Skip navigation

Category Archives: Books

A book about a suddenly emerging global plague, eliminating most of mankind, with the survivors in desperate need of reorganising themselves to avoid complete extermination. That was some déjà vu… had the book been called “World War R” I would not have been surprised, it really looks and feels like an author had an idea about global annihilation and wrote two possible scenarios to see which shoe fits better.

That is not to say that this would make “Robopocalypse” worse than World War Z. It’s rather a bit like the two “Capote” films that happened to be produced at the same time some years ago, where one (arguably the better one) had the disadvantage of ill scheduling and was forgotten. “Robopocalypse” is unlikely to be forgotten, as Steven Spielberg is trying for a couple of years to get a decent script out of the material. And how I so very much him sitting in his soft chair, reading the reviews and production stories of “World War Z” and scratching his beard…

Word War Z came out a couple of years earlier, so any speculative criticism of author Daniel Wilson freeriding on the Apocalypse train is only fair. Still, both books have something going for them, and they are both easily consumable in their pseudo-documentary style that allows the reader to quickly get through less interesting scenarios / characters, as the next one is never more than 10 pages around the corner.

Robots turn against their makers, and as the book plays out in an age when electronic and mechanical household and work aides have deeply penetrated human society, their sudden killing rampage is hard to escape. All over the planet, we learn, there are isolated building blocks of a resistance, be it in the form of a special skilled little girl, a tribe of brave native Americans, a robotic engineering wizard in Japan (who happens to be in love with his house robot) or a computer and telephone geek who turns from evil hacker to freedom fighter.

The book is readable, but what makes it interesting and fun is that Wilson knows what he’s talking about. He is an export on robotics, and even if you don’t know that, at least I seemed to feel it in how he carefully crafts the peril coming from exactly the next generation of machinery we currently long for (the mail distribution robots, household aid robots, and he even gives a nice twist to what a true “love robot” would all be about). He tries to paint a realistic scenario, there is very little suspense of disbelief other than maybe the arch villain “brain” (it DID remind me a bit of the Starship Troopers brain…) behind the whole affair. In this it reminded me of the better Stephen King books: taking normal people, exposing them to extraordinary events and seeing how they react. This is not great literature, but in no way less fun to read than the off “WWZ” or “Hunger Games” paperback.

Easy to be mocked, I know, but: I did buy the new Dan Brown book on the day of its publication, and it entertained me whenever I was stuck in an airport or plane or coffee shop for the next couple of days. That’s what Dan Brown books are for, I believe, and they are quite good at that.

Of course “Inferno” gives you a bit of a hard time, even compared with its predecessors. In the first two Robert Langdon books, I was aware of course of Brown’s, let’s say, unpretentious writing style, and “Lost Symbol” lost not just its symbol but its composure when sickening plot twists came pouring on the readers’ heads. The drive of the narrative kept me on it, though.

With “Inferno”, that could have been different. From very early on, the book got on my nerves: It is so excessively repetitive, redundant and detailed on irrelevancies that I really had to grind my teeth and bite my tongue. I would have been willing to stop reading the time a video sequence that plays a role in the plot (or does it? Actually no…) is described for the … I don’t know … fifth time. The 10th time around I wanted to scream. The way arbitrary knowledge from what was certainly a generous collection of tourist guide books the publishers had provided Brown with free of charge was interspersed, or rather sprayed across the book was less annoying, actually quite cute in a way. Next time they should do little text boxes on the side of the page, or embed the tourist association’s video introduction to … whatever it will be next time. Moscow? Beijing? Something with plenty of tourist information offices that can provide maps and easily readable information on the two or three top attractions of the place.

And that leads to the reason why I stuck with the book even though it is written in even worse style than the previous ones (at one point I was: this looks like the book of somebody who wants to copy Dan Brown style, but somehow gets it all wrong – only to realise: oh yes, that’s exactly Brown’s problem…), and I cared even less about the characters than for those in the previous books. “Inferno” is about Florence and Venice, and I love Florence and Venice. It is about Dante’s Divina Commedia, and I love the mythology of that book and the artwork that it inspired. Even more than in the Rome or Paris of “Lost Symbol” and “Da Vinci Code”, I enjoyed running along familiar streets, learning what lies underneath, who built it and how he was murdered. That kind of story. A novelised tourist guide book through what happen to be two of my most favourite places in the world (plus one that I always wanted to visit, but haven’t managed yet) and one of my favourite books – they should do that for every city! Actually, “they” do, with Brown working his way through the global map, with Ruiz Zafon providing Spain backstopping support…

All in all: an often painful, but still entertaining experience, through the sheer luck of location and literary references. That same book playing it out in Madrid or Berlin would certainly have been unbearable, though.

Sometimes it’s great to read about movie trainwreck productions, because more often than not they stem from the desperate urge to make a film out of something that had been interesting as a literary source, and the following inability of the film production to find the essence of this being interesting in a movie version.

Enter stage World War Z, the film, with its sad story of trying to figure out how you can inject a hero character into a story that describes many heroic acts, but has no heroes, not even real villains (you can hardly blame the “Z”s…). It is a twisted pleasure to read about that (e.g. here), but more importantly, after a couple of years of recurring seeing the book mentioned, I finally picked it up and gave it a try.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, comes about as some form of “minority report” in the sense that it collects the outtakes that did not make it into the official UN or something report about the Causes and Consequences of the Death of Nations (sorry, economists’ humour…). Maybe inspired in this by Richard Feynman’s additional narrative to the Challenger report, the author collects interviews to present a personal story of the end of the world as we knew it. The strength of the book is its global approach, glimpsing at Russia and China, the US and Canada, Israel and South-Africa with almost equal interest. While the references to these countries are their politics and governance system are not always subtle (at least in the cases where I could judge it they seemed to be of a rather Readers Digest depth), this provides the opportunity to play with the idea what various countries’ and governments’ reactions to global crisis would look like – and the result is fun. Unless you are a Zombie or Russian military or just about anybody the book mentions, that is… The book has the minimum plausible amount of humour, a generous amount of pathos (Her Majesty! That Japanese blind dude!!), and a plain and unpretentious tone that protects it from being just a zombie novel. I now actually do not only look forward to reading more about the train wreck tent pole movie disaster of the decade, but to actually seeing it…

On the Book:

On the Movie:

Keyframe republication of Scott Smith’s seminal book, The Film 100, in other words: 100 short portraits of 100 outstanding film individuals:

via Reintroducing The Film 100 – Keyframe – Explore the world of film..

It is one of the ideas most people had at times, but then again almost everybody shies away from the sheer magnitude and unclear rewards: reading an encyclopedia front to back, as if it was a novel or at least a non-fiction book with a narrative. There is no logic bringing you to do this, but then again there is no logic keeping you from doing it. If you want to know everything that’s written in the book, you may just as well start at Aaa and finish at some Polish town the name of which I forgot, but which started with Zy…  A.J. Jacobs does this, and he does it with the mother of all encyclopedias, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He considers it a writing project, because he is, above all, a very entertaining writer. I have once read a review by a journalist who had just survived I think 14 hours of the full-length Faust 2 performance, and I was reminded of this here. He sprinkles in knowledge from the encyclopedia, we learn about a lot of things we did not know before (major theme of the Encyclopaedia seems to be favouritism of cross-eyed women in French philosophers. That, and liturgical overgarments). But the interesting bit, of course, is to learn about A.J.’s own experience. In the theatre review mentioned, the author came back to the topic of food, developing a furious jealousy of a colleague of his who was clever enough to bring a foot-long sausage sandwich into the hour7-to-hour9-slot. Here, we learn how the EB always seems to provide him (sometimes more, sometimes less useful) advice on how to get his wife pregnant, ideas on how to fill small talk with substantial references to royal venereal disease, or chances to get filthy rich by winning Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. This Bildungsroman of a man longing to become another edition of Goethe or Leibniz as comprehensively literate and educated (and we learn how much Goethe despised Leibniz – I did not have a clue!), and struggling at the same time with the concepts of educated versus intelligent, is great to read. We know exactly what he was like when, as a boy in school, he was convinced to be the smartest person on the planet, and we can feel with him how this view started crumbling over time. Shrunk to human size, he now strugglers to climb not on the shoulders of giants, but on the pile of books that reaches 4 foot level in his study and accompanies him for a full year, 60 Million words, 65 000 entries, if I remember correctly. Quite an achievement, but I am glad he did it on my behalf, so I do not have to be the one… and just while reading his book, I learned that EB will cease their print publication  after what … 140 years? Sic transit Gloria mundi…

First time I heard about these books was just before the film came out. This means when I started reading the first book (“Hunger Games”) I was under the misconception that this is a one-off book, with two sequels cashing in on the success. 250-odd pages I was all the wiser: this trilogy is a little bit of a cheat, there is no way anyone could stop reading when (s)he reaches the end of the first volume. Not that everybody would make it that far: the writing style is not sophisticated, the characters are not original, the emotions are not subtle. But the setting is great (the people have to pay tribute every year for starting a revolution ages ago by sending their children into battle to the death), and is used to imagine a pleasantly elaborated dystopian endgame. By elaborated I mean the game, the cunning details of setting off teenagers to battle each other in royal style (yes, of course, Battle Royale must be referenced here, as must be all these other media spectacles, from the German tv movie Millionenspiel over Rollerball through Running Man – you can all find them here, but that strange Japanese movie seems to be the closest relative). I do not mean society as such: you hardly learn anything about how people are, what they do, how they relate to these games. That is a deficit, as it does not really allow for empathy, it is also a strength, as it results from the very subjective narration. The narrator is the heroine of the story, she uses a present tense that allows the reader to expect the worst at any time (not seriously, though, we expect her to make it to … well, to make it for a very long time). Often she is ignorant of what’s happening around her. Sometimes she is knocked out and misses the showdown of wars and battles. It is these details and the courage to take her out of the action, the courage to be very bleak at times and to terribly cruel to even the most beloved characters that makes these books likeable. It does not  play to the expectations of sugarcoatededness that young adult novels frequently bend to. Sometimes the plot lines get a bit out of hand (especially when the author is balancing the various love interests of the coming-of-age heroine revolution leader). And building up to the third volume’s finale, there is a little bit too much of female Schwarzenegger going on. But despite the weaknesses, I could not put those books down until they were finished, until the battles were lost and won (and how true this is in this case). There are very few characters in the book that are terribly likeable (the heroine’s little sister maybe), but all these people are stuck in a dismal and dysfunctional world and deserve sympathy.

I am a sucker for non-market economics: application of the economic principle outside narrowly defined market situations (then again, for an economist, there is hardly anything that is not a market situation, but that is a matter of definition). I worked quite a bit on public choice and institutional economics at university, and have maintained the belief that studying human behavior by way of cross-fertilisation of economics, psychology, sociology, biology and whatever comes in handy helps explain a lot about how decision-making happens, past present and (most importantly for an economist) future.

In this spirit, I see with quite a bit of satisfaction the demise of the traditional form of neoclassical economics, using rather simplistic models of human behavior, and I enjoy the success of rogue economists’ publications in the “Freakonomics” spirit. These heirs to Gary Becker do not only explain a lot of things traditional economists cannot explain or understand, they are usually also much more fun to read.

A recent example from my reading list: “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that shape our Decisions by Dan Ariely”. Easy to read, easy to grab, often profound in the way it shows essential determinants of human behavior. Ariely describes experiments he and his colleagues conducted, and these experiments are mostly highly interesting ways of showing the side conditions of human decision-making. I believe when you put some work into applying these findings and transfer them to any given policy, market or private life situation, there is a good chance that you have a profoundly higher probability of getting what you want. Findings on what makes people cheat in exams, or steal, etc. He shows how simple the wiring often is that creates decisions in the midst of complex information. (Sometimes the wiring is embarrassingly direct: as a man, it is not very nice to read the findings of the experiment assessing the ability of sexually aroused males to anticipate their mating behavior).

There are interesting chapters about the interplay between social rules and market rules (try telling your date how much the meal you just paid her cost and see how your expected revenue declines). How much easier is it to cheat when no cash is involved! Includes funny yet clever suggestions about credit card improvement schemes: e.g. credit card calls your husband each timer you buy shoes, or your wife each time you buy chocolate beyond your monthly chocolate limit.

An enlightening and entertaining overview of experiments conducted in the area of behavioural economics, exactly my piece of cake!

I usually do not post comments on books I read in this blog, but sometimes a book I just finished seems to be calling out for some notes to be jotted down, if only to avoid the depressing development of having forgotten everything you just enjoyed over the course of a mere couple of months.

I do not want to forget the details of “11-22-63”, because I thoroughly enjoyed it, and in particular did I enjoy how he compiled known fiction elements into something gripping and new. If you, like me, are a long-time Stephen King admirer, then a whole bunch of motifs come leaping at you within the first couple of pages – and it is clear where this story is heading: It is “Dead Zone” and the camp fire story of the monkey’s paw, it is nostalgia and melancholia about the things we leave behind, with the special touch of melancholia subjective narration can provide (the Summer novella “The Body”, famous as the source for “Stand By Me”, comes to mind). Mortality and ageing play a part, as does dedicated love. And evil: not the abstract force that allows religions to set pretty good incentives for their followers, but evil as a concrete element partaking in the machinery of human interaction. King wrote about evil personified before, most notably in his bulky “It”, and no surprise that it is the town of Derry, home of the clown that haunted Derry’s sewers so long ago, that plays a part in this story again.

If you are a long-time fan, you will enjoy old friends showing up again (the dancing kids in Derry are not just friends, they have been accomplices in defeating evil), but there are also hints that it is not just the friends that you will meet again (one car that the main character stumbles across frequently suspiciously looks like the one called “Christine” in another great King-fest of nostalgia).

King lines up his new heroes and the old ones to tackle the main question that is clear from the title: What if… What if you could stop the father from killing his kids because you knew in advance and could take him out. What if you could stop the stray bullet from paralyzing the girl? What if you could stop the ex-husband from cutting up the pretty girl? What if you could stop Oswald from shooting Kennedy? King is such an incredibly mature, skilled and seemingly relaxed author today that he does not step into the obvious trap of having an answer to this. He is not interested very much in messages, his strength is characters. The characters at the heart of his stories are always elaborated, always understandable, always detailed to a degree that makes it impossible not to understand their motives and actions. These are real people (even if they are a dog – sorry Cujo, I did not want to leave you out, don’t get mad!), and often they are facing real decisions. Of course it is easy to fix a past murder if you have a time machine (or time rabbit hole), but what some elaborated on as butterfly effect, others as rippling the time-space continuum, yet others as messing with God’s plan, is not trivial. The worlds King paints in this book may have some troubles of their own (earth-crust shattering ripples, a general resistance to change, the past is obdurate), but at their core they are a variation on what Doctor Pangloss already understood: we have to assume that the world as it is is the best of all possible worlds, because it is the God decided to give to us. Creating deviations from this natural path once it has been established has fascinated authors for ages (examples here), and what Stephen King can add to the discussion he does. He brings it to the heart of the American trauma, and he shatters plenty of self-delusions about the way of US and world history doing this. Would saving Kennedy (or Martin Luther King, or Robert Kennedy) have been for the better? He shows that using the terms “better” or “worse” will get your fingers burned, because the implications of any such change – as theoretical a mind experiment as it may be – are mind-bogglingly complex. At one point in the book, we are shown one of the alternate realities that could be created, and suffice it to say that it is not clear why we should want to have that one rather than the one we know.

Decades ago, Stephen King wrote in one of his books’foreword or afterword (usually gems of author’s wisdom and insight, not to be skipped by any means) that he has only a tiny handful of original ideas in his life, and has written variations on these ever since. It is interesting to see that “11-22-63” is such a reprocessed seasoned idea, and makes for a book that did not only receive stunningly positive reviews (not a regular occurrence for King novels), but also a thrilling read. I was willing to get along on the ride with these people, with George / Jake, Sadie, Mike and Deek, I was willing to follow them at much greater lengths than the people from the maybe at face value more “original” “The Dome”, which maybe lacked the humanity, or rather the personalization and individualization of large events that “11-22-63” has.

%d bloggers like this: