Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Tin Drum
by Gunter Grass

I rather enjoyed this one.  The writing (and I suppose the translation work) was very engaging and was more or less broken up into chronological episodes.  The characters were many, yet memorable, starting with the narrator and main character, Oskar, who purports to have purposefully stopped himself from growing anymore at the age of three, has a talent for drumming and has the ability to scream and accurately break any glass in his eye-sight at his choosing.

If Oskar's character sounds a bit unorthodox, that's just the beginning, there's a rather surrealistic/humorous/dark skew to all of the stories and characters.  But not so much in the cartoony, overly done way that I think is so common to a lot of modern tv shows now.  It's just well much more subtle than that.

There's a musicality to the writing in a lot of places and I suspect that it must have been even more so in the original German version.  In the forward, they mention that Grass originally was planning for this to be a tone poem and I think a lot of that still comes through:
In blowing, my grandmother closed her eyes. When she thought she had blown enough, she opened first one eye, then the other, bit into the potato with her widely spaced but otherwise perfect front teeth, removed half the potato, cradled the other half, mealy steaming, and still too hot to chew, in her open mouth, and, sniffing at the smoke and the October air, gazed wide-eyed across the field towards the nearby horizon, sectioned by telegraph poles and the upper third of the brickworks chimney.
Intriguingly, there are frequent change-ups in writing styles throughout.  For example, there are occasional shifts in the narrator, such as shifting from Oskar's perspective to that of Oksar's mental hospital nurse.  There are also varied usages of rhythm and tone.   The chapter, "Faith, Hope, Love," in particular sticks out for its use of repetition to underscore the emotions of the burial of Oskar's friend Herbert, who was killed in a supernatural fashion by a beautiful but evil wooden female ship's figurehead.

I think also that Oskar the narrator can also be an untrustworthy one.  He claims his genius, yet throughout the stories, he's in a mental hospital, because he convinced a friend to turn him in for the murder of a nurse whom he had a crush on, but the act of which he did not commit.   His actions also are sometimes inane.  For example, for some time he lived across the hall from the nurse mentioned above.  One night, he woke up in the middle of the night and instead of properly dressing himself, grabbed a piece of rough carpet to surround himself with.  He managed to startle the nurse while she is in the communal bathroom, and instead of apologizing and clarifying himself, he instead convinces her in her fright that he is Satan and proceeds to sexually pleasure her with the rough carpet.

It's just a very striking novel in many respects.

Of course, one must mention that it is set in a city on the German-Polish border during the Nazi era. I mention this last, since these references were the ones that I had the least understanding of and I'm guessing having a basic grasp of the political and historical events of these times would have helped clarify why this book was such a bomb-shell of a book for Germans when it was published.

In any case, even without understanding the historical context of the story, it's still a strikingly interesting book to read.  I just wish I could more fully understand the history to get the full impact of it.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Old Filth : Jane Gardam

Old Filth
by Jane Gardam

Wasn't really a fan of this. It's a fictional life story of a judge which contrasts with the professional, dry image with which those who know him less well associate him.

The story is told non-linearly, starting with him as an old man and jumping rather disjointedly back and forth to earlier times in his life.

I thought some of the writing was rather clumsy. An excerpt from the first page:
The Queen's Remembrancer: I suppose we all know who that was?
Junior judge: I've no idea.
Senior judge: It seemed to be a famous face.
The Common Sergeant: It was Old Filth.
JJ: What? But he must have died years ago. Contemporary of F. E. Smith.
CS: No It was Old Filth. Great advocate, judge and-bit of a wit. Said to have invented FILTH-Failed In London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong. Modest, nice chap.
I will say that some of the random anecdotes that are supposed to elucidate Filth's life-story and personality are moderately interesting, mainly because the whole historical British angle was new to me.

But overall, there just wasn't much direction to the book. The end-reveal came too late to have much of an impact. And if this was a character study, there wasn't much depth on the characters either. I didn't quite understand Old Filth very much, nor have much interest in him at the very end.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dream Chaser - Al Joyner & Flo Jo

ESPN has a story on Al Joyner and Flo-Jo. I always love reading about Olympians in general, but throw in a love story, and it's even more interesting.
He had first laid eyes on that woman in 1980, at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. He can still remember the time (7 p.m.), the place (a sign-in table), their ages (both 20) and her face (gorgeous). She looked so elegant, he assumed she was a trainer. He was wrong.

He asked for her name, and she told him, "Florence."
[via mefi]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Forgotten Astronaut of Apollo 11

The Guardian has an article on Michael Collins, the third astronaut on the Apollo 11, along with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.
Minutes later, Columbia swept behind the Moon and Collins became Earth's most distant solo traveller, separated from the rest of humanity by 250,000 miles of space and by the bulk of the Moon, which blocked all radio transmissions to and from mission control. He was out of sight and out of contact with his home planet.

"I am now truly alone and absolutely alone from any known life. I am it," he wrote in his capsule. Lindbergh's remarks were certainly accurate.

[via Mefi]

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Short story of Toshie Une, Hiroshima Survivor

Toshie Une, Hiroshima survivor, age 90, has been offering drinking water at the memorials of the A-bomb victims. Read the short story here. Also, here's an interview with her:

[via JapanProbe]

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Philly Library Podcasts

Just stumbled upon the Phili Free Library's Podcasts, which are recordings of their author lectures.

Friday, July 10, 2009

NYTimes: Watching Whales Watching Us

A pretty lengthy, but interesting article about whales and their potential intelligence and possible "trust" for us. NYtimes' Watching Whales Watching Us

Friday, June 26, 2009

SR-71 Blackbird

The SR-71 Blackbird was the Ultimate Spy Plane, capable of hurtling along at more than Mach 3, about 2,280 miles per hour—faster than a rifle bullet—at 85,000 feet, or 16 miles above the earth...

On March 6, 1990, as it made its final flight, the Smithsonian plane set another record—Los Angeles to Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, D.C., in 1 hour 4 minutes 20 seconds (barely time for a snack and a snooze).

The story of how an evaluation SR-71 plane literally disintegrated in mid-air was kind of cool too.

[via kottke]

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gain endurance in 6 min per week?

To be able to get fit within a incredibly short amount of time. Well, that sounds like a cheap infomercial. But some research on rats and humans on stationary bikes as reported by the NYTimes says this might be the case. Whether or not this is widely applicable for every person and for all sports, it's still unclear.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Sophie's Choice by William Styron

Sophie's Choice
By William Styron

I've never read any William Styron novels, nor did I hear very much about this book before picking it up. I was therefore pretty surprised to find that the narrator of this novel, Stingo, speaks fairly openly about sex, which I thought lent this book a pretty modern tone. Styron layers in different topics piece-meal by slowly revealing more about the two other main characters in the book: the Polish beauty who survived the Holocaust, Sophie and her sometimes charming, sometimes violently angry boyfriend, Nathan. Most of the novel focuses on the gray area of evil of the Holocaust, but it also touches upon the history/mentality of the Southern region of the US, where Stingo grew up and some commonalities between the two with respect to the South's role in slavery and racism.

Since I haven't had much background in either of these topics, it was interesting to read and think about these themes. I will also say that I enjoyed the writing style.

The one thing I was disappointed by was the end-reveal, which wasn't quite as powerful as I thought it should have been, particularly well it describes why the book is named as such. Largely, this let-down has to do with the fact that Stingo is the main character and it's through his eyes that you learn about Sophie, which helps provide perspective on what she goes through, but lessens the emotional impact.

Anyways, thought this was a solid read, but probably wouldn't be on the top of my head to recommend to others.

The Jasons : The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite by Ann Finkbeiner

The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite
By Ann Finkbeiner

This started off pretty intriguingly hearing about a secret scientific group and their involvement in government projects like the Manhattan. It then follows the group and its development chronologically and seems to get sidetracked into various mundane details, where the stories are not really that interesting nor contributory to a larger picture insight. Shrug, I never finished this one.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


By Michael Lewis

I really enjoyed reading this one. I'm admittedly only a half-hearted sports fan, watching baseball games if other fanatics like my brother or my Dad are watching.

But this book isn't really a sports book per se. It concentrates more on how a team, the Oakland A's, more systematically evaluates a baseball player's performance through statistics and has succeeded despite its limited budget, by acquiring heavily undervalued players. While statistics can be a scary term, things are very well explained and reasoned such that I think most readers would be able to follow the logic.

The book also gets into why baseball teams, despite being businesses at heart, have resisted taking on a strategy that could potentially make their teams better and as a result, might make them more money.

I think there are a couple of things that attract me to this book. One, there's an aspect of the underdog, who plays the game smarter, but who is initially dismissed for being different, which underlies all of the people involved. Secondly, hearing about the development of sabermetrics is exciting in a scientific discovery type of way. One of my engineering friends once said to me that it's kind of no fun that you can no longer walk around and think all day like the Greeks and Romans did and come up with a major breakthrough. Hearing about sabermetrics kind of feels like the major breakthrough that could have been developed by just thinking about a subject. And from a more scientific perspective, that's pretty exciting.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Better : Atul Gawande

By Atul Gawande

Loved this. Dr. Atul Gawande observes and researches what makes for a great doctor in varying contexts, such as during wars, in 3rd world countries and up against difficult-to-treat diseases. Since a doctor's performance affects everyone, it makes the stories relevant to almost everyone, yet simultaneously gives perspective into the career and moral challenges of a doctor.

Gawande's writing is crisp and lucid, explaining the technical terms and their relevance simply. All in all, this was an enjoyable read, which seems like it would be applicable to performance in other careers.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

At 44 Carpenter is again the King of High-Altitude Running

I'm starting to gather that I really like reading about athletes and their amazing natural traits. (Perhaps it's comes from reading comic books as a kid). There's a NYTimes article on Matt Carpenter, an apparently naturally gifted phenom in high-altitude running:

At 44, Carpenter is known as the grand paladin of high-altitude distance running...

...In part, Carpenter has owed his prowess to his physiology. His resting heart rate has been measured at 33 beats a minute, lower than those of Michael Phelps and many astronauts. In a test at the United States Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Carpenter’s VO2 max, a gauge of the body’s ability to process oxygen, registered at 90.2, perhaps a record high for a runner. (Only Bjorn Daehlie, a Norwegian cross-country skier, has scored higher. Lance Armstrong recorded an 81.)

NYTimes: At 44, A Running Career Again in Ascent

Sunday, February 22, 2009

What's Wrong with Summer Stiers?

NYTimes has a fascinating article on a program at the National Institute of Health called the Unidiagnosed Diseases Program. As their name implies, they take on patients with the most mysterious set of symptoms that have just eluded a simple diagnosis. (A simple way of looking at it is: the TV show House, except with real life consequences and minus the nice tidy diagnoses at the end.)

The Undiagnosed Diseases Program was designed to move past that halting first step — the inevitable result of the organ-by-organ orientation of most medical specialties — to achieve a more coherent view...
...This is especially important in someone like Stiers, whose doctor back home described what happened to her as a “cascading collapse of systems.” Over the past 20 years, her health declined bit by bit, unpredictably, from her head to her toes: one eye removed, retinal bleeding in the other one, cavernous hemangiomas in her brain, kidney failure, intestinal bleeding, osteoporosis, bone-tissue death in both legs.

It's certainly an interesting, if not slightly discomforting read: What's Wrong with Summer Stiers

Monday, February 16, 2009

Toradora! by Yuyuko Takemiya

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I've been watching the Toradora romantic comedy anime series [Japanese] for some time. (If you want to watch, it's on various video sites. Just Google it)

However, I've started to read the original Toradora light novel, translated into English here and I've found it to be surprisingly enjoyable. Humorous, personable and descriptive, it surprisingly plays out semi-realistically. It's certainly a lot less cartoony well then the anime version. Here's a quote to give you a taste.

The Palmtop Tiger had an amazing name called Aisaka Taiga. Her height was 145 cm. Aisaka Taiga and Kushieda Minori were what you would call good friends. From the various whispers Ryuuji had heard, it was rumored her father worked as a fixer in the underworld. There was another story that her father was actually a karate master ruling the underworld in America. And then there was yet another that said she herself was a karate expert, but was expelled from her dojo for attacking her master.

Back when she first entered this school, a lot of people were fooled by her beauty, and many guys lined up to confess to her. Of course their dreams were all ruthlessly shattered as they were intimidated, bitten, torn to shreds... There were quite a few that never did recover after they were mercilessly belittled by her. Wherever Aisaka went, her path was drenched with the blood of countless corpses of male students.

That is all. I've yet to finish, so this isn't a full review, but just wanted to give a heads up.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Successor by Ismail Kadare

The Successor
by Ismail Kadare

I did not like this very much. The parts about intelligence agents being downright lost about analyzing Albania downright irked me for its utter lack of logic. The names of characters, "the Architect" literally representing an architect character made me want to bang my head into a wall. And the vague language just seemed like a 5 year old boy's attempt at making a story sound more mysterious than it actually was. Ugh, what a waste of time.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The House at Pooh's Corner : A.A. Milne

House at Pooh Corner
By A.A. Milne, Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard
(Facsimile Edition, Deluxe Edition)

Definitely a wonderful read, both for kids if you have them and for adults alike. And if you're reading aloud, it's fun to try to come up with the voices for the different characters. (Although my eeyore voice inexplicably came out with a southern accent)

I must say that after reading the original material and then watching a clip of the Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoon, I'm massively disappointed at the adaptation of the original to tv. One of the best aspects of the original source are Pooh's spontaneous poems. They're simple, yet absolutely charming and in general made me regret my general lack of knowledge of poetry.

The other aspect that I found rather interesting was that all of the characters have a distinctively unlikeable trait, including Pooh himself. All of them, bar none. And this is what actually makes them somewhat realistic personalities. I was actually reminded me of the TV show, the Office, where it is the personality flaws, that give the character their realism. Of course, unlike in the Office, Milne's point is not to skewer his characters and gives some, but not all, characters redeeming traits, like Pooh's poetry for example. However, I will say (and perhaps its my growing up in a time which prioritizes political correctness) that I was struck by some of Eeyore's, Owl's and Rabbit's insults. They straight-up said that others were stupid (which was not without merit).

I will mention one last thing. I rather liked the edition that I got from the library. It was the Facsimile Edition, where the text and illustration are a direct facsimile of the first edition, published in 1928. In addition, the bindings and blockings were recreated in the style of the first edition. Altogether, the book has a classic and elegant look to it, from cover to cover. I've provided some photos below:

All in all, this was a delightful book, which once I find myself in a more established time in life, I will probably purchase a copy for myself (and family).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : Robert Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
By Robert Pirsig

I could not finish this. The half-baked pseudo philosophical reasoning completely turned me off.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Agent Zigzag : Ben Macintyre

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal (Paperback
by Ben Macintyre

I really rather enjoyed this one. It describes the true story of a double-agent during World War I, Eddie Chapman, who began his career as a fairly successful thief and consummate liar.

At times, it's hard to believe that this isn't a fictional spy story, which is both praise and criticism of Macintyre. Certainly Macintyre's appreciation of Eddie's character helps make this book a fast read; however, it can at times be hard to shake the feeling that Macintyre got caught up in the Chapman's movie-like story.

That being said, it does sound like Chapman was a difficult personality to understand even for those around him in his time, so I will give Macintyre a good deal of credit.

I should say that it certainly helped that the book had pictures of Eddie Chapman, his handlers and other relevant historical photos, as well as other details, such as how the secret code systems worked, which really brought home the fact that this guy actually did some of the feats that we only see in movies these days.

Which gets to me to another point. I am more than a little bit surprised that Chapman's story has not been adopted by Hollywood yet. The book mentions that Terrence Young, the director of the very first James Bond movie, had met Edie Chapman and may have been influenced by him in his directing. However, the James Bond character is quite different than that of Chapman and because it actually happened, Chapman's story still rings quite remarkable.

Anyways, I wholly recommend giving this a read. In the very least, it should provide some better appreciation for the military and some of the things they have to think about in a war.