Month: September 2004

Sophie’s World (J. Gaarder)

A Novel About the History of Philosophy. Now, THAT sounds boring, doesn’t it?
A philosophy teacher falls into deep ennui out of his students’ boredom and decides to write a book that makes the history of philosophy an interesting topic. To achieve the result, the book is about a high-school student and her familial problems. And philosophy is the solution of the problem.
Sounds a bit contrived? Well, that’s the story behind Sophie’s World. Not the plot, mind you, but the raison d’etre. The story itself is even more contrived, and ends on a formulaic note of the existentialist kind. It’s like reading Michael Ende, but without any fantasy involved.
In the end, the book is just a replacement for a text book for challenged youth. The story doesn’t flow, doesn’t make any sense, and still remains predictable. Of course, all of this is not true if this book is your first encounter with philosophy, and you do care about 14 year old girls and their outlook on life. Then the distant father figure moves you; the dialogues on philosophers become interesting, and even the leaden description of the characters takes a back seat. It’s like going back in time and reading “The Name of the Rose” all over again.
Ok, so I have to admit I learned about the history of philosophy in high school. It was more fun there, when we could talk with our teacher about all those speculations and reasons. When we could follow the wacky lives of a great many philosophers: their love affairs, their mysterious escapes, their poverty, their craziness. There seemed to be no philosopher that didn’t have a serious issue in life, and we highlighted those with gusto.
Just like ‘Troy’, the movie, omitted the Greek gods and with them all the fun, this book has no relevant embarrassment in store for the philosophers. It is all very clean, as if the author was really trying to get the book approved as text book.
All in all, disappointing. Read something else, if you know about philosophy. And if you don’t, please get yourself a real history of philosophy. They are much more fun, anyway.

An Adventurer’s Guide to Number Theory (R. Friedberg)

Ok, this one is quite a disappointment. To be short, this book is a simple treatise of elementar number theory with very apt vignettes on the major players in this field of mathematics interspersed where appropriate.
In the end, it is quite an interesting book for high-school kids that want to move on to college maths. The examples are very cogent, the flow of the logic easy to follow, the structure well-articulated and managed.
At the same time, there is no adventure or an adventurer in this book. Maybe a humbler title would have helped its cause. In any case, there are better books on elementary number theory, as well as better histories of mathematics.
I am not sure why you would want to read this book.

Bringing Down the House (B. Mezrich)

Geeks applying maths to lead a luxurious life in Vegas? Who could resist a book like that? “The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Miilions” sounds like too good to be true. And since you are probably used to my review spoilers by now, I will confess it isn’t.
Ben Mezrich tells the story as the first-person reporter who finds out about this group and has the unique chance to report about it. The writing is compelling, never too technical, always quite realistic, which makes the tension and suspense very believable.
Turns out the six M.I.T. students in the title are part of a group of players at the college that learned how to exploit a weakness in blackjack, the only winnable game in Vegas. They become “card counters”, that is they offset low cards with high cards and keep track of a running score. If a particular deck is particularly positiive (more low cards have been played than high cards), then game theory shows the player is likely to win against the house.This was very well known in player circles, and card counting had become a profession for a short while. Of course, once the casinos got wind of the trick, they prevented professional players from ever playing again. But of course, the weakness of the game persisted, and Vegas and the counters became embroiled in a technology war.
A team of players could easily outperform a single player, because some players could simply sit and wait at tables until the count became high. Once there was a positive signal, a different player (a Gorilla) could be called in. The gorilla would always play against a good deck, hence bet a lot. So there wouldn’t be the fluctuation in betting that gave the older pros away.
Well, we are talking about riding a multi-million dollar game. Mezrich does a really good job at portraying the kids – young, overachieving college students from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. The game has everything they could ask for: it requires smarts, it yields lots of cheap money, it involves weekends of wild parties, and of course it is a fun adventure, stacked against the odds of a mobster mentality that in the end wins the game.
Mezrich doesn’t really take sides in the story. While we sympathize with the kids, we experience them as real humans. They disagree, they betray each other, they fall out with each other and reconcile. The forces of evil are not as bad as they seem at first. The encounter with casino executives never resembles an execution, and on multiple occasions the kids are let go with their wins, with the simple admonition never to come back.
In the end, the casinos win the technology war. The six students that could have to retire and give up gambling, have to find themselves in the normalcy of a life that seems so unreal after the surreal life in Vegas and other joints around the country.
Well done. It is a book of research and portrayal, one that makes Vegas look better than it should. In the end, knowing about blackjack the way I do now, even I feel inclined to play a gamble at the blackjack table.

The Book of Eleanor (P. Kaufman)

Isn’t it a bit scary if the heroine in a book about the Middle Ages looks airbrushed? I thought so, too. And yet, this novel is not a fake. Eleanor of Aquitaine is certainly a wonderful character to portray in a novel, and Pamela Kaufman does an outstanding job at clarifying a life that seems at odds with itself and its times.
Eleanor grows up the hier of the Duke of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful duchies in France. Intrigues and deception dominate her youth, just as courtship and love do. Just as she finds the love of her life, she is to marry the future King of France in a marriage that is to wed the riches of her duchy to the power of the king.
Alas, turns out the king is a real bore, domineered by clerics who want to evince a life of frustration from him. Eleanor is annoyed and wants out, since the king is after her land and not after her beauty.
She ends up following the fool to the Holy Land, where his ineptitude almost crushes the entire army. She’s got the love of her life with her, so he gets a chance to prove how wonderful he is. Of course, that causes the king’s ire, and everything almost comes to an abrupt end.
Later on, she gets an annullment feigning consanguineity and depravity. The king marries another woman, and just when Eleanor thinks she can get the love of her life, the King of England marches in, rapes her, gets her pregnant and carries her off to his home land.
As it were, that’s where the book starts. Eleanor has once more committed some heinous act of betrayal and is to be carted off to Wales to die in a rotting tower. She will survive and write this book as a memento.
Ok, and I started saying it was credible, why?
Maybe it’s the fact that the vast majority of successful writers certainly focus on the female sex when writing. Eleanor quite doesn’t seem credible as a warm and gentle woman. To survive in the climate of the time, she must have been ruthless and cruel, at times, but in this book, only the bad guys are.
There’s nothing wrong with a classic plot line of good vs. evil in a novel about the Middle Ages, so I can’t really fault the author. Still, I wonder how much the book would have benefited from a more balanced look.
The writing itself is very compelling, and the pace in the story quite easy to follow. Pamela Kaufman surely deserves her bestseller status, given the craft and sheer intelligence she brings to the development of the story.

The Elegant Universe (B. Greene)

What would you read on a week’s long vacation to Maui? You know, sunshine, palms, sand and an inviting ocean? Well, your truly chose (amongs others) The Elegant Universe, a pop-science book by one of the more outstanding string theorists.
Boring? Certainly not. I am a physicist by trade, and I always had a hard time finding the patience to deal with string theory. At some point I knew I would have to do it, and this one was as good an attempt to learn as any other.
String theory is famous for two main reasons:1. It has a successful explanation as to why we experience two sets of forces (gravity on one end and all other elementary forces on the other one) in one single reality2. A very weird view of the world, in which there are infinitesimal dimensions that are curled up, just so that some esoteric mathematical property of spaces beyond a certain dimension holds.
It all sounded too much like the desire to form the universe after the model of the theory. In particular, the extra dimensions seemed to complicate things too much for my pleasure, especially because no observable was associated with these extra dimensions, only mathematical properties.
Then, thinking again, I realized that quantum mechanics must have sounded pretty crazy in the day, too; and there is not the slightest doubt that QM is the best theory in the world when it comes to measurements. The same is true for relativity, another crazy idea in the day.
Who should read The Elegant Universe? It is a very scientific book, trying to explain cover to cover how things work, who is involved in string theory, and how all this edifice came into being. You will sorely miss the prickly debate and the juicy commentary that many other science books offer. This one explains one and only one thing: who came up with string theory, why, and how.
Even if you noticed that’s actually three things, you won’t get much more satisfaction from this book than that. I remember reading a great many attempts to popularize special relativity, even watching Peter Ustinov’s documentary, and getting more confused than before I watched.
Then, one day in the library in Aachen, I discovered the original 1905 ‘Annalen der Physik’ where Einstein published the original theory. All of a sudden everything was clear, and I found that all the attempts to clarify were muddying the waters ever since.
You see, before Einstein came, the laws governing special relativity were all there. What Einstein brought to the equation in this case was simply an overarching explanation that rationalized all the strangeness.
String theory, it seems, needs to find its Einstein. It is a beautiful theory, but it doesn’t really explain much – at least reading this book. One day, if we are lucky and this theory holds, someone will come and explain just why things are supposed to be this way. And that person will make string theory obsolete by simply explaining it in terms outside of it.
Until then, everyone should probably know something about it. This is as good a book as any one.

Angels & Demons (D. Brown)

How would you like the subtitle: “Robert Langdon’s first adventure?”
After reading “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, I realized how hard it would be for Dan Brown to repeat the success of The Da Vinci Code. Indeed, Angels & Demons does not reach the same levels of depth as the predecessor, and falls back on a great many trappings of Brown’s work.
We have the struggle between science and religion, who becomes a stand-in for the debate between technology and politics in the early Brown novels. We have the beautiful but frigid heroine that meets the hunky but geeky hero at the beginning of the tribulations. We have a plot full of twists and turns, and a grand finale in which rationality wins.
Surely, Angels and Demons is a step up from Brown’s early novels. Unfortunately, though, since he writes the background history all by himself, it’s not coherent and compelling. Again, we are made to run through a novel with no reason, chasing after the solution of a case that will leave us without as much as excitement.
I wish Dan Brown good luck finding another ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’. Once he finds another compelling background story he can narrate to, he will have another hit of the magnitude of The Da Vinci Code.

Deception Point (D. Brown)

Probably the first of the very successful set of novels written by Dan Brown, Deception Point opens with a series of themes that will be recurrent throughout Brown’s work. We find the hero and heroine couple to be, meeting at the beginning of the book and forging an unlikely alliance. The hero will be someone that has sworn not to fall in love again; he will be handsome but learned, desired but humble. The heroine will be stunning but too smart to deal with commoners.
The father figure shows up very prominently. In this case, that’s not the heroine’s actual father, who doesn’t ever behave father-like in the whole novel. Instead, it’s the heroine’s boss. This is a prelude to more similar figures throughout the series, and implicates that an almost Oedipal relationship with older men is what prevents the heroine from binding to one of the multitude of men seeking her.
Twists are another recurring item. In Dan Brown’s work, the plot twists like a snake recoiling in a captor’s hand. What seemed good becomes evil, and who seemed friend becomes foe. This need for twists in the plot line gives Brown’s novels a level of ambiguity they share with a lot of thrillers: since you are never sure about the goodness of a character, morality becomes very ambiguous.
Research is another one of Brown’s naturals. When he talks about scientific or technical matters, he sounds very convincing. Despite this, to the expert all his stories have severe logical flaws that render them virtually indistinguishable from Hollywood movies, whose written memento these books seem to be.
Deception Point is a story about a meteorite used to justify the existence of NASA. It is about a close presidential race, in which the incumbent is honest but losing, the opponent cunning but dishonest. And finally it is about a spy and an oceanographer who fall in love despite being both very much the classical Brown misanthropes.
In the end, Deception Point fails on many levels. The premise of the story, a fake meteorite, is too unbelievable to be true. Despite the admonition that all technology in the book is real, placing a meteorite under and ice shelf seems too much a complication to be acceptable.
As a novel, Deception Point is too unevenly paced. Descriptive elements will be inserted in high-paced sections, and where a slowing of the pace would allow for a credible description of the characters, Brown rushes as if hit by an evil editor seeking to cut the end in half.
As a thriller, Deception Point is too predictable. While there are a great many actors in the drama, the premise of the hidden meteorite points directly towards the ultimate culprit. Even if you wouldn’t want to believe his (or her, I don’t want to spoil your fun!) guilt, you are still faced with the realization there are only two other characters that can be at fault.
If you have read all books by Dan Brown, read this for comparison. If you haven’t but intend to read them all, then start a chronological progression. If you are just curious about Dan Brown, read The Da Vinci Code – an almost perfect zenith of his writing, spoiled only by the realization that it’s going to be quite impossible for him to reach the same levels.

The Da Vinci Code (D. Brown)

Imagine the disappointment that I felt when I bought ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’ and found out that ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (TDVC) was a mere novelization of the former!
I thought Dan Brown had outdone himself, collecting information as U. Eco had done for ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’. As a matter of fact, TDVC read like what Foucault’s Pendulum would have wanted to be. Where the latter lacked in a compelling reason to exist and was essentially a manifesto of rationalism (BORING!), the former looked into the exact same historic thread, revealing the same masterful connections in a bright shining light.
TDVC is a novel of deeply historic concern. Based on actual research, the author follows a hero and his heroine on a quest for the Holy Grail. As usual in Brown’s books they meet just for the purpose and didn’t know each other prior to the story’s beginning, which is set in the Louvre.
From the Louvre, the plot ripples all over France, reminding me of the later novels of the Mr. Ripley series. In the end, we find out that Jesus Christ had a family, that they fled Palestine for France, settled there, and created a lineage that goes on to this day.
Now, the historic facts behind this plot line are all taken from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which is written as a documentary book. The embellishments in the plot are typical Dan Brown: a heroine in distress, an erudite and good-looking hero, a conspiracy that tangentially involves our new-formed couple, but sucks them into a vortex of danger, death and disillusion.
If you had analyzed things, you would have come up with exactly this scenario. Mr. Brown’s evolution as a writer goes from the seriously overwritten Deception Point to the streamlined Digital Fortress; from there to Angels and Demons, where religion is discovered as a new and compelling theme. In all these books, though, plot lines are tactical and not strategic. There is a certain lack of thematic uniformity (read: message) that makes all those books interesting reads, but not compelling ones.
Thematic continuity is certainly the dominant character of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. On the other hand, the strict documentary nature of the book relegates is to the realm of non-fiction readers. And the story is just to compelling to be put on the same shelf as the latest self-help tome or the newest business theory.
Combined in TDVC, historic fact and formulaic novelization combine into a killler package. TDVC has both the romantic interest that binds the female readership as well as a reason to keep you interested in the story. Well done – but very, very hard to repeat.

Digital Fortress (D. Brown)

Digital Fortress is a fast-paced thriller with a strong technological background and an odd location in National Security circles.
Before Dan Brown moved to religion as a topic, security and espionage were his main themes. Both Digital Fortress and the earlier Deception Point deal with the interaction between espionage and politics, bringing the delicate balance between good and evil to attention.
Dan Brown loves twists. The plots of his novels are the conventional spy novels, in which a good pair/couple deals with a series of ambiguous and powerful characters. Readers are required to think that these powerful characters are on the good or the evil side depending on the torque of the plot’s twists at the moment.
Digital Fortress is about a secure encryption algorithm and the need to have a trap door into any such algorithm. There is one historic fact behind this story line: the FBI demanded that any encryption algorithm have a secured trap door, such that nobody could encrypt anything that the FBI couldn’t read.
Unfortunately both for the book and the FBI, that’s a little bit like asking to create a lock that can always be opened by a master key, but that is supposed to be secure: the good guys will use it, exposing themselves to the bad guys that stole the master key; the bad guys aren’t going to be as stupid as using an encryption mechanism that is easily decoded.
As a result, the technical part of the novel is deeply flawed and not too interesting. The plot, though, is acceptable in its fatal twists and turns. The characters are sometimes believable – allthough Dan Brown would be well-advised to research the ‘eternal father figure’ in his books. Is it something that he came up with, or is it the brainchild of an editor?
In any case, Digital Fortress ends up being a little formulaic. I am glad Mr. Brown found a much more compelling environment in the Catholic Church.