Summer Reading 2013

Well, well, well, in the past few months in addition to enjoying the great weather we had this summer, I had the opportunity to read a number of books.  I feel like I read more than what’s listed below, but I can’t think of what it is I’m missing.  Anyhow, here goes:

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami:  Although Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, Haruki Murakami was among the people considered most likely to win and when I was passed this book it seemed like an appropriate time to try out some modern Japanese literature.  Told from the simultaneous perspectives of two individuals, Aomame and Tengo Kawana, the book reminded me of Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” in how everything is in the end tied together.  Although Murakami spend a bit too much time dwelling on the minute details of each situation for my liking, I found the first half of “1Q84” to be quite magically and extraordinarily well written.  Unfortunately, the later parts of the book swerved a bit too much into the mumbo jumbo of an invented mythology and the plot’s resolution was quite unrewarding.  I can highly recommend this book for its first few hundred pages, but I can see many people getting bogged down later on and struggling to make it through to the end.

A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin: After the disappointment of “A Feast For Crows”, the plodding 4th book in Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, the series was badly in need of a kick to get the story moving again, and in this regard, “A Dance With Dragons” largely delivers.  As always, Martin’s writing is fantastic, and unlike the previous book it focusses largely on characters that the reader actually cares about, such as Jon, Tyrion, and Daenerys (much of the book takes place at the same time as the previous book but from different viewpoints)  There are still long sections that should probably have been excised or simply summarized by other characters in order to keep things moving quicker, but at least by the end of the book all of the necessary characters have been moved into place so that the series can start moving again.  I’m optimistic after reading this that the 6th book in the series will be a return to the greatness that was the first three.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, by Stephen Jay Gould: What a large book!  I started on this one a couple years ago after finishing Gould’s fabulous “The Richness of Life” and wanting to dig a bit deeper into the theory and controversies in modern evolutionary theory and only got back into it to finish reading it this summer with a few quiet days up on Hornby Island.  Most definitely not for the casual science reader, this tome features massive chapters (> 200 pages often), a horrendously nested structure, entertaining and insightful diversions relating evolutionary theory to all sorts of matters in the outside world, hundreds of invented words probably never seen elsewhere, and a level of thoroughness in its covering of the history and development of the so called “modern consensus” as well as of the debates and controversies that continue in the development of modern evolutionary theory.  Not for the faint of heart, but if you manage to plow through it, I guarantee you’ll learn more about evolutionary theory than you ever knew there was to know.

Rumsfeld’s Rules, by Donald Rumsfeld: Donald Rumsfeld isn’t a man who gets a lot of respect these days in many quarters due to how close he’s linked to the Iraq War and his infamous statement that “we know” where the WMDs were prior to the 2003 invasion.  Nonetheless, it’s hard to dispute his professional accomplishments, as both the youngest and the oldest Secretary of Defence in history, the CEO of two fortune 500 companies (including those responsible for Aspartame and Tamiflu), serving as the US ambassador to NATO, elected to congress four times, and serving as President Ford’s chief of staff.  Throughout his career, he collected quotations and sayings that were occasionally distributed to his staff and colleagues, and this little book is an organized collection of these sayings along with his thoughts and anecdotes relating them to his career and to management and leadership in general.  It’s a quick read but one I’d recommend, especially for his thoughts on the design and outcomes of the planning process.

Wild, by Sheryl Strayed: Apparently this is a popular book right now, because as I was reading it on the ferry this summer I noticed at least two other people reading it.  This is the tale of an aimless young woman who’s ruined her marriage and spent time dabbling in drugs but then gets the idea that to find herself she should through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Washington State, despite having never hiked before in her life.  The book is well written and very human, showing the follies and triumphs of someone who heads out without any idea of what she’s getting into, but somehow makes it work nonetheless.  I can’t see this being a classic or remembered 10 years from now, but in the moment, it’s an enjoyable read.

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg:  Another quick read on our short Hornby Island vacation this year, Sandberg’s book is meant as a call-to-arms of sorts for women to step up and fully engage in their career.  Too often women don’t “lean in” and put themselves in the situation to rise up and become leaders.  Obviously I’m not a woman, but from my observations in my career, I can’t help but agree with Sandberg’s central claims and would encourage all women entering professional careers to give this book a read.

The Confession, by John Grisham: Ahh, John Grisham.  I keep reading his books because they’re entertaining and consumable fully in short time periods.  I read this on my last day up at Hornby Island this year, and actually found it to be my favourite Grisham novel of the ones I’ve read in the past few years.  This novel is Grisham setting out to demonstrate the evils of the death penalty through the pending execution of Donté Drumm, and innocent man, and for the most part he succeeds.  As someone who is opposed to the death penalty on principle, I can only hope that enough American’s pick this up in their supermarket checkout lines to force them to think through what it means to have the state kill a man.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson:  Prior to reading this book a few weeks ago, I’d already seen both the Swedish and American movie adaptations, but I actually found the novel to be more enjoyable than either movie.  Larsson’s writing is simple and concise, and keeps the tightly wound plot moving along quickly, always leaving the reader wanting to read just a little more.  The two main characters, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and the hacker Lisbeth Salander, are interesting and well developed, although everyone else is developed only to the minimum required to advance the plot.  Larsson has a propensity to spend a bit too much time delving into trivial details such as which version of Palm Pilot is used by Lisbeth or what was made for breakfast, but nonetheless, it’s easy to see why this book kicked off the Millennium trilogy phenomenon a few years ago.

The Girl who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson:  The second novel in the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is even faster paced than the first, although with characters such as a Russian spy turned gangster and a 6’6″ henchman with a congenital lack of ability to feel pain it veers into the melodramatic.  Regardless, I actually preferred this novel to the first one as it seems that Larsson was more comfortable with his main characters and writing style when writing this novel and it’s a very enjoyable mile-a-minute read.  (Note: I watched the Swedish adaptation of this novel after reading it, and the movie is quite mediocre)

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson:  The final novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, this is my favourite in the series.  Less fantastical than the second, but more tightly plotted and even more human than the first, this novel shows of the simple power of Larsson’s language.  Yes, he continues to veer into polemics about the state of this and that in Sweden, but for me that only added to the charm.  It’s rumoured that Larsson left at least one uncompleted additional novel in the Millennium series, but this book wraps up the events of the first three so naturally that it’s hard to see where a 4th or 5th book could go.  Recommended.

The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth: First published as Forsyth’s debut novel in 1971, “The Day of the Jackal” reportedly caused quite a stir when it was released, and with a cover quip that claims that the novel is “unputdownable”, I decided to give this classic thriller a chance.  The story of an Englishman who is hired to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, and the efforts of the excellent detective Mr. Lebel, Dan Brown this is not.  Instead, Forsyth gives us a slow burn, with the detail and tension increasing right until the climax at the end.  The novel shows its age somewhat both in structure and language, but nonetheless is in the upper tier of modern thrillers.

 

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