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13-Dec-2016
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The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 2000.
Also see the full index of books I've read.


  [Book cover]

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide

by Douglas Adams (1952-2001) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1997)

A compilation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (pub. 1979), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (pub. 1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (pub. 1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (pub. 1984), Young Zaphod Plays It Safe (a short story), and Mostly Harmless (pub. 1992). These stories are a must read. The incessant humor is a little wearing at times, but, like any good story, the stories make you look at things a little differently from time to time.

A lot of people know the answer, but they get the question wrong—which, in a way, is kind of the point of the stories. The computer, Deep Thought, spends 7½-million years calculating "the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything." Not the meaning of life or any such thing. The answer, announced "with infinite majesty and calm" by Deep Thought, is, of course, 42. If you look back at what the computer was asked, you realize that an answer was requested and duly supplied, but the "Ultimate Question" itself was not specified. Read the stories and all will be revealed!

 

The Trials of Rumpole

by John Mortimer (1923-2009) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1979)

A long-time Rumpole fan, I figured I would re-read this while trying to decide upon a "deeper" tome to dig into next. The Trials of Rumpole is vintage Rumpole, but darker than Mortimer's other collections: all of Rumpole's cases are lost—in the big scheme of things—even though he actually prevails in The Old Bailey. And, in the final story, Rumpole's family and friends attempt to put him out to pasture ... must we bid him farewell?

(Also see The Golden Thread (Rumpole Society) and Salon's interview with John Mortimer.)

  [Book cover]

The Music School

by John Updike (1931-2009) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1966)

My first exposure to Updike, this is a collection of short stories, originally published in 1966. While a few of the stories were not too bad, most of them struck me as being little more than an excuse for some artsy writing—and his writing is exquisite. Some story value would not have been amiss.

Why I am an Anglophile was perfectly captured by this paragraph in "A Madman" (the emphasis in the quote is mine):

England itself seemed slightly insane to us. The meadows skimming past the windows of the Southampton-London train seemed green deliriously, seemed so obsessively steeped in color that my eyes, still attuned to the exhausted verdure and September rust of American fields, doubted the ability of this landscape to perform useful work. England appeared to exist purely as a context of literature. I had studied this literature for four years, and had been sent here to continue this study. Yet my brain, excited and numbed by travel, could produce only one allusion; "a' babbled of green fields," that inconsequential Shakespearean snippet rendered memorable by a classic typographical emendation, kept running through my mind, "a' babbled, a' babbled," as the dactylic scansion of the train wheels drew us and our six mute, swaying compartment-mates northward into London. The city overwhelmed our expectations. The Kiplingesque grandeur of Waterloo Station, the Eliotic despondency of the brick row in Chelsea where we spent the night in the flat of a vague friend, the Dickensian nightmare of fog and sweating pavement and besmirched cornices that surrounded us when we awoke—all this seemed too authentic to be real, too corroborative of literature to be solid. The taxi we took to Paddington Station had a high roof and an open side, which gave it to our eyes the shocked, cockeyed expression of a character actor in an Agatha Christie melodrama. We wheeled past mansions by Galsworthy and parks by A. A. Milne; we glimpsed a cobbled eighteenth-century alley, complete with hanging tavern boards, where Dr. Johnson might have reeled and gasped the night he laughed so hard—the incident in Boswell so beautifully amplified in the essay by Beerbohm. And underneath all, underneath Heaven knew how many medieval plagues, pageants, and conflagrations, old Londinium itself like a buried Titan lay smoldering in an abyss and tangle of time appalling to eyes accustomed to view the land as a surface innocent of history. We were relieved to board the train and feel it tug us westward.

"The Bulgarian Poetess" had this memorable quote:

Actuality is a running impoverishment of possibility.

(Also see James Yerkes' The Centaurian page.)

  [Charlotte Bronte]

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1847)  

Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë (1818-1848) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1847)

...

(Also see Mitsuharu Matsuoka's The Brontë Sisters Web and its Emily Brontë page.)

  [Book cover]

God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization

by A. N. Wilson (1950- ) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1999)

One long rant, as the following notes I made show—Wilson seems to be cut from the same cloth as Paul Johnson.

Quotes Middlemarch:

'If Mr Casaubon read German he would save himself a great deal of trouble.' ... Early nineteenth-century England, and especially Oxford, had plenty of Casaubons who either could not or would not read the Germans.
And later, he quotes Mark Pattison quoting A. P. Stanley:
'How different the fortunes of the Church of England might have been if [John Henry] Newman had known German.'

Chapter 7 is "George Eliot, The Word, and Lives of Jesus" ... about David Friedrich Strauss' Das Leben Jesu (Life of Jesus) and others' books in a similar vein. Capsule biograpies of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes.

Lord Shaftesbury on Sir John Seeley's Ecce Homo:

'the most pestilential book ever vomited, I think, from the jaws of hell.'

... the one question which Darwinism so dismally refuses to address: namely, how (let alone why!) anything happens to exist at all. It is existence itself which is surely the greatest of all mysteries. How we, with what we call our consciousness, come to be observing existence, our own, and that of all that is, is not a mystery outside the mystery.

An interestings viewpoint:

Conducting an evening class, [Samuel] Butler was asked why God permitted evil in the world. 'My good man,' he replied, 'don't you see? If Adam had not eaten the apple you would now be in the Garden of Eden; whereas, things being as they are, you have a chance of Heaven, which is a much better place.'

Anti-intellectual screed like Paul Johnson's The Intellectuals:

Ever since [G. H. Lewes] and George Eliot moved into The Priory, St John's Wood (November 1863), one feels, ugly female novelists have been setting up house in North London with pushy liberal-minded journalists.
and, on George Bernard Shaw:
Dethroning God, [George Bernard Shaw's] generation found it impossible to leave the sanctuary empty. They put man in His place, which had the paradoxical effect, not of elevating human nature but of demeaning it to depths of cruelty, depravity and stupidity unparalleled in human history.

An unrelated, funny anecdote involving A. N. Wilson: "A cussed acrostic", by Stan Carey. To his credit, Wilson had a sense of humor about the joke played on him.

  [Book cover]

Madness on the Couch: Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis

by Edward Dolnick (1952- ) (pub. 1998)

A devastating critique of Freud and his followers and of their misdirected, almost malignant attempts at diagnosing and treating shizophrenia, autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder with psychoanalysis. Unconscionable. Many of the practitioners discussed in the book are now discredited, but their ideas continue to permeate our culture—and the profession, for that matter, judging by the stories you hear of psychiatrists and psychologists who are not familiar with the latest research and perspectives on mental illnesses.

What's equally scary is that what Dolnick describes as having happened in the psychoanalytic field—the latching on to a theory, the close-mindedness, and the herd mentality—can and does happen in fields other than the medical and health fields, albeit often with less harmful impact on people. Throughout Madness on the Couch you'll find frequent mention of articles and cover stories on psychoanalytic theories, "research", and "successes" in mainstream publications such as Scientific American (a magazine I considered unimpeachable), Time, etc. Of course, that was all in the past, right?

A must-read that is excellent reading too.

  [Book cover]

P. G. Wodehouse: Five Complete Novels

by P. G. (Pelham Grenville) Wodehouse (1881-1975) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1983)

"Lord love a duck!", as Lord Uffenham says in The Butler Did It. This books is a compilation of The Return of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster Sees It Through, Spring Fever, The Butler Did It, and The Old Reliable. The first two are Jeeves stories and I was a little worried that the remaining ones would not be quite up to snuff, but they were a delight to read. (The Old Reliable recycled some elements from the previous stories, but it was still enjoyable.)

(Also see "The Genius of Wodehouse" by Roger Kimball in The New Criterion and the free E-books at Project Gutenberg.)

  [Book cover]

AntiPatterns: Refactoring Software, Architectures, and Projects in Crisis

by William H. Brown, Raphael C. Malveau, Hays W. McCormick III, and Thomas J. Mowbray (pub. 1998)

A computer book I had high hopes for, but which turned out to be a disappointment. A catalog of bad software development practices at the software, architecture, and project levels, the book describes the bad practices, discusses when and why they occur, and presents solutions for changing or ameliorating the practices. Not bad, although some of the antipatterns started to sound alike, as did their solutions. The book could possibly be used as a reference, or more likely a starting point, for organizations that want to improve their practices. How many companies have done so and with how much success? (In fairness to the authors, I am currently working on a project that is in bad need of good practices and whose future is not bright; hence my pessimism.)

Somewhat ironically, the authors seem to have been hit over the head by their own Golden Hammer antipattern. Distributed, object-oriented programs (ideally using CORBA) are not the whole of the software universe and, when not suitable for the job at hand, are not a best practice. Functional Decomposition is a bad practice? I understand—or maybe I don't understand—the concern about writing structured code in an object-oriented language, but asking some programmers who haven't even reached first base yet to steal second is, well, asking for trouble. Writing Spaghetti Code is not the exclusive domain of FORTRAN and C and is not the result of insufficient knowledge of object-oriented techniques. (Aside: And a comparable degree of spaghetti code in C++ is an order of magnitude more difficult to figure out.) In the "GOTOs Considered Harmful" controversy three decades ago, Donald Knuth said that good programmers have always written structured programs; the same can surely be said for structured data. All of which, I suppose, leads us into the "programming as art or science" argument ... </SOAPBOX>!

December 2016: Back in 1978, I bought a box of assorted ACM journals from one of my Computer Science professors for a nominal price. It included ACM Computing Surveys, Volume 6, Issue 4, December 1974, in which could be found Donald E. Knuth, "Structured Programming with go to Statements" (PDF). Given that I read the AntiPatterns book in 2000, my paragraph above was written about 30 years after I last read Knuth's article. Finding the linked-to PDF online recently, I scanned the lengthy article and couldn't find him saying what I thought he had said. However, there was a close approximation: "Good structure can be expressed in FORTRAN or COBOL, or even in assembly language, although less clearly and with much more trouble." Which basically says the same thing, I think, but I do disagree with the "less clearly" and "much more trouble" clause. I believe a good programmer fluent and practiced in a "non-structured" language (such as those named) will write clear, well-structured programs as if the process is second nature.

Also see the dormant AntiPatterns website based on the book.

  [Book cover]

The Practice of Programming

by Brian W. Kernighan (1942- ) (Wikipedia) and Rob Pike (1956- ) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1999)

Another classic from Brian Kernighan and an essential read for both experienced and would-be computer programmers. In the field of computing, Kernighan is probably only rivaled by P. J. Plauger (a former co-author) and Donald Knuth in the quality of his writing. The authors use working and non-working examples in C, C++, and Java to emphasize the importance of simplicity, clarity, generality, evolution, interfaces, automation, and notation in designing and implementing good software. The practical guidelines presented and discussed throughout the book are gathered into a concise list in an Appendix. Voices crying out in the wilderness no doubt, but what a breath of fresh air!

(See the book's web page, The Practice of Programming, for excerpts from the book and source code. Also see Mihai Budiu's entertaining and insightful "An Interview with Brian Kernighan".)

  [Book cover]

Effective C++: 50 Specific Ways to Improve Your Programs and Designs (Second Edition)

by Scott Meyers (1959- ) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1992, 1998, 2005)

The first edition of this book was my bible for learning C++: a colleague at work lent it to me because I couldn't afford to buy a full C++ book. I had already read Bertrand Meyer's Object-oriented Software Construction (first edition)—the best introduction to OOP that you'll find—as well as a number of JOOP and C++ Report articles on C++, so Meyers's book was sufficient at the time.

The second edition, substantially revised and up-to-date with respect to the latest C++ standard, is essential reading for C++ programmers. My only complaints are the occasional unnecessary swipes at languages like FORTRAN and COBOL (Meyers's fault) and the complexity of C++ itself (not Meyers's fault). One might say that the very existence of Effective C++ is evidence that C++ is not a universal improvement over older languages. (Don't let my cynicism detract from the fact that Meyers is an excellent writer and that this is an excellent book—I'm just tired of using a compiler of a 20-year-old language on our project that doesn't yet recognize bools and the standard C++ header files.)

Also see the author's blog, The View from Aristeia.

  [Book cover]

Guide to Human Genome Computing (Second Edition)

edited by Martin J. Bishop (pub. 1998)

Very dry reading! I only made my way partially through the book. The most interesting chapters were those by the editor himself, Martin Bishop.

 

Exons, Introns, and Talking Genes

by Christopher Wills (Wikipedia) (pub. 1991)

I originally read this in 1991 and again, now, nearly 10 years later.

  [Book cover]

Death Comes for the Archbishop

by Willa Cather (1873-1947) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1927)

...

(See the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial; what it doesn't have about Willa Cather, it has links to!)

 

The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

edited by Lily Owens (pub. 1981)

...

  [Book cover]

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

edited by A. S. Byatt (1936- ) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1998)

A collection of short stories by famous authors. A. S. Byatt's preface was excellent and very much worth reading, but what followed was nothing to write home about!

 

The First Salute

by Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1988)

...

 

The Paper Thunderbolt

by Michael Innes (1906-1994) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1951 as Operation Pax)

A good mystery story I've read and re-read many times.

  [Book cover]

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed

by John McPhee (1931- ) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1973)

From Wikipedia:

The AEREON 26 was an experimental aircraft developed to investigate lifting body design with a view to using its shape to create hybrid designs, part airship, part conventional aircraft ... This aircraft has a special place in UFO and conspiracy lore, since enthusiasts have drawn parallels between the shape of this aircraft and some reported UFOs from around the same era.

Also see a mirror of the AEREON Corporation's website; the history page provides a capsule history of the company and its airships. (I assume the company has gone out of business.)

  [Book cover]

The Lopsided Ape: Evolution of the Generative Mind

by Michael C. Corballis (1936- ) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1991)

...

Also see the author's blog, Mind Matters.


Alex Measday  /  E-mail