31 December 2012

2012 Book Reviews

I continue to be alive (and I continue to read books), not that you would know it from this blog.

Nonfiction

Endgame by Frank Brady. The subtitle is Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. As a young man, Fischer's brilliant performances turned chess into a spectator sport in America. Bafflingly, he grew to become a wanted criminal (for playing in a 1992 tournament in Montenegro in violation of US sanctions) and a paranoid recluse who became known for his criticism of Jews and the US.

Endgame is an entertaining read, and a page-turner in places (speaking as a person who hasn't played chess in some time and never previously absorbed the historical record here). Especially interesting is the account of the 1972 World Chess Championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky, when Fischer's antics made it unclear whether the championship would even be played.

Yet when considered not just as a story but as a biography, I think there is something missing. Certainly every biography relies on speculation to some extent when it comes to the inner mental life of the subject, but one thing that Endgame made clear was that Fischer's thoughts and motivations were completely opaque (even to the author, who met Fischer when Fischer was just ten). How can a normal person ever understand what was going on in the head of this prodigy/madman, and what can one possibly learn from it?

Mildly recommended.

JavaScript: The Good Parts by Douglas Crockford. (The O'Reilly store also has a DRM-free ebook.) Although JavaScript is not a language that was actively designed to trip people up, it will certainly always feel that way. Crockford identifies a subset of the language that has a high usefulness to danger ratio. J:TGP is a short read, despite teaching JavaScript, or The Good Parts of it anyway, from scratch. It's a must read for anyone who programs in JavaScript, even if you decide that you dare to tread places that Douglas Crockford doesn't. Highly recommended.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. Journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean defectors. From these and numerous other sources, Demick fills in an amazing account of a totalitarian regime that managed to eliminate all organized criticism of the state, yet can't keep the lights on at night. The state controls distribution of all food, but the other side of this coin is that during the famine of the 1990s, when even the people who went to work didn't get food, many North Koreans realized they no longer had anything to lose by breaking a few of the rules.

North Korea has done an incredible, though incomplete, job of isolating itself from the outside world. What is so riveting is hearing recounted the pivotal moment when each of these defectors realized something was very wrong about their notions of the outside world. One North Korean soldier, for example, recalls marveling at the elegant construction of an illicit American nail clipper as he realized he would also looking at the pointy ends of American weapons.

A fascinating and fun read, and bound to satisfy the natural curiosity that many Westerners have about the Hermit Kingdom. Recommended.

What Every Programmer Should Know About Memory by Ulrich Drepper. (114-page PDF, available freely online.) I took just the basics in school (6.004) and this covers a lot more ground, and from a more practical/empirical perspective. Of interest to many programmers (and not covered in many textbooks, to my knowledge) is discussion about how multicore processors and virtualization affect memory performance. (Hint: things can get bad.) I also found the introduction to transactional memory to be pretty wild.

There are lots of specific tips for those programming in C/C++, and lots of demonstration examples with performance charts. But for those of us using mostly higher-level garbage-collected languages the only advice you can really take away is to be economical with memory usage. Still worthwhile if you enjoy learning about how computers work.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The subtitle is From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

On a whim, at what she perceives as the nadir of her life of casual sex and drug use, the author decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. This is not so much a story of an epiphany on the PCT as it is the author's account of hiking the PCT, with many flashbacks to her previous life.

I loved following her development as she learned to welcome the solitude of the outdoors, but beyond that it seemed like the not terribly remarkable story of a young woman with bad luck and questionable judgment who discovers that people on the trail are generally pretty friendly. Contrary to the title, she doesn't really "find herself", but I suppose, who ever does?

Fiction

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Six nested stories taking place from the mid 19th century to the far future, each of which (except the last) is interrupted and revealed to be a journal, set of letters, etc. being consumed in the next story (and eventually later resumed in reverse order). But this structure is almost a throwaway. The main event is reading six stories so different stylistically that you could scarcely believe they were all by the same author, and listening to how they still manage to rhyme with each other (note, I'm a sucker for stories that "rhyme"). Recommended.

The movie is also quite enjoyable if you can forgive its beat-you-over-the-head monologues (which are not present in the book). Recommended.

Daemon by Daniel Suarez. When a video game magnate dies, an RSS feed-reading computer program he has written comes to life. The Daemon, as it is called, activates booby traps electronically and contacts strangers with various kinds of inducement (money or threats) to help it to carry out its plan. It's a fast-paced and fun thriller, though the writing is just so-so and the story seems to swerve a couple of times without wrapping up loose ends. Mildly recommended; it is good airplane reading.

It's rather eye-opening to reflect on the story and see how the real world has changed since Daemon was published in 2009. The idea of a stateless, faceless, and untraceable entity acting over the internet and making headlines is, to most people, not quite the shocker it might have been a couple of years ago. I mean, it's called "Anonymous" and doesn't involve undead people.

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. A mess of technological woo-woo played out by a cast of completely unlikeable characters in a novel that is way too long.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This appears to be a novel about magic and magicians, but it's probably not what you imagined. In Susanna Clarke's alternate 19th century England, magicians help the English army with mildly useful spells such as conjuring faux ships to mislead the enemy and spying via visions in a bowl of water, but they also have to spend time dealing with politics and English society.

Jonathan Strange is written like classic literature, complete with this wonderful, wonderful, understated English humor. It also comes with extensive fake footnotes (mildly annoying to read on the Kindle). It's a slow to get going but I was quite sad to come to the end of it. Recommended.

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters. When an extinction event-level asteroid is detected heading straight for Earth, society begins to disintegrate. The economy goes into freefall; people walk off the job and go do bucket list things or commit suicide. Except for policeman Hank Palace, recently promoted to detective, who keeps trying to crack his murder case.

A haunting picture of a society where all long-term planning has gone out the window (not a premise frequently suggested by novels!). The Last Policeman suggests questions about motivation and why the heck we get out of bed every morning to do what we do. Recommended.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason. Consider these to be variations on the episodes of Homer's Odyssey: where one character is not quite the same, or something goes a little bit differently. All of them border on the verge of being poetry, but I found them to vary greatly in how enjoyable they were. All things considered I don't think I remembered enough about Odyssey to make The Lost Books add up to anything.

Norwegian Wood, A Wild Sheep Chase, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami. Norwegian Wood is what happens when Murakami tries to write a "normal" novel. No yakuza, no talking animals, none of that. It's a story of young love, and it's both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Recommended.

The other two are good, too.

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