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Call for the Dead by John le Carré

Call for the Dead (George Smiley, #1)Call for the Dead by John le Carré

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the most important thriller novelists of the 20th century, John le Carré has literally written the book about spy stories. As I found myself interested in reading spy narratives, I decided to begin with him, and his first novel.

I find it fascinating that his first spy novel, Call for the Dead, showcases a tired, cynical spy who wants out of the job. George Smiley is an experienced intelligence officer who’s lived through the Second World War, but who’s not that excited about the job anymore. He’s become tired, cynical and is more or less ready to retire. One morning, he receives a note that an agent, whom he interviewed because of an anonymous denunciation of being a Communist, has committed suicide. Smiley is sent to Fennan’s home as a matter of course, only to suspect that the man has been murdered. After his boss refuses to look into the murder, Smiley quits to solve the crime on his own.

Follows a mystery involving old pupils, theatre, a phone call mystery and classic spy tradecraft. I think that strictly speaking, this isn’t exactly a spy story, but rather a murder mystery involving spies. And yet, the story was satisfying and well-crafted.

Let’s begin with Le Carré’s style. The first thing I noticed was the razor-sharp, no-frills writing that goes straight to the heart of any person, place or action. There are no superfluous words or sentences, nothing but the essential. This makes for a very tight reading experience–sometimes to the point of wondering if it won’t break. It often feels more like a report than a story, and the writing swings uncomfortably between the two.

Indeed, I found myself a bit startled at many points in the novel. The characters are often introduced without much ado, and we are given very little chance to know who they are before they start affecting the story. Therefore, I had often trouble differentiating Mendel from Guillam and figuring out who was who for the minor characters. The point of view also often changed abruptly, making me wonder whose perspective or action we were witnessing at the moment.

The mystery, mysterious as it was, eventually gets solved. The book would have ended well if le Carré had avoided the final report which basically summarizes the entire story in writing that’s even more economical, if that was ever possible. I think this section could easily have been omitted, as the book is already short enough and doesn’t require a final “here’s what happened in the book” chapter.

Despite its faults, though, I found myself rooting for Smiley and his friends. Smiley is weirdly sympathetic for being so cold and cynical. But maybe that’s part of being a spy: you can’t let yourself have feelings or be hopeful, as you’ve seen the worst of human guile and evil. Murder, blackmail and manipulation are matters of course for fictional spies; how can one remain happy and hopeful in such an environment?

Thematically, the book explores the breakdown of traditional British society after the Second World War. Characters live in neighbourhoods that they “shouldn’t” live in; a Jewish man works in the Foreign Office, a traditionally very British and classist environment; the threat of communism is ever-present as East German spies, trained by the British, start popping up everywhere; Smiley and his friends keep this old-style “club” maintained by their old Oxford (or was it Cambridge?) landlady. It’s not as obvious as in second book, but you can see a hint of interest in this topic in this first book.

This book matters because it’s the first from one of the major writers of the second half of the 20th century. Call for the Dead gives us a glimpse of the talent and abilities of an up-and-coming thriller writer, whom everyone will want to emulate within a few years. I am definitely looking forward to the next novel!

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Authentic Success by Robert Holden (review)

Authentic Success: Essential Lessons and Practices from the World's Leading Coaching Program on Success IntelligenceAuthentic Success: Essential Lessons and Practices from the World’s Leading Coaching Program on Success Intelligence by Robert Holden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another wonderful book by Robert Holden.

Given that I had already read Happiness NOW!, a lot of his ideas were already familiar to me. But these ideas are so important that they bear repeating, and so I don’t think that reading this along with other works by Holden is in any way a waste of time. In fact, I think I got more out of this one because I had read it already, because his approach to success is very much based on his ideas about happiness. Basically, happy people are more naturally successful.

While Happiness NOW! was more philosophical in nature, this one has a more practical outlook. It’s filled with exercises and tips on how to find what success really means to you, and then taking action. It forces you to look at your fears and at your deeply conditioned thoughts and beliefs about success and all its related elements.

A book, by itself, will never change your life, just like money by itself cannot make you happy. So unless you’re willing to sit down with yourself and do the work, you probably won’t reap all the benefits that this book can provide.

This book was well-structured, with tons of examples from a variety of sources like clients, seminars and other writers (including other psychologists, novelists, poets and philosophers). But, most of all, it’s Holden’s own deep belief in what he preaches that convinces me. You can feel his commitment to his subject through every word, and he doesn’t seem like the hypocritical “do as I say, not as I do” type.

One chapter that especially touched me was the one about Money Sickness. I was on the edge of tears throughout. But if you want to know what he says about it… you’ll have to read the book. I think that it should be read with an open mind and a desire to become a better person.

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Happiness Now! by Robert Holden (review)

Happiness Now!: Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FASTHappiness Now!: Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST by Robert Holden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always looked at self-help books with a bit of suspicion. Either they are blindingly obvious and don’t deserve their asking price, or they are useless to anyone other than the person who wrote it, in which case we end up with the same result: you spent money, and quite a bit of time, for something that is definitely not helpful.

Robert Holden avoids both pitfalls with Happiness Now!: Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST… if you’re ready to listen to its message.

The book’s core idea is most elegant in its simplicity: happiness is within your grasp, now. The title is actually a bit misleading: “now” is not about “feel happy right now because you are reading this book”, but rather about how the secret of happiness is in the “now”. The book won’t make you feel happy, but it may, in Holden’s words, encourage you to happiness.

Throughout the book, Holden uses personal experience, writings from philosophers, poets and religious figures from around the world (and not just the Bible, which I appreciated), and examples from past clinical work with clients to show that deep down, everyone knows how to be happy. Most of us have simply forgotten.

The book takes you through the many facets of happiness: realizing that we already are happy, giving up the search for happiness, the curse of “not being good enough”, accepting yourself, letting go of conditional love, the healing process, the importance of love, and lightening your burden.

After reading this book, I had the strangest, yet most familiar feeling: that I knew all of this all long. How easy is it to forget, in our frenzied search for more money, more possessions, more success, more love, that each of us has something inside that makes all those things optional at best.

Have you ever felt a part of you resisting the nature of modern life? Looking for a slower, more meaningful way to relate to the world and to others?

Listen to it. It’s happiness knocking at your heart’s door.

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The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins — Review

A few weeks ago, when I got really sick, I decided to give The Hunger Games a try. Sure, it’s young adult literature (so is Harry Potter, actually) and some of the comments I’d heard vilified its bad use of punctuation, but the general hype and mostly positive reviews convinced me to give it a try.

And if you haven’t yet, you should too.

If you haven’t heard about the books yet, here is a very short summary of what they are about (or you can always just watch the movie trailer).

In the country of Panem, every year there is a “reaping”, where one male and one female between 12 and 18 are randomly chosen in each of the 12 districts to participate in the Hunger games, a sadistic game of survival where the last person alive wins comfort for themselves and glory for their district.

Katniss Everdeen lives in the poorest district, #12, that relies on coal mining. In order to save her younger sister from the reaping, she volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games along with Peeta, the baker’s son. From this fateful decision begins an adventure that will bring Katniss to the heart of Panem politics, and involve her in a plot to overturn the dictatorship of the Capitol.

I have a soft spot for science-fiction. I may have studied Victorian literature, but I admire the ability of science fiction to imagine whole new social systems and technologies and turn them into believable worlds. I will break my review down in three parts for each book.

Book 1: The Hunger Games

It didn’t take very long for the story to grip me. The dystopian world, the sympathetic characters, the quick-moving plot: everything works to make this book in a page-turner.

We meet Katniss as she prepares for hunting in the woods, which is illegal  but widely accepted by the authorities of the district, as they also gain from it. Katniss is responsible for her mother and her little sister, Prim, since her mother suffered a breakdown after the death of her father. She hunts with Gale, her best friend, and they share skills and resources to feed both their families.

The book begins a few days before the Reaping. We get Katniss’ point of view as she reflects on the consequences of the reaping and its injustice. At their core, the Hunger Games are a version of Roman gladiator shows: a way to control the outer provinces and provide entertainment to a blasé, luxurious capital population. In the book, the history of the Hunger Games begins with a war, after which the Hunger Games are implemented to “remind” the people, every year, of the Capitol’s power over them. Attendance to the reaping is mandatory, and so is watching the Games. Think “Gladiator” meets “Big Brother” in a dictatorship.

I felt instant sympathy for Katniss. In a world where living illegally is the only way to eat enough, where social injustice is rampant (and in fact institutionalized) and where children are held hostage against rebellion, her struggle to act morally despite the cruelty around her is heroic.

As soon as the Games start, the plot picks up its pace and keeps you turning the pages all the way to the end. Her true/fake love affair with Peeta, which keeps both of them alive, is particularly fraught with teenage anxiety around relationships and desire. But ultimately, this is about survival. Who do you live for? What are you willing to do to survive?

The writing, despite its slight faults, is gripping and evocative. Collins has a way to describe horrific scenes in a way that retains the violence, but maintains respect for the human victims. The book left me hungry for more.

Book 2: Catching Fire

Given the way the story of The Hunger Games ended, it was obvious that a second part was in Collin’s mind. The second book explores Panem society a bit more in depth, and still includes everyone’s favourite part, another round of Hunger Games.

The book begins as Katniss and Peeta get ready to go on the customary Panem-wide winner’s tour. They are paraded throughout the country to, mostly, twist the knife into the wound of all the losing districts. But she also realizes that her act of defiance against the Capitol has spurred a spirit of rebellion in Panem. Ambivalent as to her involvement and desire to be part of such a difficult entreprise, Katniss is ready to move on to a more peaceful and wealthy life in her District. But a forced wedding between herself and Peeta forces her to remain in the spotlight, until the new round of Hunger Games are announced, with all the rules changed. Katniss and Peeta are forced to participate in the Games, once again.

In Catching Fire, the main focus is Katniss’ growing anxiety at her feelings for both Peeta and Gale. Collins artfully captures the flightiness of teenage desire, which remains constant despite a world torn by trauma and pseudo-slavery. In this second round, the rules of the game also change drastically, increasing Katniss’ sense of loss of control over her life.

Although there is less attention given to the actual Games in this book, we are given ample time to see Katniss suffer from PTSD. I think that Collins’ depiction of the effect of PTSD on teenagers, which she deepens in Mockingjay, is the highlight of this book. Katniss’ heroic act from The Hunger Games takes its toll, and Collins has no problem depicting her heroine as capable of breaking down and being weak.

The writing also gets better in Catching Fire. Collins shows a stronger mastery of the craft and, while still addressing teenagers, is capable of drawing in adults on her own merits. The senselessness of violence and the consequences of repeated trauma are definitely major concerns of Catching Fire.

My only gripe with this book: I wish I had learned more about Panem society. Collins kind of opens up the topic by providing an interesting description of one district, and then drops it completely. We do learn from other districts through their competitors in the Games, but it really isn’t the same. Somehow I was expecting something a bit more complex, but Collins decided to keep the focus on Katniss herself rather than expand the world she so convincingly sketches, even if lightly.

Book 3: Mockingjay

This is where I started losing my interest a bit. This book reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in that the main character, supposedly the heroine, spends most of the book disabled by PTSD  and medication. Even though the final heroic act is hers again, it’s hard to see her as the strong character in this last installment. She spends most of her time in a medical haze, or crying, or hiding in a closet.

Katniss, now living in discreet, long-lost District 13, has to deal with the trauma of two Hunger Games and the weight of the liberation of Panem on her shoulders. Through her actions in the first book, she has become a symbol of rebellion used to rally the Districts against the Capitol. Much less happens in this third book than in the first two. There are a few battle scenes, and the final one, but otherwise, this book is much more introspective than the other two.

But at the same time, this book is among the strongest example of the mental and physical consequences of war and violence on people. It is introspective because Katniss has reached her breaking point. She is exhausted, emotionally and physically, and cannot sustain more trauma. So the book becomes not so much about the liberation of Panem, but about Katniss’ eventual, slow liberation from PTSD.

The end, although satisfying on a character level, left me wanting on the world-level. We don’t know what has happened to Panem, in the end. Is is better for Katniss’ intervention, or has it remained the same? I think we’re supposed to make a link between Katniss’ and Panem’s healing, but it’s not as obvious as it should be.

General thoughts

These books are rough. Brutal. They don’t pull punches and describe war and violence without euphemisms. It’s refreshing, in a sense, because it stands in stark contrast with the official-speak so condemned by George Orwell, back in the day. Collins, I’m sure, sees teenagers as able to handle the truth. She doesn’t sugar-coat the horrifying acts of violence in both Games and the war.

Although the books do live up to their hype, somehow, they don’t live up to their potential. The world of Panem deserved much more development than it did. Maybe it’s the fan of complex fictional social systems, à la Middlemarch, in me speaking, but I do think that the world of Panem could have been the site for a much deeper critique of the current state of power and capitalism. It’s dystopian–we get it. But how did it become that way? What happened between now and then that the site of American power moved to possibly Colorado (I suspect Denver) and its social structure turned back to medieval times? I’ve read a lot of anticipatory science-fiction that gave enough information to infer how the world might crumble. Not so with The Hunger Games.

All in all, it was a mostly satisfying read. It took me 3 days to read all of them, which makes them a quick and entertaining read. And I must admit I did cry at the end (or that might have been how tired and sick I felt. You’ll never know, hah :p). My desire for a more complex world aside, considering the audience, I thought they were excellent examples of what the best YA literature can do.

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Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content by Colleen Jones (review)

Back in the fall of 2011, I bought a few books about content management, hoping I would make it my career. Although this hasn’t really happened (yet), I still find the books I bought useful for my PR studies and my work with several clients on their web content strategies.

Among the books I picked up is Colleen Jone’s Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content. This book started well: an interesting combination of marketing, psychology and rhetoric. However, as soon we hit the later chapters, it becomes too practical and superficial for my tastes.

I found the early chapters interesting: they take apart the idea of “influence” and explain how to turn this to your advantage. I especially enjoyed the analysis of the goals of your content vs. what kind of attitudes or actions you want to instill in your readers. I appreciated the chapters on the psychology of influence and rhetoric. If you thought that ancient Greek philosophy is irrelevant today, think again. I came out with a sudden desire to read Aristotle’s Rhetoric again.

Outside of these early chapters though, I found that most of it was common sense and not very useful for someone who wants to deepen their understanding of online influence. It has a few useful tables laying out what actions should be taken for what objective, but it ends up not going very deep into the strategic side of things. It’s very much a technical book, rather than a strategic one.

Taken all together, this is a quick technical textbook that tells a lot of “what”, but not a lot of “how” or “why”. I could see it used in an introductory course on web content management or web content marketing, or even writing or web project management. However, for those with a mind that require theory rather than practice, this book will leave you hungry for more.

Clout has one redeeming quality: the amount of sources and suggested further reading. There’s a lot of content to pick if you go read those other books. She uses theory that exists in other works, but doesn’t expand on them. If your interests take you deeper, then the reference list should be your first stop after you’re done.

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Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (review)

I did not expect to like this book that much. I started it months ago only to abandon it to Game of Thrones; it’s only when I picked it up again and gave it the attention it deserved that I got hooked.

Let’s not shirk the reality: Cryptonomicon is a big sprawling thing of a book. It has three main characters and a flurry of minor ones which become hard to keep track of at first. But eventually, every piece of the puzzle moves in place and everything makes sense.

This is the ultimate geek novel. It’s about people who probably weren’t very popular in high school but whose smarts put them ahead of the game as soon as appearances lose their importance. It’s also about your typical WWII hero… or maybe not that typical.

Despite its length, the book is full of action. Not a chapter goes on without some major plot point happening. This is one thing I appreciated about this book: it keeps you on your toes. I always wanted to read on to know what was going to happen. I found Stephenson’s peculiar mix of fate and pure chance quite attractive. I don’t especially enjoy stories where everything is fated; for example, the seemingly meaningless “Lavender Rose Waterhouse” (at least meaningless to those who wrote it) begins a quest that has a lot in common with destiny, and yet isn’t quite fate.

To be honest, I found Randy, the main character, a bit infuriating. He’s smart, yes, but he just coasts along the story for a very, very long time, letting himself be lead around by Avi and the Shaftoes. It’s only when he finally decides to act that his character really shows. And that’s very late in a very big book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It brought me back to my love of everything nerdy and geeky. But just a warning: only pick it up if you have a lot of time on your hands or a lot of reading stamina. Because this isn’t the overnight reading kind.

 

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