Books / Year 2003
Date: 2003-12-31 (permlink)
Author: Daniel Keyes
Name: Flowers For Algernon
Rating: Reread

It's been 5 years and 10 months since I originally read this book. I expected the reread to affirm the book's greatness, but that did not happen. It's an okay book, but this time around I noticed at least the following things which diminished my enjoyment:

First of all, the moralizing viewpoint in which the book is written. "Thou shalt not mess with nature" and all that really does not jibe with the scientific worldview which I happen to possess. The book also makes it clear that stupid people are somehow better than intelligent people, which is not only annoying, but dangerous. All mass movements throughout history have been possible only because a large proportion of people are not capable of thinking on their own and as such are capable of being manipulated easily.

Second, having just read Pinker's "Blank Slate", and in the process having crystallized my thoughts about the relative importance of nature versus nurture in determining people's personalities in adulthood, and in general the difference, if any, between body/mind, the book just seems false. Charlie is somehow portrayed as having the retarded Charlie still inside himself even he's intelligent, and that is clearly impossible if you accept that the mind is just a function of the brain. If the brain is physically modified, there is no way for the old mind to hang around in the background. Another falsity is the great importance his mother's behavior still has on him in his adulthood. Only people who have never met other people and their parents can really think that children are shaped that much by what their parents want them to be like.

Date: 2003-12-30 (permlink)
Author: Suroosh Alvi & Gavin McInnes & Shane Smith
Name: The Vice Guide To Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll
Rating: 2.5 stars

Too much plain stupidity, but there is some interesting stuff here. The cover picture is horrible in any case.

Date: 2003-12-28 (permlink)
Author: Gary Larson
Name: The Complete Far Side
Rating: 4.5 stars

Yeah, I don't normally include cartoons here, but I'll make a new rule that any reading material that weighs over 10kg is automatically accepted...

Reading through all 4000+ of Larson's cartoons in a couple of days is an enlightening experience. It's not, however, the nirvana that I was hoping for. It seems Far Side works better when consumed at a rate of couple of strips per day, not 500+. Still, this is a magnificent collection that includes all your favorite strips (mine is the monster snorkel), so highly recommended.

PS: Steve Martin's foreword is terrible, which is surprising given that Martin is usually funny.

Date: 2003-12-26 (permlink)
Author: Alan Shipnuck
Name: Bud, Sweat & Tees
Rating: 3 stars

Doesn't really deliver what it promises to do, ie. juicy insider information about life on the PGA tour. For example, golf groupies are mentioned on the _cover_ of the book, but the only mention of them inside the book is a lame "of course _I_ have never touched them" from the players interviewed. Really believable, not.

Still, interesting reading once you accept that it won't contain anything too damaging for anybody's reputation.

Date: 2003-12-21 (permlink)
Author: Victoria Coren & Charlie Skelton
Name: Once More, With Feeling - How We Tried To Make The Greatest Porn Film Ever
Rating: 4 stars

Interesting concept, but the execution is slightly flawed. As interesting as the foreign sex workers of Amsterdam are, it never became clear to me why exactly they had to film there and have such trouble finding people etc, when they could just have gone to Los Angeles and filmed it there in 5 days with people readily available a phone call away.

Also, it's impossible to take the book entirely for real. It's all just too nice, always bordering on the line between things you can give away and things you just can't in a book like this. In real life, at least some of the things in either the authors' lives or during the filming would have crossed over to become things you just cannot mention publicly, so it's obvious that something has been censored, you just don't know what it is. For example, their claim that they've never had sex with each other just fits too nicely into the book's profile, and what's more, it's pretty much unthinkable to imagine them admitting that "well, there was this one time when we were both drunk and ended up having sex...".

Oh, and the back blurb lies about Victoria's "affair" with one of their actors; they don't have an affair at all.

Date: 2003-12-15 (permlink)
Author: Steven Pinker
Name: The Blank Slate
Rating: 5 stars

At first, this was slow reading as Pinker kept spelling out obvious things (at least to me), but as he got into territory I wasn't entirely familiar with the book became fascinating and interesting.

Date: 2003-11-30 (permlink)
Author: William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
Name: The Difference Engine
Rating: 2.5 stars

And to think that for over 10 years I've thought I was missing something essential by not having read this. Now that I have, I'm sorry that nobody warned me in advance. I have no idea why this book is called science fiction when it's basically badly-told alternate history with no plot. "Let's throw in well known historical characters and have them do something entirely different in our version of history!" "Yeah, that'll be hilarious!" Hate to break it to you, but in a word, no.

Date: 2003-11-21 (permlink)
Author: Saburo Ienaga
Name: The Pacific War 1931-1945 (Taiheiyo Senso)
Rating: 3 stars

Doesn't deal much at all with the actual warfare, mostly it talks about the politics behind the war, what led to the war, repercussions of the war. Not a bad thing, but sometimes his preachiness does get annoying.

Then there's the blatantly false statements, one example of which is: "The Chinese Communist army proved that in a national crisis only democracy can inspire patriotism, raise national consciousness, and galvanize it into fighting power against aggression." It makes the author's credibility questionable when such a basic fact as Soviet Union's struggle against Germany in WWII is unheard of.

Date: 2003-11-13 (permlink)
Author: Richard Overy
Name: Why The Allies Won
Rating: 4.5 stars

I've always wondered about some things in regards to WWII. How much did economic and industrial factors affect the outcome, was the British/USA effort overrated in comparison to the Soviet Union one, etc. This is a book that tries to answer exactly those questions, and largely succeeds in it. So, if you want to know more about the most important event in world history so far, I suggest you read this book.

Date: 2003-11-08 (permlink)
Author: J.D. Salinger
Name: For Esmé - With Love And Squalor
Rating: 3 stars

Nice little vignettes about various things.

Date: 2003-11-08 (permlink)
Author: Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Name: Hubbert's Peak
Rating: 3 stars

Interesting book, but it has several flaws. First, why bother with all that geophysical stuff when nobody not in the field already is going to understand it and those in the field already know all that stuff? Seemed kinda pointless to me. Second, there's not that much factual evidence behind any of the stuff he talks about. Middle East is not producing oil anywhere near the capacity they could, and it is entirely unclear just how much oil reserves they have left. So, it would seem to me that the most probable situation is not a rapid decline in oil production in the next few year, but rather a hovering around the current production for some time before the decline starts.

Date: 2003-11-08 (permlink)
Author: William Goldman
Name: The Big Picture
Rating: 1 stars

Repetitive bullshit. Maybe it wouldn't be so obvious if you read these newspaper articles in a 10-year time span, as they were originally written, but read all at once, they're nothing but the same article over and over again. Every year is THE year that the costs have escalated beyond control, that there are too many movies, that the quality level has finally slipped too far, that there are no good movies being made any longer, etc etc etc. Kinda loses its believability when said 10 years in a row. I especially like the way he lists movies/directors from 50 years ago that are unknown to anybody under the age of 60, and says "Oh, those were the days...Nothing today even comes close". I can understand that he's 70 years old, and it's normal to think that the period when you were young was the greatest time of it all, but it's another thing entirely to not know at the same time that that is just nostalgic bullshit.

I don't even begin to know how to approach his constant slamming of so-called "foreign" markets, meaning "outside the USA", for the "slide" of quality in movies. And for somehow resenting the fact that "foreign" markets are bigger than the USA market for Hollywood films. Hello, McFly? The rest of the world has USA's population beat by about 1900%. It'd be pretty surprisising _not_ to have a film gross more outside the USA than inside it.

Date: 2003-11-06 (permlink)
Author: William Goldman
Name: Which Lie Did I Tell
Rating: 3 stars

The insider information is fascinating. For example, I've always wondered why they changed the hobbling scene in Misery from the book in the movie, and now I know. But, the latter part of the book where he does his example script (which is basically unfilmable, as the people point out who he had review it) is not so hot.

Date: 2003-11-03 (permlink)
Author: David Mamet
Name: Plays: 2
Rating: 2.5 stars

Nothing too memorable here. The brutality of Edmond is refreshing but that's about it.

Date: 2003-11-02 (permlink)
Author: David Mamet
Name: Plays: 3
Rating: 4 stars

Glengarry Glen Ross was not as good as I was led to believe (it was still good in absolute terms, though), and the two mini-plays are forgotten even before they're read, but the last play, Speed-The-Plow, more than makes up for it. It just might be the most cynical thing I've ever read or seen about Hollywood, and that category is certainly not lacking for contestants.

Date: 2003-11-01 (permlink)
Author: David Mamet
Name: Plays: 1
Rating: 3.5 stars

Reading modern plays is about 10 times faster than reading Shakespeare's plays, it seems. Which is a good thing, as the plays zip by so fast they don't wear out their welcome.

Date: 2003-10-31 (permlink)
Author: Dave Eggers
Name: You Shall Know Our Velocity
Rating: 3 stars

This is the second book that Eggers has written, and it shares one conspicuous similarity with its predecessor: they both deal with young men who have effortlessly acquired "too much" money to know what to do with. This allows them to act out whatever crazy thoughts come to their heads, and never have to face the ugly realities of life that the other 99% of humanity has to struggle with daily. In addition, the book doesn't really have much of a plot; calling it a travelogue written in an unusual style wouldn't be too far from the truth.

Date: 2003-10-26 (permlink)
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Name: The Corrections
Rating: 5 stars

This review contains spoilers. Click here to show it.

I seriously considered giving this 6 stars, but in the end decided against it. The book starts out great, the middle maintains the greatness, but at the end there's a slight drop-off. First of all, major characters are still being introduced very late in the game. I'm referring here to Robin and Brian mostly. It takes some of the energy off when you wanna know what happens next to the characters you know, and instead there's pages and pages about totally unknown people and you have no idea how they fit into the grand scheme of things.

Then there's the fact that some things are set up and never go anywhere. The Axon stuff, for example. After Enid doesn't send off the signed letter granting use of the patent, there's this big thing made about what a huge company Axon turns out to be and how central a position the patent holds in their future product, and you're sure that they'll end up trying to get millions from Axon, and what happens instead? Absolutely nothing. The matter is never mentioned again, other than a lame "Well I sent a second letter"...

Other things are left kinda half-solved, as well. The whole Alfred situation is unclear. First we spend 650 pages worrying about how his worsening condition is going to be handled, and then at the last two pages he's just packed off to professional care and that turns out to be workable? Then what was the problem in the first place?

It's probably not a good idea to give book five stars and then spend the first 3 paragraphs complaining about it. It's just that the book is so close to greatness that the minor flaws that stop it from attaining that greatness are really in focus. If this were a slightly worse book, would I feel the need to point out in so many words what's wrong with it? Not a chance.

Date: 2003-10-19 (permlink)
Author: William L. Shirer
Name: The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich
Rating: 3.5 stars

The title of the book is misleadingly accurate. The book does depict the rise and fall of the Third Reich somewhat thoroughly; however, most people would assume that that means covering World War II as well, at least the European/African scenario of it. In this the book fails miserably. As an example, Kursk 1943, the greatest tank battle in history, is covered with just one paragraph of text. The U-Boat warfare is similarly neglected (he does mention that X tons of shipping were sunk in then-and-then; however, as he does not say how many tons of shipping got through, the figure is absolutely impossible to put in any perspective), as are practically all other areas.

But, then again, WW2 is the largest event in the history of humankind, so maybe it's too much to ask for one book to cover it with any thoroughness. At least this book gives an overview of the war, allowing you to read more detailed accounts later on and pin them in the overall scheme of things.

There are other problems with the book as well. The anti-German viewpoint is one of them. Sure, Germans did lots of unpleasant things. They were neither the first, last, biggest, or most efficient mass murderers in history, so any moral outrage needs to be tempered. Personally I don't see how americans for one can point any fingers, as they conquered a whole continent from the american indians and practised genocide against them, very successfully at that.

Even if you dismiss earlier events, even WW2 is ripe with examples on both sides. So the germans didn't feed their prisoners of war? Neither did the russians. The germans wreaked havoc on conquered lands? Guess what the russians did. Germans bombed england? Allies' firebombing of german and japanese cities, not to mention Nagasaki and Hiroshima, are 1000x worse than any bombing the germans ever did, and it's even worse because there was absolutely no need for any of it.

Date: 2003-10-10 (permlink)
Author: Catherine Millet
Name: The Sexual Life Of Catherine M.
Rating: 1.5 stars

Millet has achieved the almost impossible: she has written a boring book about sex. She describes her myriad sexual encounters with about as much passion and interest as one would describe one's grocery shopping. Most disturbing is the complete passivity of her whole character. Nothing in her life seems to be a result of her conscious choice, it all "just happens" more or less randomly.

Date: 2003-09-25 (permlink)
Author: Alice Sebold
Name: The Lovely Bones
Rating: 3.5 stars

Very strange book, about which I can think of very little to say. I enjoyed reading it, but found no higher truths or insights hidden within. And Susie's heaven? She must have a really dull imagination, or else heaven isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Date: 2003-09-19 (permlink)
Author: George Orwell
Name: Down And Out In Paris And London
Rating: 3 stars

The beginning and middle is a very nice fictionalized account of being poor in Paris in the 1920/1930s, but the end degenerates into a long and boring essay on what to do with the tramps of England.

Date: 2003-09-16 (permlink)
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Name: Platform (Plateforme)
Rating: 4 stars

This review contains spoilers. Click here to show it.

About what I expected from Houellebecq. More wildly improbable sexual encounters sprinkled with bemoanings about the decline of the Western world. Fun as that is, it's even more fun this time as he attacks Islam vigorously. I wonder how he felt after the explosion in Bali considering the end of this book and the date of publication.

Date: 2003-09-13 (permlink)
Author: Donna Tartt
Name: The Secret History
Rating: 3 stars

A very strange book. After reading it, I still don't know how to categorize it. Is it a thriller, a melodrama, a commentary on the unique social circumstances of a small university in the middle of nowhere? It's all those things and none of those things. A large part of the problem is that none of the characters come to life. They all seem to do just what is required by the plot, nothing more, nothing less, and there's no predictability to them. Just when you feel like you've maybe got a handle on things, one of them goes and does something totally unexpected and out of character.

Date: 2003-08-27 (permlink)
Author: Iain Banks
Name: Dead Air
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is a "strong" three and half stars. The book is a nice return to form for Banks after the fiasco of "The Business", but it's a very lightweight book for Banks. There's nothing spectacular happening, no larger than life characters, nothing. The plot is basically nonexistent, with only the thinnest required actions inserted between the endless tirades the main character indulges in. How convenient indeed that he works in radio, and hence the tirades are somehow justifiable. Still, everything starting from the name of the book, the date of publication, etc., gives away the "secret" that Banks is basically just using this book as an opportunity to hammer home his views on everything in the world.

Your reaction to this book probably depends on how much you share Banks' viewpoints. I happen to share quite many of them, apart from drugs, so I had fun reading this. Others may not be so fortunate, as there's nothing in here for them.

One thing annoyed me endlessly: where the fuck does Ceel get off being so high and uppity about what his ganster husband does for a living, when that, or more exactly, the money that has brought him, is exactly the reason she married him in the first place, and she has been busy spending ever since and living the high life, paid for by the suffering of other people?

Date: 2003-08-15 (permlink)
Author: Antony Beevor
Name: Stalingrad
Rating: 4 stars

A good introduction to the Stalingrad battle, but not much more. The viewpoint is largely anti-German and pro-Soviet, which is annoying. In retrospect both must be seen as bad, and using any objective measurements Stalin ranks way higher in the "evil" category. He killed more people, he attacked Finland, and so on. So until Finland is restored the lands which the Soviets took from us in the WWII, excuse me if I'm not exactly thrilled by stories portraying so-called "heroism" by their troops.

That's the other thing about the book that annoyed me: the over-appreciation of everything Soviet and the denigration of everything German. Again, using any sensible metrics, the Germans were way ahead of the Soviets in almost every aspect of warfare. Only the land area, production capacity, and almost unlimited population saved the Soviet Union from defeat. Sure, Hitler made stupid decisions, but hindsight is 20/20 as they say.

Date: 2003-08-10 (permlink)
Author: Helen Keller
Name: The Story Of My Life
Rating: 3.5 stars

I've always been interested in Helen Keller's story. It's too bad this book has only the most obvious facts about her and is almost clinical in its approach. Then again, that's probably to be expected of a book written by a woman 22 years old 100 years ago, about her own life. Probably not all that much had happened to her, and if it by some chance had, certainly she could not tell it publicly.

The letters she wrote which form the second half of the book are more interesting than the first part. By reading them, you catch several outright lies ("I like mathematics, I really do!" "I hate mathematics!" "I've finally learned to enjoy mathematics!" "I never have to take mathematics again, wohoo!") and it's fascinating seeing how her writing and use of language improved at the beginning. Some humor is also injected by her childish stories of how she punished her doll ("I whipped her with a stick").

Date: 2003-08-05 (permlink)
Author: John Grisham
Name: The Brethren
Rating: 3 stars

Unbelievable does not begin to describe this book, but for some reason it doesn't matter all that much. Even the fact that the characters are nothing but plot devices doesn't hurt. It's funny how much you can forgive if a book has a plot that keeps you interested all along the way.

Date: 2003-07-29 (permlink)
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Name: Lullaby
Rating: 3 stars

Easily the worst book Palahniuk has written so far. One absurd idea stretched for 260 pages, with nothing of substance to fill in the rest. The characters are one-dimensional, the happenings are supernatural, and the writing style is chock full of the usual Palahniuk idioms, which, when they're employed in a good book, are tolerable, but here they're just annoying as hell.

Date: 2003-07-25 (permlink)
Author: J.D. Salinger
Name: Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters And Seymour: An Introduction
Rating: 3 stars

Worse than Franny And Zooey, but still an interesting read. The latter story especially has frequent commentary directed straight to the reader, which makes it impossible to take it as "normal" fiction and forces you into a strange new place. Still, it took me ages to read the 134 pages of this book, so it's not exactly engrossing reading.

Date: 2003-07-22 (permlink)
Author: Robert Cowley (editor)
Name: More What If?
Rating: 3 stars

It really takes some doing to torpedo a premise this sound, but they've managed it. In a book that's supposed to contain alternate history short stories, most of the stories just explain what actually happened, then in the last paragraph say "Of course, it's impossible to predict what would have happened if this thing X had went otherwise, so we won't even try".

For another thing, almost every one of the writers goes out of his way to say "nyah nyah" to the idea that history is mostly about other things than what person X or person Y happened to do, which I personally find a lot more worthwhile subject to study. Then there's the totally missing use of the accepted term "alternate history" and blatant attemps to instigate the usage of "counterfactual" instead, which is just pure snobbishness.

Date: 2003-07-17 (permlink)
Author: Michael Moore
Name: Stupid White Men
Rating: 2 stars

The Bush bashing chapters are fun, but the rest is incoherent babbling. There are so many logical flaws in his "thinking" that it's pointless to try to discuss them. Also, maybe he has supporters in the USA, but out here in the rest of the world, his "America first, screw the rest" ideology is just as backward sounding as the politics of the people he says he hates.

I can't believe a person driving a minivan around can blame his government for trying to act to secure cheap oil for its citizens.

Date: 2003-07-14 (permlink)
Author: John Grisham
Name: The Firm
Rating: 3.5 stars

A good book, though somewhat clumsy in writing and totally unbelievable in events. The main question for me is, once the firm started suspecting Mitch of being in contact with the FBI, why didn't they simply fire him? He didn't know anything yet.

Date: 2003-07-12 (permlink)
Author: John Grisham
Name: The Street Lawyer
Rating: 3.5 stars

This review contains spoilers. Click here to show it.

I don't remember if I've ever read anything by Grisham previously, and I only picked this one up because it was about the only thing available in a remote bookstore I was in. I'm glad I did, because Grisham is unlike anything I've seen. Money is constantly in the focus, and the characters spend most of their time either trying to acquire it, talking about acquiring it, or ruing about how they lost it. In this, they're infinitely closer to real people than characters in most other books, who seem to exist in some alternate universe where such banal things as money are never considered.

Of course, the main character does in the end turn away from money, but that's just a facade put up by Grisham. He earns $40 million a year, so he's not exactly in the position to tell people they should throw their lives away and work for pennies defending the poor.

The book itself is a real page-turner, and the plot is interesting without being everything. Sure the characters are somewhat shallow, but that's to be expected in a thriller.

Date: 2003-07-11 (permlink)
Author: Bill Wyman with Ray Coleman
Name: Stone Alone - The Story Of A Rock 'n' Roll Band
Rating: 4 stars

It's a good book, once you manage to orient yourself to the book's style, which is certainly something of a novelty. Most of the time it reads more like a parody of a rock biography than anything else, and a good parody at that. Take for instance a moment in the very beginning of the book, when he says something like "From that moment on, table tennis was to play a large part in my life". It's quite hard to take something like that with a straight face, especially as the subject is never again mentioned in the rest of the book.

Then there's the constant lack of criticism of anything he's ever done and praise unending. I understand, and approve, of not being humble and all that, but if you feel you must start your self-praise by describing how clever you were at age three and continue from there, well...it's a little obvious. Likewise with the womanizing, the descriptions of which start from age six.

It was quite absurd reading his boasting how he had sex with 273 different women in the first three years of the group, then some time later suing his ex-wife for the custody of their child on the basis of her one affair. Also, the constant bitching about how poor they all were was not quite believable as it was lost in the noise of them buying huge castles and whatnot all the time.

Anyway, it contains information you're not likely to find anywhere else, and for that reason alone it's worth reading. A good background primer in preparation for my Stones concert next Wednesday :)

Date: 2003-07-07 (permlink)
Author: Paul Auster (editor)
Name: True Tales Of American Life
Rating: 4 stars

Interesting concept nicely executed. Only flaw was the inclusion of too many identical stories of the oft-debunked "I had a dream/premonition thing X would happen, and it did, so obviously there must be something supernatural going on!" form. I did a quick calculation, with the following figures: 10 million american soldiers participating in the war, each away for 3 years (~1000 nights), each with one worrying relative who has a 1% chance each night of seeing a dream in which the soldier is kileld, and each soldier with a 10% chance of dying in the war, distributed uniformly over the 1000 days. Using those statistics, the probability that not one of those 10 million relatives would see a dream and then have it come true the same day was 0%. I say 0%, because that's what my calculator said. When I ran the calculations with super-precision on my computer, the real answer is 0.0 followed by a couple of thousand zeroes, and then some real numbers. To put this into some perspective, using the above numbers, the most likely number of deaths preceded the previous night by a dream "predicting" it is 10000. Choose the 5-10 most startling from those, put them in a book, and stupid people are inclined to say "no way could that happen naturally".

Date: 2003-06-27 (permlink)
Author: Amy Tan
Name: The Joy Luck Club
Rating: 4 stars

Very interesting stuff here, and it's always fun reading about how children abandon the obsoleted customs their parents try to instill in them.

Date: 2003-06-24 (permlink)
Author: Anne Tyler
Name: Back When We Were Grownups
Rating: 4 stars

This review contains spoilers. Click here to show it.

The book starts off great, stays on track through the middle, but loses some of its steam toward the end. I think this is mainly because the ending is kind of a letdown. First Rebecca spends 250 pages fretting over her lost life, then she has a moment of self-discovery and realizes that hey, I actually had the life I wanted after all. Any reader could have told her that practically on page one...

Date: 2003-06-21 (permlink)
Author: Juha Vuorinen
Name: Tolppa-Apina - Juoppohullun Päiväkirja osa II
Rating: 2.5 stars

Slightly amusing in certain points for its unashamed vulgarity, but that doesn't mean it's a good book. If you have nothing else to do for couple of hours and don't feel like reading something more serious, you can spend your time worse than this.

Date: 2003-06-21 (permlink)
Author: J.D. Salinger
Name: Franny And Zooey
Rating: 3.5 stars

Salinger is obviously a very talented writer, and these two stories are readable only because of it. Without his flair for description, the plots wouldn't stand on their own, since there are none. The latter story especially is just 100 pages of "girl lies on couch and wonders what's the point of it all". Still, worth reading for phrases like "depleted by the demands made on him by a world greedy for the fruit of his intellect".

Date: 2003-06-18 (permlink)
Author: Anne Tyler
Name: A Patchwork Planet
Rating: 5 stars

Engrossing. Stayed up way too late reading this. People who don't read books don't know what they're missing, as they never get to experience that wonderful "I'll read just one more page, honest, then I'll go to sleep" book that comes along once in a while. This is definitely one of them. The only niggle was the ending, which seemed kind of short. I'd have liked to see the events unravel some more.

Date: 2003-06-17 (permlink)
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Name: The Virgin Suicides
Rating: 4 stars

The best idea Eugenides had was the viewpoint. It would be quite impossible to tell this story from within the Lisbon house, but by using anonymous watchers on the outside, the implausibilities in the plot fade away, and by just inserting carefully chosen details of their lives, the reader is automatically directed to fill in the rest by his own imagination, thereby fleshing out the characters. I can't say it works 100% for me, but then, I've never liked these kind of passive stories in which none of the characters seem to have any great ambitions in life, and certainly no inclinations of doing anything to attain them.

Date: 2003-06-16 (permlink)
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Name: The First Forty-Nine Stories
Rating: 4 stars

It's a good thing the stories are arranged chronologically, otherwise their unevenness would be infuriating. Now, there's a clear progression from the almost pointless stories written in his youth to the poignant ones written almost 20 years later. What I was thinking about most of the time reading the stories, however, was how much the world has changed since those times. Hemingway lived abroad and most of his stories are situated there. That's almost unthinkable for an American writer these days; they sit tight in America and never much acknowledge that there's a world outside of their country.

Date: 2003-06-13 (permlink)
Author: Nick Hornby (editor)
Name: Speaking With The Angel
Rating: 4.5 stars

One of the better short story collections I've read. Only the Colin Firth story was bad (what's he doing here anyway, he's not a writer?), others were at least slightly amusing. In a calculated move, Hornby has positioned the two standout stories first and last, and I have to say it works. You read the first one, "oh wow, this was good, let's read on to find more like it!", then you keep reading on even though nothing of quite the same caliber surfaces, and if the book ended that way, you'd be left with a slightly disappointed feeling, but no, he's kept the best for the last, so after you've finished that one you're left with a highly positive feelings about the book.

Date: 2003-06-11 (permlink)
Author: John Steinbeck
Name: Of Mice And Men
Rating: 4 stars

Nice little thing. I always thought this was some huge book, like [id:414 The Grapes Of Wrath] or East Of Eden, but it turns out it's this teeny weeny 100-page book. If I'd known that I'd have read this decades ago...

Date: 2003-06-07 (permlink)
Author: Albert Camus
Name: Sivullinen (L'etranger)
Rating: 2.5 stars

It feels strange giving a Nobel-winning author only 2.5 stars, but in good conscience that's all I can do. This so-called novel, which you can read in an hour, offers precious little anything. The plot can be explained fully in 15 seconds and the characters would fit right on the X-axis (ie. they're one-dimensional). Hopefully Camus' other books are better, because this one certainly didn't generate much interest in me.

Date: 2003-06-01 (permlink)
Author: Tom Wolfe
Name: Hooking Up
Rating: Reread

Now that I've read three of Wolfe's books in succession, certain patterns in his writing style, choice of subject matter, and so on have surfaced clearly. The man is almost repetitive, you might say. There's no other way to explain the presense of a trophy wife named Serena in this book also, just two years after she made an appearance in 'A Man In Full'.

Date: 2003-05-29 (permlink)
Author: Tom Wolfe
Name: A Man In Full
Rating: 5 stars

I read the 30-page essay 'My Three Stooges' from 'Hooking Up' again before writing this, and I have to agree with Wolfe. Big, realistic, researched, in-the-moment and in-your-face novels are the way to go, and Wolfe has achieved that 100% with this book. Probably the fastest 800 pages I've ever read, and way up there when it comes to the pleasure factor as well.

It's a good thing that Wolfe spent 11 years writing this monster, because for a while there I was beginning to despair how someone can know all this stuff and write about it, since I couldn't begin to imagine how I could do something similar. The knowledge that it took Wolfe 11 years is very reassuring, as I'm sure that if I spent 11 years traveling around the world researching things I'd come up with some pretty interesting things as well.

I almost gave this book six stars, but in the end some niggling doubts surfaced and I had to downgrade it to five stars. The main thing was how untruthful his depiction of Finland was. I can't begin to imagine the damage done to Finland's reputation by this book. Now everyone will think Finland is a Catholic country and that you can't get an abortion here, which is as far from the truth as you can possibly get. I almost died from laughter in the scene where Wolfe has an American man suggesting to a Finnish woman that she travel from Finland to USA because "abortions are easy to get here". In reality, it would be the other way around. Anyway, if he can't get simple facts like these straight, other things in the book are cast in doubt as well, so that detracted a little from the reading experience.

Date: 2003-05-25 (permlink)
Author: Tom Wolfe
Name: The Right Stuff
Rating: 4.5 stars

I've already used up my quota of meaningless opening lines, like 'Well.' and 'What can I say?' and so on. It's hard to know how to start describing a book with such a legendary status as this. It's captivating reading, that's for sure, and it has inspired me to learn more about the American space program of the 1960's, and about the test pilot days before that. It's too bad NASA hasn't done anything exciting since then, and has been happy to keep using the Space Shuttle, technology that was outdated even before it was invented. But I have high hopes that Carmack or someone else will rock their world (and get us off this world...get it?) sooner rather than later.

Date: 2003-05-22 (permlink)
Author: Michael R. Eades & Mary Dan Eades
Name: Protein Power
Rating: Unrated

Decent for what I wanted from it, the basics of low-carbohydrate dieting. You have to ignore their advice on weight training, though, since it's so far from reality that it makes you wonder. Also, there's way too much repetition in the book, it could be condensed to half without losing any of its informational content.

Date: 2003-05-16 (permlink)
Author: Robert Graysmith
Name: Auto Focus - The Murder Of Bob Crane
Rating: 3 stars

Not exactly what I thought it would be. What I had in mind was a light journey through the life of a famous sex addict, sprinkled with humorous anecdotes. Instead what I get is a disturbingly thorough account of his last days on earth, with plenty of sordid details. Still, once you reorient yourself, it's educating to read about the sexual exploits of a famous actor. Not fun, but educating.

Bonus points for using the phrase "sharing the extra females".

Date: 2003-05-10 (permlink)
Author: Sebastian Wolfe (editor)
Name: Pieni Kauhukirja (Tiny Tales Of Terror)
Rating: 3 stars

It's stretching the definition to call this a book, but whatever it is, it's perfect reading for commutes. Short, mostly interesting stories, and you're not left wondering "what'll happen next?" all through the workday, because you can always finish the story you're reading.

Date: 2003-05-08 (permlink)
Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Name: American Psycho
Rating: 4.5 stars

Once again we learn that there can indeed be much ado about nothing. I remember clearly the public outcry about this novel when it came out, and about the only thing discussed was the violence in the book, and even that focused on couple of scenes. The much-heralded rat scene was about two paragraphs long, and if there hadn't been so much talk about it, I wouldn't have paid it a moment's notice.

I was surprised by how little violence there indeed is in the book. Sure some of it is extremely graphic and icky, but 90% of the book talks about different things, and they are more entertaining than the violent parts. Some of it is outdated so some of the effect is lost, but it's still a fun thrashing of the meaningless lifestyle that some people lead.

Date: 2003-05-04 (permlink)
Author: Stephen King
Name: Everything's Eventual
Rating: 2.5 stars

And to think I was excited about a new short story collection from King. I have fond memories of his early stories, but these have nothing in common with them. I guess nobody dares to edit King's work anymore after all his success, and it really shows here. All of the stories are too long and containd endless repetition. After the first few pages, you've gotten the picture, and know basically how the story's going to end, and you're wondering "what's he gonna write about for the next 30 pages?", as it seems the story has nowhere to go. Somehow he manages to fill those pages with needless details that add nothing to the story, only delay the inevitable.

Date: 2003-04-28 (permlink)
Author: William Langewiesche
Name: American Ground
Rating: 3 stars

I understand USA's need for heroes and propaganda after the WTC strikes, but this is still unacceptable. The constant putdowns of other nations ("only in the USA") and the glorification of the persons in charge of the cleanup, who in reality were motivated mainly by greed, are sickening from an outsider's perspective. Note that I have nothing against greed, I'm a very greedy person myself, but what I do resent is trying to hide the fact that one is greedy and pass it off as something else, "a higher calling" or whatever.

Date: 2003-04-26 (permlink)
Author: Chuck Barris
Name: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind
Rating: 3.5 stars

Moderately entertaining, and much better than the film. Gone are the soppy romantic gestures and unbelievable adventures in east Berlin etc, which muddled the theme of the film.

Date: 2003-04-24 (permlink)
Author: Michael J. Fox
Name: Lucky Man
Rating: 3 stars

A little too shallow for my tastes. His sexual escapades are covered with literally one sentence, his transformation from starving-actor-ready-to-pack-it-in to buying-ferraris-left-and-right is passed over completely, etc etc etc. At the end of the book, I wondered where all the 330 pages had went because it seemed every interesting subject had been skipped over. There's endless pondering about his personality changing over the years, and how this disease is really a blessing in disguise, and other stuff you can't read without wincing in disbelief. Still, it's not all bad, and is an enjoyable light read if you can look past the flaws.

Date: 2003-04-22 (permlink)
Author: Carl Hiaasen
Name: Basket Case
Rating: 5 stars

Possibly the best book Hiaasen has written so far. For one thing, I actually liked the protagonists, which always helps in immersion. Another thing that helped was that they were not unrealistic superheroes, but normal people with significant flaws. Highly recommended.

Date: 2003-04-21 (permlink)
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Name: For Whom The Bell Tolls
Rating: 4 stars

Well. You can't get much more legendary than Hemingway, so I'm not sure what's the right approach for reviewing his books. Is this a good book? Certainly. Do I prescribe to the whole notion of destiny and all that? No. So, while I can appreciate the book's merits, the larger-than-life characters didn't really catch me as more realistic ones might have.

Date: 2003-04-02 (permlink)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Name: Smoke And Mirrors
Rating: 3.5 stars

A good short story collection. I especially liked the Cthulhu-related stories.

Date: 2003-03-15 (permlink)
Author: Philip Kerr
Name: A Philosophical Investigation
Rating: 1 stars

Nice to know that Americans aren't the only ones capable of writing absolute trash. This is only marginally better than something by Patricia Cornwell, and that's not saying much. I especially liked how Kerr thinks if it's a woman character who beats up innocent men it's somehow okay and even cool. If a male character did that it'd be called fascist and worse by everyone.

Date: 2003-03-05 (permlink)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Name: American Gods
Rating: 3 stars

If it were stripped of the boring god stuff and focused more on life in typical American small towns, it would be a much better book, something in the genre of Richard Russo. As it is, after the novelty of the book's message, "gods didn't travel to USA with the immigrants", wears off, there's not much left in that theme, yet Gaiman keeps writing about it.

Date: 2003-02-09 (permlink)
Author: G. Pascal Zachary
Name: Show-Stopper!: The Breakneck Race To Create Windows NT And The Next Generation At Microsoft
Rating: 4 stars

Very interesting and fast reading, but the aim of the book was a little off for me. It spent ages finding analogies for computer related things so that "normal" people would understand them, and didn't really discuss much at all the technical decisions made by Cutler et al during the process, which would have been much more interesting to me than learning that mice are "pointing devices" and other "fascinating" information.

Date: 2003-01-29 (permlink)
Author: Greg Bear
Name: Anvil Of Stars
Rating: 1.5 stars

Greg Bear is overrated. I found Blood Music to be boring as hell past the middle of the book, Darwin's Radio was simply disgusting, [id:191 Eon] was boring, etc. Moving Mars is the only example of a good book by Bear that I can think of at the moment.

This book is no exception. I can't think of anything good to say about it. The whole premise is absurd for a start. The only thing that could possibly be more absurd is the ending of the book, which surpasses anything I have ever read before in pure unbelievability. The characters are so predictable that it's not even funny. And to top it off, there are two, count 'em, two, instances of aliens described as "elongated" and "slender". If there's anything more cliched than that, I don't want to know about it.

Date: 2003-01-15 (permlink)
Author: Jerome K. Jerome
Name: Three Men In A Boat
Rating: 4 stars

Delightful tale of self-centered people who don't see themselves that way. It's also quite funny how people in the 19th century thought they were leading busy, frantic lives, and yearning for the more relaxed times in the past. Some things never change, I guess.