Neverwhere

This is my first Neil Gaiman novel, and I must admit I never would have picked it up, had it not been part of Chicago’s One Book, One Chicago city wide book club. I try to keep an open mind when it comes to books I choose to read, but it’s hard sometimes, so I welcome the opportunity One Book, One Chicago brings, in offering new titles for me to try. This is my second one, Toni Morrison’s Mercy being the first and each time so far I have not been disappointed.

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is still not the kind of book I would ordinarily read, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. For the first few pages I couldn’t even understand why I was still reading it, I thought the writing was not that good and the tone overly juvenile. But soon enough I was sucked into the story, and was quite curious to find out how it would all turn out. There are quite a few wonderful characters you get to meet and the overall arc was not too predictable and kept me engaged.

However, the whole time I was reading I kept making comparisons to Harry Potter in my mind. I could not believe the similarities and Gaiman’s audacity at first – only to find out that this book was published a lot earlier than I thought, 1996. A full year before the first Potter was published. After that, while I was reading, I just couldn’t believe it has never been made into a movie, each new chapter and each new character, everything in the book, seemed so wonderfully cinematic.

Well, no wonder – lo and behold – the novel is based on the – no not the movie but the television series. What? That’s a first for me. This is all a lot crazier than I would ever have thought when I first picked up this book, but I would still recommend it. It’s a fun read. As for me, I ‘m off to check out the tv series that started all of this.

Gone to New York: Adventures in the City

Ian Frazier’s book is awesome. For a NYC Ex-Pat like me it is perfect. It captures the crazyness and amazingness of New York amazingly well, and reminds you of all the little things that make new york what it is. My only issue in recomending it is that I fear for any non-new yorkers it will simply read as a work of fiction. Why would anyone go through the trouble of making up such odd stories? The trouble is, of course that based on my own experiences they are all true. There in lies the trouble. New York is sometimes really hard to explain, and the fantastic stories you tell of it to friends are often met with looks saying “stop exagerating.” No matter, if you don’t believe Ian and I, then just read this as an amusing collection of short stories. For the rest of us with first hand experiences of the madness and wonderfulness that is NYC, this will be an excellent reference book.

Leadership and the New Science

What a crazy book – first off, it’s technically a business book, at least that’s where it would be in the bookstore. But it’s full of a lot of hippy-dippy-trippy, lovey dubby, one with the universe type shit. On top of that, all of this crazy sounding stuff is fully backed up with extensive quotes and references from the leading scientific research and thinking of the day. I guess the craziest part is that all of this comes together to make a very inspiring and quite interesting read.

A lot of the science in the book, that she refers to as outlandish, earth-shattering stuff, which I guess it was back in the day when this book was first written, I was already very familiar with and have always been fascinated with. Things like fractals, relativity, self organizing systems, chaos theory, uncertainty, quantum physics, etc. However, I’ve never thought of applying these amazing scientific discoveries to my everyday life, in a new-ageish, self-helpish, redefining leadership, changing my outlook kind of way. That’s where this book shines and is, really, quite eye opening.

Tres Libros

Buyology
by Martin Lindstrom

While there were some insights in this book, it really would have been much more interesting as a concise and in depth magazine article, than content blow up into book length using random personal asides. Maybe it had to be a book just to justify the 7 million dollar price tag of the study on which it was based? Guess what? Some of the main insights – logos don’t work that well, extreme fanboys respond to their brands as if they’re having a religious experience – are not that groundbreaking. I think this amazon review captures the feeling best.

A Geography of Time
by Robert Levine

I really enjoyed this book. It mixes two of my favorite subjects: time and cross-cultural differences. And what a loaded subject it is. It is amazing to see how differently cultures treat the concept of time and in-turn how these ideas shape the societies within them. The big take-away is the distinction between event-time and clock-time, which usually falls along the lines of western/industrialized societies and the rest of the world with Japan always warranting an extra mention with their expert melding of the two. The book is full of wonderful cultural and scientific insights and anecdotes.

A Mercy
by Toni Morrison

If you’re expecting a narrative recounting the day by day horrors of slavery, you will be disappointed. Those days are yet to come in this book. America is just getting started in it’s exploitation. These are the days when multiple nations, religions, adventurers, businessmen are just getting here and trying to stake out their shares.

What I love about this book is how expertly Toni Morrison transports you to this world in another time. You can see the forces gathering that made full-blown slavery and modern day racism, but they’re not fully here yet. But above all I love the parts that are written in what I think of as Morrison’s trademark style, like poetry or stream of consciousness – descriptions, words, ideas, reality and magical subconscious intertwine and pour out onto the page telling a moving and powerful story.

Packing for Mars

Mary Roach’s latest and 4th book does not disappoint. Her characteristic wry and very often morbid humor is back. This time she is explaining the intricacies of space travel.

Packing for Mars may be a little bit of a misnomer, because to get to that point she has to get through the history of space travel and all of the insanity that that entails.

I always thought I knew a little bit about outer space, but truly I had no idea. From the first animals in space (monkey’s and dog’s I knew about but there is more), through wax covered sandwich squares, and edible spaceship parts, through barf bags and “egesta” bags as well.

I also thought I had a good grasp on what weightlessness means, but in reality I had no idea.

Last but not least, unfortunately, I think this book has put out of my mind any fancifull ideas of ever going into space myself, though I might try a ride on a parabolic flight which will only set me back $5k, though even that may have been soiled but Mary’s vivid accounts on space sickness.

I am a Strange Loop

Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop, is a somewhat strange and sometimes loopy romp through the nature of consciousness, specifically human consciousness. In many ways the author is desperately trying to stay on the course of scientific objectivity, and many of his arguments seem sound, but we end up with a deeply personal journey that in the end seems as if he has a personal axe to grind with his detractors.

If you stick your hand into a box full of envelopes and squeeze, you will be surprised to perceive something that feels very much like a marble in the center of the box. However, upon examination of the envelopes individually no such marble will be found. This example is the theme that permeates the book, and serves as an analogy of how in our minds we perceive a very real I-ness, we swear something is there but upon closer examination it dissolves into nothingness. How very Buddhist of him. Douglas sees the similarity to this eastern religion too, but for some reason doesn’t like the other nihilistic ideas that come with that territory.

I am readily won over, at least my scientific analytical self is, by Hofstader’s basic arguments, but apparently a lot of people need more convincing, because he spends an inordinate amount of time convincing us. With all of that I feel like the larger question remains unanswered, what separates the animate from inanimate in our universe. I feel like this is the real question, instead of trying to decide the relative amounts of hunekers, souls or consciousness particles in us all.

Three Fun Reads

You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier

The line between a quack and a great thinker is very thin. I found much of this book hard to follow, but if you just let the ideas wash over you Jaron has a lot to offer. His critique of current digital trends, especially in the web 2.0 world, are definitely worth pondering. He is in direct opposition to people like Clay Shirky, whom he calls hive enthusiasts. Lanier believes The Hive will never amount to anything because of the old computer science adage: Garbage In, Garbage Out. His remarks that for all the hoopla about our “new” digital world, things are not that much fundamentally different from when he first started in this field more than 20 years ago, were interesting as well.

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

More great and thought provoking essays. There is always a lot of fascinating stuff to learn from a Malcolm Gladwell book. This one is a collection of shorter essays, they don’t loose anything in their brevity and you get a lot more breadth. So far I was fascinated to learn why there are so many brands of mustard but really only one ketchup brand and more about the Popeil family history and their secret to success.

Death By Black Hole by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

A great, fun, and science filled romp through the cosmos. Not only do you get a detailed description of what happens when you fall into a black hole, you get some kind of scientific inquiry into almost any apsect of our cosmos. As an astrophysicist Neil touches on everything from our five senses, which in retrospect, seem to be very limited, all the way to the far reaches of the cosmos, which now seems even more mysterious and sublime.

p.s. some really good thoughts in this review of lanier’s book.

Invisible – Paul Auster

paul_auster_invisible

All I know is that it was over before I knew it, and I wasn’t really sure what happened. It’s pleasant enough, except for the transgressive stuff which is riveting also in a traffic accident kind of way.

It’s not at all postmodern in the way The New York Trilogy claims to be, there are simply some extra literary devices thrown in that make the story what it is. Without this additional twist, not sure if the story would carry it’s own weight, but perhaps as some have suggested, the narrative itself is the character.

Dreaming in Code

dreaming_in_code_rosenberg Recently finished Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code. I think I might be in the minority as a perfect audience for this book. I learned a lot from it. But for the general audience it is probably way too technical, and for those who’ve worked on large scale programing projects before it’s probably too much of a rehashing of their very real and annoying reality. It would have been great if it was more accessible for normal folk as it would probably explain a lot for them if they were interested in understanding the peculiarities of programmers and programing in general.

The book is sort of comprised of two halves intertwined. One “half” is the history of programming, its beginnings, notable practitioners, thinkers and its possible (or impossible) futures, sprinkled with psychological forays, technical explorations, and proclamations molded into laws of programming. The other “half” is the author following a very specific large scale programming project called Chandler, and its seeming inability to ever move forward despite great amounts of time, programmers and money being thrown at it. While it’s interesting to have a real world example in the book (it’s exciting to see they’ve finally reached v1.0!), and there is much to learn from it, Rosenberg might have done better to drop this half of the book entirely.

First of all, as he himself points out repeatedly, programmers are not good at learning from history and the previous mistakes of others, but more importantly, that way even though Chandler might have taken 3+ years of work, at least reading the book wouldn’t have felt like it was taking that long.

Funny Misshapen Body

jeffrey_brown

Jeffrey Brown’s latest? graphic novel/book is more of the same great stuff I think he is known for. Quirky, short, funny, sad, bittersweet, sometimes self-deprecating, genuine, snippets of everyday life.

This one has more of a biographical arc than previous books, you get to see some more childhood glimpses and a lot more backstory from his art school days. You even get to see how clumsy came about.

I love his drawing style and I’m already looking forward to the next one!