24 October 2008

Dracula -- Bram Stoker

I think Dracula is one of those stories that everyone thinks they know or do know to some extent, but rarely they have read the actual book. At least, this was my case up until now. I have finally actually read this one. It was very good too. It is, however, written in a strange style. That is, the entire book is in the form of diaries or correspondences. Thus, there is no omnipresent narrator and so the information available to the reader is somewhat limited. Not really that this is a good nor bad thing, basically it just is different.

I very much enjoyed the story and I thought it took just the right amount of time to tell the story. There were some seemingly superfluous parts with people speaking in strange local dialects that were unnecessary to some degree. But, all in all, it was quite a good read. I wouldn't really call it "scary", but then again not much really is scary to me. It was written in the 19th century so that scary and today's scary are often very different. I do recommend it though to anyone, it is a quick read because of the style and it is relatively short at only 400 pages.

01 August 2008

The Bourne Ultimatum -- Robert Ludlum

The finale of the Jason Bourne trilogy was just as good as the first two. I was satisfied with they way he chose to end the series, especially the plot of this one. After the second book, even though I knew there was a third, I could not imagine what would get Jason back in to action. Obviously, Carlos would need to have something to do with this, but I just did not foresee how he chose to do this.

Once again this novel required a lot of disbelief suspension, but it wouldn't really be a good action story if it was any other way. At times I felt like he made certain characters take actions that I just did not think they would have given what I have learned about these characters from the previous two books. For example, Marie does some really stupid things in this book, I was surprised Jason didn't just tie her to a chair and leave her. Additionally, I thought the very end was almost too corny. I mean, let's have every sit down and have a summing up conversation about life that basically saves the author time by making everything very brief and explicit. I am not really complaining, it just felt very rushed. So be it.

I highly recommend this book, but I even more so recommend starting with the first and just powering through these. It was very entertaining and I am sad they are finished. I suppose I can watch the movies now even though they have very little to do with the books.

24 July 2008

Next -- Michael Crichton

Usually this book is not a one day read, at least I don't think under normal circumstances I would have read this so fast. However, I was stuck in the Newark airport from 7pm until my flight finally took off after 3am. After rummaging through my bag and getting a muffin, I decided to pull this book out and start reading. It was quick paced, short chapters and a lot of dialogue, the only parts that slowed the reading a bit were the "news" stories interspersed throughout the book.

The problem with Crichton is that you never know what is specifically true. I know enough about chemistry and the other sciences to know that most of what was happening scientifically in this book is a little premature. But, the main point of the book was right on target. This book appeals to those that are concerned with the litigious nature of our society or those that are not but should be. It appeals to those whom are concerned with the growth of the biotech industry because of the lack of knowledge of those who make decisions and the reckless propaganda of those who actually know what is going on.

I am not saying biotech firms are evil. Quite the contrary. However, read this book and you will understand where the concerns are. There is a lot of benefits to these products and services. They should be rewarded accordingly. However, the courts make rulings where they don't understand the facts. The scientists inside these companies are willing to compromise high academic standards in trade for sensationalizing in front of a scared, misinformed public. Obviously not all are doing this, probably only a few, but the point remains. I highly recommend this book because I agree that the world most people expect to be here in 100 years is already here in many ways.

Specifically about this book, I found the stories to be somewhat jumbled and in some cases were wrapped up hastily and were found lacking. He tried to interweave many different stories and was successful in most ways, however it seemed to me that too many different plot lines were introduced in order to account for less depth and development in all of them. It was an enjoyable read however and the negative aspects in the story telling were outweighed by the skill that was shown in what was there.

23 July 2008

The Bourne Supremacy -- Robert Ludlum

The second book in this series kept up the excitement right where the first one let off. I enjoyed the setting of the first book, primarily France, because I am somewhat familiar with this area. However, the setting of the second book, primarily China during the 1980s, was quite interesting. Not being an expert on the region, it was a welcome change of scenery and language. The customs were different and the whole scope of the novel was much different. Jason knows a lot about who he is and is now using this knowledge, whereas in the first book it was more of a personal scavenger hunt.

The action was very well paced and again it was a very quick and easy read. I had trouble putting it down at times when I had to get back to other work. The character development seemed better and the action sequences were described in a manner that allowed them to be visualized more easily. I often felt as if I was watching a movie while reading because the descriptions are quite good.

Negative aspects of this book were few but they were still there. I am not sure actually if it is a negative or just my fault. Having read the first one so close to the second, it felt so often that he was repeating himself or dwelling on explanations of past events that I already knew about from just reading the first book. I suppose this cannot be avoided in a sequel, but it was still rather annoying at times. Other than this, we had to once again suspend disbelief to the brink at points, but it was done in a way that didn't really hurt the overall story. All in all, I definitely recommend this novel, after reading the first of course. I read on Amazon that a lot of people thought this was the better of the first two, I would say that I agree for the most part. But they are somewhat hard to compare in my mind so I leave it to you.

18 July 2008

And Then There Were None -- Agatha Christie

I read this book rather fast and there is good reason. It was a bit dated in language, but it was still riveting. The mystery had me going until the end. I did not fully understand that whole story until the very last page. She broke the book up into smaller sections and there was quite a bit of dialogue, hence it read very easily. The twists and turns were well designed. I haven't read a mystery novel in a long time, this one did not disappoint the genre. I will definitely be reading more mystery and for sure more Christie. I very much recommend this book, it can be read in a couple days and it is a very enjoyable experience.

The Bourne Identity -- Robert Ludlum

I finally read this book. I had been meaning to after seeing the first movie years ago. I still never managed to see the second or third movies. Not because I did not like the first, but rather I just never seemed to get around to it. I thought this was somewhat of a good thing, because then when I read the three books I would not have known the entire story yet. After reading this book though, I do not think it would have been a problem. This book is so much different from the movie that I remember that I believe the second two movies are probably also very loosely based. I thoroughly enjoyed this book however. The fact that Carlos was actually in this book, albeit that most of the character in the book was false, it still lent a bit of realism to the story.

It has been a very long time since I read what I would actually call a page-turner. I could not put this thing down. Near the end of every chapter there is some new twist that nearly forces me to read on and find out what happens next. I have been reading mostly biographies lately and, before that, nothing I would call action for quite some time. Hence, this book may seem much better to me because I am not engrossed in this genre. But, it was very well executed. Obviously there were times were some disbelief needed to be suspended. Further, I did not fully buy certain characters motivations and feelings throughout. But, I don't always understand why people do certain things in real life either. Thus, with limited skepticism, I believe this is one of the better action-packed novels I have ever read. I fully recommend this book to anyone. It is a very quick read. I am certainly looking forward to the next two.

10 July 2008

The Agony and the Ecstasy -- Irving Stone

This book was fantastic. It took me a while to read, but it was well worth it. I started looking up how to sculpt marble while reading it, that is how well it was written. It portrays the artist with such authority and such a breadth of knowledge that it feels as if you are right there beside him. Michelangelo's life is more than amazing, it verges on the unbelievable. If the works of art and the historical record did not exist, I would not believe such a fantastic tale about one man's life.

The style of the book is novelized biography. This was a new area for me, as I have only read biographies that were meant to be as such. Traditionally, they verge somewhat on the dry fact based novels that they are. Relaying important information and attempting to analyze the life being portrayed. Irving Stone accomplished this in the form of a novel. I had to constantly remind myself that what I was reading actually happened, that this was in fact a biography. Obviously, Stone had to take quite a few liberties with the story and fill in a lot of gaps. However, his ability to tie together the history with such a great story was truly a work of art in itself. I highly recommend this book as the definitive manner in which to enter the life of Michelangelo. His life was filled not only with great work, but also with great intrigue and fantastic stories. It does not disappoint anyone looking for a novel nor looking for a biography. It really does fill both needs simultaneously and thus look no further for either one.

27 May 2008

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan -- Robert Kanigel

I have wanted to read a book on Ramanujan ever since I heard the basic details of his life story. This book is everything I could have asked for. A complete account of the man's life, as well as everything else one might want to know about the times and places he lived. By this I mean, the book details the lives of those closest to Ramanujan as well as the culture in India and England at the time. It is written for the mathematically unsophisticated and is thus accessible to everyone. Even the layman can appreciate the amazing formulas that are presented and explained very well by the author.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. It gives insight into the workings of professional mathematicians which is something that I think non-mathematicians should be informed of. Further, to the mathematically oriented, this book gives insight into one of the most original and brilliant minds of the 20th century and possibly ever. Furthermore, this book is a wealth of information on the cultural aspects that affect academic achievement from the mid-19th century through to the present.

21 May 2008

Ninety-Three -- Victor Hugo

I have been wanting to read nearly all of Hugo's books and this is my first one. I can safely say that it will not be my last. This was truly a great piece of literature. I want to start with saying that I really did enjoy the book and I thought it was executed (no pun intended) very well. However, I do have some minor complaints. I think that it is sometimes over looked that this book goes into some unnecessary detail about the people and places involved. Yes it is interesting to hear, but sometimes it goes on for full pages about the names of people who are only mentioned that one time and have little to do with the story. I understand why he does this when he does, however the book does drag at certain points. The only reason I really say this is because anyone looking to read this book might get bogged down near the beginning and even in the middle with some of these details and might possibly set the book aside. It is really worth slogging through the extra verbiage.

The book weaves a fantastic story during an incredibly interesting point in history. I have studied the French revolution from a historical non-fiction point of view as well as from the many novels that are set in this time. I can not get enough of the incredible characters and stories from that time period. This book actually has Danton, Marat and Robspierre as characters. This is possibly the only book I know of that does this. Hence, I recommend this book fully to anyone interested in reading a well developed and engaging story. Especially to those who have a pre-existing interest in the French revolution.

One fact that should actually be pointed out in addition, is the fact that Hugo has some of the best lines I have ever read. I mean that he uses language so well that nearly every sentence is one you want to write down on a post-it and stick to your wall. If I had actually written down every quote that I thought was powerful, beautiful and/or just plain cool, I could have filled a notebook. I ended up writing down page numbers but then had to stop doing that because I had too many written down. I decided at one point that the whole book is quotable and hence reading it is sort of a gift that keeps on giving.

27 March 2008

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! -- Richard P. Feynman

So I guess I am reading biographies right now, but this was a really good one. I had always been meaning to read it, but I am glad in one sense that I waited until now. At least when he was talking about the ants in his Princeton room during grad school I could look at the ants in my Princeton room during grad school and it was kind of cool.

The first few chapters had me somewhat disappointed. I was not laughing out loud. His writing style was not at all what I expected. The stories didn't really grab me too much. But I am really glad I kept reading. As the book went on, I was thoroughly delighted with what I found. His stories are actually very funny at times but also gave insight into someone I think I could have really gotten along with. For example, when he talks about how he talked to Bohr and about why he stayed at Caltech, I could relate in my own way. Obviously in a much more limited and smaller way, but still it felt good. Even though I have not accomplished what he has nor do I feel I am at the same level intelligence right now, it is still refreshing to read the thoughts and anecdotes of someone you relate to on many levels.

I highly recommend this book for several reasons. To the scientist, this is a rare opportunity into the mind of a great one. To the non-scientist, this is a chance to see what science is about and that not all scientists are hiding in labs with thick glasses and no personality. The book is informative as much as it is funny, and it gets funnier as you go on. Additionally, it reads very quickly and because it gets harder and harder to put down as you go along, you find yourself very quickly on the last section and not wanting it to end.

20 March 2008

American Prometheus -- Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of 20th century physics as well as the life of Robert Oppenheimer. This book also gives great insight into many of the interesting themes in America during the cold war. This reaches a climax with Dr. Oppenheimer's security hearing in 1954. It is actually difficult to talk about this book besides that it was highly informative and entertaining.

The fact that this man actually lived the life detailed in this book is amazing. His life reads more like some fantastic movie that is too improbable to be believable. I mean he was quintessential in the creation of the atomic bomb and the creation of one of the greatest theoretical physics departments in the world; and all the while the FBI had him under illegal surveillance. Just the names who he worked with are in themselves impressive: Bohr, Heisenberg, Feynman, Lawrence, Einstein, von Neumann, and the list goes on and on.

This book does not simply derive its value from the incredible highs and lows of Oppenheimer's life. Additionally, the extremely detailed and thorough scholarship and research that was put into this book makes history truly come alive. As objective as a biography can be and as well written as one could hope for. Once again, highly recommended.

24 January 2008

Thus Spoke Zarathustra -- Friedrich Nietzsche

This book has been on my list of books that I should read for a long time. I am not entirely sure why, but I guess there was something in my mind that I could not quite put my finger on that told me that I should read this book. I am glad that I read it when I did and not when I was much younger.

It is an interesting work in philosophy, I disagree with a lot of his points, others he comes very close to what I think is correct and then takes massive right turns. Sometimes he does explicate what I personally believe and thus the entire book was interesting to read. It is always beneficial to broaden your knowledge and that is what I see this book doing. I am now more aware of certain classes of existentialist thought and I feel I understand how some people view the world much better.

The book is lyrical throughout and thus not entirely that easy to read unless you are focused. For example, here are some interesting quotes from throughout the book.

"It is terrible to be alone with the judge and avenger of one's own law. Thus does a star get thrown out into desolate space and into the icy breath of solitary being" (46).

"Indeed, not in satiety shall his yearning keep silent and submerge, but in beauty! Grace belongs to the graciousness of the great-minded" (92).

"Whoever has heart knows fear, but conquers fear; sees the abyss but with pride. Whoever sees the abyss, but with eagle's eyes, whoever grasps the abyss with eagle's talons: he has courage" (233).

The book is better than most philosophical books in that Nietzsche is actually a pretty good writer. He writes in a way that you can read if you put your mind into it. However, I would recommend to be constantly critical of all philosophy and to see it merely as his point of view and to determine logically from it what you actually find truth and value in. In sum, I would advise people to read this, but beware that it is not light and it can be odd at times.