Book Reviews 2010, Part 1

Saturday, February 12, 2011

I want to do this more often, I just keep forgetting:

I’ve been using Shelfari as a way of keeping track of what I read. It’s cool. I like the interface. And since I try to put thought into the reviews I write after reading something, I’m going to collect those reviews here more often. Which should blast their readership up from about none to about two (my parents).

This isn’t an exhaustive list of everything I read in 2010, but it’s some interesting selections with my notes from Shelfari. They’re in chronological order, to note, from January 2010 to June 2010. I’ll follow up with another with books I read during the second half of the year.

And so:

City of Thieves by David Benioff

“I really enjoyed this. I guess there’s not too much to say about it that’s not found on the book jacket — it’s about two kids who wind up tasked with hunting down a dozen eggs for a Russian general at the peak (nadir) of the Leningrad Blockade during World War II. I’m utterly fascinated by that theater of the war — eastern Germany, Poland, northwest Russia — and I felt this captured that sense of emptiness and exhaustion very well. Beyond that, though, I loved the depictions of the characters and Benioff packs a good amount of suspense in. So, yeah. I don’t have anything genius to say about this except that I’m sorry it ended. Very good stuff. Maybe I’ll pick up one of Benioff’s other books…” ✭✭✭✭✭

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Americans, at least, seem to think of butlers as kind of comic figures — pointy-nosed Jeeves “at your service” sorts. The Remains of the Day kind of inflates that stereotype and uses it as a launching off point for a deeper discussion about loyalty and service over the course of a life. It reminds me a bit of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, except instead of boosterism, bulterism. Certainly it touches on good topics for someone at my point in life — trying to figure out work-life balances and deciding which kinds of professional loyalties to pursue. It’s a good read! (Later…) And I want to amend this to say that I didn’t take this to be a sad story. A lot of people do. Ishiguro may have intended it to be. The movie may have painted it that way. But I felt Stevens’ seemingly odd desire to continue on his pursuit of learning how to jest with his odd new American master right at the end of the novel kind of illuminated the idea that his life had not misguided. His job was his puzzle. It fit him. He felt satisfaction. This is acceptable. Just because he missed Ms. Kenton’s signals and may have felt pangs of regret over it doesn’t mean that was the path he should’ve taken. Anyway, the fact that I’ve come back to this book to add to my review probably indicates how much I enjoyed it. Stevens is a nerd. He enjoys rules and systems. I definitely see shades of myself in him.” ✭✭✭✭✭

The Cleanest Race by B.R. Myers

“I’m fascinated by North Korea. Unlike most of the other stuff I’ve read about the DPRK, this book attempts to paint a full picture of the Text — Myer’s term for the official story of Korean history, the Kims, and their views of South Korea, the US, and the rest of the world. Myer’s is very direct: North Korea is not like Stalinist Russia, the former Soviet Eastern Bloc, or Nazi Germany. It’s something very distinct that can only be understood by understanding what North Koreans believe about themselves. Myer’s book is very well written and very easy to absorb. Fascinating stuff.” ✭✭✭✭✭

A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster

“This is a cute book — kind of reminded me of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or Martin Gardner’s Aha! The title mostly refers to the first part of the book during which Koster gives a quick overview of his take on a theory of how “fun” works. The second half of the book is more of a manifesto on games as art. People deep in the world of game design might not get much out of this directly — although it’s nice to just see an important game designer’s take on the subject. But this book would be great for folks just digging into the theory and practice of game design for the first time. It almost begs to be on the reading list in college classes about game design, interactive media, or art theory in general.” ✭✭✭✭

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

“Hm. So I loved Jaron’s talk at SXSW this year — it’s why I bought this book in the first place. Jaron’s clearly a very smart and thoughtful guy and I appreciated hearing his concerns about how our digitally-mediated culture might cause us problems as people. That’s what the first half of this book is about: How lock-in works and why it might be bad if people begin to believe their Facebook pages and think of themselves as selections on a pull-down list or nodes in the collective digital consciousness. I agree with Jaron — there are many questions that need to be asked about how digital social tools will integrate with our culture. And many of these questions aren’t being properly asked. The first half of the book does a great job of opening up discussion. I don’t always agree with Jaron’s answers, but I appreciate his questions.

“The second half of the book, sadly, gets weird. He spends a lot of effort complaining about the state of modern music as being largely derivative and non-innovative — something which I totally, totally disagree with. My personal story as a musician is totally enabled by the internet and digital culture, so I am not willing to dismiss what’s been going on in the past ten-or-twenty years in the world of music. He later, then veers off into discussions of virtual reality — which is mildly interesting but also seems kind of weirdly dated and off-topic from the rest of the book.

“Anyway, the first half is definitely worth a read.” ✭✭✭✭

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

“So, I read B. R. Myer’s book The Cleanest Race a few months ago. This is a great follow-up. The Myer’s book concentrated on the Official Story of North Korea — their government-sanctioned origin story, history, and outlook. Nothing to Envy is about the actual lives of the people, constructed from interviews with a handful of defectors, mostly from the Chongjin area. It’s a good read. Tragic, but well-constructed with moments of tension, surprise, and even a bit of humor. I flew through it quickly. If you find North Korea interesting, I’d recommend it. (Oddly, it’s the second book I’ve read this year where everyone’s starving through most of the story — the other being City of Thieves.)” ✭✭✭✭✭

Final Thoughts

Yeah, so the first part of the year books relating to SXSW and my game design in UX talk dominated — as did a couple of books about North Korea which were not career-related. And a smattering of fiction, when I had the time. And after SXSW (March) or so, I didn’t have that much time.

More coming up…