Down the Docks

August 27, 2006

What I’ve Been Reading Recently

Filed under: Books — ealing @ 6:51 pm

One of the things I intended to do with this blog was to write book reviews, hoping this would make me read more critically. This hasn’t worked out the way I planned, but here’s some of what I have been reading, along with my very brief thoughts.

Fiction

Pavane, Keith Roberts

This book is beautiful. It’s set in Dorset, in an alternative history in which the Catholic church remains dominant in Europe. Science lags real-world progress woefully, as do political rights. Britain, still one of Europe’s most akward constituents, struggles toward some kind of independence.

The telling of the story through a number of chapters, set years apart and concerning different people, gives a remarkable feel for the imaginary country. I remain rather stumped by the conclusion of the book, but it hardly matters. A great read.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I picked up this collection a few months ago because there were several titles in there on my “must get round to reading” list. I can’t remember what made me go for Gatsby first, perhaps it was the fact that it’s so slim, even with a 50 page introduction. Unfortunately, it’s now too long since I read it for me to be able to give a personal account of it. I understand that the book questions the morality of wealth, but my strongest reaction to the book was, “Why is Gatsby not able to move on?” Silly beggar.

Toast, Charles Stross

Very good. Slightly wierd. I picked it up after reading Singularity Sky, which I strongly recommend. My favourite in this collection of short stories is A Colder War, which is a fairly nasty nod to Lovecraft.

Eon, Greg Bear

I started tackling the highlights of the science fiction back catalogue a couple of years ago, partly inspired by Gollancz’ SF Masterworks series, and partly by a long-standing feeling that I was missing out. Pavane, above, was one of the best, as was Flowers for Algernon. Eon is not quite as good as those, but was still a great page-turner. Perhaps I’ve read too much science fiction to be impressed by the infinite in merely one dimension.

It’s also interesting to see the author’s take on how the Cold War will play out. He has seen (hoped?) that the Soviet Union cannot keep up with the NATO powers, and predicts global thermonuclear war when the Soviets see that they have no other options.

Non-fiction

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

The first question I have about this book is, Is this economics or is it statistics? I assumed economics dealt with flows of value, but this seems to be more about teasing the simple truth from the detailed statistics. Capital, goods, labour &c. are rarely mentioned.

The meat of the book is in a few chapters that deal with topics such as crime trends, baby-naming and information assymetry in transactions. The prose style is straightforward, so much so that I found myself wanting more maths to go along with it. The most controversial section of the book, which deals with the link between abortion and crime. This was attacked in the Economist, and defended by the authors on their website. The book could be a bit more tightly-argued in places, but it’s certainly thought-provoking, and my main thought on closing the book was, why wasn’t this twice as long?

The 10-Day MBA, Steven Silbiger

Who knew marketing actually required skill?

This is actually pretty good as an introduction to some high-level business topics; I found it to be pitched at the right level, and I’ll certainly feel more at home when next discussing these concepts. The chapters on quantitative analysis and finance were particularly interesting.

Tragically I was an Only Twin – The Complete Peter Cook

There’s no doubt he was a very funny man, but unfortunately a lot of this just doesn’t work for me on the page. Most of what I found funniest was material I’d already seen or heard, so naturally I nearly died while reading This Bloke Came Up To Me. Foul-mouthed comedy gold. Some Derek and Clive material has also made it on to the web.

Our Final Century, Martin Rees

This book wasn’t quite what I thought it would be from the blurb and other people’s reviews. I’m still largely in agreement with its central thesis though – human civilisation stands a good chance of not making it through the next century.

I was expecting a thorough analysis of various human threats to our survival, but there are only three chapters dealing with particular threats. There’s a lot about possible mitigation strategies, and some musing about our cosmic signifance – would it matter if we wiped ourselves out? His answer to that question depends on how common life is in the rest of the universe.

Practical Issues in Database Management, Fabian Pascal

Fabian Pascal does not come across well – in fact he comes across as arrogant and aloof. On the other hand, if you’d spent thirty years telling an entire industry that they were wrong about the fundamentals, you’d probably be quite wound up as well. The author starts with the point of view that the relational model is right, and modern commercial SQL DBMSs are difficult to use because they do not properly enforce the relational model. I won’t pretend to fully understand the relational model, but Pascal’s explanations of some of the problems of non-relational databases are illuminating. The very first chapter, on domains, was illuminating. Worth a read if you work with databases.

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1 Comment »

  1. Interesting post. More please.

    Comment by Iain — August 27, 2006 @ 9:27 pm


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