Category Archives: Reading

The boss on the boss

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is much like a Springsteen song from the early days – long, complex and poetic language, and sometimes it can be a bit hard to hear the vocals above the “wall of sound”. But it has heart, and leaves quite a bit unsaid (and much said.) Good read, especially if you have Internet nearby and can search up the songs and bands mentioned. (Incidentally, here is a Spotify list of the 336 songs mentioned in the book: http://www.openculture.com/2016/09/he…).

An interesting twist – and something where I would have liked to read more – is Bruce Springsteen as a leader. His nickname “The Boss” comes from his ability to control and lead the bands he has been in – it has always been his bands, groups accompanying him as an artist, and I find it fascinating how he finds his self-confidence and remains in charge, working with some rather headstrong personalities. That is a management challenge I am curious to know why he undertook, and how he managed to see through.

But an interesting and very well written book. 500 pages plus, but not boring, and not more self-centered than an autobiography will have to be. Recommended.

Oh yeah – there has to be video here, methinks. This one’s good:

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Sapiens unite!

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book (recommended by Grady Booch in his recent talk) attempts to give a brief history of mankind – specifically, Homo Sapiens, as opposed to Neanderthals and other hominids – in one book (a bit reminicent of Geoffrey Blainey’s A Short History of the World.) As such it is interesting, especially the early parts about the transition from hominids to collaborating humans and the cognitive revolution 70000 years ago. It is very clearly written – for instance, the chapter on capitalism and the importance of credit and creditworthiness is something I could hand out to my students directly as a brief explanation of what the fuzz is all about.) The book has been a success, and deservedly so – very rationalist, well informed, if a bit narrow in perspective here and there. The author seems to have a soft spot for hunter-gatherer societies (leading him to describe the agricultural revolution as a step backward for individuals, if not for the human race) and a digression on whether humans are more or less happy now (has historical progress done anything to our serotonine levels (answer: no, it hasn’t, which sort of renders the argument about agrarianism mot) veers towards ranting.

The best part is the way the author describes how much of history and out place in it now is based on inter-subjective fantasies – such as money, religion and states, which exist purely in our minds, because we agree between ourselves that they do.

And easy read, entertaining, and with quite a few very quotable passages here and there, for instance these on our bioengineered future:

Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

Most of the organisms now being engineered are those with the weakest political lobbies – plants, fungi, bacteria and insects.

Recommended.

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XKCD answers to everything

What If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

XKCD (i.e., Randall Munroe) addresses questions of all kinds in his inimitable fashion. Great fun and an inspiration in the spirit of Richard Feynman, allowing you to marvel not only at the author’s answers but the sheer inventiveness of the questions (including the “weird and worrying” ones. Highly recommended.

More worm than silk

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Easy to finish, but this was rather a disappointment after having read comments that it was “even better” than the first book (Cuckoo’s Calling). The plot is rather predictable – after reading the description of the murder scene I thought I knew who had done it, at 70% through the book I was certain (and i was right, save some minor twists.) Things get rather clichéd (police targeting the likely but obviously guilty suspect and then refusing to talk to the private detective, the eager but inexperienced (and strangely one-dimensioned) assistant, the detective bedding a minor figure to fill things out) and the author even resorts to cheap plot twists a la Dan Brown (e.g., deliberately withholding information by cutting dialogue).

Not sure I will get the next one. This needs some wizardry to improve.

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This be the book

Karl Ove Knausgård‘s My Struggle has been quite the literary phenomenon here in Norway, selling more than 500,000 copies (it is a six-volume “novel”, but it is still one copy for every 10th Norwegian.) There has been much controversy about the book(s) – it is less a novel than an autobiography written by an extremely sensitive observer, pouring his soul into careful descriptions of minor scenes, much some of the indeterminable art films I remember from my youth, where the camera would linger forever on spiralling cigarette smoke or a car on a road, a boring sight but better than the dialogue, which often, in the words of Odd Eidem, sounded like “a line in a Norwegian movie or a scream in a church.”

Anyway, I haven’t read any of it, mostly because I don’t like literary bandwagons unless they contain wizards and can be read to children. But the books are now available in English on Amazon Kindle, and, well, I recently had a long flight, so now I have read the first one. And it is good – though long. As one commentator said, it seems Knausgård has mistaken the “Print” button for “Publish.” But it also, clearly, is a much needed catharsis for the author, a way of writing himself out of a childhood filled with much thinking and self-doubt. Sensitivity can be a burden, but coupled with an extraordinary ability of expression it can result in, well, lots of books.

I think the book, and possibly books, can be summed up very well with Philip Larkin‘s This be the verse1971:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Having said that, I am not sure I wouldn’t electronically grab the next volume on the next long flight. If you were in the right mood, those old melancholy art films at least filled time. Knausgård himself has four children, so he clearly didn’t read (or heed) Larkin….

Forrest Gump from Sweden

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and DisappearedThe 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a Swedish Forrest Gump story, and like the movie, it is great fun, though you can’t really put your finger on why.

Allan Karlsson absconds from the nursing home in his slippers a few hours before his 100-year birthday is to be celebrated. Within minutes, he is on the run with a suitcase full of money, chased by gangsters and acquiring a motley assortment of friends (including an elephant) as he goes. Interspersed with this are chapters detailing his life as a global, slack-jawed globetrotter, forever stumbling in on historical figures at opportune moments.

Great fun – and some of the Swedishness of the very understated humor makes it through the translation as well.

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Not quite the game I hoped for

Playing the GamePlaying the Game by Alan Lelchuk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was lent this by my daughter’s very capable history teacher on the assumption that, since I am interested in both basketball and history, this would be interesting. I love the premise – an obscure history professor and assistant basketball coach at an Ivy League college gets appointed as head coach, with nobody expecting much. By recruiting disadvantaged youth and reading passages of American history to them, he brings the team to the NCAA finals.

It should work, but it doesn’t. The main character is not believable, the history excerpts are too long-winded, and the adversities encountered (racist faculty, an NCAA looking askance at the newcomers and plotting against them, etc.) seem rather contrived. In the end, you start wondering whether the whole story is a figment of the main character’s imagination – not just the author’s.

Pity, it had so much going for it…watch Danny DeVito in Renaissance Man instead – it has humor and compassion, and a slightly similar subject. And the academic comes out on top.

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