Book Review – New York Trilogy

It was during hellish holiday, I was sleep-deprived, and yet there I was in a book store and there’s a certain comfort that comes from having a new book to read. On a “recommended by staff” shelf I found an interesting looking title with terms like “international bestselling”, “dazzling”, “gripping” and “genius” on the cover. I cheerfully left the book store with the book in tow.

It was perhaps the most disappointing book I’ve ever read.

The New York Trilogy

Absurdist and boring

I am not a stranger to the mystery/detective genre, having read most Agatha Christie novels, all of Sherlock Holmes, and in terms of more modern fare, even some Peter Temple and Stieg Larsson. However, while Paul Auster tells three different stories in this collection with a detective protagonist, I admit that none are like any I’ve read before.

I was primed to enjoy them, and I did even for a few pages, but as the pages turned into chapters, I found myself finding more and more excuses to put it down, and then only with reluctance picking it up again. While I didn’t like any of the main characters, I was willing to stick it out, because it held the promise of being good. Perhaps it was only when I reached the end that I’d discover why it was meant to be a work of genius?

Perhaps it was too genius for me. Although, if you’re the sort of person that enjoys stories where different characters have the same name, the author’s name is used in the story, or characters are named in a theme, then this is probably your sort of genius. It was clear that it was meant to be clever, but for me it never translated into enjoyable.

Finally, I felt a bit like one of the characters from the book myself, and wanting to destroy the pages so that no-one else would ever have to read them. I think I’ll just drop it into a charity bin instead. Someone else may want to use it to prop open a door, or something.

Rating by andrew: 1.5 stars

Children’s Music is Catchy

I don’t get to listen to music as much these days. When I was at school, I would have favourite CDs on repeat, studying or reading. However, perhaps I am beginning to re-live my youth, as I am starting to put CDs on repeat again, although it’s not exactly my idea.

The CDs are full of nursery rhymes or are by kids’ TV presenters. While these children’s CDs have simple melodies and the lyrics are easy to understand, they have an unfortunate tendency to get stuck in my brain for hours at a time. But I was pleasantly surprised by one CD we bought; it is a cut above the others.

Songs to make you smile

Surprisingly complex and enjoyable songs that will appeal to children

You may well scoff, but I am actually writing a review of a children’s album. Out of all of the various CDs we have to entertain our kids, this one is my favourite. So, what if it is songs by Justine Clarke, an ex-Home and Away actor and, more recently, Playschool presenter? The musical team behind her, primarily Peter Dasent and Arthur Baysting, have pulled off a wonder – a children’s album that does’t drive me out of my mind. In fact, I find myself humming or singing along.

The different songs on the album are from a variety of styles, with interesting instrumental lines and rhymes. The stand-out songs for me are the soft and sad Why Does The Baby Cry? and vaguely educational but fun Dinosaur Roar.

While bands like The Wiggles have mindlessly simple songs that are good for basic dancing, they don’t play well on repeat. It’s a relief (and lucky) to find music for children that I can also listen to.

Rating by andrew: 4.0 stars

Other suggestions for good children’s music will be gratefully accepted!

Concluding a decade of Harry

We recently took advantage of a generous friend’s babysitting of the kids for the evening, and went to see a movie. Certainly not something we have done since Philippa was born, so it was a rare treat. Although, we chose to see a movie that was our habit to see for the last ten years – the latest Harry Potter flick. Watching the fantasy adventures of Harry and his friends has been a regular feature during much of my adult life. It is strange to think back on when we saw the first movie at the Rivoli Cinema One, when we saw a later one with Spanish subtitles in Europe, and how during all that time we got married, had two children, and had many adventures of our own.

After watching the final film, I had a strong urge to begin reading all the books again. I’ve now completed the first four books, and am eagerly looking forward to the final three.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

A satisfying conclusion to the eight film series

Over the course of eight films, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that they got better at adapting J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The first film tried too hard to contain the whole book rather than being a movie experience in its own right, perhaps to please the rabid fans, but disappointing the rest a little. The film-makers got better at leaving things out, to identifying the key plot points, and with the final two films, giving themselves twice as much movie time to fit the story into.

The movie of the first part of the Deathly Hallows was desolate and depressing, but thankfully its follow-up is perkier. That said, the actors playing the darker characters get more screen time than usual, and they really shine.

It was probably also an advantage for me to have read the Deathly Hallows book ages ago, allowing me to forget much of it. I understand that there were some inexplicable changes made for the film adaptation, but unless you are a rabid fan, it’s just minor stuff. All in all, I found it to be a very satisfying way to complete the series.

Rating by andrew: 4.0 stars

It was very interesting to re-read the first book again. When I read it originally, I found it a nice bit of fluff. It is a fun tale, but not particularly sophisticated, nor were the characters very deep. However, now that I’ve had the benefit of a whole saga’s worth of character development, the characters in the book read with a richness that J K Rowling didn’t actually write into it. As a result, it’s been a much more rewarding experience than I was expecting.

There’s been a lot of death

We were narrowly missed by a great big meteor.
Didn’t really make front page news.
We’re too busy cooking crumpets, and wearing out shoes.

– ‘Meteor‘, Box Set, Tripod.

Sometimes it’s interesting to look through your partner’s book collection. Aside from the books that I have absolutely no interest in (I’m looking at you Chick Lit), there are quite a few that I mean to read one day. And that day came for a science book with an interesting title.

A Short History of Planet Earth

A potted history of major geological events in the history of the Earth.

Ian Plimer is the professor of mining geology at the University of Adelaide, so he knows his geology, and this book from 2001 promises to take the layman through a journey of the Earth’s geological history. The subject matter covered is very interesting, although it is a more difficult read than it might have been.

The book really opened my eyes to the fact that much of the planet’s life has been repeatedly wiped out over the years. Whether by giant meteors from space, collapsing volcanic mountains, breaches in ice dams, or a host of other causes, the continued existence of a species of Earth-based organism is precarious indeed. When we come across a species that’s a relic of a previous age, such as a stromatolite, it’s almost a miraculous thing.

However, accessing this interesting story is made difficult by a few features of the text. While pitched at a non-technical reader, Plimer can’t help using technical terms that he doesn’t define anywhere. Also, despite the book being arranged chronologically by chapter, there is a tendency to leap around between topics and timeframes within chapters or even on the same page. I found these diversions, while often interesting, interrupted the flow, and would’ve been better placed in their own side box, or even omitted. There was almost a sense that a less-than-thorough editing job had been done.

Towards the end of the book, Plimer begins to reveal his negative views towards human-induced climate change. These seemed a little out-of-place in a book of this nature, but the book does have other personal touches, such as his thoughts on ancient surfing breaks. Perhaps it adds a little colour at the expense of academic neutrality.

In all, I was pleased to have read it (and learned a new perspective on our planet’s evolution), but less pleased with the effort required to make it through to the end.

Rating by andrew: 2.5 stars

Child brutality in black and white

This month’s book-club book is again a work of post-apocalyptic fiction. Perhaps we have a preference for stories about screwed-up worlds. I don’t know what that says about us.

The Hunger Games

Teenage girl gladiator fights for family in deadly reality TV show

This novel by Suzanne Collins is a light read on a dark subject. The Hunger Games is a reality TV show where randomly chosen youngsters battle each other for glory and to placate the state. How to write a tasteful story about children killing each other? Collins tries to walk a fine line between glorifying the violence and keeping the moral perspective. I’m not sure she always does it successfully, but she doesn’t stray too far into unhealthy territory.

I found it difficult to classify the book. It has fate handing down violence for the amusement of others, as in Gladiator. It has children trying to out-game others, as in Enders Game. And it also has the post-apocalyptic game show element of The Running Man. And it has a female lead. So, if you can imagine all that, then it’s something like the feel of this book.

While I found the book itself enjoyable, especially towards the end, I had trouble immersing myself in the story. Perhaps because it focussed more on the characters’ predicament than the characters themselves, or because the protagonist Katniss is so analytical herself, or maybe because of the gruesome game, I didn’t find myself empathising with the characters.

Rating by andrew: 3.0 stars

The Future, as feared by Fforde

Our ¬†book-club book for the month is Jasper Fforde‘s most recent novel for adults. Not sure if I’m going to make it to book club this month, but anyway, while the book is still relatively fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down my thoughts about it here.

Shades of Grey

An intriguing post-apocalyptic world with some novel ideas

Jasper Fforde is better known for his literary comedy books, which provide a post-modern take on the some traditional genres, like nursery rhymes. This book is a departure from that, so existing fans may not find it quite to their liking. This is, in essence, a science fiction novel: a story set in post-apocalyptic world.

There are still some comedic elements, and there is a hint of romance, but foremost this is a display of Fforde’s inventiveness. For example, in this speculative future, the characters live in a colourtocracy, where association with certain colours relates to a position in the class structure. One might consider the result to be the dystopian love child of George Orwell and Roald Dahl.

While the world itself is fascinating, and learning more about it was the impetus to keep reading, the main character was a bit of an empty shell. I didn’t find anything particularly likeable or admirable about him, nor anything repulsive either – he just stumbles along through the plot, primarily pushed along by other characters’ agendas.

Finally, it is worth noting that this book is the first of a trilogy, and the other books aren’t written yet. This was something not immediately apparent from the cover of the edition that I was reading.

Rating by andrew: 3.0 stars

Facebook Movie Review

In the lead-up to having our second child, we are getting in some things that will be harder to do once there’s a newborn around. So, about a week ago, thanks to our baby-sitting neighbour, we got out to see a movie together.

We are fans of Aaron Sorkin‘s oeuvre, with the box sets of both The West Wing and Sports Night in our TV cabinet. Since he’d been out here in Australia spruiking his new film recently, and that was its opening night, the choice of what to see was pretty simple.

The Social Network

A tale of friendship and betrayal with a lot of geeky detail mixed in

This is a film that follows the Sorkin model. Sports Night had rapid-fire technical sport talk, West Wing had a thousand-words-a-minute political speak, and The Social Network has a firehose of geek speak and technical computer detail. But in none of those cases did it really limit your understanding of the plot, and on the contrary, it does at least make you feel smart.

It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is well cast and acted, and dialogue is clever and humorous. Because it’s based on a true story, you already know how it will end – Facebook will be a success – but the tale isn’t about Facebook, so much as the interesting bunch of people who were around in the early days of the social networking website, and the roles they played in bringing it about.

Perhaps these characters are as much the social network of the title as the website. They are excellent fodder for Sorkin’s script and part of the enjoyment for me was in the fleshing-out of the characters as the film progressed.

While Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get a particularly favourable presentation in the movie, his friend Eduardo Saverin is treated very sympathetically. Still, Zuckerberg is presented in a way that allows us to feel that we can almost understand him and what has driven him to become the billionaire and social media titan that he is today.

Another aspect that comes across well is the excitement and craziness that comes from being in a high-growth start-up. This is another thing Sorkin is good at capturing, whether it is the crazy cultures of the armed forces, top-tier politics or TV journalism. In this case, it helps explain the lure of why people would want to join a start-up (despite the high risk and long hours).

So, while this isn’t a truly great movie, it was a very interesting one. Especially so as the influence of the Facebook social network continues to grow in our lives. By getting a perspective on the early days of this service, it helps in understanding the changes Facebook is undergoing.

Rating by andrew: 3.5 stars

How the 80s became the naughties

One of the defining events of the naughties – the first decade of this millennium – was the global financial crisis. How mortgage defaults in a few US states, leveraged many times over through the global financial system, brought about a crash in the world’s stock markets and a world-wide recession. But its genesis was in 1980s Wall Street as chronicled by ex-Salomon Brothers employee Michael Lewis.

Liar’s Poker

Vulgar, incredible and fascinating take on 1980s finance

I listened to the audio book earlier this year, and Lewis’ tale blew my mind. Here was a person who, by rights, should not have been in that place at that time, as he didn’t have the traditional qualifications to get a job trading at Salomon Brothers, nor did he even interview for the job. Furthermore, instead of continuing to make wads of money, he chose to quit and write an account of it. Lastly, it was written well in a very accessible style. The chance of all these things happening must have been minuscule – and yet they did.

If Lewis is to be believed, and he presents himself credibly, Wall Street in the 80s was inhabited by a bunch of racist, chauvinist cowboys who through luck more than wisdom and possessing a complete disregard for their customers managed to make out like bandits. This is, of course, completely counter to the image that Wall Street projects of itself to its customers.

The story is part-memoir, part-history and part-ethnography. The author’s prior education was in art history, and second career was in journalism, and he picks out the threads that led to the particular situation that he was dropped into, as well as charting his progress through the firm and documenting its culture. It is a unique book, and truly fascinating, even if you don’t have a background in finance let alone the bond market.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Liar’s Poker

First-hand account of Wall Street’s cowboy culture and the rise of mortgage bonds

Most recently, Kate gave me a paper copy of Liar’s Poker, given how much I enjoyed the audio book. I quickly discovered that it was a rather different book.

Liar’s Poker was Lewis’ first book, and the text really does feel like it. For example, paragraphs feel like they are crammed full of information. In the audio version this wasn’t so obvious. Also, there is a great deal of background, historical information in the middle of the book, which I found bogging down the interesting personal tale, and much of which was excised from the audio book version. The book would’ve benefited from more aggressive editing, and the audio book, being an abridged version, had effectively received this.

That said, it remains a compelling tale. All of the aspects that I liked in the audio book version, I still found in the paper version, although it was less focussed. Perhaps if another reader hadn’t experienced the audio book first, there wouldn’t have been an expectation of a fast pace already set.

My rating: 3.5 stars

The Kung Fu Kid Review

I’m a bit of a fan of the original The Karate Kid. It’s not really particularly well acted, and the characters are rather flat, but it’s a lot of fun, and is a real 1980s classic. So, I was really interested to see what the latest movie would be like…

The Karate Kid

A surprisingly adult martial arts film involving surprisingly young kids.

This 2010 film is a homage, rather than a strict remake, of the 1984 classic. While it has the same plot points, it has different characters, a different setting, and a different martial art. In the intervening 26 years, it feels like this film has matured and deepened somewhat, and we’ve ended up with richer characters, better acting, and a real feeling of authenticity about it.

The cinematography is excellent, with amazing shots of China showing both polished and gritty parts. Jackie Chan, as a kung fu master, lends real credibility to the role of teacher. Given that the original 1984 film was a bit of a homage to Asian martial arts films, it’s rather apt that this take on the original has real Asian martial arts film chops.

However, the pace of the film is rather slow. It has a lot of dramatic arts, and relatively small amounts of martial arts. Many kids would find this pretty dull, I’d expect. Also, the kids themselves, i.e. the actors, in the film made me somewhat uncomfortable.

The main character is portrayed by a clearly 11 year-old actor. The result for me was that the violence and the romantic attraction were both problematic. The romance seemed implausible and the violence was troubling. The original, with the male and female leads both being well over 18, did not have this issue.

So, while the title’s reference to Karate is less accurate than the original, the reference to Kid is more accurate, and I think the film has suffered for it.

Rating by andrew: 2.0 stars

Interesting reading

One of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while was one that I picked up back in January. I’ve been meaning to write a review since then, but I had been holding off for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in case my book club chose it (it didn’t) and if I was to lend it to a particular friend (I haven’t yet). However, the recent trigger was an article on a friend’s blog where the point was made about being prepared to change your mind in light of new evidence. Stewart Brand, the author of this book, similarly states that his opinions are “strongly stated and loosely held”. Strongly stated opinions are useful ones – they can be acted upon – while loosely held beliefs allow for the potential of giving them up when better ones come along. In this vein, the book is meant to provocatively challenge some common beliefs.

Whole Earth Discipline

Managed to change my mind on urbanisation, nuclear power and biotech

In this book, Stewart Brand considers what might be the most significant forces for good in the next century, and produces a somewhat surprising list: urbanisation, nuclear power and genetic technology. As Malcolm Gladwell does in other pop-science books, Brand pulls together emerging scientific findings of an interesting and compelling nature. However, for Brand, it is a personal exercise, as a number of his conclusions are the opposite of those that he held earlier in his life as an environmental activist.

While the conclusions don’t feel like the final word on the topics, as is par for the course regarding emerging research, to my reading, they do provide a substantial enough case for at least provisional acceptance. However, I must admit I wasn’t convinced by the argument on how nuclear proliferation is not a problem with today’s nuclear technology. Still, I found the book to be fascinating, informative and has already supplied me with ammunition in number of friendly debates.

My rating: 4.5 stars

In addition, the author summarises his book in this podcast, and provides updated references and annotation at this site.