Book Reviews – Final Quarter 2007

January 4th, 2008

Happy new year everyone! 2007 has come and gone, and it’s time to take care of the backlog of things one was supposed to do during the Christmas vacation. Let’s see… “Complete Spandex Force” – nope. “Be social with lots of people” – nope. “Conquer the world” – nope. “Do a new blog design” – well, I took care of that yesterday at least. Ah, here’s something I can take care of right away: “Write summaries of the books I read between October and December.” No use beating around the bush – here goes.

The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul – Douglas Adams

Description: As I predicted in my previous review post, I would be reviewing the second Dirk Gently book sometime around now. Too bad that I have to say that this book is a major letdown compared to the first one. I have a vague memory of it being a lot more fun – but apparently I was a stupid little brat back then. The premise is great: Old Norse gods, mysterious explosions, strange hostile birds, interesting characters…but something doesn’t work out. The book just trots along, and at the end I was left with a slightly bitter aftertaste. “Is this how my brief Douglas Adams period should end?” Still, if you’ve read all else he’s written you really must read this as well.
Rating: 3 snotty children out of 5.
Recommended for: Douglas Adams fans. I really can’t recommend it for the general public.

Salmon of Doubt - Douglas Adams

Description: Wait a minute… What did I write above? Something about ending my Douglas Adams period? Ha! Thank Bog that I thought of Salmon of Doubt – the last book Adams ever wrote. Or, well, tried to write. He never finished it. So this is a collection of anecdotes and tidbits and stories and interviews, as well as a sorta-edited-together version of what exists of Salmon of Doubt. Amazingly interesting to read – that goes for both the story snippet and the rest of the material – and I really must recommend this.
Rating: 4 bottles of brandy out of 5.
Recommended for: Douglas Adams fans and people interested in knowing more about the illustrious Mr. Adams.

Great Ideas of Philosophy – The Teaching Company

Description: The Teaching Company always delivers, and they deliver good stuff most of the time. They sure did this time: the lecturer was amusing and competent and very pleasant to listen to, and the topics were of utmost interest. I must admit that I’m not totally hooked on Philosophy; I’m more of a pragmatic “who gives a dang if we have free will or not – appearances is what matters” person. (Though I must confess that I believe that the world is deterministisc no matter what quantum phycisists tell you.)  Still, this course did an excellent job of guiding me from Ancient Greece to the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment, presenting all the top Philosophy stars along the way. Now I know the difference between Hume and Locke, for example!
Rating: 4 snapper turtles out of 5.
Recommended for: The philosophically inclined geek. If I had been slightly less interested in such things the rating would’ve been 3.

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein

Description: This is a book I’ve had lying around for ages, and I finally picked it up. I’m almost wishing I hadn’t. Okay, I may be a young little whippersnapper who can’t imagine the world of the 60s; this book was written before we even landed on the moon, so space was a Great Unknown(TM)…but I get the distinct feeling that Heinlein started taking acid somewhere around the middle of the book. Martians? Sure, I can buy that. Martians who can teach humans special mental skills? No problem. But then the book just got all weird. I don’t agree with the logic presented, or the science, so let’s just end this on a civil tone and say that I preferred Starship Troopers (the book, that is) to this one. 
Rating: 2.5 nose bleeds out of 5.
Recommended for: Historically inclined sci-fi fans.

Argumentation – The Study of Effective Reasoning - The Teaching Company

Description: The Teaching Company always delivers, as I said, but it’s not always good stuff; something about this course made it feel pointless. Maybe it’s because a lot of what’s discussed is the formal forms of argumentation instead of practical applications. Maybe it’s because it assumes no prior knowledge in logic. Maybe it’s because many of the techniques and forms could be just as easily replaced by common sense. I don’t know. I just know that I’ll have to give this book one of the lowest scores yet.
Rating: 1.5 frilly skirts out of 5.
Recommended for: Yo mama. So she can learn how to stop you from spending dough on courses like this.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke

Description: Time for some good ol’ fantasy! Or not really. This is Clarke’s debut novel, and it’s an amazing read! It takes place in 19th century Britain, and tells how the two titular gentlemen return magic to England. If it hadn’t been for all the fairies and similar otherlandishness I would’ve claimed that this novel should be classed as fantastic fiction (would it be possible to say “fantastic historical fiction”?) rather than fantasy. But oh well, let’s go with fantasy. Either way, Clarke presents a believable and amazingly vivid England, and she does it in a splendid Jane Austen-esque style that blends Romanticism with the Enlightenment. If you go to the book’s website you can see that the reviewers often compare this work to Tolkien’s…but in my not-so-humble opinion they must be out of their mind. The two authors are completely incomparable; just because the label “fantasy” has been put on both authors’ works doesn’t mean that they’re writing in the same genre!
Rating: 4.5 dried frog pills out of 5.
Recommended for: Everyone with the slightest interest in Austen or fantastic fiction.

Dune - Frank Herbert

Description: You know, I’ve seen the Dune film and the TV series and played the games…but the books completely fell between chairs. Time to rectify that; and I’m happy that I did ’cause the book is excellent. The subtle plotting is never displayed in as much detail in any of the other media, and the character of Paul Atreides really springs to life in the novel. Sometimes I get the impression that he (and many of the others) are characters in a Old Norse tale – observing everything and acting accordingly, but never really displaying emotions – but they have depth despite that. They feel believable in the setting. If you haven’t done so yet I recommend that you give the Dune books a try, and learn all about the fall and rise of House Atreides, and the God-Emperor Muad’Dib. Oh wait, that was a spoiler, right? No, not really.
Rating: 4 sweaty stenches out of 5.
Recommended for: All sci-fi and fantasy fans!

Dune Messiah - Frank Herbert

Description: The story of Muad’Dib continues; this time a decade after he became emperor. Some of the pacing seems off in this book, but it’s still a good read. The religious aspects are prominent in this novel, but I think that the political scheming was a bit less interesting this time around. This feels a bit like a middle-book, so I think I’ll have to wait until I’ve finished the rest of the books before I pass final judgement.
Rating: 3.5 arbitrary points out of 5.
Recommended for: All sci-fi and fantasy fans who’ve read Dune.

När änglar dör (When Angels Die) - Andreas Roman

Description: This book was recommended to me by a couple of work mates, and I must say that I approached the novel with some reluctance. I’ve read another fantasy book by Roman, and…it’s not exactly stellar Swedish penmanship. Still, I gave this one a try, and it’s not that bad after all! The story is a well-known one: the creation of the world, followed shortly by the creation of Man. Basically, it’s the Old Testament shown from the Devil’s eyes – but with lots and lots of little twists; such as the fact that the Devil is another aspect of God. Interesting ideas, but I feel that the dialogue left a lot to be desired. It was awkward and even irritating at worst.
Rating: 2.5 flaming homosexuals out of 5.
Recommended for: Swedish people with an interest in religion and fantasy, who wants to read a Swedish author in order to feel some patriotism.

Medieval Europe - Crisis and Renewal - The Teaching Company

Description: Ah, time for some good ol’ Dark Ages history! Not too much is known about Medieval times, but this course tries to paint an image of Medieval Europe…from the commoners’ eyes. Sure, the noble houses and the great merchants are delt with, but the main focus is on the majority of the population and how their lives played out. The Black Death is discussed, and its political effects, just as many other interesting political, social and religious events. To make a short review even shorter: this course is filled with Good Stuff(TM)!
Rating: 3.5 half-elf foreskins out of 5.
Recommended for: History nerds. Yep, that’s about it.

There! Ten books read and reviewed. That’s way less than a book per week, as I had hoped. I was actually on schedule up until my Christmas vacation; then it all fell apart and I couldn’t be arsed to do anything at all. But enough of that! Let’s see some statistics:

Total number of books for 2007: 40
Highest rating: 6 books got the score 4.5
Lowest rating: 1.5 for Argumentation – The Study of Effective Reasoning
Average rating: 3.5

Sounds like my scoring system is working pretty well. The many top scorers and a slightly high average of 3.5 can be explained by the quite simple fact that I choose my books myself. Elementary, my dear Watson.

All in all, 2007 was a pretty awful year for reading. I can only hope that 2008 will bring more literary goodness my way. I doubt it, though: I have more game projects in store, and I’ve signed up for some Economics courses. No rest for the wicked.

Book Reviews – Third Quarter

October 3rd, 2007

There, it’s October already! Damn this time thing…can someone please secure it to the ground? I’ve had enough of it flying around all over the place. October means that another three months have passed, and that I have another set of interesting books to summarize. Why? Because they’re there! And because I love telling people what they ought to read. My previous two book summaries can be found here (January to March) and here (April to June).

Curiously enough, this is also the Banned Books Week! How many of these have you read? I’m just at seven or something like that. Mea culpa!

Anyway, let’s get it aaoooouun!

Johnny and the Dead – Terry Pratchett

Description: Johnny Maxwell is a normal kid…no, never mind. He’s not normal. And this is not a normal children’s book! Mr. Pratchett is a very strange fellow, but I applaud his approaches to kids’ literature: the book is slightly dumbed down, but not condescending. And it brings up interesting topics. Johnny talks to the dead, and the dead talk back. This comes in very handy when the council wants to sell a neglected cemetary, and the dead become quite annoyed at this. In my last book post after reading Only You Can Save Mankind I mentioned that I probably would have gotten irritated even as a kid at the relatively silly conversations in the novel. I’m still of the same opinion regarding the Johnny books, but I still would’ve devoured them – just as I have now.
Rating: 3 googleplexes of sulphur out of 5.
Recommended for: Young people in search of witty and innovative fantasy.

Johnny and the Bomb – Terry Pratchett

Description: This time Johnny deals with time and the past and causuality and compassion and lots of other things. Oh, and a bomb. I quite liked this book; I think it’s very noticeable that Pratchett wrote this years after the other Johnny books. It feels more…real. Fleshed out. Possibly aimed at a slightly older clientele. It’s quite obviously a children’s book, but I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I did the other Johnny books. The race through the woods toward the end was actually pretty exciting!
Rating: 3.5 nosebleeds out of 5.
Recommended for: Young people in search of witty and innovative fantasy. And some childish adults like myself.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J. K. Rowling

Description: Seriously, do I have to write this? Everyone knows what this book is about! Heroic deeds and tying up the knots and fighting evil and coming of age and darker writing than the other books in the series and Dumbledore stays dead and so on. The Deathly Hallows items themselves are absolutely ridiculous in my not-so-humble opinion, and I get a strange vibe of monster of the month. Although strange magic item(s) of the year would be a more appropriate comment. I bet tons of wee kiddos find the Potter novels logical and well-thought-out, but meh. Good for them, then. Still, it is a good read!
Rating: 3.5 wangs out of 5. (But it felt like 4.5 when I read it, ’cause it was gripping at the time!)
Recommended for: Just about everyone who likes some light fantasy and don’t mind cheese.

Biology and Human Behaviour – The Teaching Company

Description: Much of human behaviour can be explained by neurobiology. A bit too much for some, the lecturer warned at the beginning of this book. I was eagerly awaiting something shocking, but it was just pretty common things. Maybe he was adressing Americans. Anyway, I learned some interesting things from this course, such as the fact that women produce around 5% of the male amount of testosterone…which is then converted to Östrogen in the fat cells. This explains why athletes and starving females may find their reproductive thingies malfunctioning. I love understanding more about…everything, and this course is excellent for learning more about the magical biochemistry of a human body. It was a tad bit technical now and then though.
Rating: 4 cell membranes out of 5.
Recommended for: Natural science nerds. And just maybe people who want to know more about how LSD and other interesting substances work.

Last Chance to See – Douglas Adams

Description: It’s such a pity that Mr. Adams died so young! I completely adore his writing. I couldn’t help grinning at the sarcastic wit he displayed all throughout this book, despite the hearth-wrenchingly serious topic – that of animals threatened by extinction. To be honest, I’m a cynical bastard who doesn’t really care about extinct animals all that much. I also don’t care very much about the environment. (“You bastard!” some people exclaim now. “Yes, that’s what I already called myself earlier,” is my immediate response, followed by “You see, despite what activists of different kinds claim I really think that the Earth is old enough to take care of itself and that new species will emerge no matter what we do to the poor planet. So sod off. Pun intended.”) Despite this, I loved this book and I couldn’t wait to hear about what new endangered animal they would visit.
Rating: 4.5 gallons of ear wax out of 5.
Recommended for: Everyone. Yeah, seriously, I think that everyone imperatively must enjoy Douglas Adams.

Deception Point – Dan Brown

Description: I’ve read The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, so I might as well continue down this slippery slope toward mediocrity. This was a decent read but nothing special at all. Popcorn literature. Fast food literature. Good enough and interesting while it lasts, but not satisfying in the long run. Scientists discover fossils that prove that life exists Out There(TM), but it turns out that they’re fake. No one’s surprised, and the plot twists appear rather feeble.
Rating: 2.5 starving lemurs out of 5.
Recommended for: Someone who wants a light read. It’s damn light, but you won’t be disappointed if you’re not expecting much.

3001: The Final Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

Description: I don’t really know why this book was written. It must be to cash in on the success of the other ones – ’cause it really serves no purpose, in my opinion. It doesn’t explore many new ideas or concepts, and sometimes it feels like it was written on autopilot. Frank Poole is rescued and resurrected in the year 3001, and he meets up with the monolith. Then they plant a virus into the monolith and save mankind. The end. I get a strange deja vu from Independence Day regarding the ridiculousness of computer virii on alien computers…
Rating: 2 window shades out of 5.
Recommended for: The sci-fi nerd who really wants to know how the 2001 book series ends.

Understanding the Universe: What’s New in Astronomy – The Teaching Company

Description: Damn, there’s a lot of information in this course! And I must honestly say that I should have paid more attention, ’cause I think I missed a lot of the interesting details. Interestingly enough, this course brings up some concepts already mentioned in the Particle Physics for Non-Phycisists one, which feels great. (Such as how they detected neutrinos.) It’s great to get a sense of continuity like that! Another interesting topic was the age of the universe, and the various ways that are invented to measure it. The good thing about this course is that it brings up state-of-the-art results and not just ol’ bookstuff.
Rating: 3.5 rabid dogs out of 5.
Recommended for: Nerds who wish they had studied more astrophysics.

Gödel, Escher, Bach – Douglas Hofstadter

Description: To sum this book up in a paragraph is impossible. It really is amazing! In the starting chapters it brings up pretty mundane concepts in numerology and computer science and math and biology and art, but as more pages get turned it starts to act like the energizer bunny. It just keeps pouring out more and more! The ideas get deeper and deeper, the dialogue gets twisted in strange and wonderful ways, and the author’s knowledge of a wide variety of scientific areas seems virtually endless. I don’t get impressed easily, but this book impresses me immensely…and almost scares me a bit. I don’t agree with everything Mr. Hofstadter writes but it’s kind of hard to argue against this avalance of intertwined wit and knowledge…or should that be braided? Ah-hah, ah-hah. (The book’s subtitle is an Eternal Golden Braid.)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. It’s just hard to give it something else.
Recommended for: Not people with a phobia for math and numbers, that’s for sure… But the rest of you: give it a try! It’s definitely a worthwhile experience.

Ancient Greek Civilization – The Teaching Company

Description: Starting with the Minoan civilization and the rest of the Greek bronze age settlements, this course mentions just about everything one could possibly wish to know about the ancient Greek world. And the fun doesn’t stop there – the lecturer brings you on a thrilling journey through battling city states, Persian invaders, Classical Greek culture, tyrants, the birth of democracy and all the way to the birth of Alexander the Great. In fact, the lecturer moves on to mention some of Alexander and his father’s exploits as well, despite the fact that it doesn’t strictly belong to the Greek civilization. Great lecturer, great course, great contents. Yay!
Rating: 4 sonic booms out of 5.
Recommended for: History buffs and other weird nerds!

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

Description: A few weeks ago at work we started discussing this book, and a workmate told me to be careful during my upcoming move. “Make sure your sofa don’t get stuck!” “What?” “It’s from the book, you know.” In fact, I didn’t know. I had last read this book some 12 years ago and just recalled the excentric character of Dirk, and an electric monk. So, of course I had to refresh my memory. And what an awesome experience it was! Mr. Adams, you’re a twat for dying like that! I want more of this! I love it even more now than the last time I read it as a youngling. (And to give you a hint of what’s coming sometime around January 3: I’ve started on The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul right now – I just can’t stop!)
Rating: 4.5 polar bears out of 5.
Recommended for: Anyone! Everyone!

Eleven books in three months. That’s three and two thirds of a book per month. That’s less than a book per week. Which is rather awful! I really need to try to read more often, but I think I’ve gotten rather attached by this game development thing with Sheeplings and Truth, Justice and Spandex. Sure, it eats my spare time and isn’t all that rewarding…but it feels so good to produce something! Oh well! I definitely must make sure that I read at least one book per week for the remainder of 2007.

Book Reviews – Second Quarter

July 3rd, 2007

Time really flies! Three months ago I made a decently comprehensive list of the books I’d read this year, along with recommendations and comments. A respectable 12 books were mentioned then, but I ended with a suspicion that the following three months wouldn’t be as prolific. And what a fine fortune teller I am: this time I only have six and a half books to mention. (I’ll let you guess which one is the half one.)

This list includes audio books; it’s technically not reading, but since I spend so much time getting to and from work I need to do something in the meanwhile, and why not spend it following a story or learning something new? I really recommend that you try some audio books yourself – travels get much more bearable.

Only You Can Save Mankind – Terry Pratchett

Description: Johnny Maxwell is a normal kid whom no one seems to notice; he’s not exceptional or noteworthy in any way. Still he gets chosen by a computer game’s alien invaders to try to save their race. Witty writing and believable characters make this an enjoyable tale, and the anti-war message doesn’t come through as too heavy handed. The story is good; the concepts are good; the writing is pretty good; but this really feels like a children’s book to a much greater extent than Pratchett’s later young reader series (Wee Free Men, and so on). I think I would’ve gotten irritated at the slightly dumbed down conversations even as a kid.
Rating: 3 flogistone canisters out of 5.
Recommended for: Young people in search of witty and innovative fantasy. (No, despite the sci-fi setting I wouldn’t class this sci-fi. It definitely fits more into the fantasy genre; or fantastic fiction, rather.)

Particle Physics for Non-Physicists – The Teaching Company

Description: Have you ever wondered what a sub-quark really is? Or how many elementary particles we know of? Or have you ever been interested in the personal background of physicists? Or curious about what a particle accelerator is intended to do, more specifically? Or felt the urge to know enough about particle physics to scoffle indignantly at Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons? If so, listen to this audio book: you won’t regret it. There’s not much more to say about it; this series of lectures is just great for curious non-physicists.
Rating: 4.5 weevils out of 5.
Recommended for: Everyone with an interest in particle physics. It’s not particularly hard to follow, but some elementary physics knowledge might be necessary.

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Description: I know the story well enough, but this was still an enlightening read. Crusoe’s background story is lesser known than his exploits after the shipwreck, but it’s infinitely important in order to notice the character development that occurs. Crusoe isn’t just a stereotypical Brit who dominates nature and other men, and makes the island his domain: he’s a flawed human filled with doubt and angst, and it’s pure bliss to note how he develops (in some ways at least). The novel is an old one, and at times quite dull to get through, but it’s still surprisingly solidly written. Although, to be honest, the foreword about Defoe himself is probably even more interesting than the book.
Rating: 3.5 geologists out of 5.
Recommended for: The literary geek interested in expanding his repertoire. I wouldn’t really recommend it as a casual adventure novel – the style is a bit too aged for that.

The Sea and Little Fishes – Terry Pratchett

Description: I know that I’m a Pratchett fanboy, but he does produce excellent material. This is a very good read if you like the witches in the Discworld series: Esme’s character especially is presented wonderfully in this little piece. Note little: this is not a book or novel, but make sure you read it anyway.
Rating: 4 ankhs out of 5.
Recommended for: Just about everyone, as long as you’ve read some of the Discworld novels.

Contemporary Economic Issues – The Teaching Company

Description: Timothy Taylor is back with more information about Economics. This time he brings up contemporary issues like unemployment, the work force, liquid capital, the stock market and other crucial concepts. I like Taylor; he’s a good lecturer, and the material he presents is easy to follow and not too convoluted. Thumbs up, yet again!
Rating: 4 raving Wikipedia editors out of 5.
Recommended for: Pretentious geeks with an urge to learn some current Economics.

Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman

Description: Go go Gaiman! Wai wai! If he was as prolific (wow, I’ve used that word twice in this blog entry) as Pratchett it’d show that I’m as much a Gaiman fanboy as a Pratchett fanboy. I just love the style he writes in: it’s dark and weird and poetic and pretentious and emotional and witty. This is a collection of short stories, and – as always with anthologies like this – there are a few hits and misses. Some are right out bland, while some are absolutely exceptional. If I were to pick out my favourite stories from Smoke and Mirrors and this one and combine them into a single book, it’d get a 6 out of 5. But since I can’t do that, make sure you read both.
Rating: 4 out of 5 on the Richter scale.
Recommended for: I honestly can’t think of anyone whom I couldn’t recommend this to.

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music – The Teaching Company

Description: Time to end on a high note. Pun most definitely intended. This is a magnificent series of lectures covering early Greek and Roman music, Medieval music, Renaissance music, Catholic and secular music, the Baroque and Classical era, up to and including contemporary works. Not stuff like Green Day and Johnny Cash, of course: these lectures mostly concern Western orchestra music. (Speaking of which, the lecturer had a great anecdote about one of his pupils who, after the course was ended, mentioned that he found the course great…but there was no Western music mentioned at all – just this orchestra stuff.) Anyway, this is a great crash course in general music knowledge: you’ll learn what harmophonic music is; how a fugue is constructed; how polyphonic renaissance music sounds; what sonata allegro form is; and much much more.
Rating: 4.5 sneaky weasles out of 5.
Recommended for: Either budding musicians or people who want to know more about music. (The lecturer even makes fun of the pretentiousness of listening to the course: “Now you’ll know what an Opus means, so you can sniff indignantly at his barbaric lack of knowledge, and say that you prefer Opus 67, Symphony nr 5, movement 2!”)

There you have it! I didn’t have time to read much these three months, but I blame that on my Sheeplings release. Speaking of which: buy Sheeplings today or I’ll send the black sheep to nibble your toes at night!

Books – A Quarterly Report

April 2nd, 2007

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions unless they’re extremely simple to keep. This year I decided to write down every book I read throughout the year; at first I wanted to make a yearly summary, but I soon realized that it would be too much to summarize – a quarterly report seems much more appropriate. ‘Nuff said. This is the list of books I’ve read or listened to so far in 2007. (Yes, listened to. I use my commuting time to listen to audio books; I can’t imagine a time when I didn’t do this, but it’s still less than a year ago that I started. I highly recommend that you try it as well.)

Angels and Demons – Dan Brown

Description: The pretentious part of me feels a bit annoyed at the rest of me, because I thoroughly enjoyed both this book and The DaVinci Code. It’s an extremely basic book: the story is simplistic, the plot twists are way too obvious…but it still has this cozy “let’s see what happens next” feeling. A perfect book to read in the bath, or when lounging about on a lazy Sunday. Also, I do love religious themes despite being an atheist.
Recommended for: Everyone but the arrogant nerd who won’t read populistic literature.

Legacies of Great Economists – The Teaching Company

Description: You’ll see a few more TTC courses in this list, and I have to admit that I’m hooked on this series of audio books. It’s an excellent way to get a semi-college-level insight into various areas. (Semi because it’s relatively thorough, but not as deep as a proper course.) This was my first ever dive into Economics, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Economic theories were discussed, but the course mostly concerned the persons behind the theories; and the lecturer was full of interesting anecdotes to keep it all enjoyable.
Recommended for: Technical geeks who want to expand their knowledge of Economics.

Rama II – Arthur C Clarke

Description: Very interesting novel, but I’m not certain that it’s an improvement from Rendez-Vous with Rama. Highly entertaining science fiction with believable characters, but just a tad too much drama and not enough science for my taste. And don’t get me started on the mysticism; co-writing this novel might not have been a good idea. (I assume that those parts weren’t Clarke’s.)
Recommended for: Technical geeks who want drama.

Economics – The Teaching Company

Description: A thorough summary of basic Economics and a guide to everything from initial economic concepts to world markets. Yes, I got hooked after I finished the earlier Economics course. This wasn’t quite as gripping, but still very educational. Presented by the same lecturer, Timothy Taylor, as the former course.
Recommended for: Technical geeks who – for some reason – get hooked on Economics.

Garden of Rama – Arthur C Clarke

Description: The third Rama book, and…not the best one. I like the fact that the books aren’t stagnating, but there seems to be just a bit too much speculative sociological mumbo-jumbo in this one compared to – say – Rendez-Vous with Rama. For some reason I just find a sterile spaceship more interesting than a lush social analysis.
Recommended for: People who have read the earlier Rama books, ’cause we want to know how it ends.

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

Description: I really shouldn’t need to give anyone a description of this novel, but since the movie gave such a half-assed attempt at utilizing the ideas from the book I have to anyway. The movie was a dull action movie featuring Will Smith. The book is a series of short stories about robots, artificial intelligence, their interactions with humans, and logical consequences of all of this. But wait, logical? I’m not so sure about that. All stories feature logical problems of some kind. “How do we determine this?” “How will a robot act in this situation?” and so on. The problem is that it’s all very simplistic, and not all that believable. Granted, it was written 50 years ago, but the scenarios just don’t hold up; the robots act illogically…and so do the people. Still, it is a marvellous piece to read despite that.
Recommended for: Computer geeks who want to read speculations about AI, and anyone else who wants a good sci fi novel.

Wizardry and Wild Romance – Michael Moorcock

Description: Enough with all the sci fi already! Time to move back to my usual genre: fantasy. I decided to read Michael Moorcock’s analytical papers on the subject (collected in this volume); and it was a marvellous read. For a while. Moorcock is an extremely well-read person with a keen mind, but I can’t agree with his conclusions. In my view, fantasy is not as tightly intertwined with Romance as he insinuates; fantasy isn’t a strict renewal of Romantic ideas, and failing to uphold these ideals does not immediately make books badly written fantasy, in my opinion. Maybe I’m just bitter ’cause he constantly talks down on Tolkien, but I do think that Moorcock’s missing The Point(TM) in a lot of Tolkien’s works, and instead compares it with his own idea of what fantasy ought to be.
Recommended for: The scholarly fantasy reader with a fetish for over-analysis.

The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty – Anne Rice

Description: A twisted version of the classic fairy-tale, Sleeping Beauty. Warning: this is not a children’s book. I thought that it would be a suitably erotic grown-up version of the tale, but it turned out to be rather heavy on S&M and dominance instead. Anne Rice is a filthy, filthy woman, just so you know. Despite these positive traits, the story was fairly thin and uninteresting – too much focus was put on colourful descriptions of spankings (pun intended – colourful… ah-hah) and tortures and imaginative sexual acts, and not enough care was put into describing a believable character development for Beauty. I like smut as much as the next person, but I often got the feeling that Ms/Mrs Rice got carried away with this novella, and sat writing one-handed.
Recommended for: Innocent people who find this dive into the forbidden fascinating.

The Science of Discworld III – Terry Pratchett (and two others)

Description: Third time’s the charm, and I love mis-using proverbs. There’s no need to exclaim “third time’s the charm” with this book – all three Science of Discworld books are excellent, whether or not you’re scientifically-minded. This time the Ankh-Morpork wizards examine evolution and intelligent design, and it’s a very enjoyable read. I do think that the science part of the book is a tad too negative about intelligent design, though. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t approve of ID one bit, but this book goes to great lengths to describe why it’s unscientific and invalid; enough that I feel that the authors aren’t being strictly objective anymore. A better approach would – in my view – be to not give it credit by arguing against it so much.
Recommended for: Anyone who doesn’t get bored by popular science.

Starship Titanic – Douglas Adams, Terry Jones

Description: Absolutely delightful book by two of the most brilliant comedy writers. The amusing descriptions and the witty dialog makes this a great read at just about anytime. I get a suspicion that the science fiction theme might put people off from this book. It’s a pity, because this is a very universal book that ought to be read by anyone who wants to lighten up their day.
Recommended for: Everyone except boring humour-less bastards.

Dante’s Divine Comedy – The Teaching Company

Description: This course deals with interpreting and giving background to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and it does a great job at it. I admit that I haven’t read the poem yet, but I don’t think that it’s a negative thing to have listened to this analysis first. First of all, this has given me insight into medieval Italy, and I am also sure to notice things in the poem that I otherwise would have missed. Now I just have to get this thumb out of my rear and read the Divina Comedia sometime.
Recommended for: People with an interest in classical literature – it doesn’t get much more classical than this.

Ancient Near Eastern Mythology – The Teaching Company

Description: I’ve always had a fascination with Mesopotamia and the other Near-Eastern areas – it seems like such important cultures to know more about. And I sure got to know more about ‘em from this course; a bit more than I felt like, in fact. I loved the historical backgrounds, the archeological methods, and the explanation of the different writing systems…but the myths themselves were pretty dull. Mostly there were comparisons between bible tales and ancient Sumerian/Egyptian/[insert other civilization here] myths. I had expected something more interesting. Something more unknown and unexpected.
Recommended for: Hm… Not sure. The ones dying to assimilate more knowledge, or the ones interested in scholarly bible studies.

All in all, I feel that this has been a pretty productive quarter. Twelve books; almost one per week. It’s nothing compared to what one read in high school, but it’s still a fair amount of literature. Unfortunately the next three months will probably not be as impressive – I foresee a shortage of time, as I dive into a new game project.

Atlas Shrugged and Moved On

November 16th, 2006

For my own amusement I decided to make a list of the books I’ve read lately, and If I recall correctly it looks something like this:

Jingo - Terry Pratchett
Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations - The Teaching Company
Thud! - Terry Pratchett
The Wee Free Men - Terry Pratchett
American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Memories, Dreams, Reflections – Carl Jung
Snow Crash – Neil Stephenson
Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

So, what does this say about me? First of all, I’m a sucker for Terry Pratchett and his Discworld books. In fact, the next book I read will be Wintersmith: the third book in the Tiffany Aching series (the others are The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky.) Technically, I think these books are for young people, but I adore the little pictsies so I ignore that.

Secondly, it shows that I’m (as always) a pretentious bastard. I mean…who voluntarily delves into history books and a book where a famous psychologist reflects on his own life? The first one was a bit of a disappointment; the reader was a pompous prick, and the book wasn’t really structured all that interestingly. The second one was better and in fact quite interesting.

Thirdly, this list proves that I’m a generic nerd-geek; Pratchett, Stephenson, Gaiman and Rand are probably well-read among the geeks who read books. (It always comes as a surprise to me, but some geeky people actually don’t read all that much!) The last author is what I decided to make a special comment about, however.

Ayn Rand was a Russian-born writer who turned philosopher. Or vice versa, depending on how you view it. She started by writing novels in which she presented and perfected her idea about the theory of Objectivism; Atlas Shrugged is the most famous of her novels, and also the last fictional one she wrote before she went hardcore philosopher. When I was younger I frequented various message boards and often got tempted into discussions about ethics and morals and economics and politics and whatnot. Rand was one author that many pro-capitalist people referred to as a source for their ideas, but I never took the time to check out exactly what she had written. Now I have read one book at least, and there are some things that I find interesting:

  • I like the setting and the twists. Atlas Shrugged is never dull. But…
  • …it can’t be helped: Rand is not a very good author per se. She tells a story decently, but the character development is non-existent and the book feels artificial.
  • Following that thought, the speeches that occur now and then are laughable. Not the contents of the speeches, but the sudden outbursts of philosophical ideas. The characters don’t feel real – they are just Rand’s tools for presenting her thoughts.
  • I disagree with Rand’s philosophy in general, but she has some nice points…
  • …such as valuing productivity. It’s eerie, noticing how many of her values are the same ones I judge myself by. However, I feel that her next step is rather egocentrical: she applies these set of values to others as well; she makes a general philosophy out of something that I feel is relative and personal. In other words, to me it seems like her philosophy is based on hubris and a lack of empathy.

I’m not going into details about Objectivism or my own critique of it; I only read the book for personal enjoyment and not in order to analyze it. Doing the latter takes too much time and effort for something that I ultimately don’t feel is as earth-shaking as many others seem to think.

All in all, the book is worth a read. I liked it well enough even if I got annoyed at some details. And it’s always refreshing to read new ideas.