Saturday, January 31, 2015

Too Many Cooks (Nero Wolfe, #5)Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rex Stout's "Too Many Cooks" is my fourth recent reread of a book in the Nero Wolfe series about the fat genius of detection and his extremely able and worldly assistant, Archie Goodwin. When I first read this book, about 45 years ago, I was very impressed. Not really so now, but the reread has been worthwhile for reasons different than the plot.

Mr. Wolfe almost never leaves his house, yet we find him and Archie on a train traveling to Kanawha Spa, W.Va., for the meeting of Les Quinze Maitres, Fifteen Masters (of culinary arts). A murder occurs during the festivities, a murder that has been predicted by several characters in the novel, and Mr. Wolfe, quite reluctantly, has to solve it. The plot is competent, nothing more than that.

The action takes place in 1937 (Mr. Stout published the book in 1938), and what is absolutely revealing is the portrayal of how black people - the cooks, waiters, kitchen helpers - were treated in the Southern state of West Virginia at that time. They were, universally, considered not equal to white people. By today's standards, the language is particularly offensive, and I do not believe the book could be published now, at least without a series of disclaimers, even if it just presents the realities of naked racism of the times (I find today's racism exactly as deep as in those times, yet it is more refined and thus harder to see).

Three stars.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Selling of Supreme Court NomineesThe Selling of Supreme Court Nominees by John Anthony Maltese
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have always been fascinated by the workings and power of the Supreme Court in U.S. and have read quite a number of books on the topic. John Anthony Maltese's "The Selling of Supreme Court Nominees", even if a bit unfocused, is a pretty good book that helps understand the nomination and confirmation process of candidates to this highest court.

As the author says, the President's power to nominate judges to the Supreme Court is "the least considered aspect of the Presidential power". To me, it is one of the most important aspect since Supreme Court can decide which human behaviors are legal. The author's words are, of course, more precise and detailed: "By defining privacy rights, interpreting the First Amendment, setting guidelines for the treatment of criminal defendants, and exercising its power of judicial review in a host of other areas, the Supreme Court establishes public policy."

Mr. Maltese points out that some of main issues tackled by the Supreme Court have not changed since the year 1800. Already then there was a debate on "states' rights versus national supremacy", which can be, in a sense equivalently, called a debate between a narrow or a broad interpretation of the Constitution. The author also shows that although most of public battles about nominations to the Supreme Court that involved organized interest groups have happened in the recent 50 years (for example, the famous Bork hearings, which managed to pitch 300 anti-Bork interest groups vs. 100 pro-Bork groups, or the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill case), the rise of public interest influence can be traced to the 1880s.

The author offers what the title promises in the second part of the book, where he writes about how the Presidents (through their people, of course) "sell" their candidates for judicial appointments. Mr. Maltese quotes the wonderfully succinct phrase "Presidential power is the power to persuade", and shows a variety of ways in which this persuasion takes place in the case of the Supreme Court nominations: using the press, the Senate, employing patronage and politics (sometimes even using veiled threats to opponents), and through building interest group support.

Quite an interesting book that offers much more than I have summarized above.

Three and a half stars.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Mozart: A LifeMozart: A Life by Peter Gay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Years and years ago, I read Alfred Einstein's biography of Mozart. It must have been some time in the early 1970s as it was then that I began listening to classical music (and serious jazz) in addition to my usual rock, punk, and "alternative" diet. By the phrase "I read Einstein's biography", I mean skimming through it; my knowledge of music theory is nil and I probably did not understand 95% of terms the author was using. So I am happy that I have found Peter Gay's short biography "Mozart" (1999) that focuses on the composer's life, and deliberately avoids musicological jargon. The author, born in 1923, is a famous German-American historian. He writes very well, and "Mozart" is a pleasure to read.

The book chronicles Mozart's life and music from his first attempts at the harpsichord at the age of three, through the triumphant European tour with his father and sister (the tour began when he was seven and ended when he was 10), composing an opera at 14, which was so successful that the prima donna had to repeat an aria at the premiere in Milan, to his mature years and the peaks of his creativity: the late symphonies, piano concertos, string quartets, and phenomenal operas - "Don Giovanni" and others.

The first sentence of the book is magnificently crafted: "The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness." Millions of kids are precocious at three, thousands at 10, but there are only a handful of geniuses in the history of music. The main focus of the biography is the constant conflict between Mozart and his father, Leopold, himself quite a gifted musician. The young Mozart is aware of his own incredible talent and wants to do anything possible to develop it, while Leopold just wants his son to make money. In fact, the biography makes it clear that Mozart the son was also quite interested in money, but was rightly thinking long term, while the father was only able to see the short-term gains. Great thanks to Wolfgang Amadé (Mozart's preferred middle name) for not following his father's advice! Leopold's death ends the conflict, but Mozart has frequent bouts of depression caused by not having reconciled with his father.

This short book portrays Mozart as a full-bodied human being, not just a giggling overgrown child, as he is shown in the movie "Amadeus". The author also dispels several myths that have been common for over 200 years: the myth of Requiem as being composed for Mozart's own death, of Salieri as the archenemy, and of Mozart having been poisoned.

I am happy that the author spends some time writing about Sinfonia Concertante K. 364, which is one of my favorite works by Mozart. I wish he also mentioned Adagio & Fugue K. 546 and Mass in C minor, K. 427. Anyway, I am putting some other books by Peter Gay, on the Enlightenment, Freud, and Nazi Germany, in my reading queue.

Four stars.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

No More Dying ThenNo More Dying Then by Ruth Rendell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have just finished reading "No More Dying Then" by Ruth Rendell. It was only after an Internet search that I have found out that I had read another book of hers, "From Doon With Death", which I even review here, on Goodreads. Through that search I have learned that Ms. Rendell suffered a stroke just about 20 days ago. I hope her health will improve.

The novel has not made a strong impression on me. It is written well, the plot is quite complex and relatively interesting, and the denouement is unexpected and clever, yet I am unable to find anything memorable in the book (similarly to the other book, which I have completely forgotten in one year). To me, it is just a standard psychological crime novel, perhaps a little above the average. I have very recently rated Karin Fossum's "Black Seconds" with five stars. Both novels concern very similar topic - disappearances of children - yet I find Ms. Fossum's work about two levels of excellence higher. Maybe it shows just how ignorant I am about the crime genre. After all, Ms. Rendell is an extremely successful writer of crime novels and mysteries, and she has received incredible number of awards from critics and readers (she has also written as Barbara Vine).

A five-year-old boy disappears in a town in Sussex and Chief Inspector Wexford leads the investigation. This brings back the memories of an event that happened about a year earlier - the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, which still remains unexplained. The police seek connections between the two events. Inspector Burden, who seems to be the main character in the novel, is a part of the investigative team, but he does not help much because of his depression caused by the recent death of his wife, and other serious personal problems. So it is up to Wexford to solve the case.

I intended to rate the book with three stars, but the denouement is given in the form of Wexford's monologue, during which the Chief Inspector patiently explains to his friend, a doctor (Holmes and Watson come to mind), every single thing that has happened. To me, this is a trite and cliché way of ending a crime novel.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Master of KnotsThe Master of Knots by Massimo Carlotto
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Massimo Carlotto's "The Master of Knots" is the fifth novel in the so-called Alligator series. I have not read the previous four books, and it is now even more unlikely that I will read them, maybe except the first. I do not like book series because of their repetitiveness.

The narrator, Marco, nicknamed "Alligator" because of the drink he favors, is an ex-convict who works as an unlicensed private detective. His two associates are ex-convicts too (in fact one is quite a hardened gangster) and their connections to the Italian crime world help Marco solve the cases. The story deals with the gruesome world of S & M and violent pornography. Marco's client hires him to find his missing wife, who has been kidnapped because of her work as an S & M model. Very soon it becomes clear that the client is not telling the truth. The plot involves a lot of brutality, and some passages related to violent pornography are quite graphic. I find the plot rather naive, and the character of the gangster who keeps killing people yet has a heart of gold is - to put it mildly - ridiculous.

The only valuable parts of the novel are the well-written fragments about extreme police brutality in handling the anti-G8-summit protests in Genoa in 2001. One of Marco's associates is an anti-globalization activist and he gets severely beaten by police during the protest, beaten to the extent that he barely survives. The author, Massimo Carlotto, was himself imprisoned for many years, for crimes he had not committed, so it is no wonder that for him the police are the worst kind of human scum, and the judicial system is totally crooked.

If not for the Genoa protests thread, this would be a one-star novel. The political activism issues elevate my rating to

Two stars.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Players and The Game (Joan Kahn-Harper, #4)The Players and The Game by Julian Symons
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have a lot of work these days and thus am not in a mood for serious literature. Julian Symons' "The Players and the Game" is an altogether forgettable British mystery with a twist: it features Count Dracula as well as Bonnie Parker, the one of "Bonnie and Clyde" fame. There is torture - cutting living bodies to ribbons, sucking blood, genital mutilation, and - worst of all - there are quotes ascribed to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

The first third of the novel is the set-up. There are too many characters, and I have found it impossible to keep track who is who, even though I make notes as I read. The social life of middle-class characters in a small British town, close to London, is shown realistically, but the passages are frankly boring.

The rest of the novel resembles a police procedural. When reading mysteries or crime novels I am usually not interested in "who did it". If you are into this kind of thing, though, I have to warn you that I guessed correctly about 25% into the novel. The book is well written, but ultimately not that interesting, and the Nietzsche quotes are nauseating (but then I suffer from a severe case of nietzschephobia).

Two stars.

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of Atul Gawande's book "Being Mortal" is a bit misleading. I expected that Dr. Gawande, whose book "Better" I rate very highly, will help me in the struggle with the concept of my own mortality. After all, I am 63. Yet the main topic of the book is something altogether different - Dr. Gawande writes about how we shouldn't and how we should care for the aged, the very sick, and the dying. He also writes about the gross unpreparedness of today's medicine and today's doctors to handle the process of dying. The society at large is totally not prepared either; the author writes "This is the consequence of a society that faces the final phase of the human life cycle by trying not to think about it."

Roughly a half of the book is about everything that is wrong about how we care for elderly people who are in their last stages of life, but not yet dying. Dr. Gawande writes about the horrors of nursing homes. So-called "assisted living facilities" are a much better concept yet the most sacred principle governing this country - greed - has managed to largely destroy or at least obstruct the idea.

The second half of the book is about how the doctors and other medical professionals should handle the process of their patients' dying. Dr. Gawande writes: "Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet - and this is a painful paradox - we [here, he means the society] have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our final days."

This is by far the deepest and the most interesting part of "Being Mortal". Dr. Gawande demonstrates that the medical profession's priorities are wrong. He writes "We think our [medical professionals'] job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive." The doctors should realize that the dying may have other priorities than just suffer horribly a few weeks longer. The author writes: "[...] our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one's [life] story is essential to sustaining meaning in life [...]

Dr. Gawande raises many, many more important topics. He writes about hospices and makes a convincing argument that dying at a home-based hospice is better for people than dying in an ICU. He emphasizes palliative care. I am deeply impressed by the author's repeated references to Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (one of the best books I have read in my life). "Being Mortal" is a provocative book (thanks for that!), full of wisdom about things that we do not really want to (but should) think about.

Four and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Breakfast of ChampionsBreakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My book reviews are too long as it is very difficult to write a short yet accurate review when one, like myself, has no writing talent. "Breakfast of Champions" (1973) is a good book, but in no way even close to the greatness of Kurt Vonnegut's masterpiece, "Slaughterhouse Five".

Two main characters in this preposterous story are Dwayne Hoover, a Pontiac dealer, and Kilgore Trout, an obscure science-fiction writer, whose novels and stories are published in porn magazines to fill space between pictures of "wide-open beavers". Mr. Vonnegut, who participates himself in the story at the end, makes Kilgore Trout travel towards Dwayne Hoover and towards the climactic confrontation in a cocktail lounge.

The entire Trout - Hoover story is just a pretense to show what is wrong with the United States of America. "Breakfast of Champions" shows an ironic picture of a deeply flawed country. Many things criticized by the author, like the ubiquitous racism, social injustice, moral hypocrisy, destruction of the environment, are now in the forefront of national concerns. Yet some other irreverent bits, such as making fun of the national anthem, the flag, or of the Founding Fathers of the nation, those theoreticians of freedom and liberty, who kept slaves, would be still treated as risqué. Also, greed is still in vogue.

I like the recursive nature of Mr. Vonnegut creating Mr. Trout who creates whole worlds in his science-fiction writing. I do not like the story itself , but of course I love Mr. Vonnegut's observations:
"Everybody in America was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold on to it."
"Much of the conversation in the country consisted of lines from television shows, both present and past."
"We Americans require symbols which are richly colored and three-dimensional and juicy."

And so on.

Three stars.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Black Seconds (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #6)Black Seconds by Karin Fossum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had begun reading mysteries in about 1970, but it was only in 1998, when I began rating them for my own amusement (being a computational mathematician I love numbers). I did not rate all of the mysteries that I read, but I did most of them. A few days ago I looked my ratings up, and found out that among about 1300 mysteries I have rated there are just two that have received the highest rating of 9.5 out of 10, in my scale. One of them is Karin Fossum's novel "Black Seconds" (published in 2002 in Norway), and the other is "The Chill" (1964) by Ross Macdonald. I read "Black Seconds" for the first time in 2009, when it was published in the U.S. and then copied my enthusiastic review from to Goodreads. Being a skeptic, I believe that people are constantly wrong and that I am wrong more often than others, so I decided yesterday to read the novel again to check the extraordinarily high rating.

I stubbornly stand by my opinion; this is probably the best mystery book I have read in my life. Most of you who have read it will certainly disagree with me. Yes, it is pretty good, well written, with realistic characters, but best mystery ever? Come on, don't be silly. Well, I will try to justify my outrageous claim.

I have read nine books by Ms. Fossum. She is the absolute master of psychological observation. The mother's terror when her daughter does not come home at expected time is described with clinical accuracy. The overpowering fear, the senseless seeking for reasons for hope, the deal making with God, with fate. Ida, the girl who disappears, has always dreamed about a pet. Her birthday is coming, and the mother said "no". Now, she promises to buy all sorts of pets, when Ida comes back. Can you imagine the pain of an almost a 50-year-old, lonely woman, losing a beautiful, well-behaved 10-year old daughter who was the only thing for which her life was worth living? Now she is gone, forever. I believe most parents went through the hell of fear of losing a child when he or she is half an hour late. But in almost all cases the kids come back late.

The most beautiful, absolutely outstanding feature of Ms. Fossum's book is her compassion toward people. Weakness is the essence of the human nature; we are stupid, vain, self-centered, greedy for stuff and for power, insensitive to others' pain. Yet in "Black Seconds" the only person who is presented in negative light is not guilty of Ida's disappearance.

All characters in the novel are real people, they are not just the templates of the "murderers" and the "victims" or agents of the bad and the good as happens in most crime books. The only exception is, of course, Inspector Sejer. Police inspectors are human like all of us, meaning they exhibit all the negative traits of human nature. Mr. Sejer has too few of those, so maybe that is why I cannot assign the novel the rating of 10/10.

Furthermore, Ms. Fossum's novel, despite in fact being a police procedural, wonderfully slow, muted, and quiet one, is indeed a mystery. I mean we kind of know "who did it" from rather early in the text, and we are right. But not just quite right. I am unable to write any more on that topic, in order not to spoil the mystery. This "just not quite" is an extremely strong asset of "Black Seconds", if one reads mysteries for the "mystery". I do not care much about the "mystery factor", but here it is strongly present. And the method used by Inspector Sejer to finally understand what happened is refreshingly clever. Finally, don't miss the last paragraph of the novel!

Five stars.

---- The following is my review after 2009 reading ----

I have been reading mystery novels for over forty years, at a pace of about a hundred books a year. Karin Fossum's "Black Seconds" is her third book I read, and to me it is the best. I began with "When the Devil Holds the Candle" and I liked it. I loved "Don't Look Back", especially the masterful way the author teases the reader at the beginning, by way of a "false start". I found "Black Seconds" among the very best books I have ever read. Yes, it is a mystery, and it sort of keeps you guessing to the end, but that is not important at all. The psychological portraits of the characters are drawn so well that I felt I had known these people for years. The gentle "interrogations" towards the end of the book are reminiscent of Dostoyevski's "Crime and Punishment". There is not much action, but there is so much truth about people instead. Ms. Fossum writes extremely well, and the translator did a splendid job in managing not to spoil the dry, to-the-point style.

A piece of real literature.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Getting EvenGetting Even by Woody Allen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Woody Allen's "Side Effects" is one of the funniest books I have ever read (I review it here and, of course, I rate it with five stars) Then I read "Without Feathers", expecting a repeat and getting rather a major disappointment (two and half stars, rounded up, my review is here ). Now I have just finished Woody Allen's "Getting Even", which is even weaker. It contains 17 very short stories (the total of 110 pages), of which I find only three really funny.

In one story, a sexy woman comes to Mr. Lupowitz, a private detective, and hires him to find out whether God exists. These are some of the most hilarious nine pages one can read anywhere. Another great piece, titled "A Twenties Memory", is about the author's friendship and adventures with famous people of 1920s: Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Matisse, Alice Toklas, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dali, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and others. Not to spoil it for the potential readers, I will not quote the funniest part. The third really funny piece is "Spring Bulletin", which spoofs a brochure that advertises continuing-education courses in an adult school.

I would not have believed it before I had picked the book that I would find nine out of the 17 stories totally, and I mean totally unfunny to me. Of course, Woody Allen is a master in writing funny sentences. Alas, funny sentences do not automatically make funny stories. Let's have some funny sentences to encourage you to pick the book, despite my grumbling:

"I had completed the philosophical work that I am hoping will not be uncovered until my death, or until the year 3000 (whichever comes first)."
"Students particularly interested in these aspects of psychology are advised to take one of these Winter Term courses: Introduction to Hostility; Intermediate Hostility; Advanced Hatred; Theoretical Aspects of Loathing."
"For instance, the Rabbi likes to sleep on his stomach. The disciple also likes to sleep on the Rabbi's stomach."
"For if there is God, then tell me, Uncle, why is there poverty and baldness?"

Two stars.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

View from the Summit: The Remarkable Memoir by the First Person to Conquer EverestView from the Summit: The Remarkable Memoir by the First Person to Conquer Everest by Edmund Hillary
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"View from the Summit" is an autobiography of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person who, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, climbed Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth. I am not a climber as I suffer from vertigo and am unusually clumsy, yet I love reading mountaineering books. With my wife, we have hiked in the mountains a lot and one of our friends 30+ years ago in Poland was the famous woman climber Dobroslawa "Mrufka" Wolf (by coincidence born in the same year, 1953, that Hillary and Tenzing climbed Mount Everest), who perished on K-2 (the second highest peak on Earth) in the deadly summer of 1986.

The book begins with the description of the final phases of the climb to the summit of Mount Everest. The prose is vivid and so much more interesting than the dry and almost impersonal telling of the same story by John Hunt, the talented organizer of the expedition, in his 1954 book "The Conquest of Everest". Hillary describes the horror of sleepless nights on the South Col (elevation of 7,986 meters, i.e., over 26,000 feet), at about -30 degrees Celsius, ravaged by extremely strong winds.

In fact, Hillary and Tenzing were the backup summit team. The first team, composed of Evans and Bourdillon, had to turn back about 300 feet from the summit because of defects in their primitive oxygen equipment. There was a lot of tension at the elevation of over 26,000 feet when some climbers had to go down when others were allowed to go up. There comes the crucial point of the entire expedition. Hillary carries a 60-pound backpack at 8500 meters (27,887 feet) at -27 degrees Celsius. He and Tenzing reach the South Summit and encounter a 12-meter tall extremely difficult rock wall, which requires vertical climbing. Hillary manages to conquer it (the wall has since then been known as "Hillary's Step"), and from there the way to the actual summit (8,848 m, 29,029 feet) is pretty easy. They reach the summit on 5/29/1953 at 11:30. In a funny coincidence, the news reaches the United Kingdom on exactly the coronation day of Queen Elizabeth II, June 2nd, 1953 (no internet or cell phones at that time; news took days to travel from Asia to Europe).

The main part of the book is the actual autobiography; Hillary describes his youth in New Zealand, where he helps his father in the bee-keeping business (consisting of 1600 beehives). serves in the Air Force, and having discovered his mountaineering skills, he climbs in Alps and Himalayas. After the conquest of Mount Everest, his expedition fails to conquer Makalu, the fifth highest peak on Earth (By the way, my friend and colleague from work, Jan Wolf, the husband of Dobroslawa, whom I mention in the first paragraph, participated in Polish expedition on Makalu in 1978; he also died in the mountains many years later.) After the Makalu attempt, Sir Hillary is involved in various adventures often connected with scientific explorations. He wins the so-called "Race for the Pole", when the British and New Zealand teams race to get to the South Pole from opposite "ends" of the Antarctica. He also participates in a search for Yeti, and proves that the existence of this creature is just a myth. In the 1980s, Hillary even becomes a diplomat, the High Commissioner of New Zealand to India.

Sir Hillary's most important contribution to humankind is certainly not his first ascent of Mount Everest or winning the race to the South Pole. Thanks to his fame and ability to attract financial contributions, he established the "Himalayan Trust" to help Sherpas and Nepalese people in general. The fund allowed him to build 27 schools, two hospitals, 12 outpatient clinics, many bridges, and renovate several monasteries. Hillary was also active in environmental issues, and spearheaded reforestation of areas destroyed by climbers and tourists.

Hillary, born in 1919, was given to live until 2008. This 1999 book is terrifically interesting, and the author is refreshingly honest about himself and others. It is not high literature, but a really good adventure book. It shows an ambitious, often stubborn, yet good-hearted man who begins life with an extremely strong drive for adventure, but gradually realizes that the meaning of life is to help other people.

Three stars.

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" has been rated one of 100 best English-language novels from 1923 - 2005 by TIME magazine. It has received high rankings on various other lists made by literary critics and readers. My poor ranking clearly indicates that I am ignorant about literature - I find the book really bad, though redeemed by great writing about nature, a few unforgettable scenes, and one of the best titles in the entire world literature.

A very brief summary of this 1959 novel: during a war, presumably nuclear, between the Reds and, most likely the West, a plane carrying English boys, aged six to twelve, crashes on a Pacific island. No adults survive and the boys are left to their own devices in habitation on the island. At first they collaborate through keeping fire that emits smoke to make their presence on the island known, hoping for a rescue by a passing ship or plane. Then, things quickly deteriorate because of defects in human nature.

To me, the absolutely worst thing about the novel is that the individual boys are not real people, they are just vehicles to represent various human types. Ralph is sensible, civilized, and epitomizes democracy, Jack is a savage, who wants to be a warrior and kill, Piggy represents intelligence (after all, he wears glasses, an awful cliché), Simon stands for peace, Roger for cruelty, and so on. The fights between the groups of boys illustrate the fights between human ideas and between various modes of human existence. So simplistic! "The Metamorphosis" by Kafka, which I finished two days ago, about a man turning into an insect, is so much more realistic book. And much more mature.

One can find some painfully bad sentences, in which the author ineptly tries to write about the human condition. For example: "Simon became inarticulate in his effort to express mankind's essential illness." Or: "[...] the sow's head still remained like an after-image. The half-shut eyes were dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life." Or the ultimately horrible: "Which is better - to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?" I also do not like the ending, which manages to make the content of the novel less cohesive.

On the positive side, Mr. Golding - as opposed to his limited skills of writing about people - can write gorgeously about the nature,. His description of the topography and the plant life on the Pacific island are more richly visual than most in the best world literature. The scene of killing of the sow is utterly brutal, dramatic, and unforgettable. I also love Mr. Golding's sharp observation that boys are more likely to follow warriors who paint their faces. Alas, it is true to this day about adults as well.

The phenomenally well chosen title is the best feature. One of the seven princes of hell in Christian demonology is Beelzebub, also known as the Lord of the Flies. One needs to read this deeply flawed book to understand the greatness of the title.

Two and a half stars.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The MetamorphosisThe Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who will ever forget this first sentence: "One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug."? In fact, I prefer the original German "Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt." It makes less of a fuss of the transformation, and to my ear, it makes the event sound more natural.

Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" was first published exactly 100 years ago, in 1915, and I read it for the first time exactly 50 years ago, in 1965; I remember it because I was in the freshmen grade of high school in Poland. Of course, at that time, I was fascinated by the fantasy aspect, and if I remember correctly, I found the whole premise humorous. Well, although my wife does not believe it, I have matured a bit during these 50 years, and do not find any trace of humor in the novella - exactly the opposite.

I am reading possibly the worst edition of the novella, in the so-called Enriched Classic series by Simon and Shuster, where as many as 55 pages (while the whole novella takes 80 pages) are dedicated to Kafka's biography, interpretations of his work, explanations of such esoteric terms as "servant girl" or "slight indisposition", and - horror of horrors - "Questions for Discussion". The edition is clearly designed for use in schools or book clubs.

I am of a rather extreme opinion that a true work of art should not be interpreted; it should stand on its own. Do we ask why in some Picasso's works the left eye is almost perpendicular to right one? Do we ask why "Guernica" is not realistically painted? Why are Beethoven's late string quartets so "abstract"? In the same way, it does not bother me that Mr. Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up as an insect. I can only shrug at the early attempts to interpret the novella as masochistic, as showing "a man becoming a beast", as an allegory for alienation. I can add my own, equally idiotic interpretation. One day, when I was 37, I woke up and with utter clarity realized that I am not young any more; I realized I am now middle-aged, and the days of youth are irretrievably gone. This was my metamorphosis.

Gregor Samsa changes into a monstrous verminous bug, but it is really his family, and primarily his loving sister Grete, who are subject to real metamorphosis. The used to love Gregor, the family breadwinner. Now, when he loses his usefulness and his looks, even Grete wants "it" to disappear. Gregor (the "it") understands it well: "He remembered his family with deep feelings of love. [...] His own thought that he had to disappear was, if possible, even more decisive than his sister's." How inconsequential we are!

The last sentence of the novella is even more terrifying than the first one: "And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter got up first and stretched her young body."

Great work of literature.

Five stars.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Mordet på Harriet KrohnMordet på Harriet Krohn by Karin Fossum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I believe there exist authors and readers that are made for each other, almost like love at the first sight. Norway's author Karin Fossum's works always resonate with me. This is my ninth book by this author and, although I rated two of them with only three stars, and am hesitant - because of the subject - to read other two, I rate the remaining seven of Fossum's books with at least four but mostly five stars. I love how she writes about little things in life that lead to bigger and worse things. I love her powers of observation and the depth of knowledge of human psychology.

It would be really inappropriate to call "The Murder of Harriet Krohn" a mystery. We know from the very beginning who the killer is, and we know his motives. We even know why, how, and by whom he will be caught. This is precisely what I love in the novel. Instead of insipid twists and turns of a run-of-the-mill mystery, the plot logically and inexorably moves from the gruesome beginning to the natural end. Toutes proportions gardées the novel reminds me of Dostoyevski's "Crime and Punishment". This may sound like sacrilege, but I prefer Fossum's book as it is not as dated.

Charlo, a widower, and a father of a sixteen-year old girl whom he adores, is a gambler. He owes a lot of money to a local gangster, and decides to steal money, jewelry, and silver from an elderly woman, Harriet Krohn. Alas, he kills her in the process, as she resists the robbery. The first fifty-something pages of the novel are an absolute psychological masterpiece. There are deeply moving scenes further down as well, as Charlo tries to explain away his actions, as he tries to weigh good deeds in his life with a few bad ones (like the murder). But wasn't it accidental? Why did Mrs. Krohn resist? It was really her fault.

There is a heartbreaking thread in the novel about Charlo's daughter, Julie, who eventually loses everybody and everything she loves. There is also a fascinating thread about Charlo's health, and how his stumbling is way more important to him than being a murderer.

"The Murder of Harriet Krohn" is a great novel: one of the wisest, most mature, and sad books I have ever read. It is way more than a mystery or a police procedural. It exposes human frailty, utter stupidity, and the people's inclination to cheat themselves. Read the book not for the mystery, but for truth about our wretched species.

Five stars.

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Software EngineeringSoftware Engineering by Ian Sommerville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, I know this borders on cheating, but I hope you will forgive me. It is 6 p.m. Eastern Time (3 p.m. here, in California) on 12/31/2014. I have read 99 books in 2014 and I pledged to read 100. I hate breaking pledges, so I will briefly review the textbook I have been teaching from all year. I had to read over 50 pages of the textbook today while grading the final exam, so I hope this justifies the inclusion of this review here.

I had taught Software Engineering, since mid-1990s, from various textbooks before I found Sommerville, Edition 6. Now I teach from the most current Edition 9, which is a truly mature textbook. It is divided, quite logically, into four main parts: Introduction to Software Engineering, Dependability and Security, Advanced Software Engineering, and Software Management. These parts comprise 26 content-packed chapters that I all manage to cover in the Software Engineering course. Sommerville is by far the best textbook on the subject I have ever read. The best feature of the text is that it is comprehensive, deep enough, and readable, if a bit boring (simply because the subject is quite boring).

Of course, I have minor qualms as to the allocation of space for individual topics. I would use more space for the Web-based programming and portable-device programming and less on obsolete concepts such as, say, the spiral model. I would expand space dedicated to agile methods. I am sure this will all come in the next edition.

My students programmatically do not like textbooks from which they are learning, yet they tolerate this one, and they do read all 716 pages (and are quizzed on all the material). This is another indication that it is quite a good textbook.

To lighten this overly serious review, let me quote a funny bit from Edition 8 of this textbook. Sommerville listed factors that influence programmers' productivity. One of these factors was termed "Outside awareness". The explanation made it clear that "outside awareness" meant "a window". Don't you love euphemisms?

Four and a quarter stars.

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Boundary Value ProblemsBoundary Value Problems by David L. Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been teaching undergraduate Partial Differential Equations for 31 years. I have tried various textbooks, including classics such as, for example, Brown and Churchill, and other well-known texts, for instance, by Colton, Jeffrey, Pinsky, Duchateu and Zachman, and others. After each such experiment I come back to David L. Powers. It is a perfect undergraduate text on boundary value problems, Fourier methods, and partial differential equations. The level is just right - not too difficult yet not too trivial. The selection of problems is great, with varying level of difficulty. The author's writing is clear and understandable even by medium-level undergraduates.

I have just reread the textbook in preparation for my spring course, so I am listing the date of finishing as December 20, 2014, although the first time I read this book was in 1989.

Of course, the text would be too low level for a graduate course, but it provides a wonderfully clear introduction to Fourier methods. Highly recommended!

Five stars in its particular niche.

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Friday, January 2, 2015

Without FeathersWithout Feathers by Woody Allen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have recently read and reviewed here "Side Effects" by Woody Allen - perhaps the funniest book I have read in my entire life. Allen's "Without Feathers" is also very funny, but it is far from the greatness of his other work. The humor feels belabored. Let me quote: "On March 16, 1882, Mr. J.C. Dubbs awoke in the middle of the night and saw his brother Amos who had been dead for fourteen years, sitting at the foot of his bed flicking chickens. Dubbs asked his brother what he was doing there, and his brother said not to worry, he was dead and was only in town for the weekend. Dubbs asked his brother what it was like in "the other world", and his brother said it was not unlike Cleveland. He said he had returned to give Dubbs a message, which was that a dark-blue suit and Argyle socks are a big mistake."

Coming from a less talented writer than Woody Allen this would be hilarious, yet coming from Allen it is humor of inferior quality. There are two long plays in the collection, "Death (A Play)" and "God (A Play)", which I had trouble with following, despite some hilarious passages. The best pieces are two short stories, "The Whore of Mensa" and really funny "If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists".

If the author were some unknown, just beginning his or her career, I would assign three and a half of maybe even four stars. For Woody Allen, though, the rating is just

Two and a half stars.

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Laughing DogLaughing Dog by Dick Lochte
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Having taken the challenge of reading 100 books in 2014 I was pretty confident in November, when I was 16 books ahead of schedule. Alas, health problems of my own making and incredible amount of work in Novemeber and December prevented me from reading any books over the last 50 days. I have one more day and three books to read, so I will retort to plain cheating. As I mentioned yesterday, I was unable to finish just two books over the last about 10 years - one was "The Blood Knot" by John Galligan, a rare book, where I do not have a faintest idea what it is about, where I understand individual sentences, but do not understand the paragraphs. The other book that I was unable to finish this century was "Laughing Dog" by Dick Lochte. Mr. Lochte is a prolific and competent author, but I can't stand mysteries that feature kids as protagonists. Call me elitist, but to me kids belong in kid or young adult literature. I do not want to read about the precocious fifteen-year-old Serendipity Dahlquist, who helps solve a crime. So I opened the book the other day at the page that I bookmarked ten years ago, and in twenty minutes the book flew across the room. I still hope dumping two books out of about one thousand does not make ma a capricious hothead.

One star m- one star too many

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The Blood Knot (Fly Fishing Mysteries)The Blood Knot by John Galligan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I would estimate I have read about one thousand books during the last ten years or so. This is one of the only two books that I was unable to finish. Well, I was not even able to get through 20% of the text and with extreme effort I just managed to get to page 61. I simply do not have the faintest idea what the book is about. According to the blurb on the back cover, "This is not a fly fishing mystery. It is a riotous account of what happens when your life goes horribly awry and you run out of money in the middle of Wisconsin...". Well, to me it would help if the characters were in even smallest way similar to real people. Alas, they are not. They are paper cutouts reciting their lines. It also does not help that I am totally uninterested in fishing.

Hoping I have matured enough to read the book I just picked it a few days ago and opened it at the bookmark. Tried to read three pages and I did not understand a single sentence even though they are written in English, which I more or less know. I am sorry, I hate throwing books away, but in my view this one richly deserves it.

Why do I have to assign one star?

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