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

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

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.

If your TV was like a Book

Last month, Apple released their latest device – the iPad. It is capable of many wonderous things, and has many fabulous properties, but of all of them, for now I am interested in just three: its screen, its weight, and its ability to show video.

As various other manufacturers rush to market with devices to compete in the segment that Apple has just legitimised, they will most likely produce things that share those same three properties. However, as it is still early days, we don’t yet know for sure what people will end up doing with these devices. That’s why it’s so much fun to speculate!

The iPad has a 24cm (diagonal) screen, weighs about 700g (WiFi version) and can deliver TV quality video from the Internet to practically wherever in the house you decide to sit yourself down with it. If you hold it up in front of your face (about 60cm away), it’s as big as if you were watching a 120cm (diagonal) TV from 3m away. And, while lighter than a 120cm TV, it’s going to feel heavy pretty quick.

However, 700g is not very heavy if you’re willing to rest it on your lap, and there’s another category of content consumption “device” that is comparable in this regard: the book. I am willing to spend hours intently focused on a book while reading it, and a quick weigh of some of my books (using the handy kitchen scales) suggests the iPad is not unusual…

Which provides some legitimisation of a “TV-watching” scenario of a family in their lounge room, with everyone watching a show on their tablet device. (Assuming that you have overcome issues like individuals’ TV audio interfering with others and ensuring adequate bandwidth for everyone.) However, this scenario feels strange, even anti-social.

I am perhaps conditioned by the ritual of people coming together to share a TV watching experience. And before we had TVs, people came together to share a radio listening experience. But before broadcasting technologies, what did we do? In reality, this sort of broadcasting experience is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before that, presumably we all sat around in the lounge room and read books.

I’ve previously written on the idea that people prefer the personal, and that a personal TV experience will be preferred to a shared TV experience. The iPad and similar devices have the potential to enable this, through becoming as light and portable as books.

“Netbooks” also have similar attributes to the iPad. However, they tend to weigh at least 1 kg and have screens that are smaller. So, while future Netbooks might have the right form factor, it certainly isn’t common yet. The iPad is the first mass-market device that properly fills this niche.

The issue of the scenario feeling anti-social is still a little troubling. While our ancestors might have looked up over their books and engaged in a casual chat, momentarily pausing their reading, this is harder to accomplish with a video experience. Not only are the eyes and ears otherwise engaged, making casual interruption more difficult, but the act of pausing and resuming is not as easy either.

I suspect that while we’re now reaching the point where hardware can fill the personal TV niche, the software is not yet ready. We may need eye-tracking software that pauses the video when the viewer looks away, integration of text-based messaging alongside video-watching, and other adaptations to the traditional video player software.

I’m keen to see what competition in this new segment produces.

Snap Judgements

At one of the airports during my recent trip, I had to use up some loose change. It’s one of those strange situations – the currency in your hand has value, but as soon as you step onto the plane it’s worthless. Nowhere outside the country will change coins for you, and if it’s a small amount in notes the currency exchange fees will probably eat up all the value. So, one strategy is to turn soon-to-be-worthless currency into something that will still have value even after the plane starts taxiing.

I ended up buying a book, of course.

I had been eyeing off a Malcolm Gladwell book – the one before Outliers, which I’ve already read. I ended up converting my useless Hong Kong dollars (or whatever they were, I forget which airport it was) into something with persistent value. Which was lucky, as I didn’t get around to reading it until about a month later.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

People make snap judgements, but some are better than others

The basic idea of this book is obvious to anyone: that people make snap judgements. However, Gladwell tries to find those times when the snap judgements are interesting, because they are occurring subconsciously, or they are uncannily correct, or they are disappointingly wrong. He describes those times to us with his usual style of clear writing interspersed with interesting anecdotes and off-beat research.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t take away from the book much in the way of practical lessons. It seems that he was trying to write an up-beat book, to show the potential of snap judgements, but I felt a number of the negative cases tended to counter that message. Although someone can be trained to overcome the bias in subconscious judgements, it is not enough to be aware of the subconscious judgement. Also, it turns out that even experts in their field are not always able to say when a snap judgement is going to lead you astray.

However, I still found it fascinating. In particular, I loved the parts about the police, and also the story about the cataloguing of every possible facial expression.

My rating: 3.0 stars

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Comic but not funny

When I was a boy, I had my hair cut at a (somewhat sleazy I can now say) Italian barbers called Mario’s. It was in a small suburban shopping centre named Crossways, after the fact it was placed on a major intersection. Despite this, it never managed to attract a great deal of foot traffic. But somehow, its traders struggled on, and Mario’s seemed to get by on the number of (always) attractive (always)  female (daughters? cousins? nieces?) staff that Mario had around to hand him scissors and clippers.

To keep the younger clientele amused while waiting for Mario, at the end of the long, leather bench seat that ran the length of the barbershop, there was a stack of various comic publications. There was Archie and Richie Rich and others of that ilk, but it was The Phantom that I would always dig through the stack for. A costumed super-hero dating from the earliest days of the comics scene, he would fight off smugglers and slave traders through smarts and physical prowess.

That’s probably how I got “into” comics.

I’m not the biggest comic fan I know, nor am I a regular reader of comics (if you don’t count web comics). But I do own several graphic novels and books of comics, have Comical installed on my PC, and I now have my own stack of The Phantom.

So, when I came across a recommendation for a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the early days of comics, it then didn’t take too much convincing from the sales lady to buy it. “It’s epic”, she said.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

A literary treatment of escapism

Michael Chabon’s book takes the reader through the early years of the American comic book industry, set in 1940s New York. It is a thoroughly researched tale, that feels completely plausible, and it is difficult to know where the facts stop and the fiction begins.

The two protagonists of the title – Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay – are likable and engaging, and it is easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm. However, it’s not clear that Chabon likes them very much at all, as it is a rollercoaster of a story, and he doesn’t let them stay happy for long.

The quirky style of the writing made me feel as if I should be getting ready to laugh out loud, but the strife and despair of the situations put a damper on the high points. As a result, I couldn’t sit and read this book for very long at a stretch, and had to put it down and come back when I was ready for yet more torment to occur to Sam and Joe.

The themes of the book revolve around ideas of escapism. There is plenty of fodder for this in the context of a couple of Jewish immigrants in New York during World War II, however the inclusion of comic books into this allows additional meanings. It is cleverly done and the book feels “worthy”, but the level of depressingness was a little too much for me.

My rating: 3.0 stars

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Pulp fantasy

After I’ve completed an exam, I no longer need to feel guilty if I read something other than my study notes. Having just finished a subject, I recently went out and grabbed myself some fiction to read instead. One of my favourite authors is Neil Gaiman, and in my random wanderings through the bookstore, I came across a book of his that I hadn’t heard about before.


A satisfying fantasy novel that manages a new take on a cliched formula

This novel is pitched as an adult fairy tale. However, it’s only adult in the sense that it’s not a children’s fairy tale. It’s not cover-to-cover steamy raunchiness or anything. There is some raunchiness. Bad things happen to good people. All up, more of a “young adult” book than an adult one, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

On the copy that I’ve got, there’s a review quote from Stephen King. In fact, aspects of the book do remind me of King’s work, as Gaiman is able to conjure up some pretty strange and freaky creatures to inhabit his fantasy world. The physics and logic of the fantasy world start off strange, but grew on me during the course of the book. Just seeing Gaiman apply his creativity is part of the enjoyment of reading it.

Apparently this book has been turned into a movie, although I hadn’t heard of it either. Although, after reading this book and enjoying it, I’ll be keeping an eye out for the movie at the local video store. I also discovered that Gaiman is behind Coraline, which I am very keen to see, now that I’ve read his take on a children’s fairy story.

My rating: 4.0 stars

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Scandinavia – the most violent place on earth?

It seems that Scandinavia (you know.. Denmark, Sweden, et al) is currently the home of the crime novel elite. Which means, according to Slate magazine, that more people are murdered in Scandinavian crime fiction than are actually murdered in reality. You have probably heard of some of the Scandinavian crime writers, if only Peter Høeg of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. In fact, last year one of them was apparently the second most popular author, globally, of any genre. So, it was about time I read one of his books.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Grim, suspenseful, nasty but good.

When the author, Stieg Larsson, handed over the manuscript of this novel, he was not to know he wouldn’t live to see it published. Luckily for us, he also handed over the manuscripts to the two follow-up novels, so we have more of his work to indulge in, as it is really very good.

This crime story is set in Sweden, and is provided to us in translation. The feel of Sweden seems to come through strongly for me in reading it, and part of the enjoyment was in the sampling of the culture, which the translator has left intact.

The story itself starts slowly, and quickly turns macabre. I did not enjoy some of the sick turns that the plot took, and given that the tale took up residence in my brain for a few days, it was not pleasant. However, there is much to like in both the plot and characters.

There are also some interesting themes woven into the book, covering journalistic ethics, violence against women and even citizen’s rights. The philosophy covered in those areas was more extensive than I would’ve expected for a crime thriller, and it’s more what I’d expect in science fiction.

I am looking forward to reading the next book.

My rating: 4.0 stars

The Latest Malcolm Gladwell

I really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and now he’s churning out the books. His is an appealing formula that is part psychology, part economics, and part science. :) This month’s book club will be looking at his latest book.


An interesting theory of why individuals succeed based on their circumstances rather than their talent.

In “Outliers”, Gladwell provides anecodes, scientific studies, and personal history to support the idea that exceptional individuals (the outliers of the title) are more due to the circumstances of their birth and the amount of practice they’ve put in, than being due to exceptional talent. It’s a quick read, and engagingly written, so easy to enjoy.

However, is it a controversial idea that success comes from more than just talent? Do I need to give any examples other than former US President George W Bush? Perhaps in (some parts of) the US, it is a widely held belief that success comes solely from individual merit, but I hope that most have a more nuanced view. So, the author does not have to work very hard to convince us.

Although, perhaps he should have, as the book is written to build out the theory rather than the demonstrate the theory’s truth. There is little scientific method in such a treatment, as even though we are shown some successful individuals meet Gladwell’s criteria, we aren’t shown if all individuals that meet Gladwell’s criteria are successful. In this way, it is a bit like The Millionaire Next Door (which I reviewed here) – a book that proposes the attributes of millionaires but doesn’t show how many with those attributes achieve millionaire status.

These are minor quibbles. Perhaps it is more concerning that the book has a somewhat racist message. Jews are successful lawyers, Koreans are poor pilots, and Asians are good at maths. Although supported by his research, there is a moral tangle with accepting such claims, and this isn’t dealt with in the book.

That said, it is an enjoyable and interesting read. I didn’t find it as good as The Tipping Point, but given the potential for debate, I think it will be a good book-club book.

My rating: 3.5 stars