories! This is a sequel, sort of, to A Wild Sheep Chase, and another peculiar romp through modern-day Japan. Within this mystery tale, Murakami ponders about how capitalism is impacting individuals and reveals the ways in which fame and fortune can shackle the famous and fortunate.
Of course, his story dives into surreal dreamscapes at times, but perhaps the most surreal aspect is how his ordinary characters can afford to spend such long blocks of time doing anything but working.
"All you have to do is wait," I explained. "Sit tight and wait for the right moment. Not try to change anything by force, just watch the drift of things. Make an effort to cast a fair eye on everything. If you do that, you just naturally know what to do. But everyone's always too busy. They're too talented, their schedules are too full. They're too interested in themselves to think about what's fair."
Vintage, New York, 1995
Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase
There're many things we don't really know. It's an illusion that we know anything at all. If a group of aliens were to stop me and ask, "Say, bud, how many miles an hour does the earth spin at the equator?" I'd be in a fix. Hell, I don't even know why Wednesday follows Tuesday."
There are many things I don't really know and it's an illusion that I know anything at all about this story, but I enjoyed it all the same. Murakami puts his characters—and we readers—into the unlikeliest, often surreal situations, which I guess provide the excuse for his characters—and we readers—to think about the most ordinary things in a slightly different way.
A few of the themes in this book seem to be obsession, power, and control. But perhaps the main theme is coming to terms with being ordinary and discovering the richness to be found in that: a beer with a friend, a walk along the river.…
Vintage, New York, 2002
Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
A slow, meandering meditation on friendship, desire, and loss. I'm beginning to realize that, for me, what Murakami's books are about is less important than what they leave me feeling and thinking.
This one made me more aware that wanting more from friendships can blind me to the wealth that is already available in those friendships. Imagining what my life would be like without a key friend, or actually experiencing such a loss, puts the value of those friends in a whole new perspective.
… don't pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world? Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life, and it'd lose even its imperfection.
Knopf, New York, 2001
Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
While I was quite drawn in by this story, it didn't grab me the way Kafka did, and I didn't end up caring about the characters as much. Still, he's taking us places no other writer is.
After thinking about this story for a day and chatting with a friend who has read it, I'm beginning to see something differently. The story appears to be narrated by the character who was named Mr. Wind-Up Bird by a young neighbor of his. But in the end, we find out he wasn't familiar with some of the interludes that were introduced throughout the book. That leaves me wondering whether the whole book is the story of another character who has a quiet, enigmatic role in the story, and who seems to be the only one who could've known or imagined the whole story. Ah well, who knows?
What I do know is that I've been thinking about this story. And it gave me a gift: it reminded me that life can change dramatically at any moment. That has happened to me several times during my life, but for the past few years my life has felt a bit changeless, to the point where I was forgetting just how suddenly things can change.
During the time I was reading Wind-Up, I also became much more aware of the amazing variety of life experiences around me: so many people living in absolutely different realities than I do! I don't want to trade places with any of them, but it is a wake-up call to become more aware of how different life experiences can be.
Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?
We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know anther person, but in the end, how close are we able to come to that person's essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?
"You know, Mr. Wind-Up Bird, it's kinda funny for me to bring this up now, but you're pretty weird. There aren't too many people out there as weird as you are. Did you know that?"
"I'm not so weird to me," I said.
Lately, it's really been bothering me that, I don't know, the way people work like this every day from morning to night is kind of weird. Hasn't it ever stuck you as strange? I mean, all I do here is do the work that my bosses tell me to do the way they tell me to do it. I don't have to think at all. It's like I just put my brain in a locker before I start work and pick it up on the way home. I spend seven hours a day at a workbench,… then I eat dinner in the cafeteria, take a bath, and of course I have to sleep, like everybody else, so out of a twenty-four hour day, the amount of free time I have is like nothing. And because I'm so tired from work, the "free time" I have I mostly spend lying around in a fog. I don't have any time to sit and think about anything. Of course, I don't have to work on weekends, but then I have to do the laundry and cleaning I've let go, and sometimes I go into town, and before I know it the weekend is over. I once made up my mind to keep a diary, but I had nothing to write, so I quit after a week. I mean, I just do the same thing over and over again, day in, day out.
Vintage, New York, 1998
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
I've never read anything else quite like this. I was, quite simply, entranced.
"Kafka, in everybody's life there's a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can't go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That's how we survive."
"I've experienced all kinds of discrimination," Oshima says. "Only people who've been discriminated against can really know how much it hurts. Each person feels the pain in his own way, each has his own scars. So I think I'm as concerned about fairness and justice as anybody. But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T. S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they're doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don't want to. Like that lovely pair we've just met." He sighs and twirls the long slender pencil in hand. "Gays, lesbians, straights, feminists, fascist pigs, communists, Hare Krishnas—none of them bother me. I don't care what banner they raise. But what I can't stand are hollow people.…"
Knopf, New York, 2005
Bill DeSmedt, Singularity
The book's strong point is its imaginative science. Unfortunately, the lack of imagination in the story itself diminishes it.
"If you can't trust in reality to be real, what's left?"
per Aspera, Seattle, 2005
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
If you want to understand the true impact of Marketing on our world, how it is ripping the soul out of humanity, this is a good place to start.
"Of course," he says, "we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents' have insufficient 'now' to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile." He smiles, a version of Tom Cruise with too many teeth, and longer, but still very white. "We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment's scenarios. Pattern recognition."
Putnam, New York, 2003
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
I've read all the books in the series that began with this story, and most of Mosley's other books as well. He's one of my favorite writers and has produced a lot of excellent books. This remains my favorite.
When I was a poor man, and landless, all I worried about was a place for the night and food to eat; you really didn't need much for that. A friend would always stand me a meal, and there were plenty of women who would have let me sleep with them. But when I got a mortgage I found that I needed more than just friendship. Mr. Albright wasn't a friend but he had what I needed.
Norton, New York, 1990
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
While this book didn't grab me the way Blink did—I found the ideas in Blink more connected to the mystery and spirit of living, while those in this book are more connected to … well, marketing and corporate-think—I still found this to be a very interesting read.
The two parts of the book I found most interesting were those on Gore Associates, a tremendously successful company that is doing things in a very un-corporate way, and on why the anti-smoking campaign has been so unsuccessful and some simple ways it might be turned around. These are two examples of what I find to be very intelligent thinking.
There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.
Character, then, isn't what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be. It isn't a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.
At Gore there are no titles. If you ask people who work there for their card, it will just say their name and underneath it the word, "Associate," regardless of how much money they make or how much responsibility they have or how long they have been at the company. People don't have bosses, they have sponsors—mentors—who watch out for their interests. There are no organization charts, no budgets, no elaborate strategic plans. Salaries are determined collectively. Headquarters for the company is a low-slung, unpretentious red brick building. The "executive" offices are small, plainly furnished rooms, along a narrow corridor. The corners of Gore buildings tend to be conference rooms or free space, so that no one can be said to have a more prestigious office.…
Gore is, in short, a very unusual company with a clear and well-articulated philosophy. It is a big established company attempting to behave like a small entrepreneurial start-up. By all accounts, that attempt has been wildly successful. Whenever business experts make lists of the best American companies to work for, or whenever consultants give speeches on the best-managed American companies, Gore is on the list. It has a rate of employee turnover that is about a third the industry average. It has been profitable for thirty-five consecutive years and has growth rates and an innovative, high-profit product line that is the envy of the industry. Gore has managed to create a small-company ethos so infectious and sticky that it has survived their growth into a billion-dollar company with thousands of employees. And how did they do that? By (among other things) adhering to the rule of 150.
William "Bill" Gore—the late founder of the company … seems to have stumbled on the principle by trial and error. "We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty," he told an interviewer some years ago, so 150 employees per plant became the company goal.
"When Airwalk started, the product was directional and inventive. The shoes were very forward," said Chad Farmer. "We maintained the trendsetter focus on the marketing. But the product began to slip. The company began to listen more and more to the sales staff and the product started to get that homogenized, mainstream look. Everybody loved the marketing. In focus groups that we do, they still talk about how they miss it. But the number one complaint is, what happened to the cool product?"
Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.
Little, Brown, New York, 2000
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Flanders Panel
A good, multi-layered mystery centered around a chess game being played in a 500-year-old painting. The enigma of the game and its players spills out into the modern world of the woman restoring the painting and entangles her to the point that the line between her life and the lives of the players in the painting begins to blur.
Pérez-Reverte created several very well-developed characters for this story, and he manages to make the chess game accessible and fascinating for non-chess-players like myself. It's a bit astonishing that the movie based on this book is so very shallow and uninspired.
Harcourt, New York, 2004 (1994)
Masaru Emoto, The Hidden Messages in Water
I was fascinated by parts of this book and turned off by other parts.
The parts that fascinated me were those that dealt most directly with the photography of water crystals. I found myself provoked to think about the sensitivity of water to its environment, and sensed correlations with what I have experienced when appreciating water in different locations.
There are moments when being near water has been among the most exhilarating experiences of my life. For example, there is a place nearby where I go hiking … the water comes down off Rocky Mountain glaciers and flows through one of my most beautiful, little canyons I could imagine. I always feel rejuvenated when I visit there.
In contrast, I have visited water in other places where I had been absolutely repulsed by it, saddened by the pollution and litter it carried, and by the obvious disregard with which it is treated by the surrounding communities.
When I drink the unfiltered water from our well, it is nectar. On the very rare occassions when I drink water from the tap of the nearby city where I work, I almost gag, even though it is run through a filtering machine. How can the same substance cause such different responses in me?
The parts of the book that turned me off were those in which Dr. Emoto goes off on tangents of conjecture, for example, when he speculates about the correct proportion of love to gratitude based on the structure of the water molecule. Huh?
Still, despite the several huh? sections I found scattered throughout the book, I recommend it for what it reveals about the substance of which we are primarily made. And for the joy, passion, and sincerity with which Dr. Emoto discusses his subject.
The life you live and the world you live in are up to you.
Beyond Words, Hillsboro, 2004
Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
It's not over until the fat lady sings? Well, actually, it's probably over before she even opens her mouth.
Gladwell explores how much we know in a blink of the eye, how we can intelligently and accurately ascertain a great deal about a person, an object, or a situation within a couple of seconds.
He also explores the flip side: how that first impression can be terribly colored by our biases, so much so that it can become monumentally difficult for us to see beyond an incorrect first impression. So what's the lesson? I walked away with this: to trust my guts, but also to be watchful of myself when I make those instantaneous, gut-level judgments, especially when it comes to evaluating others.
A fascinating and worthwhile read.
Little, Brown, New York, 2005
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Club Dumas
What a disappointment after The Queen of the South. I guess if you are a Dumas fan or like to dabble in the occult, you might find this book hugely entertaining. I'm not interested in either, so I was just bored, and couldn't have cared less about what happened to any of the characters. Yes, the writing is clever and erudite … but so what. And it felt like Pérez-Reverte was dropping the names of old books that make collectors spill their brandies on their smoking jackets the way a crass actor or actress at a party might drop the names of important people they've met. Boring.
Vintage, New York, 1998
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Queen of the South
Reading the opening chapters of this story, I thought I was going to be disappointed. The book is written in a style I've come across a few times: told partly from the musing of a journalist who is doing research for a book on the life of the main character, Teresa Mendoza, and partly from first-hand accounts of significant incidents in her life. Some authors can't pull this approach off very well, and it can be boring as hell if they don't. Pérez-Reverte pulls it off with aplomb.
Using the journalist's musing to paint in important details and perspectives, he tells the vivid story of this Mexicana as she grows from a scrappy, barefooted street urchin into a drug runner's girlfriend, a marked woman running for her life, an exile hiding in Spain, and slowly into one of the major narcotics transporters in the Mediterranean region.
It's a story that could have easily devolved into a tawdry soap opera, an unintentional comedy. That it never does testifies to the skill with which Pérez-Reverte handles his pen. Instead, he gives us the opportunity to feel in our guts what it might be like to live a life like that: the fear, the highs, the sticky trap that is success, the aloneness of a life void of trust.
Suddenly you wake up with proof that it's impossible to just live—you realize that life is a road, and that traveling it entails constant choices. Who you live with, who you love, who you kill. Whether you want to or not, you have to walk the road by yourself.… The Situation … What it came down to was choosing.
Reading, she'd learned in prison, especially novels, allowed her to inhabit her mind in a new way—as though by blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, she might witness her own life as if it were happening to somebody else.
It might be that ambition, plans, dreams, even bravery, or faith—even faith in God, she decided, shivering—didn't give you strength, but took it away. Because hope, even the mere desire to survive, made a person vulnerable, bound to possible pain and defeat.
Then, as the officers were getting ready to leave, the doctor told the barman not to charge them, to put their coffee on his tab. One of them protested politely, while the other gave them a smile. Gracias. No, the doctor said, thank you, for your service. Gracias, they said again.
"Good boys," the doctor said as the door closed behind them.
He'd said the same thing about the pilots, Teresa remembered, when the Aviocar's engines roared overhead on the beach. And that, among other things, was what she liked about the doctor. His perfect, unflappable equanimity. Anybody, seen from the right perspective, could be a good boy. Or girl. The world was a difficult place, with complicated rules, where each person played the role assigned by destiny. Everybody I know, she had heard the doctor remark, has reasons for doing what they do. Accepting that in the people around you, she concluded, made it easier to get along with them. The trick was to always look for the positive side. And smoking a pipe helped a lot. It gave you time—to think, to reflect, to wait. It gave you the chance to move slowly, and look into yourself, and look at others.
Putnam, New York, 2004
John Colapinto, About the Author
An entertaining read about an author who gets hopelessly ensnared in an impossible situation created by his own desperate desire to be seen as a success. Deftly written, the story is at times truly frightening, but somehow it managers to be always laughing at itself.
Harper Collins, New York, 2001
Harlan Coben, Tell No One
During my holiday break, I built a new bookshelf and shelved a bunch of books I had read previously and stored in boxes. This was one. I first read it when it was released in 2001. It is a suspense-thriller full of unexpected twists that make it an entertaining first-time read. But with the surprises gone, the writing isn't strong enough to hold up well during a second reading. I've never read another of his books, having seen reviews that claimed much plot line similarity to this one. This re-reading convinces me I made the right decision.
Orion, London, 2001
Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October
First read this back in the late 80s and liked it. Saw the movie the other night and found it, as with most movies derived from books, unsatisfying. So I thought I would give the book another read.
The book gets a bit rah-rah hokey at times, but the story is solid. It really scores for its attention to technical detail. Read a couple more of Clancy's books after my first reading of this one, but none of them came close to the quality of this one.
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1984
William Poundstone, How Would You Move Mount Fuji?
Interesting. I'm doing some interviewing at work so picked up this book to get some ideas for how to better conduct an interview. Some of the information really surprised me, the puzzles didn't. I've run into a few of them over the years; some I have figured out, some I wasn't able to. I'm not convinced that they are a great interviewing technique. The answers to these things, if they do come, tend to come to me when I have a few moments to be quiet and reflect. That's also how I work: my breakthroughs come from times of introspection. The result of trying to nail a puzzle during the pressure of an interview, whether successful or not, wouldn't provide much insight into the triumphs I've experienced in moments of quiet.
By the way, I got to this book via the article The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing by Joel Spolsky at his Joel on Software site, http://www.joelonsoftware.com/. I enjoyed, learned a lot from, and highly recommend this article.
It looks like people make a snap judgment of a person within two seconds of meeting him or her—a judgment not based on anything the person says. Only rarely does anything that happens after the first two seconds cause the judger to revise that first impression significantly.
This would be funny if it weren't tragic. These studies suggest that the standard job interview is a pretense in which both interviewer and interviewee are equally and mutually duped. The interviewer has made up her mind by the time the interviewee has settled into a chair. Maybe the decision is based on looks, body language, or the "cut of you jib." What's certain is that it's not based on anything happening inside the job candidate's head. The questions and answers that follow are a sham, a way of convincing both that some rational basis exists for a hiring decision. In reality, the decision has already been made, on grounds that could not possibly be more superficial.
Running a company today is a difficult balancing act. The global economy dictates a lean, nimble style of management. At the same time, companies are not just capitalist machines. They have a human side, a miniature society with expectations about how employees and potential employees should be treated. In innovation-based industries, that human side is a company's main asset. With it comes a pressure to challenge notions of social decorum in order to gain a competitive edge. People such as Bill Gates speak to us today because they voice, in exaggerated form, the pressures (paranoia, even) we all feel in our mutable and interconnected global marketplace. For a struggling start-up—or even for one of those $400 billion businesses that perpetually fears missing the next technological boat—ends tend to justify means. This is the ambivalent fascination of the puzzle interview, which is in some ways a cry of desperation.
As Christensen wrote, "Markets that do not exist cannot be analyzed. Suppliers and customers must discover them together. Not only are the market applications for disruptive technologies unknown at the time of their development, they are unknowable."
Christensen's point is not, of course, that businesspeople should reject logic. His message is akin to the advice offered to solvers of puzzles: You have to recognize that the type of reasoning that works so well most of the time may not work in certain situations. In those situations, logic can be misleading. It's necessary to step back, consider all the options, and proceed methodically. You need to combine logic with creativity and mental flexibility. It will be necessary to brainstorm a number of possible approaches, try them out without committing too many resources (for most of the approaches will fail), and then devise a game plan from what you learn. This is how both business innovation and puzzle solving work.
So how would I move Mount Fuji? To tell you the truth, I wouldn't.
Little, Brown, New York, 2003