Monthly Archives: January 2014

*** Writing on the Wall by Tom Standage


Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years is a learned, yet utterly accessible history of the world as viewed from the angle of communication, and although it has its moments of deja-vu, I found it to be very worthwhile and fresh. The wall from the title? Used by the Romans to communicate by writing very physical notes on the walls of their houses. Retweets? Julius Caesar. LOL and other abbreviations? The Romans, again. Governments afraid of social media? Many, including Queen Elizabeth (the First, in 1579). Craigslist? See the fantastically named Theophraste Renaudot in 1630. Hijacking the company messaging system to discuss company politics? ATT Telegraph employees in 1850.

A fun book, reminiscent of A Better Pencil and A Social History of Knowledge (in a much more digestible format than the latter.)

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* The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler


With my last child almost off to college, it’s about time for me to find out about The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More. Well, it turns out I did not miss much.

The book is organized in chapters that each focus on a particular technique, adapted from the business world and applied to family life. For instance, we get the dreaded, “Create a family mission statement”. If you have not had your fill of insipid truths, utterly disconnected from the reality of day-to-day experience, and enshrined in those obnoxious posters forlornly tacked in company kitchens, read on. Every once in a while there’s a cogent principle, but it’s a little too obvious to be worth reading about. So we are told that family dinner, that symbol of functional family, is really quite unimportant: what matters is what happens at dinner, namely the exchange of stories. Tell me something I did not know.

Some chapters are truly hilarious, or so I thought. For instance, trying to extract tips for family reunions from, of all organizations, the Marine Corps, kept me chuckling to myself for many pages. Not a keeper.

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*** An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield


An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything starts with the author’s watching the first landing on the moon on a black-and-white TV, and deciding that he would become an astronaut, as many of us did on that July day in 1969. But, unlike the rest of us, he did become an astronaut and went to space three times, if not to the moon. The book tells his adventures, including the long and uncertain road to becoming an astronaut (and since he was born in Canada, extra effort and luck was required).

The weakest part of the book is the subtitle, since applying lessons learnt from space is not always the best way to live in real life. Over-preparing may be just the ticket to the space station, but it can quickly turn to craziness in real life, as the author humbly admits that his children remind him…  Still, the anecdotes he tells are funny and told without ego, whether they involve cutting one’s nails in the space station or a crying jag during a space walk (it turns out that it’s not a fantastic idea to be blind while outside the station!) and he maintains the wonder of his nine-year old self about being in space.

Hadfield became famous because of his YouTube videos taped from space, and that’s the puzzle of the story. How could an over-prepared organization like NASA miss out on the PR opportunity and be preempted by Hadfield’s son who uploaded his dad’s first video without much planning and certainly without administrative approval? And yet, putting a very human face on the space program has been a fantastic PR success.

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** The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro


The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose is presented as a set of stories but I think would just as well qualify as a novel. The heroine, Rose, is an orphan brought up by her stepmother, Flo, who will escape her small town and her modest upbringing thanks to her brain and hard work. The author writes brilliantly about Rose’s feelings never fitting in fully, whether with her new, successful peers with their easy and moneyed childhoods or with the family she left behind, and her essential loneliness, hanging between the two worlds. The overall melancholy dragged me down, a bit.

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** The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman


Let’s stay in the Southern hemisphere and move West, to Western Australia, for The Light Between Oceans, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who one day find a baby in a rowboat drifting by their isolated island, and decide to keep it. The setting, to start, is magnificent, between the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. The hero, the lighthouse keeper, a WWI veteran, has seen many horrors and retains a stoic but perfectly gentle manner. The many scenes of parenthood are captured with exquisite tenderness and authentic details. So far so good.

But the story line is most improbable, relying on so many amazing coincidences (starting with how a baby can be alive in a boat with her dead father). And the overly sentimental descriptions of motherly love and melodramatic female emotions turned me off. I imagine that less cynical souls would enjoy the book more than I did.

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** The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


The Luminaries is a gorgeously rich, cunningly architected story set in Gold-Rush New Zealand, in a West Coast town full of mud and hopeful miners, and a prostitute with flouncy dresses and an opium habit. The story is told in achingly slow pace, just like a 19th Century novel, and the detailed subtitles of each chapter continue the period feeling. As the story unfolds in multiple, often embedded flashbacks, each character’s life story comes to light.

Gorgeous, right?

It’s also 830 pages long, and can I recommend you invest your time in 830 pages? No, unless you just love the slow, deliberate pace of 19th Century novels and, perhaps, you have a very long flight ahead of you — ideally San Francisco to Auckland, transferring to a South Island flight. (You will land expecting to see long dresses and miners’ outfits, guaranteed!) To give you an idea of the pace, the first day of the story, January 27th, 1866, takes a full 400 pages to narrate. Of course that’s with many, many flashbacks, but also many repeats and summaries, making sure the reader is not lost, very 19th Century in spirit — but this reader got quite a bit impatient, and bored, waiting for all the repeats to unfold. And when all is said, the story is intriguingly tangled but it’s essentially the story of a young woman betrayed into prostitution. Haven’t we had our fill, and more, of those? The book is like a beautiful antique reproduction, beautiful but why not buy a Noguchi instead?

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** Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schull


Wonder what psychology and big data can be used for? Wonder no more: the gambling industry is cunningly using both to entice players to play longer and, more importantly, spend more money. The author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas does a great job of describing how every minute part of the gambling experience is designed to keep players playing, along the way telling many sad stories about addicted gamblers who spend hours on the machines, forgoing nourishment, sleep, and even (no details, please) bathroom breaks.

The puzzle for me is why they have to do it in a gaming environment (which, in Vegas, could be a grocery store!)? If what’s most important to them is not to win, per se, but the physical sensation of controlling the machine, the feeling of being lost in the experience, and the pleasure of small, ethereal wins (since getting actual winnings in coins would interrupt their flow), why could they not gamble just as much and surely more comfortably in their homes, on a machine that is paid for, and without putting at risk their entire paychecks and beyond? I’ve never been a fan of video games but after reading this book I’m thinking they are just wonderful, wonderfully safe, that is.

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