Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why The Leafs Suck And How They Can Be Fixed by Al Strachan

I hate the Toronto Maple Leafs. Part of this is due to being a Senator fan. If truth be told, however, I mostly hate the Leafs because they have insulted, mocked, screwed over, abused and flipped the bird to their fans for decades, while their sadomasochistic fans continue to cheer them on.

In this book, Al Strachan chronicles the horror that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Whether it's blowing a chance to have Wayne Gretzky as a player (unbelievable), Scotty Bowman as part of management (amazing) or Don Cherry as a coach (OK, that wasn't such a bad outcome), the Leafs have, time and again, chosen poorly.
The scouting team and drafting choices of the Leafs have also been abysmal. Here are just some of the players that the Leafs overlooked in the draft over the past 30 years: Bobby Clarke, Billy Smith, Bryan Trottier Mike Bossy, Darryl Sutter, Jarri Jurri, Grant Fuhr, Dominik Hasek, Luc Robitaille, Joe Nieuwendyk, Joe Sakic, Teemu Selanne, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Saku Koivu, Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, Zdeno Chara and Martin Havlat .
How would things have been different for the Leafs if they had picked one or more of these players in the draft? Considering how incompetent the Leafs have been with trades, they probably would have traded them for a 32-year-old over the hill player!
By the end of the book I felt something that I had never felt before for Leafs fans, namely, pity. For how can you be angry at a group of people who been abused, kicked down, laughed at and treated like garbage by their own team for so long. Which made me ask yet again, why does anybody cheer for Toronto?
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer by Beau Dure

A sports tale can be written in many different ways. Among the most common: the unimaginative stats dump (e.g., “the Yankees won 5-6 with nine hits and two errors for their third straight win"); the superlative (e.g., “the heavens opened and the angels sang when Messi scored with his exquisite right foot”); and the academic-cum-fan analysis, which consists of discussing sports in a political, social, historical and/or cultural context

In this book, Beau Dure makes use of all three of the above techniques. At its best, this book provides a convincing analysis of how Major League Soccer has not only survived but also started to thrive in the North American landscape. At its worst, however, this book contains too many passages that are pure, 100 per cent boring stats dump, coupled with the odd superlative that overstates the role of MLS.

If you are a fan of soccer (like me) then you will find this book interesting. For those who are not enamoured with footie, however, this work is likely not for you.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Star-Spangled Soccer: The Selling, Marketing and Management of Soccer in the USA by Gary Hopkins

This book reminds me of MLS soccer games: flashes of brilliance here, a little show of fervent passion there, but way, way too many mistakes to be considered a top-rate work. At his best, Gary Hopkins makes a convincing case that soccer has a very bright future in the United States. For instance, in one part of the book, he argues that if a super league was formed in the United States with such clubs as Real Madrid, Arsenal, Barcelona, Manchester United and Boca Juniors, it would likely rival the attendance figures -- though not TV audience -- of the NFL, and surpass the audience for MLB, NBA and the NHL. For proof of this, one simply has to look at the phenomenal attendance figures for friendly matches by super clubs that have become a regular fixture during the North American summer. With this and other arguments, Hopkins makes a convincing case that the U.S. already has a large soccer fan base. (It goes without saying, of course, that the MLS is still not tapping into this potential).

The key problem with this work, however, is its horrible editing. Intriguing charts and fascinating arguments are all too often undermined by numerous typos and incorrect figures. If this were a college thesis and I were the teacher, I would give it an A- for content, but an F for style due to all the spelling mistakes and other stylistic errors.

2 out of 5 stars

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

For years my friends have encouraged me to read Kurt Vonnegut. After choosing other authors for a long period of time, I finally decided to take the plunge and was not disappointed. This highly-enjoyable book reminded me of the first time I read Tom Robbins, or Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49". Like the work of these latter two authors, the plot for Cat's Cradle is fairly silly, and in the hands of a weaker author could come across as slightly stupid. But with great skill, Vonnegut is able to craft a profound book from a group of eccentric characters who live in the strange island state of San Lorenzo. Among others, their is Newt the midget, Bokonon (a holy man who is also a calypso singer), and one of the fathers of the atomic bomb.

4 out of 5 stars

The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America by Grant Wahl

In 2007, David Beckham (former captain of the English national team, and star player for Manchester United and Real Madrid), shocked the sports world by announcing that he had signed a multi-million dollar contract with the LA Galaxy of MLS. The ensuing circus saw the Galaxy rake in millions and millions of dollars in ticket and jersey sales, while the actual team collapsed on the playing field. This intriguing book details the absurdity of the Beckham Experiment, while raising the omnipresent question of whether Beckham's move to the U.S. had anything to do with soccer at all.

4 out of 5 stars

Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask by Jim Munroe

Ryan is a university student who can turn into a fly, while Cassandra is a waitress that can make things disappear. Soon they begin to date (having met in the greasy spoon where Cassandra works) and start fighting corporate evil in Toronto under the superhero names of Flyboy and Ms. Place.

This quirky plot is the wonderful setting for this fun read. It also captures perfectly the student university ethos. (As I turned the pages I almost had a flashback of my days working in the student press in Toronto). That said, parts of this novel are uber politically correct. Not that two anti-corporate superheroes aren’t great (in fact, the idea is fantastic) but rather that the revolutionary spirit sometimes comes across as a clichĂ© poster rather than as a natural evolution of the story. Putting this minor flaw aside, however, this is still a brilliant book that I highly recommend.
4 out of 5 stars

More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told by Chuck Korr

During the dark, terrible days of apartheid in South Africa, numerous political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela) were imprisoned in Robben Island, located off the coast of Cape Town. This hell hole is now known the world over as an infamous symbol of the former racist white regime.

What is less known, however, is how the political prisoners at Robben Island were able to form (despite all the odds) a full functioning soccer league that provided hope to the imprisoned men. Fighting brutal and racist prison authorities, the inmates slowly won the right to form their own league, complete with a referees union, a football association, dedicated fans and most importantly full functioning football clubs. Among the leagues participants who were imprisoned at Robben Island were Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, a couple of future cabinet ministers, a future constitutional judge, and numerous academics and business tycoons who rose to prominence in post-apartheid South Africa.

This remarkable organization, known as the Makana Football Association, would later be given honorary membership in FIFA in recognition of their courageous struggle against apartheid. This remarkable tale is truly breathtaking, and was an inspiration to the jailed men. (Thanks to the success of the soccer league, the prisoners eventually were able to organize other sports, such as a rugby league, tennis and athletics).

That being said, If there is one critique of this book it is that it has a slightly academic feel. Rather than allowing the characters to tell this wonderful story, this book reads at times like a university paper. Despite this small flaw, however, this story is a wonderful tale of how sport can be an empowering force in the fight for social justice.

3 out of 5 stars

Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami

This is the story of a group of young, lost friends in Japan during the 1970s who live near a U.S. military base. Told in an unconventional format (this novel is comprised of a string of drugged-out, sex-filled vignettes) it provides a hallucinatory vision of Japan.

Whether you enjoy this book will depend on your tastes. Newsweek called it, "A Japanese mix of Clockwork Orange and L'Etranger," in praise of its bleak commentary on
stoned-out, urban isolation. For other readers, however, this novel simple echoes a genre that has been milked to the death (see William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, etc.). In short, whether you find this book to be a gritty tale of tragic youth filled with worthwhile insights, or a cliche account of annoying, drugged out and stupid children, will depend on what you are looking for.
That being said, this book is very well written, and it succeeds in its goal of portraying a gloom and bleak reality. Nevertheless, for a reader in 2010, it does not offer that much of a fresh perspective, given the copious amount of books, music, movies and comics that discuss the theme of urban isolation and the tragic (or is it pathetic?) world of the drug addict.
3 out of 5 stars

How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot: The inside story behind the coalition by Brian Topp

This interesting memoir tells the story of the Canadian coalition crisis in November / December 2008, when the NDP and Liberal parties almost formed a coalition government with the support of the Bloc Quebecois. Written by Brian Topp, the NDP's national campaign director during the 2006 and 2008 federal elections, and one of the lead NDP negotiators during the coalition crisis, this book describes in careful detail how the Conservative Party was almost replaced by the opposition. Overall this is a good read for anybody who is interested in Canadian politics.

3 out of 5 stars

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

This is a delightful (and surprisingly insightful) look at the world of international soccer. Modeled on the bestseller Freakonomics, this book debunks numerous myths that exist in the football world. For instance, according to one popular folk tale, many distraught fans kill themselves after their team is eliminated from a major competition. In reality, international soccer tournaments actually decrease the number of suicides in participating countries. Then there is the myth of underachieving England whose national team repeatedly lets their country down. This "reality", however, hides the fact that England has been punching above its weight for a very long time.

Then there is the cliche prediction, which has been given for decades now, that an Africa team will one day win the world cup. According to the books authors, however, China, the United States, Japan and even Iraq -- yes Iraq -- are a better bet to win future world cups than any team from Africa. Like Freakonomics, Soccernomics is a captivating read that truly captures the imagination and the intellect, and is a very fun read.

4 out of 5 stars

A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park

This could be the worst book that I have read in the past five years. The plot seems straightforward enough: A teenage girl in the U.S. is suddenly transported to an alternate world with two of her friends where Romania (or Roumania is the parallel world) is a global power. With this interesting beginning -- and I did enjoy the first 50 pages or so -- the reader is taken through a fantasy ride. But then things completely fall apart. In fact, I wonder if the expression, "losing the plot," was not invented specifically for this novel. The main story is such a mess that the reader has no idea what is going on. I ended up forcing myself to finish this book out of principle, but in the end all I did was confirm that this book is just awful.

1 out of 5 stars

Therefore Repent! by Jim Monroe and Salgood Sam

Following the rapture two lovers, Mummy and Raven, arrive in Chicago looking for a place to stay. With the help of a local boy they move into an empty apartment that use to belong to inhabitants that ascended into heaven. Those left behind on earth are split between Splitters (humans who strive to become Christians in order to ascend to heave during the hoped for second rapture), and those who reject religion outright.

As the world begins to get used to its post-apocalyptic reality, a series of strange events begin to unfold: Mummy and Raven's dog begins to speak; militaristic angels dressed as modern soldiers start to kill sinners with
machine guns; and the use of magic begins to appear.

This ingenious plot -- and it truly is brilliant -- is coupled with amazing illustrations that are absolutely gorgeous. The only downside (if I can use that word) is that this fantastic story is not allowed to fully develop. The relatively short length of this book left me with the sensation that the story was rushed. That said, this is a truly wonderful graphic novel that should be read by anyone who loves fantasy, cyberpunk and / or first-rate comic stories.

4 out of 5 stars

Cell by Stephen King

Struggling artist Clayton Riddell has finally landed a contract for a graphic novel when all hell breaks lose. All around him people with cell phones suddenly start going mad, and soon turn into violent, zombie-like creatures. In the subsequent hours and days, he discovers that a pulse from an unknown source has flooded the wireless network, and has somehow managed to blank out the minds of those who answered their phones.

This horror / apocalyptic book falls neatly into the zombie genre. After meeting up with a group of normies -- people who didn't have a cell at the moment of the "pulse" -- he begins a journey to find his lost son, while dealing with a chaotic world that has gone crazy.

Stephen King is a wonderful story teller and even his duds are fairly good. I must admit, however, that I found this story to be ho-hum, and nowhere near his best work. If you like zombie stories then this book could be of interest. For everyone else, on the other hand, you wouldn't be missing much if you decided to take a pass on this novel.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonick

Is it gauche to say that a cartoon book about physics is too simple? As a fan of both science and comics, as well as an admirer of Larry Gonick (who has a reputation for penning excellent illustrative works on a variety of science topics), I was looking forward to reading this book. To my disappointment, however, I found this book a bit too difficult for children, not that interesting for adults, and with little to offer and grab the attention of the teenage mind. So it wasn't clear to me who the audience is supposed to be. That said, if you enjoy quirky science discussions, then I would recommend that you pick up a Gonick book, though not this particular title.

2 out of 5 stars

Lisey's Story by Stephen King

This a brilliant but deeply flawed book. The beginning is extremely slow (at times I had to force myself to continue slogging through the book) while large sections of the middle section seemed like excessive acts of literary self-indulgence on the part of Stephen King. To be blunt, the narrative was such a rambling mess at times that I thought on more than one occasion of quitting this book.

Despite these flaws, however, one must confess that the plot is wonderful. Based on the story of Lisey Landon, the widow of the late best-selling author Scott London, the novel is a captivating love story that revolves around two main plots: the life of Lisey (pronounced LEE-see, which rhymes with cc) after her husband's death; and the life history of her late husband, with a particular emphasis on his troubled childhood.

Though the story is way too long (the paperback is more than 650 pages, with at least 200 of those pages been prime candidates for cutting) it does contain a wonderful mash of different styles, somehow managing to mix romance, horror, fantasy and -- especially at the end of the book -- wonderful writing that is pure literature. If you can survive the rambling beginning, and don't get frustrated after 200 pages, you will find that the ending is well worth the read.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sphereland: A Fantasy About Curved Spaces and an Expanding Universe by Dionys Burger

This book is the sequel to Flatland, the peculiar fantasy novel by Edwin Abbott that was released in 1884, and which tells the story of the mathematician A. Square who lives in a two-dimensional world. After coming into contact with a being from a higher dimension, A. Square discovers the wonders of three-dimensional space, and postulates the existence of even higher dimensions. Instead of being declared a hero, however, he is jailed for preaching the heresy of higher-dimensional worlds.

In the sequel Sphereland, which was Published in 1965, or more than 80 years after Abbott's book's first appearance, the reader is introduced to A. Square's grandson, who discovers that Flatland is actually made up of curved space. This amazing discovery leads him to postulate that the third dimension, which is home to bizarre figures called homo sapiens, is curved by a fourth dimensional world..

From a purely geek perspective, this book is an interesting thought experiment. From a literary point of view, on the other hand, the written is unfortunately quite wooden. As a science fiction fan I often let poor writing slide if the idea is interesting. In this case, however, the weak narrative structure does not make up for the interesting mathematical ideas. That being said, I enjoyed this book, though I must also confess that I like books with characters called A. Square, so I understand why this novel would not be everyone's -- if not the vast majority of people's -- cup of tea.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Me and Kaminski by Daniel Kehlmann

Sebastian Zöllner is a cranky, ambitious, but not very successful 31-year-old art journalist. In attempt to make a name for himself, and to beat his bitter rival Hans Bahring, the unpleasant Sebastian begins to work on a biography of Manuel Kaminski, a world-renowned painter who is almost blind. In the ensuing story, Sebastian tries to manipulate Kaminski, his daughter Anna, the housekeeper Anna, and anyone else who can help him into giving him what he wants so he can publish a book that will make him famous. As we progress through the book, however, we soon realize that it is Kaminski who is the true manipulator.

This book is very well written and the story is intriguing. The literary sketches of the characters and the various scenes are also quite impressive. That said, this novel (though quite good) also did not fascinate me. Nevertheless, this short book is a fun read.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quick, does this plot sound familiar: a teenage boy, who is unhappy with his life, suddenly finds himself in a mysterious school that teaches magic, where he begins a series of adventures that reveal his destiny? If you said Harry Potter you are not alone, for even The Magicians can't help but make reference to the book series by J.K Rowling, as if to say, “yes, Ms. Rowling, I know I stole your idea.”

If that wasn't bad enough, this book is riddled with awful dialogue that sounds like an over eager child trying to look cool. “I drop the F-bomb!” the book seems to proudly boast. “And I mention things like sodomy, and the drug ecstasy, as well as other controversial things.” But instead of being intrigued (or for that matter shocked), the audience is left rolling their eyes.

As a big science fiction and fantasy fan this book was not a complete waste, for I enjoy tales of magic and parallel worlds. Objectively speaking, however, this book was pretty awful.

1 1/2 out of 5 stars

Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism by David Mills

It's too easy to make fun of creationists and believers of intelligent design. The latter views are so wacky, illogical and -- let's be frank -- down right idiotic that it doesn't take a genius to see that they are wrong. Making fun of these views, however, is not particularly enlightening, nor does it provide a basis for thoughtful debate. Unfortunately, too many popular atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher) give into the temptation of ridiculing religious fundamentalists, rather than focusing on why atheism is a more reasonable position than religious belief. That is why this book was such a pleasure to read. For unlike other atheists (see above), David Mills spends the vast majority of his book describing the philosophical strengths in atheism, rather than wallowing in a chorus of, "religious people are stupid." That being said, Mills does occasionally make fun of religious zealots, but unlike, say, a Bill Maher, his focus is on presenting a logical argument for atheism, rather than reciting a series ad hominem attacks against an easy target.

4 out of 5 stars

One to Nine: The Inner Life of Numbers by Andrew Hodges

Imagine you are a mathematician who is drinking in a bar with your buddies. Several hours into your drinking session, a half-drunk friend says the following, "hey, I bet you can't write a book about the numbers 1 through 9." Intrigued by the challenge, you proceed to take up the drunken bet, and write a book about the first nine integers. The book contains some interesting parts -- such as the relationship between the prime numbers and 4/4 musical time -- but it also contains long passages that come across as aimless rambling. In other sections, meanwhile, it seems that you are not interested in providing insights to the reader, but are rather using the book as an excuse to show-off all of your scientific knowledge. In a nutshell, that is how this work came across to me. Without a doubt, it contains a lot of interesting ideas, and if it were structured differently it could have provided a great learning tool. Sadly, however, I was largely put off by the book, and by the last pages all I wanted was for it to end.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Gingerbread Girl by Stephen King

After her baby girl tragically dies, Em begins to run to deal with her devastating loss. Soon after, her marriage dissolves, and in order to deal with the tragedy in her life Em heads to the Florida Gulf, where she moves into a house owned by her father on a lonely stretch in the Vermillion Key. One day, while running on the beach, she looks into the driveway of Pickering, a man who is known to bring women to his house on a regular basis. To her horror, Em soon discovers what Pickering is doing to these women, and before long she has to fight for her life.

This novella is not one of King’s best works. In several parts, the dialogue is suprisingly clunky and at times downright cheesy. The plot also echoes his previous book Misery, so it is not that original. Despite these flaws, however, this is still a half-decent story. Which is pretty impressive when one thinks about it. For even a so-so tale by King is better than the best work of many writers

3 out of 5 stars

Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form by Scott McCloud

This is a follow-up to Scott McCloud’s brilliant work Understanding Comics. Though not as good as the latter book – which is unsurprising, given that UC contains a truly groundbreaking analysis of the art form (and the potential) of comics – Reinventing Comics is still an interesting read that covers a lot of ground. From the need to have greater minority representation and gender balance among comic artists, to the potential of digital distribution, to the necessity of comic books to cover as many genres of possible, this work contains a lot of thoughtful discussions. That being said, I was not really captivated by this book in the same way that I was when reading Understanding Comics. In short, this is a good book but not a brilliant one.

3 out of 5 stars

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

This is a wonderful book that is filled with numerous fascinating ideas. For instance, McCloud writes that humans perceive the world through our senses, but that our senses can only observe fragments of the world at best. (Example: Even the most ardent traveler can only see so much of the world in a lifetime). As such, our minds constantly engage in "closure", i.e. create the sensation that we are observing the whole, when in reality we are only perceiving fragments. This ability to engage in closure is exploited by comic book artists. In other words, when a comics fan reads a graphic novel, they are presented with a sequence of separate illustrated panels. But from this fragmented set, the mind constructs the illusion of the passage of time. McCloud goes on to discuss numerous other ideas -- such as the ability of a purely visual form to create the other senses, such as smell and sound -- while providing a fascinating discussion on the history and potential of comics. A great read that I highly recommend.

5 out of 5 stars

Flatland: A Journey of Many Dimensions, the Movie Edition by Edwin A. Abbott; (Introduction) Lori M. Campbell

This book is a delightful read. Written in 1884, this "memoir" tells the story of A. Square, a being in a two-dimensional world called Flatland. On the eve of the year 1999 in the Flatland calendar, A. Square -- who is a mathematician -- is visited by a creature from the third dimension, who introduces him to the fantastic world of three-dimensional space, and the possibility of worlds with four or even more dimensions. The original novel by Edwin Abbott contained a strong critique of Victorian Society, with its class divisions and subjugation of women. Besides these social commentaries, however, it also contained a fascinating discussion of multi-dimensional reality, which is amazing when once remembers that this book was written in the 19th century, or several decades before physicists started to seriously talk about extra dimensions. This short book is a wonderful work of fiction that captures the imagination, by leading the reader to wonder about their real place in the universe.

4 out of 5 stars

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

This is one of the best graphic novels that I have read in a while. It tells the story of Asterios Polyp, a famous architect who had it all: a prestigious academic career as a university professor; fame; a beautiful wife. But after indulging for years in self-absorption, his life begins to unravel. After his apartment in downtown Manhattan burns down in a fire, he decides to turn his back on his former life and start anew as a mechanic in a small town. The ensuing transformation and redemption of Asterios is captivating.

Besides an interesting story, what I really enjoyed about this graphic novel was the artwork. At face value the latter point may seem redundant, as one would expect that illustrations would be a primary focus in a comic. In an ironic twist, however, I have noticed that many comics pay more attention to the written word than the graphic story line, with the result that the word “graphic” starts disappearing more and more from the genre of “graphic novel”. That is why this work was a breath of fresh air. On many occasions the beautiful artwork was able to convey complex themes and interesting storylines, without having to rely on narrative dialogue to tell the reader what is going on. The result is a wonderful graphic novel.

4 out of 5 star

The Story of Zahra by Hanan Al-Shaykh

Zahra is a young woman from Beirut who moves to Africa to escape her abusive parents and her dark memories of two abortions. After moving in with her uncle in Africa, however, she doesn't find any solace, and ends up in a loveless marriage. After realizing the marriage will never work, she gets a divorce and moves back to Beirut, only to be caught up in her country's civil war, where she begins a relationship with a sniper.

As the above synopsis shows, the subject matter of this novel is fascinating. Unfortunately, the narrative style gets tiresome. For unlike a regular novel -- where characters interact and build relationships -- this book is structured like a play where only one actor is on stage at a time, and the actress who plays Zahra takes up 2/3 of the stage time. In certain parts of the book this format works brilliantly, as the character that is speaking is allowed to fully describe their thoughts. By the end of the book, however, this literary trick becomes tiresome, and the reader is left with the impression that they are being dictated to rather than being told a story. In particular, three-quarters of the way into the book, I felt that I was hearing a long speech by Zahra, rather than reading a novel.

The village voice called this book a “masterpiece”. In my view, I don't understand how the Voice could have come to this conclusion. To be fair, this is not a terrible book, (in fact, some parts are pretty good), but it is also by no means a literary classic.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry by Ian Stewart

This book purports to be a history of how the concept of symmetry was developed. In reality, it is a mish-mash of numerous ideas from math and physics, with the discussion of symmetry often appearing as an after-thought. To be fair, Stewart is able to convey the beauty of numerous mathematical ideas, such as octonions, and how these ideas can be linked to symmetry. On the other hand, this book also hops, skips and jumps from subject to subject (e.g. group theory; quadratic equations; quaternions; quantum mechanics; theory of relativity; string theory, e.g.) without tying them together into a coherent narrative. The result is a collection of fascinating topics, but no clear focus, and only a loose connection to what's supposed to be the main thesis, namely, a discussion on the history of symmetry.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

It's the year 2381 and 75 billion people live on earth. In order to sustain this enormous population, (the growth of which is actively encouraged), humanity has moved into massive buildings called urbmons, which climb 3 kilometers in the sky. This vertical existence allows the human race to pack itself one on top of each other, while being able to use most of the arable land on planet Earth for food production. Inside the urbmons, humans have learned to coexist peacefully, and on paper everything seems idyllic. But in this highly regimented world where you are not allowed to leave your own urbmon, and where those who think differently -- or "flippers" -- are eliminated, some people dare to dream about what exists outside their giant vertical homes. Overall, I found this novel fascinating. My only complaint is that it is obsessed with sex, with its vision of a sexually liberated culture being a thin disguise for a teenage male sex fantasy. This being said, parts of this book are brilliant, and the reader is left with this interesting question, “what if human population growth did not slow down, but was actually encouraged to increase unabated?

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Carrie by Stephen King

Stephen King is a master storyteller. In this classic horror novel, we are introduced to the unforgettable Carrie While, a misunderstood teenage girl who is teased mercilessly at school, until she gets her final, horrible revenge. What most fascinated me about this book, however, is King's incredible narrative skills. From a stylistic point of view, (let alone the spine chilling plot), this book is a narrative masterpiece. When I finished reading it, the first thing I wanted to do was get another King novel.

4 out of 5 stars

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Colin is a teenage prodigy who is heartbroken after being dumped for the 19th time by a girl named Katherine. Smarting over his latest failed Katherine-induced romance, he heads on a road trip with his best friend, where he ends up in a small town called Gutshot, Tennessee. In between his rural adventures -- where, among other things, he ends up hunting a monster size pig -- he obsessively works on a math formula that will help him know in advance if a relationship will work out. Yes, this is a nerd book. And yes, it's as dorky as it sounds. But it's also well written and fun and ... OK, OK, I admit it, it's a nerd book for math geeks, but hey, I like math!

3 out of 5 stars

Living Dead in Dallas (Southern Vampire Mysteries, Book 2) by Charlaine Harris

Beware! Reading this book can be harmful to your sense of pride. With horrible dialogue, clunky narrative structure, and plot twists that are downright juvenile, this terrible mess of a novel somehow manages to be enjoyable. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I liked this campy vampire book, which is the second volume in the Sookie Stackhouse series. It also reconfirmed that the people from HBO are geniuses for turning this flaky book series into a gritty TV drama.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Turing (A Novel about Computation) by Christos H. Papadimitriou

This book should never have been made into a novel. It's clear that Papadimitriou has many interesting ideas about mathematics, computer science and artificial intelligence. But when it comes to writing fiction, this work falls flat. Everything in this book (characters, plot, dialogue) simply serves as a thinly veiled excuse to lecture on the history of computers. The result is a string of wooden characters, a plot that goes nowhere, and academic speeches that masquerade as "dialogue". It would have been better if these ideas were presented as part of a straightforward academic work, rather than a poor third-rate work of fiction.

1 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar

I found this graphic novel to be very uneven. The first half of the book contains brief biographies of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Unfortunately for the reader, however, these bios are written in a simple, boring prose that is straight out of junior high school, while the artwork is ho-hum.

The second-half of the book, in contrast, is a lot more interesting, especially when it describes other members of the Beat Generation, such as Diane di Prima, Philip Lamantia and Gary Snyder. (The different art style for these stories also makes a huge difference). The brief history of City Lights Bookstore, as well as the account of some of the famous Beat women, are also quite good.

3 out of 5 stars

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Every once in a while one discovers a new author that is a hidden gem. Mark Haddon is such a writer. In this ingenious novel, Haddon tells the story of Christopher, a boy with Asperger's Syndrome who discovers that his neighbour’s dog has been murdered. Curious to discover what happened, Christopher begins to write a book, which serves as the vehicle for the novel. Written in the voice of someone with autism, the book tackles such themes as mathematics, death, parental love and betrayal, adultery, trust, logic and the adventures of a young teenage boy. This is truly wonderful material.

5 out of 5 stars

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (Great Discoveries) by David Leavitt

A good biography of Alan Turing, the famous British mathematician who helped crack the German spy machine enigma during world war two, and who was also one of the pioneers of computer science / artificial intelligence.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 24, 2010

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis

This peculiar (and brilliant) graphic novel tells the story of the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, as he searches for a logical foundation for mathematics. It goes without saying that this subject matter is usual for a comic. But with wonderful story telling and beautiful artwork this novel manages tell a captivating tale whose heroes (and anti-heroes) are logicians searching for truth.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Five Equations that Changed the World: The Power and Poetry of Mathematics by Michael Guillen

Written in a clear and easy to understand language, this books tells the story of five separate monumental discoveries by some of histories most renowned scientists (i.e. Isaac Newton, Daniel Bernoulli, Michael Faraday, Rudolf Clausius and Albert Einstein). This book does an excellent job of explaining, among other ideas, Newton's universal law of gravity, Bernoulli's law of hyrodynamic pressure and Einstein's famous theory E = MC2.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

A Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature by Tom Siegfried

An intriguing look at game theory and how it can be applied in a wide variety of areas (e.g. voting patterns; theories of war and peace; explanations for altruism; biological processes; etc). I found the first part of the book quite good, but was not as captivated by the second half, as I found the book lost its focus near the end. Nevertheless, I found this a very interesting read overall, and would recommend it for anyone interested in game theory or probabilities.

3 out of 5 stars

Algebra: Sets, Symbols, and the Language of Thought (History of Mathematics) by John Tabak

A good history of algebra that would be an ideal text for a high school math class. The book begins with the Mesopotamians, before progressing through the mathematical works of ancient Greece, India, the Islamic World and Asia. The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the works of Europeans, from Descartes and Galois to modern ideas in linear algebra.

3 out of 5 stars

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

This ingenious novel is nothing short of brilliant. Spanning a three month period in 1905 (April to June), this novel "recounts" a series of dreams that Albert Einstein has about time, as he is working on his special theory of relativity. Each chapter describes a different dream, with each dream allowing the young Einstein to analyze time from a different point of view (e.g. time flowing backwards; frozen time; relative time; time as a quality rather than a quantity, e.g.). This wonderful dreamscape is broken up on a few occasions when the reader is given tiny vignettes of Einstein's waking life. For most of the book, however, the reader is allowed to peer into Einstein's dreaming mind as he sleeps, while putting the finishing touches on his theory of time that would go on to revolutionize physics and change the world.

4 out of 5 stars

Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem by Amir D. Azcel

An interesting account on how one of the most famous math problems in history was solved. This being said, though I enjoyed this book, I also found it to be quite disjointed. In other words, Aczel makes the valid point that the proof of Fermat's last theorem was built on the work of numerous mathematicians over the centuries, and that Andrew Wiles (who penned the final proof) can't be given all of the credit. But instead of tying all of these different mathematical ideas into a cohesive narrative, they are instead presented as a series of vignettes. The result is that the reader doesn't feel like they have read a story, but rather a collection of anecdotes that end with the proof of Fermat's most famous theorem.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Infinite Ascent: A Short History of Mathematics (Modern Library Chronicles) by David Berlinski

This short book provides an excellent summary of the history of mathematics, from the ancient Greeks to the present day. I originally borrowed it from the library, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to buy so I could keep it at home as a quick reference guide. This being said, the reader should be warned that the writing is a bit arrogant, and the perspective completely Western (the book's scant attention to the important contributions of the Arabs and Indians hundreds of years ago is a bit galling). Nevertheless, this book provides a good (and succinct) overview of a huge topic, and for that alone it is a useful read.

4 out of 5 stars

The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth- Letter that Made the World Modern by Keith Devlin

A fun book that describes the August 24, 1654, letter from Blaise Pascal to Pierre de Fermat that lay the foundation of probability theory. Describing the correspondence between these two French mathematicians that ensued during 1654, this book explains how a mathematical problem related to gambling set in motion a new mathematical field that allowed mathematicians (and statisticians, stock brokers, gamblers, etc.) to predict possible future outcomes of different events.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Euclid's Window : The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace by Leonard Mlodinow

A good introduction to the history of geometry. Beginning with Pythagoras and Euclid, this book goes on to discuss the great revolutions in geometry, from the co-ordinate system of Descartes, to the non-Euclidean spaces of Gauss and Riemann, to the general theory of relativity of Einstein, and finally the mind-bending geometric spaces of string theory. Overall, this is a great beginning for anyone interested in the study of space.

3 out of 5 stars

Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (Great Discoveries) by David Foster Wallace

I had no idea that the late-David Foster Wallace was a math aficionado. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to stumble across this captivating book on the history of infinity. Though certain parts of the book went over my head -- you really need a strong background in calculus and set theory to full appreciate this work -- I was still drawn in by many of the fascinating mathematical concepts related to infinity. From Zeno's paradox to the creation of infinitesimals to the work of Georg Cantor, this book inspired me to read further on number theory and the concept of infinity.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan

A fascinating history of the number zero. From its beginnings in Mesopotamia -- where the Sumerians first conceived of this concept -- to its subsequent development by the Greeks, Indians and Arabs, Kaplan outlines the wonderful story of this curious "nothing" that somehow exists. From a symbol signifying the "absence" of a number / something, to its eventual development as an integer in its own right within positional notion, this book explains why the creation of zero was one of the most important developments in mathematics, and the very important role that it plays in such areas as algebra and calculus.

3 out of 5 stars

The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed by Amir Aczel

This book tells the intriguing story of Nicolas Bourbaki, one of the most famous mathematicians of the 20th century, who also never existed. (Bourbaki was the collective pseudonym of a group of French mathematicians).

Unfortunately for the reader, however, this original story is undermined by a lack of focus. For instead of describing a clear tale of the Bourbaki math collective, we are instead presented with a hodgepodge of chapters that cover a wide range of topics. Though I found this book interesting overall, I was disappointed by this lack of focus, which is a shame given this fascinating subject matter.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

As an avid viewer of the TV show Dexter, I found this book to be quite enjoyable. (The first season of Dexter is based on this story). Though there are key differences between the TV show and book -- especially at the end -- I was pleased to see that the novel was a well-written page-turner. This being said, if I were to have one criticism of the book, it would be that the ending was fairly abrupt. Nevertheless, overall found this novel to be a good read.

3 out of 5 stars

Confessions of a Political Hitman: My Secret Life of Scandal, Corruption, Hypocrisy and Dirty Attacks That Decide Who Gets Elected (and Who Doesn't) by Stephen Marks

From 1994-2006, Stephen Marks worked as an opposition researcher for the Republican Party. Travelling across the United States, he dug up dirt on Democratic candidates and Republican clients who wanted to know how to defend themselves from political attacks. After working in numerous electoral campaigns (from local to state to national), Marks became disillusioned with both major U.S. political parties after uncovering countless cases of corruption and political hypocrisy.

When I first spotted this memoir in the public library I was intrigued. After reading it, however, I was disappointed to learn that it doesn't provide many political insights. It also very uneven. For while some parts of the book contain interesting stories, other chapters are simply “notebook dumps” of badly-written prose, with a few typos thrown in for good measure.

If you are interesting in learning how negative political campaigns are formed then you can skim through this book. But if you are looking for Machiavellian pearls of wisdom I would recommend looking somewhere else.

2 out of 5 stars

Taking On the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga

This book is a valuable guide for political activists in the Internet age. Written by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, it is an excellent read for progressives who want to work towards social change.

This being said, after finishing this book, I couldn't help but wonder if Moulitsas and other left-wing bloggers and pundits (e.g. Daily Kos, Firedoglake, Huffington Post, Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann) were paying attention to the advice in this book.

For instance, in Taking on the System, Moulitsas writes this: “

“Some battles are worth fighting to force rapid change, and choice and civil rights certainly qualify, but the fact remains that the most desirable pathway to change is slow, steady, and incremental, a process that can bring whole societies along. It’s the difference between having courts force something on the people, and having the people – through their elected representatives in a legislature – make that decision themselves. (p. 214).”

Given the health care debate in the U.S., I almost gagged when I read this. Taken at face value I completely agree with the above statement. In the real world, however, it seems that Moulitsas (along with a significant portion of the netroots) have completely disregarded this very sensible advice. For instead of recognising the value of incremental change, it appears that the left are insisting instead on certain reforms (e.g. the public option) that simply cannot be passed by this Congress.

In short, Taking on the System is an excellent book that is filled with great advice for activists. What I am less sure about, however, is whether the activists who read this book will be pragmatic or ideological.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars