Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Books that I Read in 2011

Wrapping up the year 2011, I would like to write a brief review on the books that I read in 2011.
   - Best Non-Fiction: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
   - Best Fiction: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Murakami Haruki
  - Worst Non-Fiction: Permission Marketing by Seth Godin
  - Worst Fiction: 1Q84 by Murakami Haruki

The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) was the best non-fiction book that I read in 2011. I have never read any serious book on Darwinism before, so this book was enlightening, not to mention fun to read. Many questions we have about the very nature of life, such as the difference between genders, are explained clearly, succinctly, and very persuasively.

Kafka on the Shore (Murakami Haruki) was the first Murakami that I read in 2011, and was good enough to induce me to read more of his works. Unfortunately, this novel also suffers from the author's habitual anachronistic Modernism. But the overall lyrical development of the plot is so nice that the damage from the anachronism is minimal . Like his many other novels, Kafka on the Shore has the structure of parallel narratives: one by Kafka, the other by Nakata. Kafka’s part is mostly lyrical, while Nakata’s part is mostly in the realm of fantasy. When the two parts are interwoven well, Murakami saves the day, as in this novel. However, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Murakami Haruki) is better in this aspect, hence is the best Murakami that I have ever read. The parallel narratives are sewn together at the perfect moment. Most of all, I really like the final scene, where the protagonist decides not to join his shadow in escaping from the End of the World. This is an utterly selfless act on the protagonist’s side, which is extremely hard to find in any other Murakami’s novels. After Dark (Murakami Haruki) was a short novel I relished reading. This one is quite unique in that the author stays at a firm distance from what is happening in the scene. 

1Q84 (Murakami Haruki) is the worst Murakami, probably even worse than Norwegian Wood. Easily, this would be one of the worst novels written by anybody. I do not think this novel is worth criticism, but to make a point, I will give only one example: at the end of the story, the author says that the protagonists went through a terrible ordeal. This is a thing authors should never even think of doing. Authors should depict the ordeal, instead of saying that it was an ordeal. It should be left to the audience to decide if the ordeal was terrible or not, or if there was an ordeal at all. When Aomame had no real threat to her well-being throughout her hide-away except clumsy Ushikawa, to say that she went through a terrible ordeal does nothing but to make readers utter some scornful laugh. Remedios the Beauty, from One Hundred Years of Solitude, is given sufficient description about her beauty so that the readers do not feel awkward when she literally ascends to the heaven. It would have been ridiculous if Gabriel Garcia Marquez had only insisted that Remedios was beautiful, without actually describing all the events. In short, Murakami must have described the ordeal, instead of saying that it was a terrible ordeal. Anyone can say that his story is fantastic. But this kind of statement is unnecessary if the statement is true. If it is false, the statement will do nothing but drawing derision. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Murakami Haruki) was another piece by Murakami that I didn’t like. I wrote a rather lengthy blog post about what I did not like about this novel. But this one is much better than 1Q84, about which I could not even rally initiatives to write a detailed review.

Another novel I enjoyed reading was The Shining (Stephen King). I liked it so much that I went after the movie as well, which was a big disappointment. The novel is set in a stage so small that it contains only a handful of people - but the depth of each character is so rich, like some Greek tragedies. The psychological development of what is happening inside and outside of each character is described with such vividness that you can imagine the scenes in your mind while reading (hence the big disappointment with the movie).
The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell) is what I liked best among Gladwell’s books. The logic is most plausible, and the take-away is relatively concrete. What makes people so crazy about Gladwell’s books is the wonderful story-making based on solid research, strewn with statistics. The flip side of this is the danger of putting the cart (stories) in front of the horse (arguments), and losing focus. Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell) and Blink (Malcolm Gladwell) are books that fell in the trap. Perhaps the storytelling has a negative correlation with the logic of what he tells, since Blink, which has the worst logic and no take-away at all, has the most riveting story lines. What the Dog Saw (Malcolm Gladwell) is another very fun-to-read stuff. However, the articles are only briefly inspirational and the theme is not pursued thoroughly. Of course, this is natural because the book is a bundle-up of Gladwell’s blog postings and published articles. Still, this book is full of food for thoughts, and very fun to read.
Permission Marketing (Seth Godin) came into my radar when I was looking for a good marketing book. Seth Godin must be a good marketer himself because he seems to be selling this contentless book very well. The book reiterates what everybody knows, in such a way that you won’t even remember a thing after reading it.

Good to Great (Jim Collins) was on the top seat of a marketing books list that I found by googling. This book is well written with solid research. But can it be used to make a good company a great one? It can, in the sense that a self-help book can make you a different person. It contains many findings that might take you by surprise - for example, that you cannot change the people you have, and that you should fire them before tackling the task of going from good to great - but most take-aways are not concrete enough to be taken into action.

When I decided to read The Story of Stuff (Annie Leonard), I was looking forward to many interesting facts about the stuffs we use in everyday life, like how much CO2 is generated to manufacture a can of Coke. In other words, I expected a micro-level stories, but I found none - it was a macro-level story. Except that, the book itself is a very well written book with persuasive macroscopic views about consumerism. It gives you tons of food for thoughts.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Roy Baumeister & John Tierney) is a new kid on the block, and it got spotlights instantly when it was published. The book itself is a result of a lengthy research by two professors. It contains results of many interesting experiments. However, the action items presented by the book are rather weak and vague. But again, there are tons of books on procrastination with even weaker propositions. The book is interesting, and makes you think once more about how you do things.

Black Swan (Nassim Taleb). I’ve been hearing about this book for a long time, and finally found the time to read it. Of course, I totally agree with Taleb in that the tail is thicker and longer than we expect them to be. So what? His arguments are repetitive, and his suggestions are abstract at best. Worst of all, his unsophisticated sarcasm drives people away from his arguments.

The Big History (The Teaching Company) is an audiobook that describes what the author calls a Big History - from the Big Bang to the 20th century human history, and surprisingly enough, beyond. The author is a history professor with Russian history major, but he clearly shows good understanding of astronomy, physics, chemistry, paleontology, and archaeology. Best of all, this audiobook achieves what it aims to do: it gives you the really big picture of everything - well enough to make you think about the meaning of everything. This audiobook made me read The Selfish Gene and A Short History of Nearly Everything.

A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson) is basically about the Big History. This book was on my mind vaguely for a long time, since it was introduced in The Economist magazine in 2003. Somehow, only a week ago I came to grab it. This book is different from The Big History in that it focuses more on the development of the theories and the academic development behind the big history, telling more about the scientists who found the secrets of the universe. The book is also full of good humors, unlike The Black Swan. I am only half way through this book yet, but I can tell that this one is a good read.

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