Reading – 2003
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."
— Albert Einstein, quoted in E=mc²: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis
A love affair with books
Not so good
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
And there goes 2003!
I read this earlier this year and was moved to exclaim, "What an imagination!"
Upon rereading it, I'm moved to admire the effort he must have put into creating this book. The story follows a thread that stretches from ancient-most recorded history to a richly imagined near future. It tackles the most sobering of issues while managing to stay absolutely stoned on wit and humor. Y.T., who lends the story most of its life, is stunning as a shrewd teen skillfully weaving her skateboard around the leaden stumps of hapless adults.
A line in the story could've been written about the process of writing the book itself: to condense fact from the vapor of nuance.
Once again, we find a character (Y.T. her-charming-self) a slime-line prisoner on a monster ship. Stephenson nails the terror of it:
Once she gets over the shock of it and settles into a routine, she starts looking around her, watching the other fish-cutting dames, and realizes that this is just like life must be for about 99 percent of the people in the world. You're in this place. There's other people all around you, but they don't understand you and you don't understand them, but people do a lot of pointless babbling anyway. In order to stay alive, you have to spend all day every day doing stupid meaningless work. And the only way to get out of it is to quit, cut loose, take a flyer, and go off into the wicked world, where you will be swallowed up and never heard from again.
Bantam, New York, 1992
Martin Cruz Smith, Polar Star
Something about this story draws me back every few years.
Many years ago I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I'll never forget how vividly I could taste the bit of sausage he ate after having been so thoroughly immersed in the miseries and hunger of his endless day. There's something similar here as we follow Renko's re-awakening to life, smelling land, feeling it underfoot, seeing the grasses sway in the wind after endlessly monotonous months on the slime line in the belly of the giant Soviet factory ship, gutting fish, numb in body, mind, and spirit.
How full of poetry we humans can be when freed, even momentarily, from the numbing servitude to whatever economic system we wear as a yoke.
Random House, New York, 1989
Richard Powers, Plowing the Dark
This is the first of his books I read. I was so impressed the first time around, that I have since read all his books (and was impressed by each of those, as well).
I'm still impressed. He is an intelligent and perceptive writer who tackles subjects beyond the grasp of most writers. I've read reviews of Powers that praise his grasp of science but dis his characters. I entirely disagree. I find that he draws deep, colorful, complex characters extremely well, artfully revealing their nuances, passions, demons, strivings, and failures.
(But then, perhaps complex characters are not want readers want: the characters in the current, long running blockbuster bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, are so shallow that cardboard exaggerates their depth.)
In this story of two stories, Powers takes us deep inside the psyche of an artist trying to come to terms with her love of art and distaste for the world of art, and a hostage enduring the unendurable, dehumanizing humiliation of captivity for eternal minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. The two meet in a spectacularly imagined way, each aware of, but not quite understanding the other.
No lesson in life cripples me worse than "life goes on."
Hours may pass in your absence. Sometimes you come back, and the gaping wasteland between lunch and dinner has vanished. Sometimes the day has not budged since you set off, and all you have to show for your weekend away is swollen feet. But so long as you are here, you are safe from both hope and its opposite. There is no long, no short, now tedium, no delay. Only the dimension-free now.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2000
Carrie Bickner, Web Design on a $hoestring
Bickner has a great attitude, but the book lacks much meat. Each of the chapters is basically an overview of a subject, with lots of references to other books that explore the subject in more depth. The book feels like a collection of magazine articles or talks, providing a glimpse of a subject, but no more.
Certainly she deserves kudos for what she has done at the New York Public Library on limited resources, and perhaps that's the redeeming quality of this book: it supports her in her most likely underpaid effort to enhance a valuable public institution.
New Riders, Indianapolis, 2003
Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
I like this book! And you know what? It's gonna become dog-eared real quick. I was surprised to find such a comprehensive and easy-to-use, down-to-earth section on usability testing. Suddenly usability testing is within my grasp.
Experts are rarely insulted by something that is clear enough for beginners.
New Riders, Indianapolis, 2000
Robert Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton, People Styles at Work
While I think this book may well be every bit as valuable as the previous book I reviewed, it doesn't quite fit my style. I find that it takes too much effort to figure out who's where in this scheme, and that's essential to put the principles in this book to work.
For people who have the knack for this kind of thing, I think it might prove to be a quite valuable guide. Once someone else helped me to discover my type, reading about my type gave me some insights into how I probably come across to others at work and how I might temper my extremes to become easier to work with.
Amacon (American Management Association), New York, 1996
Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules
Ah, here's a business book that I think will age well, one that I'm going to keep nearby and refer back to. I very much appreciate that the principles presented in this book are based on quantifiable data and quality research, not just someone's latest-greatest theory.
The principles in this book have the ring of commonsense truth to them. Yet in my experience, many managers are clueless about these principles. I've seen this in action several times over the years beginning with my first job as a teenager, how a change in management can rip the spirit out of a workgroup. Now I understand more clearly why.
I'm not a manager. I read this book to better understand how I might realize my potential as an employee.
I particularly appreciated the clarity they bring to the differentiation of skills, knowledge, and talents:
- Skills are the how-to's of a role. They are capabilities that can be transferred from one person to another.
- Your knowledge is simply "what you are aware of." There are two kinds of knowledge: factual knowledge—things you know; and experiential knowledge—understandings you have picked up along the way.
- Talents are different phenomena altogether. Talents are the four-lane highways in your mind, those that carve your recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior.
Striving talents explain the why of a person.
Thinking talents explain the how of a person.
Relating talents explain the who of a person.
Why is this so important? Because talents can't be taught. They are our knacks, our inherent qualities, and we need to be aware of them to fully realize ourselves in the workplace. For example, although I had never thought about this before, when I read their description of one of the talents, I immediately recognized something about myself, and now this is a tool I can consciously use:
Similarly, some people have a four-lane highway for constant achievement, a striving talent we call achiever. They may not have to win, but they do feel a burning need to achieve something tangible every single day. And these kind of people mean "every single day." For them, every day—workday, weekend, vacation—every day starts at zero. They have to rack up some numbers by the end of the day in order to feel good about themselves. This burning flame may dwindle as evening comes, but the next morning it rekindles itself, spurring its host to look for new items to cross off his list. These people are the fabled "self-starters."
I also appreciate the clarity they bring to understanding customer satisfaction:
… four customer expectations remain remarkably consistent across various types of business and types of people. These four expectations are hierarchical. This means that the lower-level expectations must be met before the customer is ready to pay attention to the levels higher up. These four expectations, in sequence, show companies what they must do to turn prospects into advocates.
- Level 1: At the lowest level, customers expect accuracy.
- Level 2: The next level is availability.
- Level 3: At this level customers expect partnership. They want you to listen to them, to be responsive to them, to make them feel they are on the same side of the fence as you.
- Level 4: The most advanced level of customer expectation is advice. Customers feel the closest bond to organizations that have helped them learn.
A couple other passages that struck me strongly:
… the most effective strategy for many high-tech companies used to be innovation. Hence the large R&D budgets, the hordes of disheveled but creative software designers, and the unpredictable, slightly unfocused work environments. Recently, though, the strategy of these high-tech companies has shifted focus. For the major players who dominate the marketplace, critical mass—getting your product accepted as the standard—is now more important than innovation. Innovation can be bought from the smaller boutique houses. Thus these larger companies need to change the way the operate to ensure that virtually everyone's efforts are focused on spreading the new language/platform/product into the marketplace.
Fortunately many … companies have started to realize the wisdom of studying excellence to learn excellence.
Every great manager has his or her own style. But every great manager shares the same goal: to turn each employee's talent into performance.
Could having a conscious understanding of the principles in this book make it possible to work well for a bad manager? I don't think so; in that case, probably the most intelligent course is to focus on an exit strategy. But it might make it possible to work well for a mediocre manager, and should also make it easier to fully exploit the potential of working for a good manager.
And a kudos: this book has the best dust jacket back cover I've ever seen. It surprised me, made me laugh, and predisposed me to think that the book just might contain some wisdom.
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999
Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, Unleashing the Killer App
It's interesting how dated a technology book can become in only a handful of years. Yet there are still some provocative insights in this book, the core of which addresses the need for fast response times to rapidly changing technology. Three-year business plans? As this 5-year-old book so clearly demonstrates, the technology environment is changing too quickly to try to plan that far ahead.
Don't quite understand the changing environment? Here's a clue:
Turkle tells the remarkable story of a thirteen year old playing SimLife.... The child is clearly unaware of much of what was going on in the game. After Turkle asked repeatedly if the game's confusing messages bothered him, the child sought to reassure the adult: "Don't let it bother you if you don't understand. I just say to myself that I probably won't be able to understand the whole game any time soon. So I just play."
Harvard Business School, New York, 1998
Jeffrey Zeldman, Designing with Web Standards
This book is many things, not the least of which is a very clever branding exercise. I've never seen anything quite like this cover. I've noticed that he is also using the same image for his site's favicon, and it works. It's an unmistakable image.
The best thing about this book is its relaxed, transitional approach. That's the current real (virtual) world that we have to live in. I've already created one training site at work based on these guidelines (plus ASP and a database back end), and I love it; it's such a clean, flexible approach. Someday—time permitting—I'll revamp this site, too. I already exclusively use XHTML here, and also CSS for style, but I'm not yet using CSS positioning here.
While I appreciate Zeldman's approachable writing style, I got bored with the humor in this book, it tried just a little too hard.
I'm also bored to death with the Mac-centric worldview of books like this. Let's face it, in almost all cases, almost everyone in a designer's audience is going to be sitting at a PC, not a Mac. Tough shit if you think a Mac is better than a PC. Tough shit if it is. Want to understand your users' experience? Then you better understand the PC experience. There are a lot of reasons PCs dominate. If you think anti-competitive behavior is the only or main reason, you're missing the point of standards.
I'm also bored to death with the excessive amount of ink still devoted to trying to design for Navigator 4.x. It was a crappy browser in the first place, and now it's just an old crappy browser. If you're still using Navigator 4.x, then you should expect your browsing experience to be crappy. I mean, get a life! Mozilla is a gorgeous browser, it's free, it's readily available, it's based on open standards, and it's developed by an open-source community. What more could you ask for? Why would anyone cling to Navigator 4.x? And why would any designer waste any time designing for it anymore? Mozilla is already a top-tier browser, and given Microsoft's current browser-development coma and Mozilla's rapid evolution, it should soon stand alone as clearly the best browser available. Hopefully it can then start grabbing some significant market share and force Microsoft to wake up and re-engage in innovative behavior. A real browsers war, one based on a race to best implement CSS 2, and even 3, would benefit all of us.
New Riders, Indianapolis, 2003
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
You know, it's really good to read a book like this once in a while, to relax the grip of the serious workaday world and to enjoy a laugh about hyperspatial express routes, Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters, Vogon poetry, and the cluelessness of we earthlings.
Harmony Books, New York, 1979
Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra
"Our life is the instrument we use to experiment with the truth."
St. Martins Minotaur, New York, 1999
Ryszard Kapuściński, The Soccer War
In its organization, this book is a bit fragmentary and disjointed, but in its snippets and essays, Kapuściński's brilliance shines through.
The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild animal reserves. A new Africa was being born—and this was not a figure of speech or a platitude from an editorial. The hour of its birth was something dramatic and painful, something enjoyable and jubilant; it was always different (from our point of view) from anything we had known, and it was exactly this difference that struck me as new, as the previously undescribed, as the exotic.
For those awaiting death as we were, passive and apathetic, on the verge of collapse, ready to hit bottom, it takes only one flash of light in the darkness, one lucky break, and suddenly you rise up again and return to the living. What you leave behind, however, is an empty territory that you cannot even describe: it has no points of reference or shape or signposts, and its existence—like the sound barrier—is something you feel only once you have approached it. One step out of that emptiness and it disappears. No one, however, who has entered this emptiness can ever be the same person he was before. Something remains—a psychological scar, hardened, gangrened flesh—a fact, finally more apparent to others than to himself, that something has burned out, that something is missing. You pay for every meeting with death.
… I had left part of myself behind. Africa was a film that kept playing, an unbroken loop, non-stop, in show after show, but nobody around me cared about what was happening in my cinema. People were talking about who had taken whose place in Koszalin, or arguing about some television programme in which Cwiklinska had been first-rate, although others said she hadn't been, or giving each other merry advice abut how you can travel to Bulgaria for a holiday inexpensively and actually make money as well. I didn't know the man who had gone to Koszalin, I hadn't seen that programme on television and I had never been in Bulgaria. The worst thing was the acquaintances I would run into on the street who would begin by saying, "What are you doing here?" Or, "Haven't you left yet?" I understood: they did not regard me as one of their own. Life was going on and they were swimming in its current. Talking about something, arranging something, cooking something up, but I didn't know what, they weren't telling me, they weren't expecting me to go along with them; they weren't trying to win me over. I was an outsider.
Knopf, New York, 2003
Ryszard Kapuściński, Another Day of Life
Ryszard is an astonishingly good storyteller with astonishing stories to tell.
This is a very personal book, about being alone and lost. In summer 1975 my boss—at the time I was a correspondent for a press agency—said, "This is your last chance to get to Angola. How about it?" I always answer yes in such situations.…
Everything from that moment on happened as in an incomprehensible, incoherent dream in which unknown persons and unseen powers entangle us in a succession of situations from which there is no way out, and from which we awaken every now and then drenched in sweat, more and more exhausted and devoid of will. At the front of staff headquarters (a residential quarter on a hill), I was greeted by a young white Angolan, a political commissar. His name was Nelson. He greeted me with joy, as if I were a guest he had been expecting all along—and sent me at once to a near-certain death.
Nelson had a restless, violent nature, mad ideas, and an impulsive, feverish manner. The first thing I told him was that I wanted to see the front, and that was all it took for him to write out a pass for me. Before I could figure out what was going on he was pushing me outside, where a driver was just starting the motor of a big old Mercedes truck. I barely managed to beg Nelson to give me a cup of water, because I was ready to pass out from thirst. The truck was loaded to capacity with rifles, ammunition boxes, barrels of gasoline, and sacks of flour. On top of this cargo sat six soldiers. Nelson pushed me into the cab, where the driver was already seated—a half-naked black civilian, extraordinarily thin. A moment later Diogenes, the leader of the expedition, joined us in the cab, and we started off down the road immediately.
We drove through town—in those days every town in Angola looked like a ghastly, corroding movie set built on the outskirts of Hollywood and already abandoned by the film crew—and the green suddenly ended, the flowers disappeared, and we entered a hot, dry tropical flatland, overgrown as far as the eye could see with thick, thorny, leafless gray brush. A low gray gorge cut through this bush and at the bottom of the gorge ran the asphalt road. The Mercedes was so old and overloaded that no matter how the driver exerted himself, it would not do better than sixty kilometers an hour.
I was in a terrible situation, because I didn't know where we were going and couldn't bring myself to admit that I didn't. Diogenes might think, How come he doesn't know? What's he doing here, and why is he riding with us? He's riding with us and he doesn't know where we're going? Yet I really didn't know. I had accidentally come across the plane in Benguela and so found myself in Lubango. It was an accident that the mulatto I met at the airport took me to the headquarters. A strange man about whom I knew nothing except that his name was Nelson, and whom I was seeing for the first time in my life, had put me in the truck. The truck had immediately driven off and now we were rolling between two walls of thorny bush toward a destination unknown to me. Everything had happened so quickly and somehow so categorically that I could neither think about it nor say no.
So we drove along with the thin, anxious man cling to the steering wheel at my left, me in the middle, and Diogenes on the right with his submachine gun pointed out the window, ready to fire. With the sun standing directly overhead, the cab was as hot as a furnace and reeked of oil and sweat. At a certain moment Diogenes, who had been looking steadily at the wall of bush on his side, asked, "Tell me, camarada, do you know where we're going?"
I replied that I didn't.
"And tell me, camarada," Diogenes went on without looking at me, "do you know what it means to drive down the road that we're on?"
Again I answered that I didn't.
Diogenes said nothing for a moment, because we were climbing a hill and the roar of the motor was deafening. The he said, "Camarada, this road leads to South Africa. The border is four hundred fifty kilometers from here. The town of Pereira d'Eça is forty kilometers this side of the border. One of our units is there and that's where we're going. The cities, Lubango and Pereira d'Eça, are in our hands. But the enemy holds the countryside. The enemy is in this bush that we're driving through, and this road belongs to him. None of our convoys has got through to the unit in Pereira d'Eça for a month. All the trucks have been lost in ambushes. And now we're trying to get there. We have four hundred kilometers of road in front of us and at every meter we could fall into an ambush. Do you understand, camarada?"
I felt as if I couldn't produce any sound, so I merely nodded that I understood what it meant to drive down the road we were on. Later I got hold of myself enough to ask why there were so few of us. If a company or even a platoon were with us there would be a better chance of getting through. Diogenes answered that there were few people on this front in general. They had to be brought from Luanda and Benguela. The land here was almost uninhabited. There were a few nomads—wild people who walked around naked. They had lost all their wars many years ago. Since then they had known they couldn't win—their only hope was to hide in the bush. With a movement of his head, Diogenes indicated the wall of bush behind which these naked, defeated people were concealed. next I asked why we were driving in such a dilapidated truck. After all, the Portuguese had left so many splendid vehicles. Diogenes replied that the vehicles left by the Portuguese were the property of the Portuguese. There was no money to buy the trucks, and there wasn't even anybody to talk to talk to, since the owners were in Europe. But wouldn't he agree, I pressed, that in a faster truck it would be easier to escape and harder to be hit, while by driving in a clunker like this we were rolling straight toward death? Yes, Diogenes agreed, but—he asked—what can we do? There was a gap in the conversation; the only sound was the roar of the motor and the whirr of the tires on the soft asphalt.
Time is passing, but we seem to be stuck in place. Constantly the same glimmering seam of asphalt laid on loose red earth. Constantly the same faded, cracked wall of bush. The same blinding white sky. The same emptiness of a deserted world, an emptiness that betrays life neither by movement nor by voice. Our truck wobbles and rolls through this unmoving, dead landscape like a small tin car in the depths of a carnival shooting gallery. The owner turns the crank and the toy, stamped out of tin, bucks from side to side, and whoever wants to take a shot is welcome. In the back of the truck sit six soldiers hidden behind the ammunition boxes and sacks of flour. The sun is blazing mercilessly, so they pull the tarpaulin over themselves as if driving through a downpour. They are better off because, if we drive into an ambush, they can jump out of the truck and flee into the bush. The predicament of those in the cab is worse. Trapped in the metal box, they are like three moving targets tilting slowly forward and perfectly illuminated by the sun at the sixteenth parallel. The little tin car moves in the banal interior of the shooting gallery and the owner notes, with growing astonishment, that nobody wants to shoot at it. After all, it costs little to win an attractive prize. He turns the crank more and more drowsily and perfunctorily. The tin cutout moves slower, slower, until it comes to a halt.
We pull off to the side of the road. Ahead of us, on the same side, lies the wreck of a burned-out truck—the remains of a convoy that made it this far. Scattered cans, barrels, sacks, tires. In one place, scorched earth and charred bones. Whoever caught them must have killed them and then burned them, or even tied them up and burned them alive. Diogenes says that if anyone escaped into the bush, they couldn't have gone far; they would have died of thirst because there is no water here. They could survive only on the road, but on the road they could be killed. You have to keep to the road, but of course you can be ambushed. All right, there is no better way out, which means there is no perfect way out. That is what Diogenes says, and he observes that those who died in this burned-out truck must have made a mistake, they must have been traveling in the early morning or at dusk or at night. Then it's cool and the enemy has the strength to come out onto the road and spring an ambush. At noon, on the other hand, the heat is going full blast and a deathly sleepiness and indolence seize the combatants. They retreat into the shade and drift into slumber. Martial enthusiasm sputters out and enmity grows tepid. You have to take advantage of this and travel at high noon, the safest time. I remember that Monti said the same thing. The front falls asleep when the sun stands at its zenith.
We drove until dusk under pressure, in an intent, helpless alertness, passing two more charred trucks from lost convoys. Diogenes urged the driver on, forbidding him to halt. At five in the afternoon we saw several armed people standing in the road. They stood there, pointing their automatic rifles toward us. Diogenes took his Kalashnikov off the safety and the soldiers in back got up from where they had been lying and, taking cover behind the cab, took aim at the people in the road. The driver slowed down and the distance between the truck and the people ahead decreased. Nobody fired. Then, when we were close—close enough to make out their figures and even their faces—one of the people in the road pointed his rifle upward and fired a round. Diogenes pulled his pistol out of his holster and also shot into the air. The Mercedes stopped and the people in the road came running up.
"Commandante Farrusco's unit," one of them said.
"Commandante Diogenes's convoy," Diogenes answered.
We were in Pereira de'Eça. They asked for cigarettes. I reached into my pocket and only then, when everything in me broke and subsided into loose, relaxed, calm particles, did I notice that my trousers and shirt were drenched in sweat, that I was wet all over, and that in my pocket, where there had been a pack of Polish Radomskie Extra-Strongs, I had nothing but a handful of damp hay smelling nicotine.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1987
Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium
Kapuściński peels away the veil of mystery that hid the real Soviet Union and reveals the despair, the awful living conditions, the tensions of a police state, and the indomitable spirit of the repressed.
Nearing Krupska Street, we encounter an old woman outside a little house who is trying with the energetic strokes of a broom to halt the muddy deluge crawling onto the porch.
"Hard work," I say, to start a conversation.
"Ah," she replies, shrugging her shoulders, "spring is always terrible. Everything flows."
"How's life?" I ask the most banal and idiotic question, just to keep the conversation going somehow.
The granny straightens up, leans her hands on the broom handle, looks at me, smiles even. "Kak zyviom?" she repeats thoughtfully, and then in a voice full of pride and determination and suffering and joy she offers in reply what is the crux of the Russian philosophy of life—"Dyshym!" (We breathe!)
Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world
The first is the plague of nationalism.
The second is the plague of racism.
The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism.
All three share one trait, a common denominator—an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality. Anyone sticken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only its sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail. He doesn't want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit that he is right, join the cause. Otherwise you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist, for you count only if you are a tool, an instrument, a weapon. There are no people—there is only the cause.
A mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only—its enemy.
The Russian writer Yurii Boriev compared the history of the USSR to a train in motion:
The train is speeding into a luminous future. Lenin is at the controls. Suddenly—stop, the tracks come to an end. Lenin calls on the people for additional, Saturday work, tracks are laid down, and the train move on. Now Stalin is driving it. Again the tracks end. Stalin orders half the conductors and passengers shot, and the rest he forces to lay down new tracks. The train starts again. Khrushchev replaces Stalin, and when the tracks come to an end, he orders that the ones over which the train has already passed be dismantled and laid down before the locomotive. Brezhnev takes Khrushchev's place. When the tracks end again, Brezhnev decides to pull down the window blinds and rock the cars in such a way that the passengers will think the train is still moving forward. (Yurri Boriev, Staliniad, 1990)
Knopf, New York, 1994
Andrea Camilleri, The Shape of Water
The first in a series of police procedurals set in Sicily. Apparently the series is all the rage in Europe. And it's true that it contains wit, humor, and glimpses into the human soul. But in the end, it just didn't grab me.
Viking, New York, 2002 (Am. Ed.)
Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak!
A powerful, sometimes tragic, sometimes comic story cycle rooted in Haiti and in the Haitian experience in the U.S.
Danticat asks "Krik?" We, her readers, enthusiastically respond "Krak!" And then she launches into another of her stories, drawing on the eternal voice of the nine hundred ninety-nine women from whom she has descended.
Hers is a voice not to be missed.
SOHO, New York, 1995
Walter Mosley, Six Easy Pieces
Seven related short stories about Easy Rawlins. A good read, although the compactness of the stories prevents the kind of deep character explorations that make other books in this series such a pleasure to read.
Atria, New York, 2003
Heidi Julavits, The Effect of Living Backwards
I guess I'm just not in tune with the Dave Eggers gang. Eggers: "With astounding intelligence and unceasing acuity, Heidi Julavits fulfills the great promise of her talents, and jumps to the forefront of her generation." Me: A snotty, disjointed narrative about bored and boring characters.
Putnam, New York, 2003
Eric S. Nylund, Signal to Noise
Let's see if I can summarize this book in a couple sentences: A brilliant young virtual reality engineer makes a series of really stupid decisions in the real world, one of which is a technology trade with a far advanced civilization somewhere out in the universe. He doesn't do well in the trade, ends up causing the destruction of planet earth and all life except four people he manages to save with himself on the moon, and as he's watching the end of the world, he thinks to himself, "Oh darn, I really blew it, I better make up for it by building a company specializing in beneficial interstellar technology trades."
If you can believe it, there's even a sequel!
The only good thing I can say about this book is that the technology descriptions are creative. And I like Amy Halperin's jacket design and illustration.
Avon, New York, 1998
Richard Morgan, Broken Angels
While there are flashes of the originality and wit that made his first book such a great read, Morgan gets a little too long-winded here, and his main character loses a bit of his glinting edge. I guess Broken Angels is an okay book, but it follows Altered Carbon, a stellar book, so it's a bit of a letdown.
Gollancz, London, 2003
Jennifer Vanderbes, Easter Island
I quite enjoyed this book, which interweaves three stories and a pinch of palynology to explore the mystery that is Easter Island. One story follows the journey in the early 1900s of Elsa, a British woman who travels with her anthropologist husband to Easter Island on a Royal Geographic Society assignment, a journey by steamer and then sail that takes a year. Then we watch as they try to come to terms with and understand what they experience living on Easter Island.
The second is about a modern-day American palynologist, Greer, who travels to Easter Island as much to do a study there as to escape her shattered life back home. Through her perceptive eyes, the amazing and tragic story of Easter Island is revealed.
The third story follows the actual desperate dash of a German vice admiral, Graf von Spee, and his fleet. Caught in the Far East when World War I breaks out, they attempt to make their way across the Pacific and back to Germany, stopping briefly at Easter Island to re-provision.
The characters are vividly real and the storyline is, for the most part, believable (with the exception of the intersection between von Spee's and Elsa's stories). Vanderbes is an intelligent and insightful writer who brings her adventure alive.
The Dial Press, New York, 2003
Jeff Noon, Vurt
A wild ride, not for the faint of heart.
There are only FIVE PURE MODES OF BEING. And all are equal in value. To be pure is good, it leads to a good life. But who wants a good life? Only the lonely.
Crown, New York, 1993
Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs
A story about the revolution in Iran, the twenty-seventh revolution Kapuściński had witnessed. His eyes, ears, and pen are keen with experience. There are passages in the final section, The Dead Flame, that peer as clearly into the heart of humankind as anything I've read.
Now the most important moment, the moment that will determine the fate of the country, the Shah, and the revolution, is the moment when one policeman walks from his post toward one man on the edge of the crowd, raises his voice, and orders the man to go home. The policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd are ordinary, anonymous people, but their meeting has historic significance. They are both adults, they have both lived through certain events, they have both had their individual experiences. The policeman's experience: If I shout at someone and raise my truncheon, he will first go numb with terror and then take to his heels. The experience of the man at the edge of the crowd: At the sight of an approaching policeman I am seized by fear and start running. On the basis of these experiences we can elaborate a scenario: The policeman shouts, the man runs, others take flight, the square empties. But this time, everything turns out differently. The policeman shouts, but the man doesn't run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It's a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that's the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn't budge. He glances around and sees the same look on the other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence. We don't know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid—and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts. Until now, whenever these two men approached each other, a third figure instantly intervened between them. That third figure was fear. Fear was the policeman's ally and the man in the crowd's foe. Fear interposed its rules and decided everything. Now the two men find themselves alone, facing each other, and fear has disappeared into thin air. Until now their relationship was charged with emotion, a mixture of aggression, scorn, rage, terror. But now that fear has retreated, this perverse, hateful union has suddenly broken up; something has been extinguished. The two men have now grown mutually indifferent, useless to each other; they can go their own ways. Accordingly, the policeman turns around and begins to walk heavily back toward his post, while the man on the edge of the crowd stands there looking at his vanishing enemy.
Fear: a predatory, voracious animal living inside us. It does not let us forget it's there. It keeps eating at us and twisting our guts. It demands food all the time, and we see that it gets the choicest delicacies. Its preferred fare is dismal gossip, bad news, panicky thoughts, nightmare images. From a thousand pieces of gossip, portents, ideas, we always cull the worst ones—the ones that fear likes best. Anything to satisfy the monster and set it at ease. Here we see a man listening to someone talking, his face pale and his movements restless. What's going on? He is feeding his fear. And what if we have nothing to feed it with? We make something up, feverishly. And what if (seldom though this may occur) we can't make anything up? We rush to other people, look for them, ask questions, listen and gather portents, for as long as it takes to satiate our fear.
All books about all revolutions begin with a chapter that describes the decay of tottering authority or the misery and sufferings of the people. They should begin with a psychological chapter, one that shows how a harassed, terrified man suddenly breaks his terror, stops being afraid. This unusual process, sometimes accomplished in an instant like a shock or a lustration, demands illuminating. Man gets rid of fear and feels free. Without that there would be no revolution.
It might be worthwhile to pause for a moment and compare Kapuściński's ruminations about fear with America's current fear of terrorism, a fear that seems to be wholly out of proportion with the magnitude of the actual threat. It is also interesting to observe how politicians manipulate that fear. Bush and his team bring up "9/11" so frequently—to excuse their failures, drum up support for their questionable policies, and argue for the legitimacy of their ongoing governance.
"From a thousand pieces of gossip, portents, ideas, we always cull the worst ones—the ones that fear likes best." It seems to me that the thing at which our current "free" press fails most is perspective. Take the current reporting about West Nile Virus. We read and hear headlines like "Cases tripled in the past week and now exceed last year's total!" But we don't get perspective; a few hundred Americans get sick from this virus; 270 million don't. And how does this compare to diseases we are used to like the flu? The problem is that perspective takes the edge off of news, and the business of news is all about edginess. Imagine a newscaster reading one of the scary headlines about West Nile Virus, and then pausing and mumbling, "Hmmm, that's not really all that bad!"
Here's another quote from Kapuściński's book that can be taken to cast a harsh, bright light on national politics in America today:
The Shah's reflex was typical of all despots: Strike first and suppress, then think it over: What next? First display muscle, make a show of strength, and later perhaps demonstrate you also have a brain. Despotic authority attaches great importance to being considered strong, and much less to being admired for its wisdom. Besides, what does wisdom mean to a despot? It means skill in the use of power. The wise despot knows when and how to strike. This continual display of power is necessary because, at root, any dictatorship appeals to the lowest instincts of the governed: fear, aggressiveness toward one's neighbors, bootlicking. Terror most effectively excites such instincts, and fear of strength is the wellspring of terror.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1982
Ryszard Kapuściński, The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat
Shortly after the fall from power in 1974 and death of Haile Selassie I in 1975, Kapuściński visited Ethiopia and searched out the few remaining members of his palace who were still alive (many had been put to death by the Dergue, the military tribunal that deposed Selassie). Hiding, frightened, bewildered, out of touch, these people told Kapuściński the harrowing story of Selassie's downfall … harrowing not because of the coup, but rather because of how bizarre and despotic the imperial circle had become before it fell.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil. Had I known how corrupt the government was and how dangerous the situation was, I never would have traveled to Ethiopia as an exchange student in 1973 - 1974. Had the Rotary Club members of my home town known, they never would have allowed me to go. Had the Rotary Club members of Addis Ababa known, they never would have invited me.
Yet there I was, a naive 17-year-old Midwestern American, stepping off a jumbo jet—after the first flight I had ever taken—on to the tarmac of Haile Selassie I International Airport to attend Haile Selassie I University. Thirty-some years later, as I read what was happening during the year I was there, I repeatedly got the shivers. How did I survive?
In the midst of one of Ethiopia's most deadly famines, I attended classes, played tennis, struggled to understand what I was seeing/not quite seeing around me each day, and fought with the guilt I felt at my privileged and unearned position as one who could eat my fill several times a day, each and every day. When the students staged their final protest and Selassie's government shut down the university half way through my year there, I still couldn't understand the peril. I went to the Rotary Club and petitioned them to give me the money they would've paid in tuition for me so that I could travel the countryside.
At a time when desperate bandits were robbing and killing travelers with unprecedented boldness, I stumbled around Ethiopia in an oblivious fog, still unable to understand what I was seeing. Traveling third class, flea bit, lonely, bewildered, at times feverish to the edge of hallucination, I stubbornly clung to this one opportunity that had been given to me to see the world. When the bus I was on ran over and killed a woman in a desolate somewhere that seemed like nowhere and her kinsfolk appeared like phantoms out of the drought ravaged hillsides filling the bus with their clenched fists, shaking rifles, and angry shouts, I could only stare in incomprehension. How did I survive?
When I returned to Addis Ababa, shaken and sick, the rebellion was drawing closer. At nights we could hear the fighting, the machine gun fire, the tanks, the aircraft. The house and compound of the family I stayed with was next to the compound of the prime minister, so our area was hot. I would stand outside within the high, broken-glass-topped walls and listen to the turmoil until some member of the family would rush out, grab me, and yank me inside, fearful of stray bullets.
Roadblocks went up, people were shot, even an American professor, but at each dawn, life would return to some kind of odd normalcy. As little as I understood, I knew I was watching something unique unfold. Once, I attended a Rotary Club meeting at the Hilton Hotel and got a glimpse of the international press corps lounging pool side, drinks in hand. Their articles in the international papers I read never captured what was happening. They always focused on the drama of fighting and death, never providing the backdrop of the pervasive, trance-like sense of day-to-dayness that was life in Addis Ababa.
Then the government shut the airport for two weeks. That finally woke me up to the danger surrounding me. It was one thing to be an observer, quite another to be trapped. The day the airport re-opened, I was on a Lufthansa jet out. I'll never forget the flood of relief that drenched me as, pushed back into my comfortable seat, I watched the lights of Addis Ababa fall away below me. I had had no idea how tense I was, how desperate I was to escape from this experience that had simply overloaded all my senses, leaving me numb and uncomprehending. All I could understand in that moment was the wondrous attractiveness of the smell of clean and the sense of tidy order.
Within a short time, Selassie fell. The family I had stayed with fled to Europe. (He was Belgian, she Armenian, though Ethiopia had been their home for decades, and the only home their children had known. Interestingly, the native Ethiopian Rotarians never invited me to be a guest in their homes, as was the norm in exchanges elsewhere.) We made some half-hearted attempts at correspondence, then lost track of each other. Ethiopia descended into a post-revolution chaos of revenge, purges, and executions, and began a devastating war with Asmara, a breakaway province in the North, that would last decades.
I continued to be unable to come to terms with what I had experienced. Returning to unbelievably wealthy America further disoriented me. Only after I was back six months did a floodgate burst, and I poured my experience onto paper. When I finally stopped after furiously writing for days and read what had been written, I wondered who had written it.
For the thirty years since, I have tried to make sense of that year, to understand what change it caused inside of me. Sometimes, remembering the death I had stared at with such unseeing eyes, I wept. It is an experience beyond my full understanding, yet one I can never quit trying to understand fully.
I'm grateful to Kapuściński for providing some perspective. He is, as every reviewer I've read has said, a phenomenal journalist and writer.
A.A., one of the imperial circle people Kapuściński interviewed, had this to say:
How, then, is one to confront the threatening creature that man seems to be, that we all are? How to tame him and daunt him? How to know that beast, how to master it? There is only one way, my friend: by weakening him. Yes, by depriving him of his vitality, because without it he will be incapable of wrong. And to weaken is exactly what fasting does. Such is our Amharic philosophy, and this is what our fathers teach us. Experience confirms it. A man starved all his life will never rebel. Up north there was no rebellion. No one raised his voice or his hand there. But just let the subject start to eat his fill and then try to take the bowl away, and immediately he rises in rebellion. The usefulness of going hungry is that a hungry man thinks only of bread. He's all wrapped up in the thought of food. He loses the remains of his vitality in that thought, and he no longer has either the desire or the will to seek pleasure through the temptation of disobedience. Just think: Who destroyed our Empire? Who reduced it to ruin? Neither those who had too much, nor those who had nothing, but those who had a bit. Yes, one should always beware of those who have a bit, because they are the worst, they are the greediest, it is they who push upward.
In better understanding a despot like Selassie, we get a glimpse into the psyche of leaders everywhere: unconcerned about individuals except to grab their vote/support, empty their wallets, and keep them underfoot; draining the treasury in favor of patrons and cronies; stepping on foes with as much brutality as can be gotten away with; presuming legitimacy while acting illegitimately. It seems to me that the essential fragrance of power is the same everywhere—whether labeled a democracy or an empire—a terrible stink disguised in a fancy crystal bottle.
I was a guest of His Most Exalted Majesty, Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia, Chosen One of God, His Magnanimous Highness. Hundreds of thousands of people perished as a result of the famine that raged in Ethiopia at the time I visited. During his rule, Haile Selassie I lived in an orgy of luxury and stole hundreds of millions of dollars from his impoverished empire, stashing it in European banks. In August of 1975, shortly after he was dethroned, a lone prisoner in one of his palaces, he died. He had refused to return any of the money he had stolen. His hungry people were still dying by the tens of thousands.
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1978
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
A quite unusual novel that gives voice to a young autistic lad as he struggles to cope with everyday life, the murder of a next-door neighbor's dog, and the inexplicable world of adults.
It's difficult to know how well the author has captured the world of autism, but he sure has done an amazing job of exposing how badly "grown-ups" do at accepting and coping with raw truth. For that alone, the story is a marvelous read. Haddon also does an exemplary job at showing us the humanity and goodness that churns within deeply flawed characters who are, in the end, us.
I highly recommend this book.
Doubleday, New York, 2003
John Burdett, Bangkok 8
While Tom Robbins (see the following review) somehow manages to make Bangkok boring, Burdett makes it a central, colorfully vivid character in his fresh, funny, insightful story.
The book's main character, Sonchai Jitpleecheep (or as the FBI mangles it, Jippecheap), is a half caste son of a whore Buddhist policeman in Bangkok's District 8 who is investigating the murder of an American and the related death of his own partner, Pichai.
Through his eyes, we get a totally new look at our world: his respect for life, his acceptance of his own death, his wrenching sadness over the death of Pichai, his relationship with his mother and the other women in the trade he grew up with, his understanding of the beneficial aspects of corruption even as he resists and fights it, and his often humorous and always keenly sharp perceptions about the Americans he works with on the case, as well as those he investigates.
This book is a gem that will take a special place on my bookshelf next to Smilla's Sense of Snow, Gorky Park, and Presumed Innocent.
Knopf, New York, 2003
Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito
Over the years, I've read and enjoyed all of Robbins' previous books. Typically, the arrival of a new one is an exciting event. Unfortunately, this one slinks away with its tail between its legs. Feels like he must have cranked it out just to meet a contractual obligation. It's bland, pretentious, disjointed, and, well, very boring.
I do three things with books once I've finished them: if I think I'll want to reread a book someday or I want to be reminded of the story from time to time, I add it to my library. If I think the book is okay, but I don't want it on my shelves, I give it away to someone at work (we have a lot of travelers at work who like stuff to read while they're flying) or Goodwill. And very rarely, I toss them in the trash. It's tough for me to toss a book in the trash, because I revere books. This one, unfortunately, is a tosser.
Bantam, New York, 2003
Robert Wilson, The Company of Strangers
A funny little cover wrap proclaims, "As thrilling as John le Carré or your money back!" Marketers sure live in a strange world. Le Carré is a writer I enjoy very much, but if I were to describe him with one word it certainly wouldn't be "thrilling," which diminishes his craft. Wilson is a unique storyteller, if I were to compare him to anyone it would be Alan Furst. Perhaps the marketers haven't heard of Furst.
That said, this isn't Wilson's best. The story falls asleep half way through and never quite wakes up. To experience Wilson at his best, read A Small Death in Lisbon.
Harcourt, New York, 2001
Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power
Mr. Kagan packs a lot of perspective into this little book about "America and Europe in the New World Order."
The United States, with all its vast power, remains stuck in history, left to deal with the Saddams and the ayatollahs, the Kim Jong Ils and the Jiang Zemins, leaving most of the benefits to others.
Knopf, New York, 2003
Barry Eisler, Hard Rain
Should you read it? If you enjoyed Rain Fall because it was fresh, don't bother; this is a continuation of that story, but with nothing of essence that is new. If you enjoyed Rain Fall and you like comfortable series, you'll probably enjoy this one; his mastery of place remains intact. If you haven't read Eisler, find a copy of Rain Fall.
Putnam, New York, 2003 (Uncorrected Manuscript)
Paul Eddy, Flint's Law
What's with the wimpy American publishers? The original title of this book is Mandrake, and it's a smarter title. Never mind, Eddy knows how to flesh out his characters and pace a story. An exciting read that penetrates deeply into the dark soul of totalitarian societies.
Putnam, New York, 2002
Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions
Kind of like eating a salad made with iceberg lettuce. You can spruce it up with some tangy dressing so that a few bites are interesting, but in the end, you're chewing on a whole lot of nothing.
Henry Holt, New York, 2002
Paul Eddy, Flint
Eddy has the knack.
Putnam, New York, 2000
Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism
How much richer a nation we would be if only a fraction of this kind of depth of thinking and insight were to make it into our national debate on the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.
Instead of waving idiotic catch phrases like "axis of evil," wouldn't it be amazing if the president were to actually string together enough intelligent words in one press conference so as to make a real attempt to explain to the world why we are doing what we are doing. Too much to ask, I guess.
And we have a press corps in this country that would much rather parrot the president, run endless loops of tragedies, and ride around in humvees than try to really understand what they are seeing unfold before their eyes.
The real clincher is that, armed with this kind of insight, it becomes vividly apparent just how important the war on terrorism is. If we had a leader who understood the importance of plain speaking (and I don't mean two-bit, phony, country boy talk) and diplomacy, the whole free world could well be behind us right now, rather than casting their scorn upon us. What a sorry state of affairs.
Norton, New York, 2003
Dan Brown, Deception Point and The Da Vinci Code
An abundance of interesting little facts. Unfortunately, they are assembled in juvenile stories with cardboard characters.
Pocket Books, New York, 2001 and Doubleday, New York, 2003
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
What an imagination! The cover blurb of one the later editions says: "Snow Crash is a mind altering romp through a future America so bizarre, so outrageous…you'll recognize it immediately." It's true! Funny, challenging, frightening, and more entertaining than a war with embedded journalists. Is culture simply a response to viral infections? Only your Metaverse warrior knows for sure. This is one of those rare books that just kept surprising me.
Hiro puts his head in his hands. He's not exactly thinking about this; he's letting it ricochet around in his skull, waiting for it to come to rest. "Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing—is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?"
Juanita shrugs. "What's the difference?"
Bantam Spectra, New York, 1992
Kris Nelscott, A Dangerous Road
A history/civil rights lesson from street level in a black neighborhood in Memphis, early 1968. Told in the first person by Smokey Dalton, a guy who does odd jobs, a black Marlowe. Dalton has lived through the lynching of his parents for a crime they had nothing to do with, has gone on to earn a Master's degree, and still struggles to claim his rightful space in America.
St. Martin's Minotaur, New York, 2000
Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon
A vivid and wild romp through the streets of Bay City in the 23rd century with a reincarnation of Sam Spade named Takeshi Kovacs. "Have sleeve, will sleuth."
Gollancz, London, 2002
Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing
Astonishing. I read for books like this.
All song that didn't hear this massacre was a lie.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003
Barry Eisler, Rain Fall
Had to read this again already. Was listening to Mile's Sketches of Spain, thinking about Jazz, and found myself wanting to feel the smoky jazz atmosphere in this story again.
Putnam, New York, 2002
Todd Boyd, The New H. N. I. C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop
Professor Boyd has helped open my eyes and ears to Hip Hop, something I have not understood, but have wanted to. I like the cadence of his writing style; it's like listening to him speak. He's direct and unpretentious, which seems to be all too rare in academia. I also appreciate his insight into the difference between imitating and being influenced by something.
At the risk of coming off sounding like an idiot—I know so very little about Hip Hop—I have to say that he didn't quite convince me that Hip Hop has replaced Civil Rights. I realize that Hip Hop is more prevalent today, but I'm not sure how something that focuses so clearly on "I" can replace something that has been focused so clearly on "we." I do agree that we all need to let go of the past, without diminishing the importance of what any of us has been through, in order to keep moving forward.
New York University Press, New York, 2003
Susan McDougal with Pat Harris, The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk
Sounds like the title of B-rated mystery novel, and if you didn't know this story was true, you would swear it was too far fetched to be a good mystery read. But this shit is true. In my view, Kenneth Starr is a lying asshole of the worst type, because on top of all his baked crap, he spreads a sanctimonious frosting. The OIC represents the worst of politics. I hope that when these people are old and the drool is running out the corners of their mouths and caretakers are carelessly wiping their behinds, that all they feel is shame for how they behaved. It is simply unforgivable how they treated people in their zeal to take down a political target.
While I applaud Susan McDougal for standing up to that pack of dogs and for baring her soul in this book, I can't quite feel sorry for her. She fell into a trap that was made possible by her neediness for love and her addiction to being around shakers and movers. I do admire her honesty in being able to look into herself and see this. She says it best:
A horrible thing that happened to me actually turned into a good thing. Being sent to jail was a frightening and sometimes horrible experience. But, being incarcerated actually changed my life for the better, In a strange twist, it was going to jail that proved to be my salvation, and there's no doubt in my mind that I'm a far better person than I was before I went to jail. As the reader of this book knows by now, I've made a lot lf mistakes in life and done some foolish things that I'm not proud of. But, during my time in jail, I honestly evaluated the truth about my life, and examined with renewed clarity many of the life choices I had made. That process of evaluation and examination is one I would not forfeit for anything in the world, despite the fact I had to be jailed before I experienced it.
Carroll & Graf, New York, 2003
Anthony Swofford, Jarhead
Swofford's story about his experiences as a marine and in the Gulf war is amazing in its unflinching and brutal honesty. I wanted to read this so that I might have some idea what the men and women of the U.S. military are going through in Kuwait and Iraq just now. Just today, I read a back-and-forth correspondence between Swofford and Mark Bowden, the author of Blackhawk Down. Swofford, sitting on his couch in Portland watching the first days of the war unfold, says, "Sorry for all the shit talk. But the sand and the stink and the shit are on my mind. Those poor kids, those poor fuckers. Oh, America, you break my heart. You beast, you nurse, you lover. Great conflicted bloody mess."
As I listen to the radio while I write this, I hear that a second marine has just been killed in combat. All I can see in my mind's eye is Swofford and his mates, every orifice full of sand, humping their heavy rucks across the desert, scared shitless, full of courage in their care for each other. Those poor kids, those poor fuckers.
Every American, especially the politicians who put these poor kids in harm's way, should read this book to better understand the true costs of war.
Scribner, New York, 2003
Robin Moore, The Hunt for Bin Laden: Task Force Dagger, On the Ground with the Special Forces in Afghanistan
If you want to understand what it really means when you hear about special forces taking an airfield in Western Iraq or securing oil fields in Northern Iraq, this book will give you a glimpse. The book would be far better if the author hadn't spent so much effort inserting himself and his political opinions into the story.
Random House, New York, 2003
Robert Crais, The Last Detective
Interesting to read this immediately following Pattern Recognition. It makes me realize just how much of a social/cultural divide has been opened up by our experience of 9/11. It's hard for me to imagine how any book written after 9/11 could ignore that, but this book does. Although well written, because of that vacuum, it felt out of touch with today.
Pattern Recognition acknowledged our new reality in the most eloquent way. How could that experience not have touched Robert Crais's soul? And if it did, why aren't there hints of that in his writing?
Doubleday, New York, 2003
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
This story is 356 pages long. Through the first 331 pages, which I finished just before falling asleep last night, I was floored. When I pondered the review I might write, I thought it might simply be: "Wow!"
Then I found myself wide awake in the middle of last night, so I picked up the book and finished the last 25 pages. What a letdown. I don't like it when a plot is resolved at the last minute by the main characters explaining it to each other. I'd rather be left in the dark about some plot details than read that kind of sorry excuse for a conclusion.
That said, do I recommend this book? Unquestionably and enthusiastically. The characters are passionately lit, the settings are vivid, our global community is exquisitely dissected, and the plot is a thrill ride. A subplot revolves around the Towers and how that single event has impacted and shifted our reality on individual and societal levels. Nothing else I've read or heard—in either the news media or in novels—has made me feel it in the gut the way Gibson does in this story. Kudos for that alone.
"It doesn't feel so much like a leap of faith as something I know in my heart." Strange to hear herself say this, but it's the truth.
"The heart is a muscle," Bigend corrects. "You 'know' in your limbic brain. The seat of instinct. The mammalian brain. Deeper, wider, beyond logic. That is where advertising works, not in the upstart cortex. What we think of as 'mind' is only a sort of jumped-up land, piggybacking on the reptilian brainstem and the older, mammalian mind, but our culture tricks us into recognizing it as all of consciousness. The mammalian spreads continent-wide beneath it, mute and muscular, attending its ancient agenda. And makes us buy things."
Putnam, New York, 2003
Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead
A rambling, disjointed, yet undeniably passionate epic novel about the abuses of the descendants of Europeans in the Americas and the anger of the native peoples, as well as of the poor and dispossessed.
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991
Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution - Transforming Cultures and Communities in the Age of Instant Access
A provocative, in-depth look at where we are and where we might be headed in an always-connected, information-rich world.
The most long-lasting social effects of technology always go beyond the quantitative efficiency of doing old things more quickly or more cheaply. The most profoundly transformative potential of connecting human social proclivities to the efficiency of information technologies is the chance to do new things together, the potential for cooperating on scales and in ways never before possible. Limiting factors in the growth of human social arrangements have always been overcome by the ability to cooperate on larger scales: the emergence of the agriculture ten thousand years ago, the origin of the alphabet five thousand years ago, the development of science, the nation-state, the telegraph in recent centuries, did more than accelerate the pace of life and make it possible for the human population to expand. The cultural levers also enlarged the scale of cooperation, radically altering the way people live.
Another research group that takes emergent group intelligence seriously is the laboratory at Los Alamos, where a group of "artificial life" researchers issued a report in 1998, "Symbiotic Intelligence: Self-Organizing Knowledge on Distributed Networks, Driven by Human Interaction." The premise of this interdisciplinary team is based on the view proposed by some in recent years that human society is an adaptive collective organism and that social evolution parallels and unfolds according to the same dynamics as biological evolution. According to this theory,… new knowledge and new technologies have made possible the evolution of the maximum size of the functioning social groups from tribes to nations to social coalitions. The knowledge and technologies that triggered the jump from clan to tribe to nation to market to network all shared one characteristic: They each amplified the way individual humans think and communicate, and magnified their ability to share what they know.
Perseus, Cambridge, 2002
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Skyy on ice … snow doing its hypnotic thing outside … flames of heat dancing across the room … plugged into a pair of Senns … 604 pulsing out of my Inno spinner and synching my consciousness … jacked into Gibson's vivid illusion … Saturday afternoon swirls away in a flush of pleasure.
Ace, New York, 1994 (1984)
Back jacket author photo by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward
David Thielen, The 12 Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management
Funny … so much of this is good stuff about giving workers the freedom and responsibility to do their jobs. But then it gets sliced with the ice cold blade of ruthlessness, and the blood drips. No wonder Microsoft does so well, and no wonder so many people hate it so vehemently. They've lost touch with the basic tenets of humanity.
McGraw Hill, New York, 1999
Microsoft Windows User Experience
I've been reading this book on and off for about a year, and finally finished those sections I wanted to read. It is a thorough and well-written book, and has provided me with a valuable background perspective when I'm involved in UI design meetings. I particularly appreciated the Visual Design chapter.
Microsoft Press, Redmond, 1999