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Review: A Single Man

A Single Man
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing like a long road trip to give me the time I need to finish this long overdue book. Highly recommended, so naturally I approached this with trepidation. Nothing like heightened expectations to completely screw up a perfectly good book.

I admit I was a little tentative with this book because I didn’t know what to expect. I did know what I didn’t want though, and that’s having the book preach at me, clumsily painting the injustices of being in a minority, and thinly veiled attempts to persuade me to one side or another.

But no, thankfully. Nothing preachy about the book at all, just the day in the life of an ordinary middle aged man who just happens to be gay. George is still grieving over the loss of his partner, and grapples with thoughts of life, death, and the general challenge to continue living as he approaches the latter part of life. It’s not a book about a gay man, but a book about a lonely man. It’s heart-wrenching, hopeful and depending on how you feel towards the end, a little tragic.

I loved how Isherwood explored George’s feelings, and absolutely adored the dialogue. Wonderful wordcraft here on full display.

The overwhelming feeling I had upon finishing this work was *this* is how a day in a life novel is supposed to be written: succinct yet full of meaning. It’s almost everything Ulysses isn’t. A Single Man is wise, even-tempered, humane, touching, and something you’d finish reading feeling completely satisfied knowing you’ve been changed that little bit as a result. Importantly, it felt like it was written just so, to finish at the perfect length.

Thoroughly recommended.

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Review: Far from the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t know if this is the start of a trend. Another great classic that grew on me. I loved the build-up to the finale, which you sorta know was coming, but for a while there you are thinking “could this be one of those really tragic novels that you could not imagine classic stories usually go?” As it turns out the novel holds the tension pretty tautly throughout.

I use the word ‘tension’ here pretty loosely, because this isn’t exactly an action thriller. But I find there’s a huge feeling of satisfaction at the end of these types of novels where everything resolves itself.

It’s pretty good love story. Not GGM’s Love in the Time of Cholera level exactly, but a pretty decent one. I’m almost afraid I’m losing my edge here, falling for these types of stories.

Writing-wise it’s pretty standard classic English prose. Those with literature degrees please refrain from strafing me with bullets, because I’m obviously generalizing here. I’m not elite enough to distinguish the difference in prose between Austen, Eliot or Conan Doyle with Hardy, merely by the emotion they evoke. And Hardy is, in my highly technical and considered professional opinion, pretty good.

A quick note: I thought Francis Troy is one of the awesomest (another highly technical term – you can tell I put in a lot of effort in these reviews), smoothest, most dastardly playboy/badboy in literature. My favourite character in the novel, hands-down, and one of best I’ve read. In the spirit of the recent Star Wars fever, let’s just say Han Solo has nothing on this chap. He has the best lines, and I particularly like this passage, which, of course, resonates with universal truth.

Why, Miss Everdene, it is in this manner that your good looks may do more harm than good in the world.” The sergeant looked down the mead in critical abstraction. “Probably some one man on an average falls in love with each ordinary woman. She can marry him: he is content, and leads a useful life. Such women as you a hundred men always covet—your eyes will bewitch scores on scores into an unavailing fancy for you—you can only marry one of that many. Out of these say twenty will endeavour to drown the bitterness of despised love in drink; twenty more will mope away their lives without a wish or attempt to make a mark in he world, because they have no ambition apart from their attachment to you; twenty more—the susceptible person myself possibly among them—will be always draggling after you, getting where they may just see you, doing desperate things. Men are such constant fools! The rest may try to get over their passion with more or less success. But all these men will be saddened. And not only those ninety-nine men, but the ninety-nine women they might have married are saddened with them. There’s my tale. That’s why I say that a woman so charming as yourself, Miss Everdene, is hardly a blessing to her race.”

So yeah, I think the prose’s ok, and the story’s ok too.

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Review: Bound to Rise

Bound to Rise
Bound to Rise by Horatio Alger Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read this some time back, now catching up on reviews.

This was a quick read. I expected a non-fiction treatise on the principles of success, but instead it’s a fable – a tale of hardwork and enterprise to seek success, and not be seduced by short-term gains and temptations.

It was fun, but the bloody book stops just when he starts work in a publishing house. It would be good, you know, if the book ACTUALLY ENDS PROPERLY.

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Review: Light in August

Light in August
Light in August by William Faulkner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another one of those classics where I have absolutely no idea what I’m getting myself into. The first impression I got, and it stuck throughout the book: Faulkner writes brilliantly. Excellent prose. Not a classic that I’m crazy about, I have to say, but it’s better than Ragtime for me.

Finished this sometime back and a lot of impressions have disappeared, but I remembered that the book wasn’t bad – an unwed pregnant girl travels alone to find the father of her child, only to find that he’s (surprise) a no-good small time naughty boy, but not before catching the eye of the local good boy. The story then veers its focus towards the said bad boy’s ‘friend’, Joe Christmas, which takes up the majority of the book, up until the point Christmas got lynched (well, didn’t those choice of words controversial).

Unlikely to revisit, but the writing. Whew. I’ve been known to do some crazy things, and one of them might just be picking up Absalom, Absalom!

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Review: Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was ok. I was never a console player, so Mario didn’t really evoke much nostalgia in me. I wanted to find out what made Nintendo tick as a company, and I thought this book went into that somewhat, but not in any particular detail. Largely driven by personalities with whims that the market responded to, it seems like. Talked about the upstart challenge from Sega, and how Nintendo inadvertently helped create the astronomical rise of the PlayStation (has to do with how they rejected the use of the CD in their consoles).

At the moment Nintendo isn’t exactly winning the console wars, and their previous big successes on the handheld gaming market is well and truly trounced by the rise in casual gaming in smartphones. So it’ll be interesting to see where they go from here. Their legacy, though, as detailed in this book, is enormous, and it’ll be interesting to see how Mario can fix their pipes (groan).

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Review: Blood Ninja

Blood Ninja
Blood Ninja by Nick Lake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[No idea when I finished this]

Vampires and ninjas. This is a fun book. I have to admit that my expectations weren’t fantastically high to begin with, but this was better than Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, another of those ninja YA fiction.

(Flipping through the CIP Block on the page, this particular book is curiously not catagorized as YA).

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Review: Psycho

Psycho
Psycho by Robert Bloch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve gotten to this book too late. This book is so much part of the popular culture that you didn’t even know you knew spoilers.

In my case, I truly didn’t know much beyond Janet Leigh’s infamous shower scene (no, I’ve not seen the movie either), and for the longest time I didn’t know if she lived or died. Eventually I did sort of ‘know’, not because I knew the fact, but I guessed it must have been inevitable.

Which brings me to this. Finally I’ve managed to get to this book, and if I had been living under a rock this would have been a 4.5 star book (as it stands, I’m living under a giant mushroom. Almost like a rock, but not entirely). By the first quarter of the book I guessed the twist, and while the book still managed to hold my attention throughout, the punch in the gut feeling the book would have delivered was gone.

Bloch put in clues all throughout the narrative that hinted at the final discovery. If you ever want to experience everything Bloch had intended for his audience, in what is undoubtedly one of the finest horror stories ever, you should stay away from all reviews. Including this one. Oops.

p.s. No, I was not scared reading this book. Sigh. Where is the book that will genuinely scare me? Fiction, please, not real-life stories – I’m a wuss.

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Review: Economics (3rd Edition): Making Sense of the Modern Economy

Economics (3rd Edition): Making Sense of the Modern Economy
Economics (3rd Edition): Making Sense of the Modern Economy by The Economist
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s supposed to Make Sense of the Modern Economy, but for me it’s Making No Sense of the Modern Economy. Sorry, but this is diving into the deep end, this book.

I have no background in economics beyond some Ariely, Levitt/Dubner and an occasional book about the collapse of CDO-backed securities triggering shockwaves across Wall Street and the world.

To say I learned nothing would be inaccurate, yet I can’t say I learned a lot either. A lot flowed right past. I learned economics is simply a map with which we can use to try to make sense of the world. However it’s at best an estimation, and at worse a wild buckshot in the dark with the nozzle pointed at humanity. Despite the best theories the securities bust happened, crises happened and will continue to happen. So it’s really an examination of the various factors that influence the development of a nation.

This book bears a re-read, but hopefully when I’m more well-stocked on more econs fundamentals. I’m giving it 3 stars because it’s not the book’s fault that I didn’t learn as much as I could out of this, simply because I’m a curious passer-by, not an econs major.

Having said this, I hope my subconscious retained enough to allow me to whip out random info to be entertaining in parties.

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Review: PhiLOLZophy Critical Thinking in Digestible Doses

PhiLOLZophy Critical Thinking in Digestible Doses
PhiLOLZophy Critical Thinking in Digestible Doses by Chrissy Stockton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was unexpectedly entertaining, this one. There was very little philosophy in this book, and more about the state of mind in various stages of growing up, how to recognize the said state of mind and how to handle it properly without skidding off the cliff of life and ending up in the chasm of mental oblivion (I’m practicing for NaNoWriMo, so forgive the extravagant yet terribly unwieldy phrases).

I’m giving it 3 stars no because of any philosophical eurekas, but it was a fun short book that I immediately re-listened the moment I finished it. Yes, I read (listened as audiobook) this one twice. Back to back.

The target audience for this book, I guess I’m not.

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Review: This is Not the End of the Book

This is Not the End of the Book
This is Not the End of the Book by Umberto Eco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is basically a recorded conversation between Eco and Carriere about several things, the chief of which is the head tree version of the book. My thinking going into this was that electronic books is definitely the future, and that all the books should exist digitally, which I truly believed to be its most refined form. Storing books in plain text file, free from silly constraints of requiring specialized software like PDF reader to get to the heart of the matter. What’s more pure than plain text files?

However, the authors’ points have merit and changed my way of thinking about long-term storage of books. One of the most incisive observation was Carriere’s “There’s nothing more ephemeral than long-term media formats.” I strongly opposed this statement at first. In the first place, there’s something to be said about storing data digitally, and having the flexibility to reprint it in any form, including, yes, a book. The data can be pure text, and even though I dislike proprietary viewers as a means of long-term storage, the PDF format is defined clearly enough, lived in public domain long enough to warrant competent implementation of views to guarantee long-term archival purposes. And the cloud. Oh the cloud. Imagine being able to recall any (any!) book in its best fidelity anytime and virtually anywhere you have a connected mobile device. How is that ephemeral?

However, Carriere mentioned an example of a director friend of his who stocks his basement with old computers and machinery just to see films/footage recorded on media no modern devices can use anymore. The disks and tapes and cards and all manner of obsolte storage technology, with valuable digital data trapped inside with no other way to safely retrieve them. Also about data store on archaic CD-ROMS, once held as ‘the’ ‘permanent’ storage needs. Loaded on it programs that can no longer run on modern computers.

Sobering. He’s right. Imagine a global catastrophe like nuclear war or the flu epidemic, wiping out access to electricity (this scenario is laughably easy to arrive at, given that we’ve seen proofs of how fragile the supply chain is when hit with an emergency). What good is streams of bits then?

In this scenario, the book is clearly superior. “The book is like a spoon: once invented, it cannot be bettered.” Eco may not be wrong here.

What I felt is that leaving everything as a physical book is terribly… inefficient. But total reliance on digital formats is not the answer either. Therefore there should be complementary efforts to have these two formats exist together. The constant debates to land on one side or the other is ultimately pointless. What we need is to perfect the content representation technology (and PDFs are not the solution long-term), store it in the most OS-agnostic, system-agnostic manner possible and propagate it over a redundant, highly available cloud infrastructure that’s not government or corporate-owned. And this alongside libraries or archives working to preserve significant physical works for the future generations.

Works to digitize existing works mustn’t stop. This is the only way to spread knowledge and ideas otherwise trapped in books held only by either the fortunate or the privileged.

This book also talks about how culture is a form of censorship or natural filtering. Too much data like what we have today is as damaging as not having enough data. There are many books mentioned by great classical works that never survived to the present day. There’s no way to know if these works are as good as it is claimed to be, or are the ones we have truly the best of the best.

Eco and Carriere spent a lot of time talking about incunabulum, which roughly a book published in the 15th century, a kind of ancient book or manuscript. They touch on their collecting habits, which is enormous and obviously worth a tidy sum.

They also touched on all the books they’ve’ purchased but not read. It doesn’t bother them, obviously. “I haven’t read of these books. Why would I keep them otherwise?” was one response to a question by a visitor asking if they’ve read all the books in their fearsome library.

Overall, a good book to meditate on. The memories of both men as they cite example after example of obscure books and authors and films and directors is very impressive. And not all in their native languages too. True intellectuals.

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