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book reviews

I think one of the reasons I have fallen so woefully behind in my book reviews is that I was insisting on doing them sequentially, and as the span of time increases since reading a book I find it increasingly difficult to say anything about it. Thus, instead of getting the reviews over and done with, I use my free time on more current pursuits.

While I would still very much like to get up to date on reviewing the last few books from 2014 and the disappointingly few books from 2015, I have decided first to catch up on 2016's lot and review each book shortly after completing it, no matter what backlog may still exist. Otherwise, I see little point in keeping up with this exercise.

Book 21 (2014)

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  1. Gaarder, Jostein — Sophie's World (425 pages)
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book cover: Sophie"s World.

Almost two years removed, there isn't too much I can say about Sophie's World anymore. I had a lot to say, just never much time to put those thoughts into a post. So, this review will be short.

I enjoyed reading Sophie's World. I thought the approach to teaching philosophy was very effective (and entertaining). Gaarder, especially in the first half of the book, is very successful at explaining what each of the philosophers and schools is all about; later in the book, though, the thread becomes more difficult to follow as the story itself takes a few surrealist turns. Overall, though, a great philosophy primer!

Book 20 (2014)

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  1. Faulks, Sebastian — Birdsong (407 pages)
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book cover: Birdsong.

It seems just about every English person raves about Birdsong. In fact, I'm sure the most negative thing I've ever heard a Brit utter about it is, "That's a great novel." Without fail, every single person I told I was reading WWI-inspired literature told me I had to read Birdsong. What choice did I really have?

Birdsong tells three distinct stories — or perhaps it's one long story interrupted by a war. There is a rather unusual love story which begins in Amiens in 1910 and develops haltingly over the next several years, with a few unexpected twists. A few years after an interruption of the love story, we encounter our young lover, Stephen Wraysford, leading men at the front. What follows is a vivid depiction of the war. Interspersed are scenes from the third story thread, set in the 1970s, featuring Elizabeth trying to find herself in the modern world and reaching into the past for answers.

The common theme that develops through all three threads is about finding love and humanity in an inhumane world. The war is just a foil, though an extremely pitched foil. The antebellum world, with its restrictive mores, and the modern world, with its consumerism and fast pace, are effectively dehumanizing as well. That both Wraysford and Elizabeth find their humanity through the crucible of the Great War is the height of irony. And Faulks pulls no punches illustrating just how soul-destroying war is.

The pre-War love story (occupying the first 100 pages) was interesting and at times racy. Beyond that, I did not find it terribly compelling. It was merely necessary to set the groundwork for what was to come. And while the modern bits were moving at times, I had difficulty caring for Elizabeth or any of her counterparts.

Where Birdsong shines, though, is in its depictions of the War and its psychological effects on everyone involved, soldier and civilian. The depiction of the Battle of the Somme is particularly effective in conveying the insanity that prevailed at times. And while the book did not lack for depictions of life in the trenches, as with any WWI book, it spent a considerable amount of time underground, detailing the war that was being fought underneath the ground, a perspective on the War I had not previously encountered.

Faulks did a lot of good things in this novel. He is a precise writer with a keen sense for characterization. Still, I am not convinced by Birdsong. Everything ties up nicely at the end, but it feels a bit fabricated. Had Faulks chosen to tell a story of one man struggling to survive the war with ever so tiny a shred of his humanity intact, it would have been a great WWI book. But Birdsong isn't about the War; it's themes are larger, more universal. I'm just not sure Faulks pulled it off completely.

Book 19 (2014)

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  1. Krug, Steve — Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (197 pages)
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book cover: Don"t Make Me Think.

I was sceptical when my line manager handed me a copy of Don't Make Me Think. He'd heard me grumble many a time, with my standard, "I'm a developer, not a designer," about the lack of a designer on our team. Of course, I do know something about design, having read books and blogs and having done a few simple designs; but that doesn't make me a designer. And reading one more book on UX design wasn't going to change that. I certainly didn't expect much of Don't Make Me Think.

I sold it short. Simply put, it's the most sensible book on web usability I've read. It's beautifully (and functionally) designed, clear and concise, and makes its points memorably. Other books may try to say the same things, but the ones I've read have fallen short of Krug's mark.

Ok, no, I'm not any more a designer than I was before, but I do feel more comfortable making design decisions on our projects at work. It's mostly just common sense, keeping things simple, remembering that a website is for its users, not for the designers/developers/etc. A good deal of it was stuff I knew, but there was quite a bit that was new to me, or stuff I hadn't thought much about.

If I want to nitpick, some of the code examples (html/css/javascript) weren't particularly good, but since this book is not about coding, such was of minimal importance. This book is about making the web usable, and it should be required reading for anyone designing, developing, or managing a website project.

Book 18 (2014)

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  1. McCoy, Horace — They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (119 pages)
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book cover: They Shoot Horses, Don"t They?

The prisoner will stand…

I stood up. For a moment I saw Gloria again, sitting on that bench on the pier. The bullet had just struck her in the side of the head; the blood had not even started to flow. The flash from the pistol still lighted her face. Everything was as plain as day. She was completely relaxed, was completely comfortable. The impact of the bullet had turned her head a little away from me; I did not have a perfect profile view but could see enough of her face and her lips to know she was smiling. The Prosecuting Attorney was wrong when he told the jury she died in agony, friendless, alone except for her brutal murderer, out there in that black night on the edge of the Pacific. He was as wrong as a man can be. She did not die in agony. She was relaxed and comfortable and she was smiling. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile. How could she have been in agony then? And she wasn't friendless.

I was her very best friend. I was her only friend. So how could she have been friendless?

Whew! That was Chapter One of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a powerful story of Depression-era America. The story takes places in the span of one moment, as the sentence for murder is being read in court; or over the span of several weeks leading up to the aforementioned death.

Robert and Gloria have come to Hollywood with the dream of finding redemption through the movies. They meet outside Paramount Studios, having just failed to land roles as extras, and agree to take part in a dance marathon. As long as they can stay alive in the competition, they will get free food and a free bed. Over the course of the next several weeks, we learn what makes the two of them tick, what leads to Robert shooting Gloria, and we are faced with the question: Was it a brutal murder, as the Prosecutor asserts, or was it an act of love and friendship? Will "God [or the reader] have mercy on [his] soul"?

Through this dance marathon, McCoy treats us to a sample of what life was like during the Depression. It's a story of broken people with shattered dreams doing what they can to survive and having the humanity sucked out of them. Gritty, powerful stuff!

Book 17 (2014)

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  1. Clason, George S. — The Richest Man in Babylon (198 pages)
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book cover: The Richest Man in Babylon.

Becoming a home owner inspired me to take a closer look at my financial situation. I realised I know very little about finances and wanted some guidance. The Richest Man in Babylon had been recommended, and I was intrigued by reviews I read.

Clason's financial advise is shockingly simple. It's a lot like weight loss: it's no secret that with proper diet and exercise most of us would be adequately fit; similarly, if we apply Clason's common sense rules, we would be financially fit. To pound the point home, Clason presents a series of parables, set in and around Babylon, in which his various rules are put to the test. The stories are illustrative and mostly enjoyable.

The rules?

  1. Pay yourself first. No matter what your debts and other necessities, every time you are paid set aside 10% as an investment in yourself.
  2. Control expenditures. Budget, making sure not to touch the 10% you've set aside, so that you control what your money is spent on.
  3. Invest, thereby making your money work for you.
  4. Protect against loss.
  5. Make of your home a profitable investment.
  6. Make arrangements for future income.
  7. Increase your ability to earn more.

Refreshingly simple! Of these, he reiterates in each chapter, the first is the most important rule. Making that 10% investment in oneself makes it easier eventually to follow the other rules.

The Richest Man in Babylon is a brilliant book, accessible, fun to read, and filled with sound advice. And if you follow the advice, the book will pay for itself and more.

Book 16 (2014)

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  1. Dick, Philip K. — The Penultimate Truth (191 pages)
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book cover: The Penultimate Truth.

I had a craving for Dick. It had been a while since I'd read any. I looked at the available choices and chose The Penultimate Truth, as it seemed timely. After all, with the two World Wars constantly in the public consciousness this year, a novel about World War Three seemed ideal.

When WWWIII broke out, humanity went underground to escape the nuclear holocaust. Fifteen years they've lived deep in shelters following daily broadcasts of the horrific war raging on the surface. Only they don't realise that the war ended years ago. The few on the surface have perpetrated a hoax to keep the masses underground, using them as factories to supply their needs while they divvy up the huge open spaces amongst themselves. Things aren't going so well underground, though, so every once in a while someone ventures onto the surface to seek help, never to be heard from again, presumably killed off by radiation sickness or worse.

Thus Dick sets the stage for The Penultimate Truth, then throws a few characteristic spanners into the works to get the story moving along. It's yet another thought-provoking, disturbing, and highly enjoyable tale from Philip Dick.

Book 15 (2014)

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  1. Ettlinger, Steve — Twinkie, Deconstructed (274 pages)
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book cover: Twinkie, Deconstructed.

How could I resist a title like Twinkie, Deconstructed. I may not have had twinkies in at least a decade or three, folks here in England may not even have heard of them, and just about everything about them is antithetical to the lifestyle I choose, but they were a part of my culture growing up, and I may even have liked them at some point. They are such an iconic, um, "food" that I couldn't resist this bit of pop science.

The premise of the book is simple. Ettinger's son once asked him what a certain ingredient in Twinkies is, and he didn't know the answer. Finding the answer proved less straightforward than he'd imagined and led him on a few adventures that led, eventually, to this book.

Twinkies' ingredients are constantly changing slightly, based on cost and availability, so Ettinger chose an ingredients list from the time of his research. Each ingredient became the subject of a chapter in Twinkie, Deconstructed. Ettinger discusses where the ingredient comes from and the processes it undergoes in order to become part of a Twinkie.

It's fascinating to see how many different uses each ingredient has, how closely or remotely it resembles the original commodity when it finally ends up in the Twinkie. Is corn really corn, is an egg really an egg? And what exactly is FD&C Yellow No. 5 anyway? It's a bit disconcerting to learn how many of the ingredients are petroleum byproducts. Many of the ingredients go through phases where they become lethal before other chemical processes turn them back into safe foodstuff. Where possible, Ettinger visited the plants where the ingredients are processed. In some, the chemical processes are closely held trade secrets. Others are in China and inaccessible.

My only quibble with the book is that some of the chapters seemed a bit tedious and repetitive, but only because so many of the processes used for one ingredient are similar to another. All in all, though, this is a fascinating examination of what goes into processed foods.

Book reviews

On the subject of book reviews, if you haven't already discovered Thug Notes, I highly recommend them.

Book 14 (2014)

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  1. Keating, Karl — Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians" (337 pages)
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book cover: Catholicism and Fundamentalism.

Every Lent I try to read something appropriate to the season: a work of apologetics, writings of a saint, anything to help in my contemplation of faith. Catholicism and Fundamentalism has been on my radar for a few years, and I felt a strong urging to read it this year.

This is a fantastic work of apologetics, easily the best Catholic apologetics I've read and second only to C. S. Lewis as far as Christian apologetics goes. Obviously, given the subject matter, this won't be of interest to most of you. I would recommend it to Catholics who wish to know more about their faith and how to respond to people who question their belief and to non-Catholics who wish to learn, in an accessible and easily digestible way, what Catholics actually believe.

The book is meant as a response to anti-Catholics in the Fundamentalist community. (Keating is careful to point out that not all Fundamentalists are anti-Catholic and that not all anti-Catholics are Fundamentalist.) Catholicism and Fundamentalism begins with a history of and in-depth background of Fundamentalism in which, ironically for a book of Catholic apologetics, I learned more about that religion than I had previously understood. (I had always thought of it as an ultra-conservative Protestant movement (which isn't necessarily true) but did not know anything about its origins and foundation.) Then Catholicism and Fundamentalism outlines the most common attacks against Catholics by anti-Catholics. The following chapters examines each of these carefully, its historical source, where it may or may not misunderstand the Catholic position, what Catholics actually believe on each point and how they might respond, and more. Topics covered include the oft misunderstood concepts of infallibility, purgatory, the Eucharist, and the veneration of Mary and the Saints.

My only quibble is that the book seems either a bit dated or regional. Anti-Catholic attacks from Fundamentalists probably peaked in the 1970s or '80s and mostly in the United States. I can only think of one or two incidents where I have found my beliefs challenged by a Fundamentalist. However, I do get challenged by agnostics and atheists all the time — or at least I did until I started avoiding such situations — and I find these confrontations unpleasant, not because I feel set upon, but because I'm often at a loss for words how to explain what I believe and why I feel the challenger is wrong. Despite everything I've read and researched and my close association with the clergy, I often feel disadvantaged in such a discussion, not because of uncertainty in my position but because I lack the tools to respond. (Especially frustrating — and this has happened many times, is when someone tells me that I must not be Catholic because Catholics believe x and I believe y. The arrogance of non-Catholics (and some ex-Catholics who lacked the curiosity to learn more about their religion before giving it up) to presume to know better than an informed Catholic what Catholics believe! (On a side note, thank God for Pope Francis, who has opened a lot of eyes. In many ways, I feel vindicated.) Thus, I would have appreciated the book even more if, instead of Catholicism versus Fundamentalism, the scope had been more Catholicism versus Anti-Catholicism, whether from religious or secular sources.

I don't pretend to be a more capable apologist having read Catholicism and Fundamentalism. If anything, I better understand how daunting a task apologetics is. Keating goes into this at the end of the book, making recommendations for those who want to take up apologetics and steering those away who aren't willing to make a full commitment. Apologetics isn't easy, and it is easy to get tripped up. Better to point someone in the direction of a reputable and capable source than risk erring and further propagating misunderstandings about the faith.