Monday, December 29, 2008

The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin

Utopia is anarchy. Or at least that is what we are led to believe at the outset of Le Guin’s tale. A terraformed moon houses an isolationist anarchy, while the planet it orbits has a two-class male dominated government. At first I thought this was going to be a thinly disguised treatise on the merits of Libertarianism, but as the story progresses we find that both communities have their problems. What the message actually is tells us that any society needs constant challenge to remain healthy. We see a class riot on one world, and a near lynching on the other; both instigated by one scientist that is trying to break down barriers that have kept these two apart. In tone it is closer to Atlas Shrugged than 2001; a fascinating read, but not hard science-fiction either.

First Sentence:
There was a wall.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Rebel Island, by Rick Riordan

Rebel Island, by Rick Riordan

Tres Navarre is back! Here we find him spending his honeymoon on an island resort off the Texas coast. With typical Navarre luck, a dead body shows up right as a hurricane hits cutting off access to and from the island. With guests slowly getting killed this setup could have easily devolved into a bad copy of And Then There Were None, but Riordan avoids that with deft characterization and sly humor. A fast but entertaining read.

First Sentence:
We got married in a thunderstorm.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

Set in Brooklyn just after the close of WWI, this novel is filled with observations about books and the literary trade. The entire profession of the bookseller is romanticized here; the task of matching customers with the most appropriate tome is portrayed as the noblest of avocations: “Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing.” Within the trappings of a bookstore, a mystery of German saboteurs is unraveled and a romance blossoms. Told with a healthy dose of humor (“It is only the very young who find satisfaction in lying abed in the morning.”) this is a very entertaining yarn, especially for a bibliophile.

First Sentence:
If you are ever in Brooklyn, that borough of superb sunsets and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby carriages, it is to be hoped you may change upon a quiet street where there is a very remarkable bookshop.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Men's Guide to the Women's Bathroom, by Jo Barrett

The Men’s Guide to the Women’s Bathroom: A Novel, by Jo Barrett

I’m not quite sure how this found it’s way onto my bookshelf, but I’m glad it did. A lighthearted novel telling the story of a jilted writer who is trying to get her love life and career back on track. While not my normal fare, this was a lot of fun. Set in Austin, it has a strong local feel, with the Taco Shack, Captain Quackenbush’s, The Continental Club, Moonshine, and Little Woodrow’s all getting visited. The humor, however, is what really makes this enjoyable; Claire St. John (the lead character) is a cross between Maddie Hayes and Lucy Ricardo: part sarcasm and part slapstick. She speaks to the reader in little asides that the other occupants in the scene don’t hear; this breaking of the fourth wall is used to great effect and damn funny.

During the course of the story, Claire decides to write a novel of her own from which we get periodic excerpts. Her book shares the title with the real one, telling men what happens in the women’s restroom. From the opening chapter of the book-within-a-book:

Listen up gentlemen. I’m going to tell you the big secret right now. I’m going to unlock the vault. So pay attention.
You always ask why we (women) go to the bathroom together in groups.
What could we be doing in there? you wonder.
Plotting to take over Wall Street?
The Military Industrial Complex?
Does Hillary Clinton have us all in a huddle? “Okay ladies, here’s what you’re going to do. Every single one of you is going to vote for me for president.”
Well, the answer gentleman, is yes.
Yes, we are plotting against you.
We should not be left alone to our own devices.
We are very, very dangerous.
Funny stuff! My favorite quote though, for what I hope are obvious reasons, is this one: “Every woman knows that a guy who actually reads is a rare and special creature, indeed.”

First Sentence:
The greatest advice I’ve ever heard was in the women’s bathroom.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Einstein, by Walter Isaacson

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson

I knew Einstein was a genius, but this book demonstrated just how inadequate that description really is. He helped prove the existence of atoms, devised a revolutionary quantum theory of light, explained Brownian motion, produced the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2, and turned the concept of space and time on its head—all in 1905 alone. There is a popular myth that he failed math in high school, but in fact, before he was fifteen he had mastered differential and integral calculus. Even as a child Einstein created thought experiments to give him insights into how our universe works, such as wondering what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light. Isaacson also does an excellent job of juxtaposing this massive intellect with Einstein’s personal relationships, showing how he was passionate and yet often emotionally distant towards his family. This second focus is really what makes the book so interesting and keeps it from too strongly resembling a physics text.

Einstein was born into a Jewish family in the German Empire at the close of the 1800’s, so his politics are interesting as well. He was a pacifist from a young age; as a boy he cried when watching military troops march through the streets accompanied by fifes and drums, later explaining, “When a person can take pleasure in in marching in step to a piece of music it is enough to make me despise him. He has been given his big brain only by mistake.” (As a former marching band member, I found this quote particularly amusing.) Despite his pacifism, Einstein saw no alternative other than war to stop the Nazi power structure. After WWII, he was a strong proponent for the creation of Israel, and in fact was offered the Presidency of that country in 1952. Einstein became friendly with many Soviets when we were allies against Germany, and combined with his view that we needed a single world government, during the McCarthy era he became a target of the FBI. His genius came from challenging conventional wisdom, but posing challenges in politics was not popular in America in the 1950’s.

Despite being a biography at the core, this book contains many detailed technical explanations about the scientific advances Einstein made. The physics discussions are not only accessible and understandable, but entertaining as well. When discussing time dilation, Isaacson says, “In fact, if you spent almost your entire life on an airplane, you would have aged merely 0.00005 seconds or so less than your twin on earth when you returned, an effect that would likely be counteracted by a lifetime spent eating airline food.” Another bon mot is in a discussion on the expansion of the galaxy: “...we are at the center of the universe, something that since the time of Copernicus only our teenage children believe.” Funny stuff for a biography about a physics pioneer! Overall, I found this book to be a very thorough, witty portrait of a charming genius.

First Sentence:
“I promise you four papers,” the young patent examiner wrote his friend.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix

The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix

Fascinating. For a book about such a morbid subject, this was hard to put down once I started it. From roughly 2 B.C. through World War II (this was written in 1964 and so none of the more recent incidents are discussed), Mannix gives an overview of both the techniques of torture and the reasons why it was used. Clearly well researched, the descriptions of some of the horrors are meticulous and explicit; I got the idea more than once that the author was a bit of a sadist and taking glee in the more grisly sections. The biggest drawback to me was that it was very Euro-centric; China, India, and the pre-1492 Americas get mentions but nothing like the detail found in the bulk of the book.

Without references or a bibliography it is hard to consider this a scholarly effort, but I still learned quite a bit. For instance, starting in roughly the 6th century the use of torture to obtain information or a confession virtually disappeared in Europe. Centuries later its return occurred when the Church started to be seriously challenged by new ideas and reform; it turned to torture to get heretics to “confess,” and the institution has been utilized somewhere in the world nearly continuously every since. Something else I found interesting was the back story of the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill. In Germany adulterous men and women were once fastened together by the neck with a heavy yoke and then forced to carry buckets of water up a steep hill to the castle in the center of town. They would often fall and get seriously hurt; somehow this led to the sing-song fable our kids sing today. Another good anecdote is the history of the phrase, “third degree.” Referring to the stages of torture, the First Degree was the questioning of the prisoner, the Second Degree was showing the accused the instruments, and the Third Degree was the actual infliction of pain. Today the term has been watered down to mean simply intensive interrogation, but the etymology is much darker.

Mannix closes by drawing analogies between today’s corporal punishment and yesterday’s torture, but the summary is ambiguous and he doesn’t take a strong stand for either side. “No set formula can be used in the treatment of a criminal, and it is impossible to say that corporal punishment is never effective or that it is always effective. Too much depends on the individual’s emotional state, the reasons for his acts, the era, and the manner and method of inflicting (or withholding) the punishment. Formerly corporal punishment was regarded as a panacea for all problems; today many people consider it too terrible to ever be used. Yet in certain cases it would seem to be not only effective but justifiable.” I find it telling that nearly 50 years after this book was written we continue to have this debate; clearly there are no moral absolutes when it comes to corporal punishment—or torture.

First Sentence:
Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria, did not like Jews.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Serious Play, by Michael Schrage

Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, by Michael Schrage

In my current job I’m leading a team that is creating a product that allows companies to create quick simulations in order to verify requirements early in the development cycle when it is relatively cheap to make changes. My product goes to the heart of what this book preaches: models and prototypes allow companies to manage risk while encouraging innovation and collaboration. I was excited when this was picked for our book club, hoping to gain more insight into the reasons why simulations are so useful and ammunition against those that believe exhaustive documentation and multi-year planning cycles are a better way to develop software. Twenty minutes after opening the book, however, my excitement was gone and the realization that I had yet another uninspiring business tome on my hands had set in.

Like many books found in the business methodology section of the bookstore, much of the content is both useful and applicable to real-world situations. Also like many of them, the writing is insipid and the style utterly dull. More than once I had to reread a section not because it was thought-provoking or packed with details, but because it was so vanilla and unmemorable nothing really stuck—kind of like watching a game score ticker for a sport you don’t follow. Perhaps I disliked this because I already understand the value of interactive simulations and early feedback; it is entirely possible that this would be a much more useful text for those that are skeptical or uneducated on the benefits prototyping. For me, though, I was sorely disappointed.

First Sentence:
We shape our models, and then our models shape us.

The Myth of Multitasking, by Dave Crenshaw

The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done, by Dave Crenshaw

Written with the “management fable” style (think The Goal by Goldratt and Cox) this is a very fast read. As the title suggests this book illustrates how multitasking (which Crenshaw renames to switchtasking) is an illusion that actually hurts productivity instead of enhancing it. Many folks take pride in the ability to do multiple things at once; this book outlines several exercises that clearly show that the overall time these take is actually much longer because of the hidden time it takes to switch between tasks. As Crenshaw puts it, as a society we have embraced concurrency “as a way of life, but the truth is that multitasking is neither a reality nor is it efficient.” After the story itself, an appendix includes a set of worksheets for the reader to duplicate the exercises described in the prose, making this an odd mix of both fiction and non-fiction: part novel and part textbook.

As the concept of completing work before starting something new is important to the agile management world in which I work I expected to enjoy this book. Instead, I found it a bit pedantic and found myself skimming sections even though it is just over 100 pages long. The overall message is solid and reinforced what I believe to be true (although admittedly don’t practice well in my personal tasks) but I was left with an empty sense of, “Is that it?” The worksheets in the back redeem the book in a big way, though; these tools can be used both to improve your personal productivity and convince others of the “myth of multitasking.”

First Sentence:
Phil glanced at the digital clock on his sedan.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch captured the imagination of the country with his last lecture, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” This was an inspiring talk, and the book will preserve it for generations to come. One observation I quite liked was that, “becoming an Eagle Scout is the only thing you can put on your resume at age fifty that you did at age fourteen—and it still impresses.” While I don’t agree with all BSA membership policies, achieving Eagle is still impressive and I regret not following through to this day. Another section that resonated with me was Pausch’s rant on the growing sense of entitlement of this country, the idea of rights without responsibility. This has long been an annoyance to me and I fear that as a country we are lurching more towards socialism and governmental parenting which only exacerbates the problem.

While in places overly saccharine, this book was a worthy read. Pausch clearly met his terminal diagnosis head on, avoiding the more normal (but understandable) wallowing in self-pity. Not everyone has the fortitude to face unpleasant situations with a positive outlook; if for nothing else this attitude is worthy of admiration and emulation. However, I couldn’t help but think the text was self-serving in places. His attempt at literary immortality doesn’t bother me, but wrapping in altruism feels false a bit false. Anybody that echoes Darrell K. Royal in saying “dance with the one who brung you” can’t be all bad, though!

First Sentence:
A lot of professors give talks titled “The Last Lecture.”

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

Chicago hosted the 1893 World’s Fair, earning the city a sought-after role as a major player on the global stage (interestingly, Chicago is not nicknamed the Windy City because of the constant wind off the lake but instead for it’s boasting and self-aggrandizement during this era). This was truly a time of wonder, seeing the first introductions of so many things we think of as ever-present today: zippers, vertical files, long-distance telephone service, moving pictures, and the automatic dishwasher all made their first appearance at the fair, as did Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat cereal, and Pabst beer (renamed Pabst Blue Ribbon to honor the first place award it won). The Pledge of Allegiance was written specifically for the World’s Fair, and the first Ferris wheel was unveiled there as well. Larson does a magnificent job of both painting the picture of the spectacle of the fair and the politics and complexities in getting a project of this size put together.

What sets the book apart from a simple historical text is the second story that is interwoven with that of the creation of the fair: the story of America’s first serial killer. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes tortured and killed between 20 and 200 people—the exact number is unknown because many bodies were so thoroughly dismembered they couldn’t be accurately counted—mainly in Chicago, using the vast number of visitors to the city for the fair to go undetected. Holmes built a labyrinthine hotel with air-tight rooms (so he could gas victims), a large vault (for suffocation), and a crematorium for disposing of bodies. The evil of this killer juxtaposed with the marvels of the fair made for a thought-provoking and informative book that I quite enjoyed.

First Sentence:
How easy it was to disappear: A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stone Cold, by David Baldacci

Stone Cold, by David Baldacci

Not the best thriller I’ve read lately. Two intertwined plots, one about a con artist escaping her recent mark and the other about a son trying to avenge his father’s death. It wasn’t terrible, but it was terribly predictable. Coupled with some ridiculous technology I found this difficult to finish. The highlight of silliness was a “bomb” with no explosive materials but instead ignites a chemical reaction inside the components of a CPU. Yeah, right. Not the worst book I’ve ever read, but far from the best.

First Sentence:
Harry Finn rose as usual at six-thirty, made coffee, let the dog out into the fenced backyard for its morning constitutional, showered, shaved, woke the kids for school and oversaw that complicated operation for the next half hour as breakfasts were gulped, backpacks and shoes grabbed and arguments started and settled.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This, by Bob Newhart

I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This: And Other Things That Strike Me as Funny, by Bob Newhart

Bob Newhart is a very funny man. I loved “The Bob Newhart Show,” was one of the seemingly few that liked “Bob,” and believe that the last episode of “Newhart” ended with the greatest single shot ever televised. For Father’s Day a while back I was given Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart on CD and it quickly became one of my favorites. My wife and I got to see him perform live at the Paramount Theater a few years ago as well. When I found out that Newhart had written a memoir I had to pick it up—and wasn’t disappointed.

The title is from a joke about a guy who is having a torrid affair with his boss’s wife. They are making wild, passionate love and she moans, “Kiss me! Kiss me!” He looks at her very seriously and says, “I shouldn’t even be doing this!” The book is positively filled with gags like this and I laughed out loud more than once while reading. Between jokes Newhart manages to tell the story of his career: accountant to stand-up comedian to television star. He originally had a partner, but the fellow accepted an advertising job in another city and so Newhart just did his part of the act—and the rest is history. This isn’t a McCullough-style in-depth biography that details every step of his life and every conversation Newhart ever had, but it is a casual telling of the highlights of Bob’s life and a damn funny book to boot.

First Sentence:
Most comedians are committable.

The Book of Lies, by Brad Meltzer

The Book of Lies, by Brad Meltzer

Cain killing Able is arguable the world’s most famous murder, but surprisingly the weapon used is unknown. In 1932, the father of the boy who would go on to create the world’s most famous superhero was shot and killed; that weapon is also missing. What do Cain, history’s greatest villain, and Superman, our greatest hero, have in common? That is the mystery explored in The Book of Lies.

Fact and fiction are stitched together in a clever fashion that gives plausibility to an otherwise farcical tale. Fast-paced action and a lot of dialogue keep the story moving, and red herrings keep you guessing which of the (few) characters is a traitor. Plot holes and coincidences abound and none of the roles are given much depth, but the lack of pretension makes up for a lot. This is a fun tale and a quick read, perfect for (as a friend of mine says) “a sinfully long and hot bubble bath with a book.”

Brad Meltzer gave a book reading of this at BookPeople, a local bookstore here in Austin. (I’m normally a fan of local chains, but BookPeople is terrible; they have an arrogant, haughty staff and are rude to customers. It is a shame an eclectic city like Austin is known for this crappy place.) He is a funny and engaging speaker, and spoke passionately about his new organization, Ordinary People Change the World, a group that doesn’t need “political favors, or government, or skeevy politicians” to make a difference, but instead encourages normal folks to get involved. I found this inspiring and a much more worthy cause than most political movements. Check it out.

First Sentence:
When Calvin Harper was five, his petite, four-foot-eleven-inch mom ripped the pillow from his bed at three a.m. and told him that dust mites were feeding off his skin.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Great Bridge, by David McCullough

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough

I have an interest in biographies, but this one is a bit different; instead of detailing the life of a person, this tells the tale of the Brooklyn Bridge. A father and son were the main architects of the project; first the father, John A. Roebling, and then when he dies his son, Washington Roebling takes over. At the time, the techniques these two used to erect the bridge were revolutionary and McCullough spares no details when discussing how it was all done. The largest caissons ever built were used for the tower foundations and the cables and anchors were constructed using ingenious arrangements never before seen. Many people were terrified that the bridge would collapse because of these untried technologies, but as the bridge still stands obviously these fears were unfounded.

The late 1800’s was the time of much political corruption, and McCullough covers this thoroughly as well. (Quotes such as, “No Democrat can be trusted, they are all disloyal and treacherous, more or less;” made me smile.) Boss Tweed, Chester Arthur, and Grover Cleveland were a few of the famous names that were involved—names I recognized but didn’t know much about. One of the joys of reading this was the added research that came along about this era in American history. The story of the bridge is interesting, but the view into the political and social times is fascinating.

First Sentence:
They met at his request on at least six different occasions, beginning in February 1869.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Term Limits, by Vince Flynn

Term Limits, by Vince Flynn

Several American politicians are assassinated, accompanied by demands that our government set aside partisan politics, balance the budget, fix Social Security and Medicare, and implement a national sales tax dedicated to reducing the national debt. Clearly a story of wish fulfillment, this is a fun page-turner that expresses opinions many of us hold true: that our government grow a backbone and actually solve some of the problems we face. “Commandos live by a warrior’s code, honor and integrity above everything. Do what you say and mean what you do. Politicians just say whatever will keep them in office.” Assassination is clearly an unacceptable way of bringing change, but the point the book makes is our politicians have given up on working for the people and need a jolt.

First Sentence:
The old wood cabin sat alone, surrounded by trees and darkness.

Transfer of Power, by Vince Flynn

Transfer of Power, by Vince Flynn

Terrorists attack the White House in broad daylight, taking both control of the building and dozens of hostages. The President escapes to a fortified bunker, but is trapped there because there is only one exit and the terrorists have it secured. While the various counterterrorist groups leap into action preparing strike and rescue plans, the VP and his Chief of Staff delay proceedings hoping for a coup of sorts.

While not the most original plot, this is a fast-paced rollicking read that feels more like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie than a novel. I found much of it very familiar and predictable, but about two-thirds of the way in I realized I’d read this several years ago (pre-blog) which explained a lot. At 549 pages it is a bit long, but in general the perfect book for an airplane trip or a rainy day.

First Sentence:
A fine mist fell from the darkening spring sky as the black limousine turned off of E Street.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely

I was the only one of my friends that didn’t like this book. It was fairly interesting in parts, but I found the conclusions very strange. Arbitrary coherence says that although initial prices can be “arbitrary,” once those prices are observed they will shape how future ones are perceived as well. An interesting premise, and coupled with plausible experiments Ariely paints a solid picture of the concept. From this, though, he decides we can’t trust the market forces of supply and demand to set prices and we should instead depend on “a reasonable and thoughtful government” to regulate markets. Any discussion where it is argued that government should take a larger role I believe to have a heavy burden of proof, and this didn’t come close. Other chapters explore similar forces that influence behavior such as emotion, morals, and social norms but because of the whopping problem I had early on I had a hard time taking the rest seriously.

The writing was engaging and pleasant, even funny at times. One passage in particular made me laugh quite a bit: “How did he persuade the cream of society to become passionate about Tahitian black pearls—and pay him royally for them? In order to answer this question, I need to explain something about baby geese.” This reminded me strongly of an old Bill Cosby album I used to listen to with my dad, Revenge. There was a track named “Buck, Buck” that was one of my favorites. It told the story of a teen named Fat Albert (yeah, that Fat Albert) that was darn funny; after almost five minutes he reaches what seems to be the final punchline, pauses, and then says, “I told you that story to tell you this one” and immediately launches into another story. That struck me as amazingly hilarious as a kid and it has stayed with me to this day. Anytime I encounter similar phrasing (such as the line about pearls and geese) I always hear “Hey Hey Hey” in that unmistakable Cosby voice and grin. While this anecdote has nothing to do with the content of the book, it sure took me back and made me smile.

First Sentence:
One day while browsing the World Wide Web (obviously for work—not just wasting time), I stumbled on the following ad, on the Web site of a magazine, the Economist.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Set against a backdrop of factions warring over the English throne after the death of Henry I, this novel tells the sprawling story of a fictional Kingsbridge cathedral. On the surface this is an simple adventure with heavy doses of political intrigue, but the surprisingly accurate historical backdrop anchors the story. The actors are fairly one-dimensional (villains have no redeeming qualities and heroes are steadfast and well-meaning) but having them interact with real figures such as King Stephen and Thomas Becket gives the impression of depth and character development. The plot is straightforward and predictable, with the loose ends being resolved in a satisfying manner. With thin characterization and a linear plot this sounds like a boring read, but somehow Follett manages to turn this into an excellent page turner.

The book is obviously meticulously researched, with long passages dedicated to describing how builders in the twelfth century were able to construct massive buildings or how the Catholic Church was becoming an active part of politics and everyday life. “Increasingly, people were expected to be Christians every day, not just on Sundays. They needed more than just rituals, according to the modern view: they wanted explanations, rulings, encouragement, exhortation.” Sometimes this research is used to the books detriment; for instance at one point Follett spends several pages describing a bear baiting for no seemingly other reason than to show off his hard work. More than once I found my self glossing over long passages of exposition like this, but it didn’t affect my overall opinion of the novel. For a nearly 1000 page novel Pillars of the Earth was a very fast read, and I am looking forward to reading the sequel, World Without End.

First Sentence:
In a broad valley, at the foot of a sloping hillside, beside a clear bubbling stream, Tom was building a house.

Thursday, October 16, 2008, by Tom Evslin An Historic Murder Mystery set in the Internet Bubble and Rubble, by Tom Evslin

With stock charts, email threads, chat transcripts, and police interviews mixed in with traditional storytelling techniques, the format of this novel was just as interesting as the story itself. The stories I should say; there are two main threads that weave through the book: one tells the tale of the rise and fall of a .com startup during the internet bubble and the other of the murder of the CEO of said company. The .com story was fascinating; having lived through the 90’s myself working at a variety of software startups much of this rang true. Arrogant executives, selfish salesmen, primary and secondary offerings, bitter rivals (“The [buyout] price sucks. And it is in antihack stock, which sucks. And it is from antihack, which sucks.”), and the ignorance of message boards (“Your an idiot or just getting reddy to dump your stock.”)—Evslin is clearly well acquainted with the tech craziness at the millennium. In the murder mystery, none of the characters were obvious heroes or villains, so we are kept guessing right up to the end. The conclusion is a bit of a stretch, but doesn’t distract from an otherwise enjoyable read. Truly a unique book.

First Sentence:
New York, NY—April 1, 2003—(BUSINESS WIRE) (NASDAQ:HOFC) announced today that the company’s Chairman and CEO, Larry Lazard, was found dead in his corporate office of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

Choke: A Novel, by Chuck Palahniuk

The opening pages of this book discuss how banal the book is. “If you are going to read this, don’t bother. ... There has to be something better on television. ... What you’re getting here is a stupid story about a stupid little boy.” I thought it amusing at the time, but as the tale progressed I wish I’d taken the advice: this was a surprisingly bad book.

The main character, Victor Mancini, is a reprobate sexual addict that fakes choking in restaurants and then scams his “saviors” for money. His best friend is a simpleton that can’t hold down the simplest job; his mother has Alzheimer’s and thinks Victor is a collection of people from her past, but never Victor himself. While certainly a unique group of oddball personas, there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. Various threads loosely strung together; while this itself isn’t an issue, the problem lies in the fact that the episodes aren’t anywhere near as interesting as the characters. Palahniuk seems to be going for thought-provoking and edgy, but ended up with just plain weird. Fight Club was an excellent movie; Choke is by the same author and I had high expectations. A good friend liked it as well; clearly I’ll need to more thoroughly vet his recommendations in the future.

First Sentence:
If you are going to read this, don’t bother.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Friday Night Lights, by H. G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights:A Town, A Team, and A Dream, by H. G. Bissinger

Considering I love both football and reading, it is surprising I hadn’t gotten around to Friday Night Lights. I’ve never watched the TV show, but I liked the movie, so when I saw the book in the bargain bin I picked it up. Friday Night Lights follows the Odessa Permian high school football team through their 1988 season. Interspersed with the history of a racist-leaning Odessa we meet the coach and all the major players of the team. Boobie Miles is a highly recruited fullback that is star of the team until he blows out his knee; after that he is ostracized by the universities and vanishes into a depression. Brian Chavez is the Harvard-bound valedictorian; Don Billingsley is a troublemaker trying to live up to his father’s legend. Ivory Christian is a linebacker that doesn’t much care for football, and yet is the only player to receive a Division I football scholarship. Gary Gaines is the coach and by far the most interesting persona detailed: the pressure to win in this football-obsessed town is amazingly intense, and Bissinger does an excellent job at portraying the strain Gaines was constantly experiencing.

As interesting as the individual and team stories are, the emotion of small-town Texas is what makes the book stand out. “As the black wave of the Permian players moved out into the middle of the field, eight thousand other souls who had filled the home side rose to give a standing ovation. This moment, and not January first, was New Year’s day.” This passage more than any other captures the essence of how football is loved by Texans, including me. Great book; I’m sorry I waited so long to read it.

First Sentence:
In the beginning, on a dog-day Monday in the middle of August when the West Texas heat congealed in the sky, there were only the stirrings of dreams.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Crystal Clear, by Alistair Cockburn

Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams , by Alistair Cockburn

Crystal Clear is another one of the many agile management styles out there today. It is geared specifically for small collocated teams not working on life-critical systems. The wildly different chapter formats I found odd, but Cockburn explains it well: “It is not my ambition that every reader should like every chapter and format. Rather, my hope is that through the use of different perspectives, each reader, coming from his particular background, can find some chapter format that conveys what is needed in order to understand Crystal Clear’s main ideas.” A lot of the methodology doesn’t apply to my current situation (Crystal Clear demands collocation but my team is scattered all over North America) but I still found some interesting ideas here. One I particularly liked was that Crystal allows for teams to choose less-than-optional ways of working; as long as the team is delivering software successfully all is well. This is much more forgiving than many methodologies which seem to require striving for perfection. Another concept I like is the approach to risk: “A safe methodology is one that increases the likelihood of the project succeeding.” Most risk discussions revolve around what can go wrong; this spin of increasing success factors rather than reducing avenues of failure I find to be much more positive. Because of the focus on small teams this isn’t directly applicable to all groups, but everyone should be able to glean something useful from this book.

First Sentence:
I distilled Crystal Clear by asking successful small teams what they would keep or change in the ways they worked.

The Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks

The Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks

Written with a deadly serious tone, this parody of a survival guide tells us both the history of zombies and how to protect ourselves against them. Zombie myths, attack and defense strategies, and how to make a life in a world overrun by the undead are all covered in humorous detail: “Unfortunately for our society but fortunately for a zombie siege, inner-city schools have taken on a fortress-like atmosphere.” Good stuff. The first two-thirds are a bit plodding at times, but it closes with a bang, giving a list of recorded zombie attacks through history; from 60,000 B.C. to current times, over 50 different incidents are detailed. A couple of my favorites show Hadrian’s Wall was created to prevent the spread of zombies from Scotland and Sir Walter Raleigh’s missing Roanoke Colony was actually eradicated by the living dead. Clearly this is a 250+ page advertisement for Brooks’ novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War but I still found it enjoyable.

First Sentence:
What is a zombie?

The Somnambulist, by Jonathan Barnes

The Somnambulist, by Jonathan Barnes

The Somnambulist of the title is a giant, milk-chugging mute who is the partner of Edward Moon, a self-described conjurer. Together they embark on a murder investigation and encounter one strange person after another, including a genius asylum inmate and a man who experiences life backwards. The inventive plot matches the imaginative characters, and the setting of Victorian England only enhances the oddness. Entirely unpredictable, Barnes springs one surprise after another, culminating in the identity of the narrator. Rich with backstory, there are hints of many other stories to tell and I hope to meet these characters again in other books.

First Sentence:
Be warned.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Living the Rock ‘n Roll Dream, by Buzz Cason

Living the Rock ‘n Roll Dream: The Adventures of Buzz Cason, by Buzz Cason

I heard Buzz Cason play at the Palo Duro Records Unofficial SxSW Showcase last spring along with Tommy Alverson, Trent Summar, and Dallas Wayne—yeah, that was a great night! The four artists took turns playing songs and telling stories. During one of Buzz’s stints in the spotlight he played the oft-recorded “Everlasting Love” which as it turns out, he wrote (although I must admit, I had more fun hearing “Barbeque” off his latest album). The next day I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon in a group of musicians that included Cason and was thoroughly entertained by his stories. When I discovered he’d written a book about his career I jumped at the opportunity to read it, and found that he is as entertaining in prose as he is in person.

Cason’s music has been recorded by a huge variety of performers: Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Reed, Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Derailers, Jan and Dean, Gloria Estefan, Pearl Jam, U2, and the Beatles to name just a few. He started writing and performing in the 1950’s, long before agents and promoters controlled the industry. Can you imagine Rascal Flatts cramming into a beat-up Ford and driving all night to make a show in the next town? This book is a unique first-hand look into a completely different world. Cason hung out with Elvis, signed Jimmy Buffett to his first contract, and founded the Creative Workshop. He tells stories about meeting Sinatra, Kris Kristofferson, Bo Diddley, and MLK. He has been a composer, a singer, a chipmunk, and now an author. He has a unique perspective on the history of American popular music and I enjoyed every page of this book.

First Sentence:
The first time I can recall anyone suggesting that I participate in singing any other kind of music other than church hymns was when my neighborhood friend, Lewis Dale told me about this thing they called “hillbilly music” that was so popular on radio WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.

The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman

The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman

Kinky Friedman is a odd bird, but damn amusing. Part singer, part writer, and part smart-ass, he is thoroughly entertaining. He has a gift for insouciant and irreverent phrasing: doing something without thinking is done at the “sperm of the moment;” a drowning publishing magnate is given the last word, “Roseglub.” He consistently refers to telephones as “blowers,” defecating as “taking a Nixon,” and says “mucous garcias” instead of “thank you.” My favorite quote is, “She’d been married for ten years to Derrick Price and, as with most successful marriages these days, they lived in separate cities.” Friedman isn’t just a sarcastic wise guy, though; he throws in mentions of such diverse characters as MLK, Charles Dickens, Al Capone, and mass murderer John Wayne Gacy. The title is a parody on T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and a key clue is discovered while ruminating on the Sherlock Holmes story of the Red-Headed League. Toilet humor coupled with intellectual references makes for a very funny story.

First Sentence:
It was New Year’s Day.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Why Software Sucks... and What You Can Do About It, by David S. Platt

Why Software Sucks... and What You Can Do About It, by David S. Platt

Great book—a solid discussion about why most software is hard to use, told with enough humor to be enjoyable as well as interesting. “Computers make people feel dumb. In a society where nothing is ever the fault of person doing it, where people sue a restaurant when they spill their own coffee, getting users to blame themselves for anything is a magnificent accomplishment.” It reminded me a lot of Cooper’s excellent The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, especially when Platt was discussing UI design: “You should never see a confirmation dialog anywhere, under any circumstances.”

I did find it a bit repetitive; I suspect that this was originally a series of articles stitched together into a book. One anecdote about how Vanguard’s website is attacked 100 times per second is told multiple times, and the time frames jump around a bit with IE6 sometimes in beta and sometimes released. The overall theme of “programmers make complex things possible instead of simple things simple” remains consistent though.

Platt does an amusing job of sneaking his politics into his various stories. The quote in the opening paragraph is one example, getting snarky about the McDonald’s coffee case. He goes on a privacy rant at one point, upset about how the Patriot Act allows the FBI to look at your library records without consent. (Why people think privacy should be attached to the public library—itself a government agency—is beyond me, though.) He also seems to hold a grudge against market forces; he hates self-checkout lanes at grocery stores while at the same time being puzzled that hasn’t swept the nation. While the usability of the latter is clearly better than the former, consumers are clearly making the former more popular. He is probably upset that VHS beat out Beta, too. :)

Those nitpicks aside, this was a very good book, both entertaining and enlightening. I’d recommend it to anyone involved in the creation of software.

First Sentence:
“That’ll never sell,” I sneered at the title in the bookstore.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mr. China, by Tim Clissold

Mr. China: A Memoir, by Tim Clissold

This book brought back a lot of memories for me. Clissold’s first trip to China was in the summer of 1988 and so was mine. Several years later he was unhappy at his job, so he quit and started learning to speak Mandarin; one of my closest friends did the same. Clissold becomes the main investor in the Five Star Brewery and while traveling there I drank a lot of their beer. Reading about his experiences was like talking to an old friend.

Mr. China is the story of one of the first multi-national investment groups to invest in domestic businesses in China. We get a look at how the research was conducted, where the money was invested, how the companies conducted business (surprisingly unethical), and how success didn’t arrive until they stopped trying to force European values on Chinese industries. I found this to be a fascinating read that told two basic tales: one of the government handing more and more control to individual businesses, and another of a foreigner becoming more and more Chinese in his thinking. At the conclusion these intertwine with the lesson that you can’t affect a culture without immersing yourself in it.

One of the things I liked the most was the optimism about China that the author espouses. “Since the Open Door policy in 1979, China has lifted two hundred and fifty million people out of absolute poverty, probably the greatest improvement in the human condition ever achieved. ... The lives of millions of ordinary Chinese have been improved beyond recognition as the effects slowly trickle down to street level. Chinese citizens now have choices that we take completely for granted but that would have been unimaginable two decades ago; choices in clothing, in housing, schooling for their kids, maybe the chance to buy a car or take a vacation abroad.” While this doesn’t excuse the country’s stance on human rights or the fact that they have 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, it does show that progress is being made and China is taking steps towards being a leader on the world stage.

First Sentence:
For anyone whose mood is affected by the weather, Hong Kong in October is heaven.

Game Night, by Jonny Nexus

Game Night: Six Gods Sit Down to Spend an Evening Roleplaying. Really Badly. By Jonny Nexus

Ever played Dungeons and Dragons with a self-important game master, a headstrong player that messed up the plot, or a stickler for every last rule? This story follows just such a group, with the fun twist that they are all gods and actually controlling real people instead of imaginary characters. (The fact that these are gods leads to throwaway jokes such as, “He remembers something Mr Six Days once boasted about that involved a cat, an experiment, and some terribly clever aspect of his realm.”) The opening chapter sets the tempo well, with one guy refusing to wait for the entire scene to unfold and killing a character before he is able to help the adventurers. Truly hilarious!

In one of my favorite bits, the game master is trying to set the scene by describing a meal, but one player is having none of it.

“I didn’t say I was eating!” protests the Warrior angrily.
“You don’t want to eat breakfast?” the AllFather asks warily.
“It’s not about whether or not I breakfast!”
[Further discussion about the benefits of an early meal takes place...]
“Fine. Do you come to breakfast?”
“Thank you. As I was saying, after breakfasting on honeyed bread and exotic fruits-”
“I did not want fruit!”
The Jester holds his head in his hands. “In the name of everything that ever was and ever shall be, can we please, please, just get past breakfast?”
While this is supposed to be a parody of role playing games, this scene was entirely too familiar from my past. Humor that hits close to home is some of the best! If you like the work of Pratchett, Foglio, Asprin, or DeChancie then this book is for you.

First Sentence:
The Riddle was old, for it was as old as the Gate, and the Fate had guarded the head of the Valley since men first walked upon the World.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Crooked Little Vein, by Warren Ellis

Crooked Little Vein: A Novel, by Warren Ellis

This is quite possibly the strangest novel I’ve ever read. The book introduces loser detective Mike McGill who is hired by the President’s chief of staff to find the secret second Constitution of the United States (to be used only in case of emergency) which has been lost for decades. As strange as this sounds, it is only a framing story for a trip through the seedy underbelly of society. We meet a group that uses reptiles as erotica, another that injects saline into their testicles for a thrill, and still another that holds sex parties where a form of Russian Roulette is played with an HIV positive person instead of a bullet. The individuals are just as twisted: a crazy oilman with mounted dolphins, kittens, and seals on the wall instead of the usual deer and bear heads, a burned out paranoid private investigator having a nervous breakdown, and of course, a serial killer. On top of all this, Ellis also gives us a handful of colorful facts, such as “the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man was actually a CIA blind created specifically to cover a possible breach of security over astronauts with extensive bioelectronic modification escaping the system and going public.” I couldn’t put this book down!

The writing style was just as eccentric, with some chapters not even a page long. Chapter 3 was probably my favorite:

An hour later, I walked into some freak bar on Bleecker Street and yelled, “I’m buying a hundred drinks—for me!”
Oh, they beat the shit out of me.
Chapter 6 was even shorter, but not quite as funny:
I wish I still had that photo.
The sardonic humor kept me laughing, the unexpected style kept me surprised, and the plot kept me turning pages. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for something unusual.

First Sentence:
I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a piss in my coffee mug.

Swine Not? by Jimmy Buffett

Swine Not? A Novel Pig Tale, by Jimmy Buffett

This is an imaginative little tale about a pig secretly living in a hotel in New York City. The story is told using first-person narrative, alternating between Barley, a young boy, and his soccer-playing pot-bellied pig Rumpy. The rest of the cast includes Barley’s twin sister and his eccentric mother. The group finds themselves living in the big apple in a hotel whose rules change to not allow pets. So, they do what any other family would do: they disguise the pig as a dog and go on with their lives. Fashion designers, famous athletes, top-flight chefs, and of course, the mayor all figure in to the story, which builds to a ridiculous but highly entertaining conclusion. Unlike Buffet’s other works this is really more of a kid’s fairy tale than an adult novel, but still a lot of fun.

First Sentence:
I think there comes a time in everyone’s life when the werewolf-like winds of misdirection and the beasts of bad timing put us in an impossible situation.

Wait Till Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I’ll admit I had no idea who Doris Kearns Goodwin was when I bought this off a clearance shelf, but the picture of Ebbets Field poking through the clouds caught my attention. Turns out the author is a writer who has won several awards for books that look to be largely unappealing to me. Luckily, this memoir is about her childhood as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. The battles between the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers in the 1950’s are the stuff of legend. Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, the “shot heard round the world,” and the Dodgers first World Series championship—these are topics that are still oft discussed today, and Goodwin was right there for all of it. Mix in McCarthyism, polio scares, Catholicism, Elvis, and the Rosenberg trial and we get an excellent picture of life in this decade. There isn’t much depth to the story, but the vignettes make for good entertainment.

First Sentence:
When I was six, my father game me a bright-red scorebook that opened my heart to the game of baseball.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alternate Tyrants, edited by Mike Resnick

Alternate Tyrants, edited by Mike Resnick

This collection of short stories took an alternate history look at prominent figures and paths they might have taken. Mandela establishing white homelands, MacArthur as Emperor of Japan, Pierre Elliott Trudeau restricting Canadian civil rights instead of advancing them, and in separate stories both Capone and Elvis as tyrannical presidents. A Stable Relationship by Lawrence Schimel was the strangest of the bunch, depicting Mike Resnick (the editor) as a despotic father-in-law. My favorite was The Sword in the Stone by Michelle Sagara; it is set in the near future where Prince William takes the throne and restores power to the monarchy in England. Good stuff.

First Sentence (From the introduction):
Welcome to the fifth book in our Alternate anthology series.

Wizards, Inc., edited by Greenberg and Coleman

Wizards, Inc., edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Loren L. Coleman

This anthology contains a group of stories focused on people folks that practice magic for a living. I thought this was an above average collection, rare in the happenstance that I liked every story. KidPro by Laura Anne Gilman, about an organization that takes advantage of child magic users, was probably the worst of the bunch, but still pretty good. Jamaica by Orson Scott Card was an excellent mystery and Stocks and Bondage by Esther M. Friesner was the funniest tale in the volume. My favorite episode was easily Disaster Relief by Kristine Katheryn Rusch. Set right after Hurricane Katrina, it dealt with wizards that were displaced by the disaster. I thought it did an excellent job of both showing the humanity of refugees and in recognizing that New Orleans wasn't the only community affected: folks from Gulfport, Biloxi, and Moss Point, Mississippi were featured. Even if the national media ignored Mississippi it is nice to see that not every writer did. All in all, an excellent anthology.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
There are two types of people in this world...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Enemy, by Lee Child

The Enemy, by Lee Child

New Year's Eve, 1989 going on 1990. The Cold War is over and the U.S. Military is in limbo, not sure of its role in the new world order. Against this backdrop, a general is found dead in a sleazy no-tell motel 300 miles away from where he was supposed to be. From there we discover the general's wife also murdered and hints at a much, much larger conspiracy. My second Jack Reacher novel, this one was even better than the first. In that novel Reacher was a recently discharged MP; this one is set in his past when he was still at the top of his game. With a breakneck pace and a reasonably believable finish, this was a fun read.

First Sentence:
As serious as a heart attack.

Ignited, by Vince Thompson

Ignited: Managers! Light Up Your Company and Career for More Power More Purpose and More Success, by Vince Thompson

Blah blah blah. This book just didn't do much for me. There were some solid nuggets scattered throughout, but in general I was quite disappointed. Aimed at middle managers, Thompson spends a lot of time on how to improve your ability to "lead in a limited space." It opens with a quiz designed to help the reader decide to what extent he is an effective and empowered manager. The remainder of the book is divided into three sections, the first concentrating on the individual, the second on networking, and the third on sphere of influence. The first two I found more useful, discussing concepts such as the idea you will improve your own credibility if you're seen as a contributor to your manager's success. The third was more about salesmanship and personal goal setting which came across as a bit too much rah-rah for me.

Ignited is a book that I expected to enjoy and appreciate, but didn't. The writing appears aimed at middle school readers, but that isn't unique among business books. It offers practical information, common sense, and good examples and is squarely aimed at managers like myself. Honestly, I can't quite figure out why I didn't like it. My book club read it and while we had an interesting discussion, nobody there was overwhelmed with excitement about it either. In summary, this is an uninspiring book that has a lot of good advice.

First Sentence:
The time: Almost 25 years ago.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Love and Sex with Robots, by David Levy

Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, by David Levy

Can we fall in love with a robot? The first half of this book attempts to answer this question. The author spends a long time defining love (I could have done without this excruciatingly wordy definition) and shows that a machine could emulate these attributes with surprisingly solid examples. People love their cars, love their pets, and fall in love over the internet; is a “virtual person” so far-fetched? I don’t know if I buy Levy’s arguments, but he makes a compelling case. The most interesting question the author raises (yet doesn’t answer) is where will we draw the line between life and technology? Consider that we can currently replace arms and legs with increasingly lifelike prosthetics. Artificial hearts and pacemakers routinely keep us alive, and cochlear implants give us back our hearing. Mechanical replacements for our eyes, lungs, and liver aren’t that far off. With all these advances, at what point does a person become more robot than human?

The second half discusses the practicality of sex with robots. He claims in many ways society has already embraced the most important components needed: erotic machinery and a lack of personal attachment. Levy goes into great detail about vibrators and sex toys here, making an effective observation that a full robot versus simply mechanical parts is not a huge distinction. Lack of personal attachment is embodied by prostitution. Levy goes on to predict that once technology can adequately develop a believable robotic woman, prostitution as we know it will cease. (We also in this half get a brief biography of Magnus Hirschfeld, a sexologist and sexual reformer in the early 1900’s; could my friend Rob be a descendant? Makes me wonder what else he might be building... :))

A funny story about reading this book: I’m a regular blood donor and took this with me while donating platelets one afternoon. As I read I discover that the second half of the book (the half detailing the history of sex toys) is populated with a large number of graphic illustrations! The phlebotomists (almost all women) would come by to see how I was doing and I found myself awkwardly hiding the pages like a kid caught reading a comic inside his textbook in class. Embarrassing.

First Sentence:
Why on earth should people fall in love with robots?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Jolie Blon’s Bounce, by James Lee Burke

Jolie Blon’s Bounce, by James Lee Burke

I only recently discovered Dave Robicheaux, but when I came across another novel starring him in the bargain bin I couldn’t resist. Jolie Blon’s Bounce is much later in the series than Black Cherry Blues; in the latter Robicheaux has just recently lost his wife and has a young daughter but here he has married again and his little girl is about to graduate high school. The jump didn’t hurt my enjoyment, though; the author does an excellent job of filling the important gaps and getting me up-to-date quickly.

I liked this installment more than I did the first one I read. There was a real mystery to solve here and a lot less angst and hand-wringing from the lead character. The resolution is a bit far fetched, but plot is almost secondary in a Robicheaux novel. The real reason to read Burke is for his rich descriptions: “The two gamblers looked like a Mutt and Jeff team. One was big, lantern-jawed, stolid, with coarse skin and knuckles the size of quarters, whereas his friend was sawed-off, porcine, with a stomach that hung down like a curtain of wet cement, his Jersey accent like a sliver of glass in the ear.” Coupled with his lush and reverent descriptions of the Louisiana bayou, reading this was a sultry pleasure.

First Sentence:
Growing up during the 1940s in New Iberia, down on the Gulf Coast, I never doubted how the world worked.

Monday, June 30, 2008

1635: The Cannon Law, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis

1635: The Cannon Law, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis

A direct sequel to 1634: The Galileo Affair this book is more of the same recipe. The introduction of 20th century beliefs to the Catholic Church of the 17th century is causing wide discord, to the point of Spanish cardinals trying to impeach the Pope and causing a religious civil war. The action was quick and the characters were likable (especially Don Vincente and Ruy Sanchez) if a bit one-note in their behavior. The biggest drawback was that the book just stops; clearly another book (something like 1636: The Barberini Strike Back I’m sure) will be issued, but there aren’t enough loose ends wrapped up to have a satisfying conclusion to this volume. Flint sharing authorship of the Assiti Shards books have led to an amazingly rich universe of stories, but this one felt like the last third was missing. What is there is enjoyable, though; I’ll continue to read these as they appear.

First Sentence:
Don Vincente Jose-Maria Castro y Papas, Captain in His Most Catholic Majesty’s Army in the Two Sicilies, tried sneering at the stack of paperwork and the book and ledgers of the company he commanded.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Toothpick, by Henry Petroski

The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, by Henry Petroski

I’ll admit it: this is the first book in years that I haven’t finished. I slogged through twenty chapters before giving up, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go any further. While clearly well researched (60 pages of endnotes!), the repetitiveness and minutia of anything and everything about the “earliest known nonlithic tool used by hominids” made reading a chore. The occasional interesting nugget (the United States Patent Office has over 500 patents registered around the manufacture and design of toothpicks) kept me turning pages for a while, but these factoids were too few and too far apart to capture my interest for long. I recommend this to anyone researching the toothpick industry or anyone with insomnia as a potential cure.

First Sentence:
Nothing can be more annoying than having a piece of food stuck between our teeth.

Natural Ordermage, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Natural Ordermage, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Another chapter in the Saga of Recluce and another winner. While the basic formula of nearly every Recluce novel (a young powerful mage without full control of his powers learns a craft as he matures) is intact, there are a few twists here. The magician doesn’t learn by rote, but instead by example—leading to exile because the establishment doesn’t know how to train him. While exile is common in this universe, instead of the usual Candar our hero is instead sent to Hamor, a land that we haven’t visited in the previous installments and has been portrayed as villainous more than once. The exploration of Hamorian culture and politics (“Create no law that is not absolutely necessary to maintain simple order. beyond the minimum for maintaining order, laws are like fleas or leeches. The more of them that exist, the more they vex a land and bleed it into chaos and anarchy...”) added a lot of depth to Modesitt’s world and kept his standard formula fresh. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and look forward to the conclusion.

First Sentence:
“Rahl... how are you coming on Tales of the Founders?”

Invisible Enemies, by Jeanette Farrell

Invisible Enemies: Stories of Infectious Disease, by Jeanette Farrell

While aimed at young readers, this is an informative discussion for all ages of seven deadly diseases: smallpox, leprosy, plague, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, and AIDS. The biology, treatments, cures, and social attitudes towards these sicknesses are handled in a casual style that makes for very readable coverage of what I usually find obtuse topics. The chapter on cholera was my favorite; the author covers the same pump handle story (cholera was being spread via contaminated water from the public pump) that Tufte does in Visual Explanations but from a different angle. Coming across this historical episode in a new context was quite rewarding. I also discovered that the gin and tonic was created as a way of making the bitter drug quinine used to fight malaria more palatable to the British tongue. While a sixth grader may not find that interesting, I did! If you are looking to cure your ignorance of the history of infectious disease without a heavy dose of science or biology then this is your prescription.

First Sentence:
When George Washington first felt the soreness in his throat on that cold December afternoon in 1799, he must have known that even he, master of Mount Vernon, first President of the United States, conqueror of the British Army in the war for American independence, could be up against a foe he might not defeat.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, by Michael Chabon

This is the tale of two boys—one a kid from Brooklyn and one a refugee from Nazi controlled Prague—that create a superhero that rivals Superman. While comic books have a prominent place in the book (my favorite scene has Stan Lee, Gil Kane, and Bob Powell discussing Seduction of the Innocent in a diner named the Excelsior Cafeteria) this is by no means a lightweight pleasure read. A Pulitzer Prize winner, we experience the struggles of two talented Jewish boys coming of age in the intolerant times before World War II. These boys (the Kavalier and Clay of the title) struggle for acceptance throughout: first looking for acceptance as artists in what is considered (even today to a large degree) a kiddie medium, then for acceptance in a society with strong anti-homosexual and antisemitic beliefs, and finally internal acceptance, seeking forgiveness and understanding from themselves. Significant themes told with humor, style, and grace made for a truly unforgettable read. I had a hard time putting this book down, and highly recommend it to anyone that enjoys a dramatic tale.

First Sentence:
In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Black Cherry Blues, by James Lee Burke

Black Cherry Blues, by James Lee Burke

Dave Robicheaux is an alcoholic southern ex-cop; one of those characters that is good at everything but has a tortured soul. He gets framed for a murder in Louisiana yet while on bail manages to get to Montana where he brazenly challenges a mobster he believes is responsible. I pictured him as a cajun Dirty Harry, albeit somewhat shorter for some reason. The movie Heaven’s Prisoners (based on a different novel in the series) starred Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux which doesn’t fit my mental image at all; perhaps that is why the only thing I remember is Teri Hatcher!

The plot is thin and the characters shallow, but the descriptions of mood and setting were almost lyrical. “Then a bank of thunderheads slid across the sky from the Gulf, tumbling across the sun like cannon smoke, and the light gathered in the oaks and cypress and willow trees and took on a strange green cast as though you were looking at the world through water.” I love writing that shows the reader a sense of color and texture as well as the setting, and Burke gives that in spades. While Robicheaux is no Spenser, I expect I’ll be reading more of him in the future.

First Sentence:
Her hair is curly and gold on the pillow, her skin white in the heat lightning that trembles beyond the pecan trees outside the bedroom window.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development, by Mike Cohn

User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development, by Mike Cohn

Every agile team is different. Team dynamics and synergy are key to a truly self-directed team, so every unique group of individuals will have to discover what works for them and what doesn’t. One thing on which most teams (regardless of how different they appear or behave) will agree, though, is that writing software specifications is hard. English is a notoriously imprecise language, and computers are meticulous to a fault; this combination is what makes requirements so difficult. The use of user stories and agile to combat this hardship is very effective, and Cohn does an excellent job of explaining these concepts.

The main idea behind user stories lies in the idea that a story represents a requirement, it doesn’t document it. The goal of a story is to encourage communication about what a feature is and how it should behave, not a treatise on the behavior that can be thrown over a wall to development. In the traditional software world, management will create a Product Marketing Document to define how they want every last feature to behave. Engineering will respond with a Functional Specification, which is a rewrite of the first document with a slightly different point of view. Development is then expected to go off for a year or so and create the product. Simple, right? Cohn discusses this approach, and sums it up with one of my favorite passages in the book: “Most of the times when I see two groups writing separate versions of essentially the same document I already know they are positioning themselves for the end-of-project blame sessions and for claiming to know the intent of the document. This type of silliness goes away with user stories. Along with the shift to conversations from documentation comes the freedom of knowing that nothing is final.” The phrase “nothing is final” frightens many executives with whom I’ve worked, but when you consider that all significant projects undergo changes during development (have you ever had a released application that exactly matched the original specification?) it really isn’t any different than reality, it just recognizes that change is inevitable and accounts for it.

Even if you are familiar with agile and user stories, this book is a great read. It is filled with examples both positive and negative and does an excellent job explaining not only what user stories are, but what they aren’t as well. These negative explanations in particular are quite valuable, as they compare and contrast many popular requirement gathering techniques such as Use Cases and IEEE 830. Looking at how these other approaches work helps clarify what the scope of user stories are supposed to be. I highly recommend this to agile teams, especially product managers and ScrumMasters.

First Sentence:
Software requirements is a communication problem.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

One More for the Road, by Ray Bradbury


As a kid, I loved Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, R Is for Rocket, and more were often checked out from the library. When I got One More for the Road, a book of short stories, for Christmas I was pleased, looking forward to revisiting a favorite author. Unfortunately, with my hopes so high I found this collection uneven at best.

None of the stories here are truly bad, but a few (First Day and Heart Transplant) feel like they missed the mark—not quite melancholy and not quite maudlin, but told with a tone hints at those goals. As the collection progresses the stories get better; the final entry of The Cricket on the Hearth is an excellent look at how to shake a marriage out of the doldrums, and Well, What Do You Have to Say for Yourself? looks at a lovers argument as a microcosm of all relationships everywhere, with the best (and longest!) line in the entire book: “Men will go on being men, stupid, arrogant, strong-willed, stubborn, reckless, destructive, murderous, but sometimes librarians and poets, kite fliers and boys who see things in the clouds, nephew to Robert Frost and Shakespeare, but still not always dependable, soft-hearted under the skin maybe, capable of tears if the children should die and life be over, always looking at the next field where the grass is greener and the milk is free, fixed on a Moon crater or stationed on one of Saturn’s moons, but the same beast that yelled out of the cave half a million years ago, not much different, and the other half of the human race there staring at him and asking him to listen to the wedding rites with half a heart and half an ear, and sometimes, sometimes he listens.” Imagery like this makes this collection worth reading and hints at the greatness of which Bradbury is capable.

If you haven’t read any of his writing before I’d recommend Fahrenheit 451 or The Illustrated Man first, but if you already have a place in your heart for Bradbury then this might help you spend a pleasant afternoon.

First Sentence(from the Afterword):
Every year in Paris, coming from the airport I have my driver pause at the Trocadero, a vast esplanade that overlooks the entire city with a splendid view of the Eiffel Tower.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Killing Floor, by Lee Child

Killing Floor, by Lee Child

This book introduces Jack Reacher, a former Military Policeman that served with the Army’s Special Investigations Unit. After mustering out of the army, he spends his time exploring America, drifting from town to town with no real plan: Rambo without a psychotic break. The story starts with a bang: Reacher gets arrested on the first page for a crime he didn’t commit. The running commentary of everything the officers did correctly and incorrectly for the first couple of chapters was hilarious; it also served to demonstrate just how good Reacher is. The plot was interesting although not terribly complicated. It struck me as overly naive in a couple of places (“They couldn’t prove something had happened if it hadn’t happened.”) and the twist of having Reacher’s brother appear in a middle-of-nowhere Georgia town stretched reason fairly thin. That said, the action rolls along quickly and the characters are quite enjoyable. This is the first Reacher novel, but it won’t be my last.

First Sentence:
I was arrested in Eno’s Diner, at twelve o’clock.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A Meeting At Corvallis, by S. M. Stirling

A Meeting At Corvallis, by S. M. Stirling

This book ends the trilogy started with Dies the Fire in a fairly satisfying fashion. Ten years into this world without technology, we find that the air is thick with diplomacy and intrigue leading up to an inevitable war. The children of various leaders are alternately kidnapped and rescued, and bloody skirmishes set the stage for a final battle. Stirling finds a nice way to have most of the characters live through the war that doesn’t rely on the usual luck that heroes have in fantasy novels. One amusing passage revealed that Cardinal Ratzinger is the titular head of Catholicism there; of course in our world Ratzinger is now better known as Pope Benedict XVI. Details like this help keep remind the reader that this is alternate history and not a generic fantasy novel.

While not a huge problem, the book could have easily been edited down from its nearly 500 pages to remove some redundant sections. The main culprit was that references to the Society for Creative Anachronism come fast and furious; at times it seems that only SCA members survived the Change! I don’t remember this being so prevalent in the other books, but the plot was more intricate in those as well so it might not have been as obvious. All in all, this book provides a solid ending to the trilogy, wrapping up most loose ends while leaving room for further sequels.

First Sentence:
Norman Arminger—he rarely thought of himself as anything but the Lord Protector these days—stared at the great map that showed his domains, and those of his stubbornly independent neighbors; it covered the whole of the former Oregon and Washington, with bits of the old states of Idaho and northern California thrown in.

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