Category Archives: Books

Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government – very dark , cynical, and very funny look at the world we will live in in a few years time. They did a wonderful editing this, so the story starts immediately and keeps barreling along at breakneck speed. Within the first ten pages a slew of murders are happening in order to grow demand for a new line of Nike shoes. The assassin in question: Hack Nike (possibly the greatest name for a protagonist since Hiro Protagonist). People take surnames from the company they work for. Jennifer works for the Government. Hence the title. Hack works for the shoe company.

It’s a very quick read, and it would surprise me to see this turn into a movie at some point, but with all the actual brand names from the book filed off and replaced with bogus names.

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World

Just finished reading How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: a short history of modern delusions by Francis Wheen. Excellent stuff – he laments the falling-out-of-favor that liberal, enlightenment virtues like reason and inquiry have had since the sixties, and the foggy mysticism that has taken root in its stead.

Post-modernism’s relativist stance is skewered several times. (This part is especially entertaining, since post-modernism practically parodies itself) Modern economic “miracles” like Enron, the dot-com bubble and economic cults (like the IMF and Thatcherism) are dissected and revealed for the madnesses they are. But pleasantly, he has just as much contempt for modern feminists, leftists and “radicals” as he does for the Islamic fundamentalists, medievalists and religious conservatives.

On a related note, I see in today’s paper that Jon Stewart’s America is doing well. Stewart’s Daily Show won an award for achievement in news!? Comedy show wins news award? Truly these are strange days. (and someone in the news isn’t doing their job)

An Instance of the Fingerpost

by Iain Pears. 700 pages. (amazon)
A fingerpost is a post with a finger on it that points to the solution. This is a nicely layered crime drama set in Oxford in 1660s. The Royal Society is being set up, dogs are being exploded and vivisected by professors, Cromwell has just departed, Roman Catholics roam the english countryside furtively. In the middle of this, an italian fop/doctor arrives, a professor is poisoned, and a local witch is hanged and burned. Gripping stuff.

But the story peels back in layers – four stories from four different perspectives, each building on the next, leading to a fingerpost. First the italian doctor describes what he saw happen, then a student bent on avenging his father describes the same events as part of his own, larger narrative. A professor and cryptographer tells his story, before finally a historian and scholar ties the whole thing up in a nice bundle. Each narrator is selfish and self centered as only gentlemen of the 1600s can be. Foreigners and women had better know their places, and honor and breeding excuse anything untowards.

I read this just after Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver and Confusion which are set in roughly the same time period, but which do a better job of communicating the flavor of the period I think. The “Fingerpost” mentions the cold and the damp, but you don’t feel it as strongly. Stephenson describes the environment more vividly, while Pears brings his characters to life through words and action in a much more realistic way (Stephenson is writing opera, so his superheroes of the 17th century are excusable). The student’s narrative makes for uneasy reading, as you sense the malice in the words and descriptions, while it never explicitly says so.

Having the narrators embedded in the story this way makes for a very enjoyable read. You miss the omniscient authorial voice every now and then (more background info would have been nice in some interstitial chapters) but the experience of peeling back the layers of perceptions to get to the “truth” is recommended.

Book-a-rama

The Confusion, Neal Stephenson
900 pages of bliss. Stephenson mixes opera with high-seas adventure yarns and it makes a satisfying and enjoyable read. The stories run from about 1680 through to 1701, weaving through most of Europe on the one hand, and across the world on the other. Fabulously entertaining and instructive too. The book touches on derivatives (both monetary and algebraic), monetary theory, naval tactics, alchemy, basic chemistry (including the manufacture of phosphorous from urine), and the 1600s history of kingdoms in Europe, North-Africa, India, and Mexico.

Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni
Short and cliched. You don’t read management literature for the story. The meat of this book is worth reading though: basically any sizeable organization will need to have meetings. Most meetings are dull and boring. Here’s how to have more interesting meetings:
1. have daily 5 minute check-in meetings to keep everyone on the same page.
2. have weekly hour-long meetings to discuss tactical short-term planning. Do a quick check-in at the start of the meeting.
3. monthly two-three hour long meetings to discuss strategy.
4. quarterly offsites.

To avoid being dull, create a culture of open debate where opinions can clash without fear of recriminations. This is easier said than done.

A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett
Just got this – oh joy! It’s another childrens book, but it’s got the wee free men in it, so Crivens! I need to go read som more.

Easter Readings

Easter is Crime and Murder season in Norway. This year I polished off two Steven Saylor “Mysteries of Ancient Rome”. He writes real page-turners, although the later books in the series suffer from overly focusing on the detective Gordianus, and less on the crimes he is supposed to be investigating.

The “Arms of Nemesis” is the second book in the series and is a taut thriller. Gordianus has three days to solve a murder, or a hundred slaves will die. Spartacus roams the countryside, so the fear of revolting slaves makes everyone suspect the slaves of the murder. Lots of interesting research (some dumped straight into the book direct from the research notes thanks to the expository philosopher character who happens to be staying at the villa where the action takes place). And anyway, isn’t the research is part of the pleasure of reading this series. A bit of a deus-ex-machina ending, and Gordianus continues his habit of picking up slave children.

“Mists of Prophecy” is the last book in the series (I’ve been reading these out of order, as I find them) and Saylor has tried a few different narrative tricks here (flashbacks and re-telling the same events from different viewpoints) that he hasn’t used before. The story of a Cassandra who dies in his arms, murdered by one of the most powerful women in Rome — the background is as interesting as always, but the pressure and urgency is lacking in this book.

Hopefully Gordianus and Saylor will travel back to Alexandria to tell some stories set in the ancient egyptian city.

My cousin has lent me “The Murder Room” by PD James, and I’m working my way through it. I wish she wrote less – the detailed descriptions of everything are a bit too much for me. Maybe I’ll get used to it.