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Continuing my recent kick of reading the classics of mountaineering literature, a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading Maurice Herzog‘s account of the first successful expedition to the summit of an 8000m peak, the titular Annapurna.  Written in language both vivid and straightforward, Herzog details the trials, challenges, and eventual successes of a trip that set out to climb two of the world’s tallest peaks without knowing even how to travel to the base of the mountains.

After having given up on attempting Dhaulagiri, Herzog and company dedicated all of their efforts towards Annapurna, where against all odds they succeeded in climbing (eventually in near alpine-style) the mountain now known as the deadliest of the 8000m peaks and that has claimed half as many lives as have successfully reached its summit.  Although the language is occasionally stilted, Herzog has no difficulty in revealing either the deep personal motivation of the mountaineer or the great sacrifices of body and soul made in search of beauty and conquest.

It has been said that mountaineering is the art of overcoming, and Herzog makes it clear that that is what these men did, day after day, until they reached the summit and miraculously made their descent losing limbs but not life.  Nonetheless, climbing is not the only means of testing oneself and overcoming, for as he so famously concludes, “there are other Annapurnas in the lives of men”.

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Minus 148

The introduction to Art Davidson‘s Minus 148° claims that it is “one of the few true classics in the literature of mountaineering”, and having recently read it, I would happen to agree.  Tight and vivid in its description of the first winter ascent of Mt. McKinley (Denali), the book details both the varied and colourful personalities of the expedition members as well as the events of the climb itself.

Few of us could imagine the situation that Davidson, Johnston, and “Pirate” Genet found themselves in, holed up for days in a snow cave for days on end, with the windchill outside below 148 degrees, and the other expedition members below slowing being persuaded that the climbers above must be dead.  Yet despite the unimaginable suffering endured after the success of reaching the summit and the tragedies that unfolded weeks earlier on the climb, the trio managed to persevere and endure until a break in the storm let them descend.

This is a remarkable tale of human survival and victory as well as a glimpse into the mind of the climber, and why he chooses to place himself into such hardship.  This may not be a long book, but you will be gripped from beginning to end.

Verdict: 5/5

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Fischer Black

Fischer Black was an eccentric, a genius, and consistently far ahead of his time in terms of his insights and understanding of finance and the markets.  At least, that’s what I know I’m supposed to believe after having read Perry Merhling‘s biography of Fischer Black, Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance.  In reality, however, after reading this book I understand that he was an eccentric, but in this book, Fischer’s (he’s always referred to by his first name) genius fails to shine through.

This book does a decent job of walking the reader through Fischer’s life and describing the intellectual debates that he engaged in during his time in academia and industry.  Mehrling does a fairly good job at helping the reader understand the various sides of each debate and how Fischer’s influences parleyed their way into his beliefs.  However, he fails at revealing why Fischer’s ideas amounted to genius or revolutionary except in the vaguest sense.  Despite the apparent richness of the subject, this book unfortunately fails to rise above the level of mediocre.

Verdict: 2/5.

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For a few months at the end of last year, it was near impossible to walk by a book store without noticing a prominently placed copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow, and in short order curiosity got the better of me and I sat down to read this book.  Written by Daniel Kahneman, the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, this is no fluffy Malcolm Gladwell book, but is instead a deep and wonderful book that reveals many remarkable insights into the human mind.

The book is roughly divided into three parts.  The first, on “Two Systems” reveals the distinctions between System 1 (Fast and multi-tasking) and System 2 (Slow and single-tasking) thinking, and the phenomena that can be explained by these two systems.  The second, on “Two Species” discusses the differences between Homo Econs (the perfectly rational human assumed by standard economic theory) and Homo Humans (real humans), and the third part is a discussion of “Two Selves”: the experiencing self that experiences events as they unfold and the remembering self that actually makes our choices.  Each of these sections is well supported by experimental studies, as well as small experiments performed on the reader as he/she reads the book that take the points made from abstract to experiential.

Although I’m not sure that I can agree with the blurb about the book being in the same league as The Wealth of Nations or The Interpretation of Dreams, this is a fantastic book that should be read by anyone interested in economics, psychology, or understanding the workings of themselves and the people around them.

Verdict: 5/5

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After reading a few reviews on before purchasing Simon Garfield‘s Just My Type, I had high expectations for the book, expecting it to contain some deep insights into typeface/font construction and into how technology and culture are affecting typefaces.  Indeed, the book poses some interesting questions, such as whether a typeface can be German or Jewish, whether the tendency to use the same typefaces over and over again in all situations is negatively affecting our society, and whether different typefaces are needed for different rendering technologies, but in none of these cases does it have enough nearly enough discussion.  Instead, it is filled primarily with anecdotes and vignettes about the development of specific typefaces and stories about where they’re used.  These were generally amusing and interesting, but rarely left me intellectually satisfied.

The book may be sufficiently engaging and stimulating for somebody with no prior knowledge of typefaces and fonts, but as somebody interested in history and sociology, and as a technologist who has worked on a text rendering engine in the past, the book left me wanting more.  What is here is interesting enough, and the book doesn’t take long to read, but like too many pop-non-fiction works out there, isn’t rich enough to recommend.

Verdict: 2/5.

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Like many people, I’ve known of Salman Rusdie since I was very young, due to the fatwa put on him by Ayatollah Khomeini back in 1989, but until now I’d never read one of his books and that was a near inexcusable mistake.  Midnight’s Children is a deep, witty, and marvelous book, and altogether worthy of the 1981 Booker prize that it won.

Midnight’s Children is written as the autobiography of Saleem Sinai, a young Indian man who was born at the precise moment of India’s independence from Britain — the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, and who because of this is intimately connected to the progress of the nation (hence the attached genre of ‘magical realism’).  Much like Forrest Gump, Saleem is thrust into the events that shaped the young nation along with the 1000 other midnight’s children (the babies born within 1 hour of India’s independence).  From Saleem, to Pavarti-the-Witch, to the Reverend ‘whatitsname’ Mother, the novel is full of deep and memorable characters.

Rushdie arguably has the greatest mastery of the English language of any 20th century author.  Through pathos and tenderness, cutting wit, and an eye for meaningful detail, he exposes the soul of a young nation, with all of its complexities laid bare.  There should be no illusion though: this is a dense book that will demand your attention, and in reading this, my rate of pages read / minute was very low.  Nonetheless, it is a fantastic novel that should be read by all.

Verdict: 5/5

ISBN: 978-0812976533


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The Art of War

At long last, I managed to take the time of Sun Tzu‘s The Art of War, arguably one of the most famous works to have ever been written.  From the hundreds of available translations, I ended up reading the version available freely through Project Gutenberg, translated back in 1910 by Lionel Giles, and although the language is not always the most modern, I had no issues with the translation.  This version of the book is heavily annotated with interpretations by famous Chinese commentators and anecdotes from 19th century European history relating Sun Tzu’s lessons to practical applications from “recent” history.

Despite its formidable reputation, I have to say that for the most part, the insights in The Art of War are rather mundane and the work’s organization somewhat haphazard (how many times do you need to describe various classifications of ground?).  On one hand, it’s remarkable that this level of strategic thinking was taking place as early as the 5th century BC, but on the other, many of the rules and classifications are remarkably rigid.  If the central message taken away is, as Gordon Gekko put it, that every battle is won before it’s ever fought, then perhaps this work is of great value, but this message could be learned without reading this work.  In the end, it’s very short, and worth reading once, if only for its historical significance, but don’t go in expecting to be amazed.

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Sometimes award winners are truly deserving of their prize, and that is indeed the case with J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which won the 1999 Booker Prize.  Disgrace tells the tale of two disgraced individuals: David Lurie, a professor of poetry who refuses to publicly apologize for having an affair with a student, and his daughter Lucy.  After being forced to leave his position at the university, David retreats to his daughter’s country home, where he slowly rebuilds his existence, only to be unable to help when Lucy suffers a brutal and savage attack.  As both David and Lucy struggle with their shame and disgrace, their relationship frays, and each must find a way to carry on.

David retreats into the study of the life of Byron, of whom he has a great interest and dreams of emulating by leaving his home and escaping to Italy.  Lucy similarly retreats into herself, unable to confront those who brought the attack upon her, and unable to handle the consequences wrought.   Written to express the dilemma confronting the White people of South Africa, Coetzee has written a deep and subtle novel, perhaps best captured through David’s expression of how he might be able to move on: “Yes it is humiliating.  But perhaps that is a good point to start from again.  Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept.  To start at ground level.  With nothing… No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity… Yes, like a dog”.

Verdict: 5/5

ISBN: 978-0143115281

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Calling Out For You!

Although I’ve watched the Swedish TV adaptations of Steig Larsson’s books, reading Calling Out For You! (note the exclamation!) by Karin Fossum was my first foray into the so-called New Wave of Scandinavian Crime Fiction.  The story of Jomann, a lonely middle-aged man who travels to India to find a bride, and two investigators, Skarre and Sejer, who are tasked with finding the perpetrator of the bride’s brutal murder on her arrival in Norway, it is a tale of sinister greys.

Vividly conjuring an image of small town Norway, where everyone knows everyone, everyone knows something, and nobody wants to admit to knowing anything.  Without any apparent motive, the crime serves as the object through which Fossum is able to reveal the inner beings of the townspeople, each of whom turns out to be a deeply flawed witness.  Atmospheric and with an undertone of malice throughout, the book is a page turner from beginning to end as Fossum expertly elucidates a crime where unlike those on North American TV, in the end no explanation may be possible.

Verdict: 4.5/5

ISBN: 978-0099474661

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A Death In Belmont

The titular act in Sebastian Junger‘s A Death in Belmont is the 1963 rape and murder of Bessie Goldberg in Belmont, a quiet, white suburb of Boston.  There was no sign of forced entry and within a couple of days of the murder, the police arrested Roy Smith, a career petty criminal who had been hired to clean the Goldberg’s house on the day of the murder.  Tried on purely circumstantial evidence, Smith was convicted of murder, yet acquitted of rape, thus sparing him the death penalty, but still sending him to prison for life.  Later in life he became a cause celebre amongst many people, who lobbied aggressively for his commutation, arguing that had he been white, he never would have even been arrested.

Meanwhile, from 1962 to 1964, Boston was terrorized by the infamous Boston Strangler, and although the Goldberg murder fit the pattern of the Strangler, Smith was quickly ruled out as being the Strangler seeing as he had been imprisoned at the time of many of the attacks.  However, in early 1964, a victim identified the Strangler as Albert DeSalvo, and on his arrest, he confessed to being the Strangler, although his descriptions of the attacks contained flaws and doubts have always remained as to whether he was in fact the real Boston Strangler.  Fascinatingly, DeSalvo was once a contractor for Junger’s family, and at one point cornered Junger’s mother in their house, only to be deterred when Junger’s mother claimed that her husband was in the next room.  Thus Junger grew up knowing that the Boston Strangler had almost had his mother as well.

Junger does an excellent job at bringing to life the early 60s and vividly demonstrating how the dogmas and prejudices of the time shaped the investigation and prosecution of Smith and DeSalvo.  Through clear and crisp prose, he investigates whether it was indeed likely that Smith was not the real killer of Goldberg, and whether there is in fact reasonable doubt that DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler.  In the end, all he can conclude is that in the age before DNA testing, it was extremely hard for a case to be black and white, and that both individuals there is both strong evidence that they did in fact perform the crimes for which they were convicted as well as compelling reasons to doubt their guilt.

Verdict: 4/5

ISBN: 0393059804


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