Reading – 2002
A love affair with books
"When I'm feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world for just a day, after having been dead for a while. I imagine how sentimental and excited I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. 'Oh, there's a light switch—I haven't seen one in so long! I didn't realize how much I missed light switches. Oh, oh, and look—the stairs up our front porch are still cracked. Hi, cracks! And there's my sister, still punctuating all her sentences with "You see what I'm saying?" Why did that used to bug me? It's so … endearing.'"
– Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Albert László Barabási, Linked: The New Science of Networks
And there goes 2002!
Clear, accessible, and fascinating. In the last century, science discovered the building blocks of life. In this century, the challenge is to understand how those building blocks link. This book outlines the beginning of that journey of understanding.
I was struck by one section in the discussion of network economies that compares the older market economy with the newer network economy.
As Walter W. Powell writes in Neither Market nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organization, "in markets the standard strategy is to drive the hardest possible bargain on the immediate exchange. In networks, the preferred option is often creating indebtedness and reliance over the long haul." Therefore, in a network economy, buyers and suppliers are not competitors but partners. The relationship between them is often very long lasting and stable. The stability of these links allows companies to concentrate on their core business.
Perhaps this offers a hint as to why the political system in America is failing so miserably, attracting fewer and fewer eligible voters to participate with each passing election cycle. In an off year, a leader will search for support among opposition representatives, but during an election cycle, the same leader will campaign vigorously against the same representatives who offered support on some of the leader's legislation, destroying any possibility of long-term partnerships.
Perhaps it is time for the American political system to modernize a bit, move away from the old fashioned politics of destruction, and get in step with the emerging understanding about our networked world?
Perseus, Cambridge, 2002
B.R. Meyers, A Reader's Manifesto
The audacity of this guy, challenging our mighty literary critics! Who does he think he is? A reader? Ha!
Well, taste and sensibility may not make a professional critic … but they are all that we readers need to distinguish good books from bad ones.
And taste and sensibility are quite personal attributes, aren't they? For me, it's as simple as this: I read for pleasure, and the only person I need to please is myself. With tens of thousands of new books published each year, it's a knack to search out a handful of possibilities. If I've learned anything over the 40 years that I've been reading with great appetite, it's that I must ignore both the critics and the bestseller lists to find those reads I enjoy most.
By the way, unlike Mr. Meyers, I thoroughly enjoyed The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. I read it a second time after a year or so had gone by, and then named it one of my favorites. I don't care that the critics raved in its favor or that Mr. Meyers rants against Proulx's bad writing, the story and its characters enchanted me. Simple as that. That's my reader's manifesto.
Bravo, B.R. Meyers!
Melville House, Hoboken, 2002
K.j.a. Wishnia, Blood Lake
I remember years ago reading the first of the Ninja novels. The action and pace actually stunned me. I think that was the first time reading an action sequence actually caused me to have an adrenalin rush. But I never read any of the subsequent books in that series. For me, action doesn't make a story. It can nicely complement a story, but it can also grind a story down.
I only recently heard of K.j.a. Wishnia. The thing that attracted me to this book, featuring heroine Filomena Buscarsela, was that Filomena is returning to her homeland, Ecuador. I had never read a story set in Ecuador, so I was curious, and Wishnia's wife is from Ecuador, so I thought there was a good chance the setting would be authentic.
While Wishnia indeed paints a vivid portrait of the land and some of her people, he fails to create a convincing story about Filomena. I never found myself feeling empathy with her passions and motivations, and was puzzled by the way she mistreated and neglected her daughter. I was left wondering about the challenges a male writer faces when attempting to craft a convincing story with a female lead. I don't think Wishnia pulls it off. And in the end, his action sequences with Filomena grind the story down
St. Martin's Minotaur, New York, 2002
Michael Crichton, Prey
Like many of his stories, Prey is based on an intriguing dilemma created by the clash between rapid technological advances and poor human decisions. Also like many of his stories, Prey devolves into an overly melodramatic, made-for-Hollywood farce. The movie will likely be another blockbuster populated by suburban safe-thrill seekers. The underlying technological dilemma will be washed down with colas, smothered with popcorn, and forgotten within minutes. But rapid and unchecked technological advances could well pose a more dangerous threat to our future than foreign terrorists. As Crichton points out in the foreword, "already modified maze genes now appear in native maize in Mexico—despite laws against it, and efforts to prevent it." And nobody really knows what will be the consequence of that.
From the foreword:
Unfortunately, our species has demonstrated a striking lack of caution in the past. It is hard to imagine that we will behave differently in the future.
We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future. Instead, each generation writes off earlier errors as the result of bad thinking by less able minds—and then confidently embarks on fresh errors of its own.
We are one of only three species on our planet that can claim to be self-aware, yet self-delusion may be a more significant characteristic of our kind.
And from the story itself:
If you want to think of it that way, a human being is actually a giant swarm. Or more precisely, it's a swarm of swarms, because each organ—blood, liver, kidneys—is a separate swarm. What we refer to as a "body" is really the combination of all these organ swarms.
We think our bodies are solid, but that's only because we can't see what is going on at the cellular level. If you could enlarge the human body, blow it up to a vast size, you would see that it was literally nothing but a swirling mass of cells and atoms, clustered together into smaller swirls of cells and atoms.
Who cares? Well, it turns out a lot of processing occurs at the level of the organs. Human behavior is determined in many places. The control of our behavior is not located in our brains. It's all over our bodies.
So you could argue that "swarm intelligence" rules human beings, too. Balance is controlled by the cerebellar swarm, and rarely comes to consciousness. Other processing occurs in the spinal cord, the stomach, the intestine. A lot of vision takes place in the eyeballs, long before the brain is involved.
And for that matter, a lot of sophisticated brain processing occurs beneath awareness, too. An easy proof is object avoidance. A mobile robot has to devote a tremendous amount of processing time simply to avoid obstacles in the environment. Human beings do, too, but they're never aware of it—until the lights go out. Then they learn painfully just how much processing is really required.
So there's an argument that the whole structure of consciousness, and the human sense of self-control and purposefulness, is a user illusion. We don't have conscious control over ourselves at all. We just think we do.
Harper Collins, New York, 2002
Eliot Pattison, Bone Mountain
Worth reading for the moments of brilliant clarity. Overall, too much emphasis on repeated bouts of action, and a syrupy and unrealistic ending. His finest work, in my opinion, remains his first, The Skull Mantra.
Gendun had lived in a hidden hermitage, carved inside a mountain, almost his entire life. The first Chinese he had ever met had been Shan, the year before. The first time he had left his own hermitage in decades had been only four months earlier. The thing he could not get used to about the outside world, he had sadly confided to Shan, was how many good people died without having prepared their souls, as if they had not taken their gift of human incarnation seriously.
Sometimes, Shan's father had told him, people can live eighty or ninety years and only briefly, once or twice at most, glimpse the true things of life, the things that are the essence of the planet and of mankind. Sometimes people died without ever seeing a single true thing. But, he had assured Shan, you can always find true things if you just know where to look.
The Tibetans had long ago taught him meditation exercises utilizing arrows and bows, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary, and he had discovered what Gendun meant when he had told Shan that archery was not a sport but a teaching. It was a perfect vehicle for achieving focus, and when he emptied his mind sufficiently he could hear, as Gendun had taught him, not just the drawing of the string, the release of the string, the flight of the arrow and its impact, but also the perfect instant of quiet just before the string was released, when the archer and his implement became one.
"They have explosives,"Shan said, and pointed to the wooden boxes, stacked where the purbas slept.
Lokesh stared at the crates for a long time. "I don't know. Nyma and Somo, they wouldn't use avoiders."
Avoiders. It was part of their particular gulag language, stemming from a teaching given in their barracks by an old monk, in his twenty-fifth year of imprisonment, just before he died. Guns were avoiders, he said, and bombs and tanks and cannons. They allowed the users to avoid talking with their enemy, and allowed them to think they were right just because they had more powerful technology for killing.
St. Martin's Minotaur, New York, 2002
Martin Cruz Smith, December 6
Quite an entertaining story. His best effort since Polar Star.
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2002
Scott Turow, Reversible Errors
Mesmerizing. His first story since Presumed Innocent that matches that effort (and Presumed Innocent is one of my all-time favorites). Turow tackles the ultimate legal subject: the death penalty. What a strange term, when you really think about it, "death penalty." So tidy. Not "execution," not "state-sponsored murder," but rather, "penalty." Want to understand what's really at stake when the state sets out to execute a human being? Read this story. Turow writes with the intimacy of a cancer sending its tendrils through the very stem cells of humanity.
As always, at this moment, Larry was intensely aware of himself. This was his profession. Murder. Like everybody else, he thought about buying a new garden hose and the line on tomorrow's hockey match, and how he could get to both boys' soccer games. But at some point every day, he snuck into the mossy cave of murder, to the moist thriling darkness of the idea.
He reminded Larry of some of his elderly Polish relatives, who could give you the case history of every dollar they'd ever made or spent. It was an Old World thing, money equaling security. Being a Homicide dick taught you two things about that. First, people died for money; the only thing they died for more often was love. And second, there was never enough money when the bogeyman rang your doorbell.
Her comfort, she suspected, arose from knowing she would someday be forgotten as well, that her sins would wash away in the great tide of time in which all but one or two people who'd trod the world beside her—a scientist, an artist—would be pulverized with her into nothing more memorable than sand. And today she was free to begin moving there. It was over, she told herself in that moment. If she could let it be, it was over.
She realized only years later in a prison cell that it was fear that had fueled her revulsion with middle-class morality, a sense of how crushingly she might otherwise have imposed its strict judgements on herself.
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2002
Ben Okri, Dangerous Love
A terribly beautiful story. His earlier story, Famished Road, stunned me with its originality. This one has stunned me with its soul. Through the senses of Omovo, a young artist, we see, smell, taste, hear, and feel the festering wounds of Nigeria that are her ghettos, and vividly experience the love, dreams, despair, and nightmares of her people. Okri is one of our world's finest writers.
Ifeyiwa thought often of those moments they spent together. They walked through scenes of unbearable poverty, their faces lit up by the sun. She would tell him about some of her fears. He would tell her stories, he would talk about his ideas, his visions, his torments. They talked mostly about unhappy things. And yet Ifeyiwa mostly remembered the joy of those days, with every moment vibrant and golden.
Omovo always marvelled at people's responses to the first part of a working day. Some seemed curiously to relish the confusion, the rush, the required nimbleness. Some smiled foolishly as they were shoved, others fought back with implacable bitterness, lashing in all directions as if the rest of the crowd were their antagonists, as if getting on the bus was not their real goal. And there were moments of sinsister entertainment when fights broke out or when two people, abandoning their attempts at getting early to work, began abusing one another with insults ranging from insinuations of impotence to oblique statements concerning the other person's grandfather's rectum. Omovo had always thought of the bus-stop in the mornings as the perfect symbol of society, and through that, of life in general.
To escape the confusion of his feelings Omovo spent some part of the evening in serene contemplation of the works of the masters. Turning the pages of Great Paintings of the World had a calming effect on him. He realised, as he studied the color prints, often making quick copies in his pad, that he wasn't looking at them as much as bouncing off them into his own world, his own realities.
And as Omovo's being swirled a word kept repeating itself to him: transfiguration – transfigure the deception multiplied by education – all education is bad until you educate yourself – from scratch – start from the beginning, from the simplest things – assume nothing – question everything – begin again the journey from the legends of creation – look again at eveything – keep looking – be vigilant – understand things slowly – digest thoroughly – act swiftly – re-dream the world – restructure self – all the building blocks are there in the chaos – USE EVERYTHING – USE EVERYTHING WISELY – EVERYTHING HAS SIGNIFICANCE –
'My son,' he said, 'I am aware of all that's happened to you. More is yet to happen. And more on top of that. Remember: even this shall pass. Bad things will happen and good things too. Your life will be full of surprises. Miracles happen only where there has been suffering. So taste your grief to the fullest. Don't try and press it down. Don't hide from it. Don't escape. It is life too. It is truth. But it will pass and time will put a strange honey in the bitterness. That's the way life goes.'
Phoenix House, London, 1996
Deborah Turrell Atkinson, Primitive Secrets
I enjoy reading the first books by new authors. Once in a while I come across quite good ones, and there is something about the energy and intensity of a first book that is often never matched again in an author's subsequent books, even if the skill with which they are written increases.
That said, this is not one of those great finds. While there is some good descriptive and background material about the setting in Hawaii and her legends and people, the story itself is a bit uneven. The author seems to be experimenting with her voice, for example, at one point there is an abrupt, awkward, and unconvincing shift by one of the characters into first-person voice for a few pages. And she does something that I really dislike in a mystery, the mystery itself is primarily unraveled at the very end by characters explaining what happened, rather than by uncovering it through their adventures.
The main character, Storm, is a likeable, richly drawn, quirky character. It's possible that as Atkinson's voice matures, she could produce some quite good books featuring Storm.
Poisoned Pen Press, Scottsdale, 2002
Manuel Ramos, Moony's Road to Hell
Ramos is as sharp as a blade glinting under a street light. A dark, soulful portrayal of life lived at full speed, no regrets, and no rewards, save for a dozen yellow roses on your grave. But maybe that's enough. Beautifully written.
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 2002
Larry Gonick & Art Huffman, The Cartoon Guide to Physics
What a gas! Fuel for thought, and a bellyful of laughs. I loved it. Why aren't our school textbooks this creative? Learning would be so much easier and so much more enjoyable.
Harper Perennial, New York, 1991
José Carlos Somoza, The Athenian Murders
A brilliant multi-tiered whodunit, which takes place in Athens at the time of Plato, and is itself a critique of Plato's dialogues. Entertaining, thought-provoking, tragic, comedic; one of the better books I've read this year.
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2002
Caroline Carver, Blood Junction
Carver's debut in colorful and vivid enough that at times you can taste the grit in your mouth, stirred up by the wind whirling down the dusty main street of Cooinda, also known as Blood Junction due to an aboriginal massacre that took place there in the 1950s. At times, the mystery and some of her characters get a little thin, but this is a book worth reading for its perceptive sense of place. She obviously knows the outback and its people.
Mysterious Press, New York, 2002
Sarah Susanka with Kira Obolensky, The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live
A few years ago, as we were looking for a place to buy, our primary goal was location. We found what we wanted, a couple acres covered with Ponderosa pines (yet with plenty of open space for Garima's big garden), nestled in the foothills, with good views and reasonable privacy. The house itself was a small, worn down, uninspired, poorly cared for 1970's ranch. But it was insulated (crucial in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains) and reasonably solid.
I didn't like the house at first, but we set to work fixing it up: new shingles on the roof, a new deck to replace the ill-designed and rotting existing deck, fresh wool carpeting, an exterior painting to match the tans and browns we see in the land surrounding us, and the addition of a freestanding propane fireplace to provide emergency heat when the power is out, which has turned into the focal point of our winter evenings in the living room.
All these things helped begin to make the house our home. This summer, we worked on our little sun porch, which runs along part of the south-facing side of the house. Tacked onto the original house by a previous owner, it was poorly designed and executed, and was the last one of what we considered to be the essential repairs that the house needed. I was really surprised by the transformation of that room; it went from being the worst room in the house to the nicest.
This has quite inspired me, opening my eyes to the potential to transform other rooms as well. Just at that time, I was browsing www.taunton.com (I'm an avid woodworker and Taunton is the publisher of Fine Woodworking) and I came across this book, which they publish. Sarah Susanka is an accomplished architect with a vision I respect. She emphasizes quality over quantity, and stresses that houses must be designed and built for the people who will live in them, rather than as showcases. Her book is full of inspiring conversation about what makes a house a place in which people feel comfortable, accompanied by many photographs of the beautiful work done by her and others in her firm. Reading and looking through this book has been a real Aha! experience. It certainly is a welcome change of perspective from the in-your-face prairie mansions one sees cropping up all over the West.
Taunton, Newtown, 1998
William Rivers Pitt with Scott Ritter, War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know
This little booklet was rushed into production, but still arrived too late, just a few days before the Senate caved. It really should've been an interview in a magazine; most of the book is an interview with Scott Ritter. It's hard to know what to think about Mr. Ritter. I'm very opposed to the Bush approach to foreign policy—which seems to be hit them with a big stick first, and then think later—but I remember Ritter denouncing the weapons inspection process not so very long ago for being lax and permitting Iraq to get away with too much. Now he seems to be saying the opposite. Unfortunately, I don't feel much more informed on the issue than I did before I read this booklet, and the U.S. press seems to be in a coma, so I find it difficult to get real information. Funny, so much data floating around our digital universe, and so little quality information.
Context Books, New York, 2002
Walter Mosley, Gone Fishin'
Another fine book by Walter Mosley about Easy Rawlins. In fact, this story is actually about the earlier part of Easy's life, his late teenage years.
I needed a place where life was a little easier and where nobody knew me. I knew that if I could be alone I could make it. All the people around me dancing, having a good time; they were just holding me back, wanting me to be the same old poor Easy—not a nickel in my pocket or a dream in my head.
I didn't have a thing, just like everybody around me; all the money I had was in my pocket and all the clothes I had were on my back. That's how life was back then. You couldn't hold me responsible for anything because I didn't have anything. And, realizing that, it was time for me to go.
Black Classic Press, Baltimore, 1997
Manuel Ramos, Blues for the Buffalo
Ramos writes with feeling, honesty, keen insight, and a sense of humor.
Over the course of his series of books about lawyer and trouble-attractor Luis Montez, in the background he has described the aging of the Chicano revolution, recognizing with bittersweet pride and wistful remorse that time is sweeping by and leaving him a bit behind.
St. Martin's, New York, 1997
Walter Mosley, Black Betty; A Little Yellow Dog; Bad Boy Brawly Brown
Some critics compare Walter Mosley to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In my opinion, the only level on which the comparison works is in all three writers' ability to evoke the mood of the streets of L.A.
In Easy Rawlins, Mosley has developed a complex and deep character who evolves realistically throughout the course of these novels, until we know Easy's soul and heart as well as we know our own. Hammett and Chandler never came close to that with their characters.
Norton, New York, 1994; Norton, New York, 1996, Little, Brown, New York, 2002
Barry Eisler, Rain Fall
This hit-man thriller set in Tokyo is made fascinating by the tremendous amount of social and environmental detail provided by Eisler. You can see the lights of nighttime Tokyo reflecting off wet streets and smell the fragrance of traditional Japanese cuisine wafting through the air. He is so carefully accurate that he actually notes in the backmatter the two liberties he took with location details. All around, a gripping and entertaining summer read.
Putnam, New York, 2002
Eliot Pattison, Water Touching Stone
Although this is an interesting story, it feels like Pattison tried too hard on this one, especially in contrast to his wonderful first book, which comes off as effortless as water flowing downhill.
The great barriers to understanding, Gendun had once told him, were material possessions, which only built hunger for more, and time, which pushed so many to rush through life, fearful they would miss something if they slowed, as though, if they were quick enough, they could change their destiny.
St. Martins Minotaur, New York, 2001
Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra
Every year or two, if I'm lucky, I find a book like this in my hands. Gorky Park, Smilla's Sense of Snow, Presumed Innocent, A Small Death in Lisbon, Motherless Brooklyn, Bel Canto—stories that take me somewhere in the world that I've never been, plunge me into the depths of a mystery and, at the same time, of the souls of the characters.
Deep inside modern-day Tibet, in a dismal gulag prison camp, we meet inspector Shan Tao Yung, former inspector from Beijing. His fellow prisoners are mostly Tibetan Buddhist monks, whose faith is their crime. Their punishment is to build roads by hand in the harsh climate of the interior. One day, the work gang stumbles across a corpse. For hidden political reasons, one of the local party leaders orders Shan to investigate.
Through Shan's eyes, mind, heart, and soul, we see, touch, and feel the turmoil that is Tibet today. This is an exquisite book, to be savored and re-read time and again.
"I knew a priest once. When I lived in Beijing. He used to help me." Shan spoke to her back. "Once I had a similar dilemma. About whether to seek justice or to just do what the bureaucrats wanted. Do you know what he said? He told me that our life is the instrument we use to experiment with the truth."
St. Martins Minotaur, New York, 1999
Ben Forta, Sams Teach Yourself SQL in 10 Minutes, 2nd ed.
I'm in an interesting phase in my life. The horizon that defines what I would like to accomplish is expanding at an astonishing rate, and I'm scrambling to learn the technical skills that will enable me to make the journey toward that horizon. In some areas, I'm starting from scratch, and SQL is one of those. This book is a good, quick overview of what I can do with a database (as I develop interactive Web pages).
The book is well written and concise, giving me enough of an insight to the basics to get started, and enough of a glimpse of more advanced topics to whet my appetite and help me focus on the direction I'll need to take. As I was reading through it, I created several ASP-embedded queries based on what I was learning. Good stuff.
I was only disappointed with the stored procedures chapter, which failed to give enough of an overview for me to grasp the scope of the topic. I wish he would have handled that topic in several "10 minute" chunks—as he did with filtering, for example—to provide a better introduction. Even with that one small drawback, I definitely recommend this book to any fellow SQL neophyte.
Sams, Indianapolis, 2001
Bill Hatfield, Active Server Pages for Dummies, 2nd ed.
What do you do when you're starting from scratch and you have a pressing deadline? Turn to the Dummies series. Hatfield makes a good, clear presentation of the basics of ASP. I've already got several simple pages that present database information up and running on our company's site, and I love ASP's flexibility and leanness.
My only complaint about books in the Dummies series is that they just try too hard to be cute. I like the simple presentation, I like the cartoons at the beginning of sections, but I definitely don't need every heading to be clever. What happens is that I end up not reading the headings, so an organizational tool is lost.
IDG, Foster City, 1999
Mark Costello, Big If
A well-written, but unimportant novel. If you're curious, as I was, about why the Secret Service is falling apart, this book will give you a glimpse.
Jens was jotting without thinking, without translating, and then the cyclone hit and the man went silet. Jens translated the last lines of dots and dashes, the last broadcast of the martyred Kansas hammer, and the man said this: Two of them. They glow. Jens, alone at the console, let the pencil fall. Being a scientific kid, he knew that twin cyclones were comparatively common. He also knew that cyclones did on rare occasions glow. Rustics had reported this for centuries, but scientists had written it off as terror playing tricks on rustics, a known phenomenon, until it was shown that the vicious spinning sheer of a twister system can actually create a battery in the air, building up a charge, and so the funnel glows. Some weather historians believed that these freaks of freaks, self-electrifying cyclones, might have been the source of Bible stories about God-as-fire, pillars of fire, tongues of fire, burning bushes burning unconsumed. Jens let the pencil fall that day and thought, I've seen it through Morse code, I've touched the lie of God.
Norton, New York, 2002
Richard Powers, Gain
Powers writes intelligently about big topics. In this book, his main character is really the corporate entity. He takes on the journey of the Clare family, who started a soapmaking business in Boston 170 years ago, and built into a multi-national corporation that eventually has virtually no connection to the original family, nor any face other than the one designed by the Marketing department with each—increasingly sanitized—ad campaign. Powers captures the exuberance of doing business and growing a company, as well as the market forces that push companies to lose touch with their original souls.
At the same time and as a counterpoint, he follows the present-day life of Laura Bodey, a divorced mother of two living in Lacewood, Illinois, the home town of one of Clare's gigantic chemical manufacturing plants. Laura discovers that she has ovarian cancer, and makes the torturous journey through chemo and then radiation therapy. It's suspected that her cancer may be due to the discharges from the Clare plant.
This is a brilliant book. Powers once again succeeds in presenting the crucial issues we face today, wrapped in a fascinating story. He is one of the most imaginative and insightful writers I have come across. I've now read all of his books; I only wish there were more.
Resolve Clare found the idea truly majestic: they could solve the needs of progress by selling the very condition that the need remedied.
Such was all the nod needed to turn a handful of harmless beans into a beanstalk that, in time, outgrew the world's terrarium. The limited-liability corporation: the last noble experiment, loosing an unknowable outcome upon its beneficiaries. Its success outstripped all rational prediction until, gross for gross, it became mankind's sole remaining endeavor.
Democracy, to Douglas, was neither here nor there. We the people, however, did interest him considerably. His years on the road convinced him that a business was neither inventory nor equipment nor licenses nor any other item in the typical assets column. Business was your employees, no more nor less. The sum total of your laboring armies. No idea, no effort, no chemistry, no freight hauling, no magic transformation of fat to cleansing foam—none of this happened without someone to do it.
The greater your human assets, the better your chance of survival. People had to feel they were part of something bigger than themselves, something growing. For Douglas Clare, growth was an end unto itself. Nothing in creation asked why bud relaxed into leaf or calf exploded into cow. Douglas had no more use for why than nature had.
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1998
Jennifer Niederst, Web Design in a Nutshell, 2nd Ed.
This is a great book. Primarily a detailed HTML 4.01 reference, Niederst—who is a fine writer—also provides an overview of the Web environment, as well as graphics, multimedia, interactivity, and advanced technologies on the Web, through XML, XHMTL, WAP, and WML. The overviews are concise, but provide enough information and context to help readers decide what they want to and can use, and thus need to pursue further. Although I have been writing HTML for several years now, I was impressed with how many little tips and techniques I picked up as quickly read through the book. For example, the short sections on gif and jpeg graphics left me understanding the optimization tools in Photoshop/ImageReady far better than any of the many Adobe manuals that are collecting dust under my desk. This book will be on my desk from now on.
O'Reilly, Sebastopol, 2001
David Bodanis, E=mc²: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.
Macmillan, London, 2000
Elizabeth Castro, XML for the World Wide Web
I'm beginning to see XML that has been generated by Word, and I'm about to install FrameMaker 7.0, which adopts XML in place of SGML, so I figured it was time to get an introduction to the extensible markup language.
I really appreciate Elizabeth Castro's writing style: clear and concise. The XML I'm seeing from Word is a wordy mess. This guide has given me enough of an introduction to the topic so that I can wade into the mess and clean it up a bit.
Peachpit Press, Berkeley, 2001
Jason Cranford Teague, DHTML and CSS for the World Wide Web, 2nd
I really like the format of these Visual Quick Start Guides. I read this book particularly for its coverage of CSS. It's great. Very clear as to what styles and attributes are compatible with which version of the various browsers.
I also use the style card from Visibone.com⩘ . Great tool.
Peachpit Press, Berkeley, 2001
Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2
I realize that I need to take two distinct tracks when I review a book by Richard Powers: I must compare it to his other books, and then I must compare it to all other books I've read.
Over the past four months, I've read six books by Mr. Powers. Galatea 2.2 is the only one that I've found to be less than absolutely fascinating. But it is still extraordinary fiction. Powers makes himself the main character and uses his previous four books as the backdrop for this exploration of the quality of being human. He describes an attempt to teach a powerful computer how to read and critique, and in that exercise explores what it is to learn, to comprehend, to understand.
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1995
Michael Connelly, City of Bones
This thoughtful and well-written, though somewhat depressing, police procedural follows detective Hieronymous Bosch through the nooks and crannies of L.A. A compelling read.
Little, Brown, New York, 2002
Richard Powers, Operation Wandering Soul
A devastating—yet beautifully written—story about how we mistreat so many of our children.
This isn't the story about the small percentage of kids who grow up in secure homes and never know hunger. It's about the vast numbers of children—today, in the US, around the world, and throughout history—who have been shunned, starved, maimed, persecuted, chased into exile, killed, and terrorized.
It's a novel based on true stories, and there is no escaping the harsh reality of this truth.
Richard Powers is an incredible writer.
Nothing can be assumed here. Total strangers greet you like a long-lost relative, fuss over you, buy you sailor suits, then disappear forever without trace. The price marked on a thing is exactly what you have to pay for it. People leave gaps between them in line, then get furious when you fill them. The water coming out of the wall is drinkable, but ponds and streams will kill you. The dead are not burned, but buried in spacious, decorated plots, while the living set up house on a square meter of sidewalk. Guns are legal but imported parrots are not.
She is saved only by seeing how no one else belongs here either.
Morrow, New York, 1993
Walter Mosley, White Butterfly
Mr. Mosley has written another excellent book, with feeling.
I was so impressed with Devil in a Blue Dress that I purchased copies of all his Easy Rawlins novels, so I could read them at my leisure.
So far, three at bat, three outta the park. He rates up there with Hammett and Chandler.
Norton, New York, 1992
Manuel Ramos, The Last Client of Luis Montez
Although this book is as full of colorful character and location descriptions as his previous two novels, the story in this one doesn't seem believable; however, the anger and despair expressed certainly feel authentic.
St. Martins Press, New York, 2002
William Kotzwinkle, Midnight Examiner
What can you say about our poet of the strange? Who else could craft a story about a confrontation between the staff of a New York supermarket tabloid called the Midnight Examiner and a ruthless, bumbling mafia clan, making shrewd observations about the state of the city and its people, the decay of society, and the capacity for people to survive under any circumstances, while all along winking and making us laugh … at ourselves?
I've enjoyed other books of his more (especially, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, but I almost never regret an afternoon spent with our bard of the bizarre.
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1989
Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations
I've been thinking about how I would write this review since I was about a quarter of my way through this book; by then, I had already sensed that I was holding in my hands one of the finest books I have read.
Simply put, I'm in awe. This is nothing less than the story of life itself, life writing about itself. Richard Powers is obviously a brilliant manifestation of the code he writes about.
Even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it. —Keats
His whole childhood was an unsuccessful effort to show various instructors that the crucial thing is not fifty times one hundred and one, but how one got those terms. Not what a thing is, but how it connects to others.
[The following paragraph begins a chapter that provides the most exciting description of the process of scientific discovery that I have ever lived through.]
He reads the stack of journals until the type decomposes into runic scratchings. He half dozes, swims awake, is washed under again for a few minutes, for hours, in tidal semiawareness. He gives the technical data rein to assort into spontaneous visuals—unzipping ladders, blueprint-imbedding blueprints, complex wartime gear-machines, families of trapeze artists linked in aerial streamers. In his reverie, the edge of biological thought is a continuous showing of jerky one-reelers. Every so often, an image-analog jars him awake with recognition. Bold simplicity of design knocks him conscious. Lucid, he sees nothing in the models but comic, clumsy, cartoon inspirations. Each time he comes to, Ressler cracks the journal repository for something he's missed. He loses consciousness again two or three articles down the pike, returning in the middle of the fourth, blindly turning pages.
The world is a single, self-buffering, interdependent organism. Or has been until this moment. Individual persistence is not the issue. Neither is species stability. If permanence were the criterion, nothing in the animate world could come close to the runaway success of rocks.
No competition, no success, no survival of the fittest. The word I am looking for, the language of life, is circulation.
The point of science was to lose ourselves in the world's desire.
Translation inhabits every sentence ever predicated. Nothing is what it is but by contrast, cracking, porting over. Every part of speech is already a figure of speech.
Scribners, London, 1992
David Grand, The Disappearing Body
Maximum noir, and something more. Enough bodies, dames, wise guys, crooked politicians, and dirty cops to put a Russian novelist to shame (there's even a list in the front of over 50 of the players to help you along). If you enjoy Dashiell and Raymond, this is a grand score.
Freddy now found himself lying on his side, staring into one of the muddy pastel watercolors of Celeste Martin's country property. He could feel his injured heart trying to beat, to pass blood around the wedge of metal. But Freddy could no longer breathe. His body struggled, but his mind was focused on the painting, on the pastel clouds billowing in the sunlight.
Nan A. Talese, New York, 2002
Kurt Corriher, Someone to Kill
Not quite prime time.
Forge, New York, 2002
Richard Powers, Prisoner's Dilemma
This guy looks into a grain of sand (in this case, a family of six living in a little white house with a pitched roof on a block of little white houses with pitched roofs in a nondescript midwestern town named DeKalb, Illinois), and when he looks up again, you can see in his eyes that he has divined issues of universal significance. And he shares them with us.
I think Richard Powers is one of the most intelligent novelists I've read. I've found each of his books that I've read to date engrossing, provocative, challenging, unique, and enjoyable.
And from that day forward, my resistance trickled away. My involvement vanished into a vague policy of personal prevention. Once, I had felt compelled to clean up the world; now it seemed enough for me merely not to litter. Only whoever touched the piece of trash last was responsible.
Winter fastened down the North, stronger than seasonal. Route 5 lay well-drifted in. Snow controlled the stray fields to either side of the road, with more on the way. Stubble of last fall's corn poked through the white crust, indigent prairie dogs killed and frozen vertical by the cold. Farmhouses lost their resolute look and hid scattered, white on white, waiting for the Arctic visitation to pass over. They glided through a landscape of grays and halftones, a world out of the old newsreels. Above them, a sky steepening with clouds unbaled its white freight on an already repentant ground. The land rolled underneath its cover of cold and fell lifeless.
Something has happened: a spider's web, an invasive forest, a spell of narcolepsy, falls over the entire town. People in the street cannot see each other. Everyone he passes is undone, eyes forward, trading feeling for the freedom to be left alone.
Beech Tree Books, New York, 1988
Michael Moore, Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!
It's always fun to read a damn good book. But it is particularly delightful to read a damn good book that was almost destroyed by the publisher!
I've known about Michael Moore since I watched his great documentary, Roger and Me, way back whenever. Since then, he has been in my peripheral vision, but I haven't paid much attention to what he has been up to. Then, in the hours and days after 9/11, as I was desperately trying to find some news or commentary on the Web that might give me some deeper perspective than what the mainstream media was dishing, I came across a dispatch of Mike's. It was heavily criticized, even by some of his supporters, but I found it to be a breath of fresh air: honest, gutsy, unafraid, and no punches pulled.
I subscribed to his email list, and have been reading his dispatches regularly since then. Because of that, I own one of the first edition copies of his latest book that Harper Collins wanted to destroy out of fear of offending our Shrub-in-Thief. For all that, I wasn't sure I would ever read the book. The other day, I picked it up out of my reading pile with the thought of filing it away in a stack of books in the back of the house. But as I was walking to the stack, I glanced at the introduction, and wasn't able to put it down.
Bravo, Mike! For telling it like you see it. For calling a stupid white man a stupid white man. For daring us all to wake up a little. For standing up to a cowardly publisher.
It has also been interesting to watch as this book has swept the nation, dominating the bestseller lists, number one on Amazon, Barnes and Noble.com, and even the New York Times. Yet for all that, you have to dig to find the book. The mainstream press has barely mentioned it. I guess all these people are really afraid to rock the boat. Thank goodness common Americans are still willing to read the truth, even if it is not reported by the media, bunch of puppets on a string that they are.
I disagree with some of what Mike says in this book, but I certainly welcome this kind of up front and honest writing. Whatever you do with book, don't put it down without reading the epilogue.
Harper Collins, New York, 2001
Richard Powers, Three Farmers on their way to a Dance
It is quite another experience altogether to read a Richard Powers novel; at least this is what I have found reading his last and, now, first books. Part international intrigue, part philosophical treatise, part exploration deep into the individual soul, all fascinating.
In this book, he casts his eye on what seems—at first glance—a quite ordinary photograph of three young farmers on their way to a dance in the spring of 1914, and reveals in it a sweeping worldview, a glimpse into the unstoppable machine that is Western civilization.
…he had sought something long denied him: an experience, a sorrow, an antianaesthetic emetic. And he had come up with only a fortune—another soporific legacy that seemed to be the final reward of all searches.
He had now reached the advanced stage of thinking that considered peace as nothing more than the continuation of wars by subtler tactics.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1988
Kevin Mullet, Darrell Sano, Designing Visual Interfaces
One of my favorite books about website design was Web Pages That Suck. This book is similar, though its focus is user interfaces and its approach is more highbrow.
The authors present solid guidelines as well as many examples of the points they are making, though the interface examples are dated. I was somewhat surprised that they are so keen on the NeXTStep interface. I suppose it was novel at the time for its 3-D approach, but in my opinion, its dark colors and lack of contrast make it an unfriendly interface.
They finished the books with this quotation:
Questions about whether design is necessary or affordable are quite beside the point: design is inevitable. The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all. Everyone takes design decisions all the time without realizing it … and good design is simply the result of making these decisions consciously, at the right stage, and in consultation with others as the need arises.
—Douglas Martin, Book Design
Sunsoft Press, Mountain View, 1995
John le Carré, Single & Single
Classic. No one in this genre peers more deeply into the flawed, tortured souls of his characters.
Scribner, New York, 1999
Richard Powers, Plowing the Dark
An incredible read, immense with ideas. I found myself reading it more and more slowly as I went along, savoring its richness.
The flight feels like reading, like skimming a thousand exhilarated pages, but without the brakes and ballast of an ending.
There is a truth only solitude reveals. An insight that action destroys, one scattered by the slightest worldly affair: the fact of our abandonment here, in a far corner of sketched space. This is the truth that enterprise would deny. How many years have you fought to hold at bay this hideous aloneness, only now discovering that it shelters the one fact of any value?
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2000
Witold Rybczynski, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw
Rybczynski was asked by the New York Times to do an article on the tool of the millennium, and it grew into this small book. For someone who enjoys using tools, as I do, it's a quick, fun read.
Scribner, New York, 2000
Milly R. Sonneman, Beyond Words: A Guide to Drawing Out Ideas
I had the good fortune to meet the author of this book and her associate at Hands-On Graphics, Thomas Sechehaye. They are both so passionate and inspired about what they are doing that I simply couldn't resist reading this book.
Before I read this book, I was one of those people who, although artistic in some spheres, would say, "I can't draw." Now I won't say this anymore! Milly has helped me to understand some basic techniques of visually illustrating my ideas. But let's face it, any book about drawing could do that. What makes this book special is that she also shares valuable insights into ways to enhance our ability to open ourselves to see the visual world around us with freshness, listen to those with whom we are communicating in a way that goes beyond their words, and bring the full wisdom of our minds and bodies to our drawings.
I intend to apply these principles to my work and my play, and I highly recommend this book (or their seminars) to anyone who wants to take their communications to a new and more colorful level.
10 Speed Press, Berkeley, 1997
Ted Alspach and Matt LeClair, Illustrator for Dummies
I'm now using my fourth version of Adobe Illustrator, so I guess I've been using it—or, to be more precise, trying to use it—for about six years or so. I can do some simple things with it, but it has continued to frustrate me as a tool. With most software, I start the program, begin to poke around, and can get up and running pretty quick. Illustrator has defied this approach; I find that it is not a very intuitive program to use.
Of course, I should have read a book like this six years ago. Would that I had time to do everything I should! But I'm glad I finally took the time to plow through one. Now I have enough of an idea about how Illustrator works to start poking around on my own.
Aside from the overuse of contrived and irritating humor—which I presume is a hallmark of this series of books (it felt like an editor came along and just inserted cutesy little remarks here and there from a list of standard remarks that they put in books like this)—the book is solid, introducing a lot of material with a minimum of words.
IDG, Foster City, 2001
Walter Mosley, A Red Death
A gritty, passionate story that explores some important individual and social quandaries while pursuing the leads of a damn good mystery tale.
Norton, New York, 1991
Ben Okri, Songs of Enchantment
I had to push myself to finish this book. That's in stark contrast to Famished Road, one of the greatest books I've ever read, which swept me along in its susurrous flood of hallucinogenic prose.
This book continues the story of Azaro, the young boy at the heart of Famished Road who lives partially in this world and partially in the spirit world. But where Famished Road felt vibrant, fresh, and urgent, Songs of Enchantment feels—to me—forced and repetitious.
Of course, I always wonder in a case like this whether I have changed. Perhaps. For me, the core strength of Famished Road is its soul of optimism. That seems virtually absent in this book.
Last night, after finishing this book, I had a dream that bordered on nightmarish. That's entirely rare for me. I woke up puzzled, wondering where in the hell it had come from, and then understood it had come from my impressions of this book. How strange.
It's quite a different experience reading one of Mr. Okri's books. He provides a key early in this book:
The words were strange to me, but when I stopped concentrating too much they made sense.
Jonathan Cape, London, 1993
Lorrie Moore, Birds of America
Ms. Moore is a talented wordsmith and I've read all of her books, but I didn't enjoy this one as much as I did the previous ones. I felt a certain sameness in her stories, and I grew weary of the bleakness of the lives of her characters. Perhaps if this had been the first of her books that I picked up, I would've been as enchanted as I was when I read Self Help several years ago.
There was nothing as complex in the world—no flower or stone—as a single hello from a human being.
I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom. I tell them it's the body's reaching, bringing air to itself. I tell them that it's the heart's triumph, the victory speech of the feet, the refinement of animal lunge and flight, the purest metaphor of tribe and self. It's life flipping death the bird.
I make this stuff up.
Knopf, New York, 1998