Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fireside Chat with a Favorite Uncle

TITLE: How Would You Move Mount Fuji?
AUTHOR: William Poundstone
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company

5/5 "Verrry Slowly"; 4/5 "Magic"; 3/5 "Get Godzilla to Stomp On It"; 2/5 "With Chewing Gum, String, and the Moon's Gavitational Pull"; 1/5 "A-Bombs"
SCORE; 4/5

After a really bad job interview, ever felt the interviewer had it in for you right from the get-go? It may not be just in your head. A Harvard study found that random people watching a 15-second clip of job candidates entering, shaking hands with their interviewer and then sitting down scored the candidates almost identically to the interviewers themselves.

That's just one of the fascinating anecdotes that percolates through William Poundstone's tasty blend of corporate history, puzzle book and job-seeker advice, "How Would You Mount Fuji?".

The book feels more like a collection of loosely-linked magazine articles than a single narrative. While it's ostensibly about the "logic puzzles" used in Microsoft's job interviews, Mr Poundstone is more interested in telling a good story than helping you land a job coding for Mr Gates and co. Instead of a how-to guide, it's more like a friendly chat with a beloved but scatterbrained uncle.

Mr Poundstone starts with a critique of traditional interview techniques, where he mentions the Harvard study. He explains how the failings of these methods led to the increasing use of logic puzzles and branteasers in interviews, especially at Microsoft and at investment banks. Next we get a look at the organization and corporate philosophy of Microsoft itself. Mr Poundstone follows with a sample of the puzzles themselves. The second half of the book is more prescriptive, with advice for both job-seekers and interviewers on how to ask and answer logic-puzzle questions.

Regardless of the slightly butterfly progression from topic to topic, Mr Poundstone is always a highly entertaining guide, and despite the math-heavy subject, he writes clearly and simply enough even for an amateur booker reviewer to understand. Some of his proposed solutions to the puzzles seem a little too literal (his answer to the question of the title is to calculate the volume of Mt. Fuji using the formula for a cone, then calculate the number of dump trucks required to haul all the stone away). For most of the others though, you'll be kicking yourself for not getting his answer.

Since the book was originally published in 2003, the reputation of Miscrosoft, and especially its spiritual siblings on Wall Street--such as Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs--have taken a bit of a beating, so whether their model of interviewing is worthy imitating or not is a bit of an open question. The book's utility and appeal to job-seekers therefore seems a little doubtful. However, it is an enormously funny read for anyone just interested in puzzles, the history of interview questions, or the culture of Silicon Valley.

How would I move Mount Fuji? Stand on my head. Voila! I've turned it upside-down.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hurry up and Wait, and Wait, and Wait...

TITLE: The Innocent Mage (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker Book 1)
AUTHOR: Karen Miller

5/5 "Arthur Miller"; 4/5 "Glenn Miller"; 3/5 "Bode Miller"; 2/5 "Frank Miller"; 1/5 "Miller Lite"
SCORE: 2/5

"The Innocent Mage", the 2005 breakthrough fantasy novel by prolific Australian author Karen Miller, pulps together a number of genre stand-bys (boy of humble origins rises to fame, prophecy foretells his coming to save the world from world-dominating evil), but produces only a thin gruel.

This first book of a two-book series is set in the hermit kingdom of Lur, shuttered against a world overrun by evil behind a magical wall. Ms Miller gives this evil a name, and it is ... Morgan. Sigh. Morgan the insurance claims adjuster I buy, Morgan the evil sorcerer I do not (Actually, I have trouble taking anyone named Morgan seriously, unless preceded by the title "Captain"). The rest of the novel is likewise enjoyable only as a campy fantasy, a throwaway time-filler.

Asher, the youngest son of a large fishing family, travels to the kingdom's capital, hoping to save enough money to buy a boat of his own. By the second chapter, he is catapulted into the retinue of Prince Gar, the king's eldest son, and it is revealed Asher is a long-awaited savior destined to save the kingdom from impending doom. Oddly, the book is in no hurry to get him doing anything heroic, preferring instead to focus on dialogue and the drama of the royal family. Characterization is strong by unsophisticated, a drum solo rather than a 20-piece orchestra. This focus on character would work better if Asher were a bit less irritating. Ms Miller makes him a peculiarly repulsive form of stick-insect, a prickly, rude and thuggish boor you could cheerfully strangle. Flawed heroes are all well and good, but Ms Miller has her entire supporting cast fall instantly and inexplicably in love with Asher, leading you to suspect we're actually supposed to like this annoying little tick.

Ms Miller's blend of fantasy-lite and talky romance may appeal to adolescents, but there is little here for more grown-up readers. The series concludes in book two, "The Awakened Mage", but after such thin fare it's hard to muster much of an appetite for the sequel.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Kindle Post

TYPE: E-book reader

5/5 "The Alphabet"; 4/5 "The printing press"; 3/5 "Papyrus"; 2/5 "The Da Vinci Code"; 1/5 "Danielle Steel"
SCORE: 3/5

I view the Kindle a bit like the invention of papyrus by the ancient Egyptians. Bear with me. For centuries, any time King Tut or the Assyrian emperor had something they desperately wanted to tell people, "Nubile virgins wanted" or "Mission accomplished in Iraq" and that kind of thing, they'd bang it into stone and make damn sure people would still be reading about the drubbing he gave the Iraqis or the lamentable virgin shortage, three thousand years later.

Then, some clever-clogs points out how much quicker, easier, more convenient, more compact and portable it would be to scribble all the words on bits of mashed-up plant pulp. Voila, papyrus! Only snag is, it rots in moist air. Or crumbles in dry. And tears. And burns. Papyrus, in other words, was a step forwards in convenience, but a step back in permanence.

So too with's Kindle E-book reader, if not more so. Not only does the Kindle transform books into that most delicate of media, 1s and 0s flitting about in server-space, but also its longevity is inevitably linked to that of its producer,, a company that didn't even exist until 15 years ago.

Yes, yes, this is all very retrograde and reactionary of me. I cheerfully confess, as an E-book reader, the Kindle is superb. The E Ink display is crisp and easy on the eyes, and flipping through the pages is as smooth and seamless as reading the old-fashioned paper kind. The small screen on the Kindle 2 (I haven't tried the larger DX version) means there's more flipping to do, but since this is so effortless, it's hardly a drawback. The battery power appears generous, enough for endless hours of constant reading without pausing for a recharge. The built-in free 3G wireless connectivity is nice if a bit slow, letting you grab new titles or samples almost anywhere you please. The physical design too is pleasingly clean and simple, although I found the thumb-activated joystick for navigating menus a little clumsy.

The extra bells and whistles outside or reading E-books seem less well done, however. There is a very basic web browser, which can just about handle Wikipedia but soon collapses, whimpering, when presented with sites more graphic-intensive. The lack of navigation tools is also aggravating, and makes browsing a bit like trying to access the Internet using only a "Pong" controller. In addition, there is also a text-to-audio feature which can read books to you, although I must admit I was never tempted to try.

To reiterate, the Kindle excels for reading books, but falters for anything else. To mangle the famous epigram of Greek poet Archilocus, the Kindle knows just one trick, but it's a good one.

Rather than any specific beef with the Kindle per se, my concern is with the whole concept of an E-book reader. Electronic hardware and the data you store inside them are terribly fragile, and are rapidly overtaken by new technological progress. I've taken my digital camera in to be repaired twice over the last three years. A computer crash wiped out a large chunk of my photo album. Never had to repair or replace a book. Although I never bothered to upgrade my videotapes to DVD, I've replaced my music collection twice already, once with CDs, and now with MP3s. I don't particularly look forward to doing the same with my library.

In short, I believe (I hope) that the Kindle and other E-book readers are never more than toys for boys, something to slip into the suitcase rather than taking an armful of paperbacks on holiday, perhaps an aid to those whose eyes and hands are not as sprightly as they once were. E-books and papyrus are all right for some things, but it's comforting to know some things are set in stone for future generations to enjoy.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Inglourious Empire

TITLE: Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe
AUTHOR: Mark Mazower

5/5 "British"; 4/5 "Mongol"; 3/5 "Roman"; 2/5 "Macedonian"; 1/5 "Records"
SCORE: 4/5

George Santayana famously said "those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it". You are unlikely to ever forget reading Mark Mazower's "Hitler's Empire".

I must confess a geeky fascination with war and military history, with the pageantry of uniforms and the dash of arrows on a map. "Hitler's Empire" is the perfect antidote, reality's slap in the face of boys' bloodthirsty fantasies. It offers no happy endings; there are no Schindler Lists or Bielski partisans waiting to rescue the condemned.

Neither is this popular history in the spirit of John Keegan or Anthony Beevor. Instead, it is an exhaustively researched work of scholarship, the kind of account reviewers tend to describe as "weighty" or "definitive" rather than "readable". It's slow going, and the subject matter, the interminable roll-call of stupidity, greed and murder, does not help. You'll be forgiven for putting the book down once a chapter to go hug your family.

Mr Mazower tries to explain the competing visions that lay behind Germany's conquests, and how they played out in real life. The structure wobbles occasionally, as Mr Mazower tries to juggle both a chronological account of the occupation, as well as thematic discussions on topics that traditionally get little airtime in story of World War II, such as the German use of foreign slave labor, and the occupation regimes of Hitler's allies, such as the Romanians. Some interesting ideas, such as the parallels between German rule and the colonial empires of Britain and France, are raised but then abandoned. A "dramatis personae" and perhaps a timeline would have helped anchor the reader against the flood of details. However, this is more than compensated for by Mr Mazower's ability to tell the inside story, how the Nazis conceptualized their mission, by examining their own speeches, papers and journals.

The narrative that emerges is not a comforting one. For us in the West, the defining story of the German occupation has been defined by the unholy trinity of Hitler, the SS and the Holocaust. Would that it were so simple. Mr Mazower takes pains to show it was not only Hitler, not only the SS, and indeed, not only the Germans who engaged in wholesale slaughter on an unprecedented scale. The victims were not only Jews, though they suffered horrifically, but also included millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and others considered "subhuman".

The other leitmotif running through the book is the inability of the Nazis, in the words of Hitler's interpreter Paul Schmidt, to "think ahead for more than five minutes". Mr Mazower shows that the occupation of Europe was a jerry-built (sorry!) amalgamation of regimes wildly different in aims, execution and effectiveness, riven by infighting among the Nazi Party, the SS and the military. The only constant was their desire to ensure the primacy of the German race, and to make Europe serve their war machine. Mr Mazower shows how the first aim invariably undermined the latter, making their rule as shortsighted as it was brutal, and leaving the reader to wonder how such trigger-happy bunglers were ever capable of bringing Europe to its knees. The sobering conclusion is that they succeeded in large part due to the complicity, or at least apathy, of most of those they ruled.

This book will likely only appeal to specialists, which is a shame. The war in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda show we have already repeated history. Reading this book will help us to remember, no matter how unpleasant the memory.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stephen Fry in a Hurry

TITLE: Stephen Fry in America
AUTHOR: Stephen Fry
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins

5/5 "California Girls"; 4/5 "New York, New York"; 3/5 "Meet Me in St. Louis"; 2/5 "Mississippi Queen"; 1/5 "Waking up in Las Vegas"
SCORE: 2/5

I should have known better than to buy a TV series tie-in, but come on, I thought, it's Stephen "A Bit of Fry and Laurie, not to mention some bits of Blackadder" Fry. Surely, it will be worth a chuckle or two.

Alas, as Fry himself has said, "As private parts to the gods are we. They play with us for their sport."

The premise is simple enough: Englishman tours the 50 states, and discovers Americans are not all that bad. The book is structured as a travelogue, recording Stephen's adventures along his journeys. Each state gets its own chapter, preceeded by a list of "Key Facts" such as the State Capital, Motto and/or Neckwear (Arizona: Bolo tie). Very democratic and even-handed, but it does mean that when crammed into the space of 300 pages, each state gets an average of roughly six pages. Well, five, less the Key Facts.

Depth then is somewhat lacking. Each state is reduced to one or two encounters with assorted billionaires, entrepreneurs, hillbillies, indians, stoners, witches and zulus. Delware is passed through without stopping. Stephen gets no further than the state line of Idaho before zipping off to Wyoming. Of course, length is no guarantee of quality, but so much of Stephen's prose is filled with the banal, "I couldn't be happier" (Montana), "I enjoyed myself here as much as I have anywhere" (South Dakota), "I decide that I like the South" (South Carolina).

All this would be less disappointing if it was delivered with a bit more wit. Stephen, however, apparently had other ideas, and plays it straight (badda-bing) for most of the book. Stephen's prose is good, solid, readable stuff, but it rarely shines. There is the odd sally that raises a smile, but for the most part Stephen has decided it is more important to be earnest. Indeed, the book's simplicity of spirit is almost... well... American.

Not a bad book then, simply less than I had hoped for.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Starry Eyed Traveller Brought to Earth

TITLE: The Blue-Eyed Salaryman: From World Traveller to Lifer at Mistubishi
AUTHOR: Niall Murtagh
PUBLISHER: Profile Books

5/5 "Cobalt"; 4/5 "Sapphire"; 3/5 "Blue"; 2/5 "Azure"; 1/5 "Cerulean"

Over the past 20 years, Japan's corporate giants have gone from walking tall to staggering a bit, to finally lying supinely on the floor. What is surprising is not that the country tripped--we all have our bad days--but that it has never really found its feet again. This insightful book helps you see why.

Before the collapse of its economy in 1989, Japan's manufacturing might had amassed Croesus-like wealth, fueling a spending spree that famously included the Exxon Building and Rockerfeller Center. However, the years since, the main thing Japanese companies seem to be acquiring is foreign CEOs (Nissan, Sony). While Japan still boasts champions in a number of fields (Canon, Toshiba, Toyota), there is no Japanese version of Microsoft or Apple, of Cisco or Oracle, Nokia or RIM, Allianz or AXA, Pfizer or Bayer.

Mr Murtagh was another international acquisition of Japan Inc., and although his book is not written as an analysis of the country's economic malaise, the symptoms are all there in his account. Through his plainly told, straightforward account of his graduate studies in Tokyo, recruitment by the Mitsubishi Group--one of Japan's largest and oldest conglomerates--his growing disenchantment and final resignation from the company, you can start to get a feeling for how myopic and parochial Japanese corporate culture can be. His final, damning analysis is that "The fundamental problem is that the managers making the decisions have no experience of anything other than the company they work for ... they don't even realize their decision-making leaves much to be desired".

After working for 10 years in both the public and private sector in Japan, including a term at another one of Japan's largest companies, I can attest to the accuracy and universality of much of Mr Murtagh's observations, from corporate daddy-cultures that have managers admonishing staff not to walk with their hands in their pockets, to meeting minutes that focus solely on the lofty pronouncements of senior executives.

If all this sounds rather heavy-going, the book itself is a surprisingly light read. Mr Murtagh's style is understated and simple, if a little heavy on sarcasm. It's not exactly sparkingly funny; the tone lurks just beyond the penumbra of wit, exuding a sort of black humor born of corporate cupidity and indifference. The book is at its best when it has management in its sights. A bit like Dilbert, minus the cubicles and punchlines.

The book is not all overalls and overtime, which is a pity, for the bits that aren't about work are easily the book's weakest. In between meetings and business trips, Mr Murtagh details his neighbor troubles and love life--none of which is especially insightful. I'd suggest readers looking for a better treatment of an outsider's life in Japan read Bruce Feiler's "Learning to Bow" (somewhat dated) or even Dave Barry's "Dave Barry Does Japan" (also dated, but hilarious). For the insider's look on daily life, try Alex Kerr's polemical "Dogs and Demons", Karl Taro Greenfeld's "Speed Tribes" or Michael Zielenziger's "Shutting Out the Sun".

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Little Gem of a Tirade

TITLE: The Angry Island: Hunting the English
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster

5/5 "William Shakespeare"; 4/5 "The Duke of Wellington"; 3/5 "Margaret Thatcher"; 2/5 "Guy Fawkes"; 1/5 "Robbie Williams"

Mr Gill's polemical little treatise is simply awful. It is one of the most venomous, hate-filled, bile-soaked bundles of papers created ever since Mr A. Hitler put down the paintbrush and took up the genocide-advocacy business.

It is also one of the most delightful, lyrical books I've ever been fortunate enough to read.

I exaggerate, of course, and this is exactly what Mr Gill does as he sets about deliberately trying to demolish every shibboleth, to pull the tail of every sacred cow, to dispel every assumption there ever was about the English.

His central theme is that far from being restrained, witty, animal-loving gentlemen, the single defining characteristic of the English is their anger. He does so in 16 vitriolic chapters smashing preconceptions on everything from humor and drinking, to gardening and sports. It's perhaps with deliberate irony that a book that takes the English to task for their madness should do so in such froth-flecked terms.

Indeed, it would be easy to be distracted by the book's many annoyances. Take, for example, Mr Gill's pedantic insistence on identifying himself as a Scot, despite having lived his life since age 1 in England. Not only does this strike me as ungrateful, but the whole "Scotland is a country" riff comes off as childish, like two siblings drawing an invisible dividing line down a shared bedroom.

Yet getting angry with Mr Gill would not only prove him so smugly right, but it would also deprive you of the joy of his prose. Whatever I think of the man or his views, he knows how to write, how to make words sing. In Mr Gill's prose, stairs are "clumsy" with flowers, class snobbery is as "smart as a wet patch" on the front of your pants, airports are "the maternity units of queues".

However over-the-top his views, there is much here that is intelligently observed. Take, for example, the English war against the Zulus, in which England doled out an unprecedented number of Victoria Crosses. The really brave ones, notes Mr Gill, were the Zulus, who took on the British armed with no more than a knife on a stick and a leather coffee table. His enumeration of all the ways "sorry" can mean something else, if not its complete opposite, is spot-on.

Finally, the book is undoubtedly funny. As he admits in the chapter on Humor, English jokes are often at their funniest when aimed, not shared, and his own book is Exhibit A. This attack on the English class system is as hilarious as it is unprintable. His description of the English delight in their own misfortune--a kind of self-reflexive schadenfreude--will tickle anyone who has spent time among the English.

Disjointed, bombastic, frequently wide of the mark, Yes. But also witty, intelligent and poetic. Ah, the man may talk like the devil, but he writes like an angel.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Travel Companion, Not a Guide

TITLE: Japan's Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behavior of the Japanese
AUTHOR: Boye Lafayette De Mente
PUBLISHER: Tuttle Publishing

5/5 "Sake"; 4/5 "Anime"; 3/5 "Karaoke"; 2/5 "Pokemon"; 1/5 "Bukkake"

In “Japan’s Cultural Code Words”, American author Boye Lafayette De Mente seeks to provide businessmen dealing with Japan a primer on negotiations, by using key concepts in Japanese society and psychology as a window into their behavior. The book works as a traveling companion, one you dip into now and again, but likely fails in its mission to act as a guide.

The 200-plus expressions are arranged alphabetically, from ageashi (“tripping on your tongue”) to zanrei (“breaking the molds of the past”). Mr De Mente explains the origins of each term in light of Japan’s more-Orwell-than-Orwell feudal past or atomic defeat in World War II, then suggests ways foreigners can accommodate or adapt to each.

Mr De Mente’s book offers a kind of cut-away diagram into the Japanese soul, and there are insights here even for experienced Japan-watchers. However, he does at times appear removed from the grittier aspect of Japanese society—for example, he claims “Freetas” (from the English for freelancer, used in Japan to describe anyone working on freelance or short-term contract work rather than in a permanent position) are envied for their freedom, when in fact the growing number of people unable to find stable employment is considered a serious social ill.

Mr De Mente is generally balanced and fair in his description of Japanese behavior. He praises their virtues, but pulls no punches with what he sees are their fundamental faults, especially their enduring parochialism and the strange mix of smugness and envy that lace their dealings with the West. Those whose exposure to Japanese culture is limited to the occasional California roll at a Korean deli will doubtless find him overly critical, but experience teaches that his criticism is usually justified. (Full disclosure: I have lived and worked for the past 10 years in Japan).

The book is aimed squarely at the business community, and Mr De Mente attempts whenever possible to proffer potential negotiators with advice on how to handle their Japanese counterparts. This raises the book above the level or mere catalogue, even if the advice often boils down to “deal with it”.

Unfortunately, organizing the terms alphabetically rather undermines this effort. It’s a garage sale of sociology, a dusty attic with unorganized memorabilia, a primer that is 90 percent tertiary information. There are some shiny new ideas and sparkling insights, but finding them requires considerable hunting. The books offers no bulleted list of things to do, no consistent rules to follow, nothing in short that your would-be entrepreneur to wrap their brain around. Some of the information is highly abstract and esoteric, and likely wouldn’t be much use to negotiators even if it was put in an easier-to-digest format.

More to the point, the book begs the question why outsiders should go out of their way to accommodate the Japanese rather than vice versa. Particularly given Japan’s 20 years of stagnant growth and its rapidly-disappearing lead over competitors in fields such as household electronics and automobiles, it’s getting harder and harder to justify the extra effort it takes to do business with the Japanese. The demand to be treated on their own terms might have been justifiable when they lead the world; this position grows increasingly untenable the farther they fall behind their neighbors.

If a reader is patient and thorough, this reference guide will doubtless help them navigate the notoriously difficult business climate in Japan. It’s harder to say why anyone should care to try.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Smooth as Ceramic, Thin as a Microchip

TITLE: Spook Country
AUTHOR: William Gibson

5/5 "Pussy Galore"; 4/5 "Honey Ryder"; 3/5 "Plenty O'Toole"; 2/5 "Kissy Suzuki"; 1/5 "Xenia Onatopp"
SCORE: 4/5

A slick casing of ultra-modern style hold a wafer-thin plot in William Gibson's "Spook Country". Mr Gibson returns to the augmented-reality world of 2003's "Pattern Recognition" and uploads us into the minds of Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist working for a magazine that may not even exist, Tito, a Russian-trained Chinese-Cuban smuggler delivering iPods to a mysterious client, and Milgrim, a benzo-addicted Russian translator kidnapped by a pseudo-military team shadowing Tito.

Mr Gibson's writing is ceramic-smooth minimalism, slick and stylish as an iPod, and easily its match in self-conscious hipness. Sentences are subject, verb, object, although two of these may be optional. "She'd Google him later" sums up the style--five words or less, including brand name. There is much guff talk about "preubiquitous media" and cyberspace "everting", but the prose is rescued from pretentious silliness by eye-catching imagery, like calling a sidewalk an "abstract in blackened chewing gum". It shouldn't work, but it so often does. It's a powerfully immediate and electrifying style. Sadly, there are some distractions. Mr Gibson outfits his text with more name brands than a Tokyo teenager, and sometimes the triple-lacquer layer of coolness is as numbing as it is hypnotic, like watching computer-generated fractals on endless loop.

The real letdown is the plot. There's some silliness involving superman criminals using Russian martial arts and voodoo to outwit Blackwell government types, and the subtext of the novel reads like an unsubtle small-l liberal bible, name-checking such cause celebre as disaffection with the war in Iraq and anguish over the growing divide between haves and have-nots. What's worse, the patently silly denouement in Mr Gibson's hometown of Vancouver robs the story of any gravitas it may have had.

It's a pity. Such silken skill with words should be put to use with a more engaging story. That said, Mr Gibson's invigorating Hunter S Thompson-does-sociology approach remains one of the most interesting, original voices in fiction. Let's hope he downloads something meatier for his next oeuvre.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Japan: The View from America

TITLE: Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation
AUTHOR: Michael Zielenziger

5/5 "Thin Red Line"; 4/5 "Black Rain"; 3/5 "You Only Live Twice"; 2/5 "Last Samurai"; 1/5 "Karate Kid 3"

It's ironic that Asian and Western criticisms of one another's cultures tend to agree on the facts, but assign them to opposite sides of the pro/con balance sheet. For example, you often get the feeling that American's main beef with Japan is that, well, it isn't America. Your reaction to Mr Zielenziger's 2006 critique of Japan's society will therefore largely depend on your views of America's. Personally, I found the book packed with fascinating details, but in these post-subprime, Lehman Brothers-less times, reading his conclusions and prescriptions feels a bit like getting investment advice from Bernard Madoff.

There is no faulting Mr Zielenziger's ambition. Based on his experiences as a journalist based in Tokyo from 1996 to 2003, he aims to "unravel the unusual ... constraints that have stifled the people of this proud, primordial nation". The particular thread he teases out to help us understand this cultural kimono is the phenomenon of hikikomori, Japan's estimated 1 million adult social recluses, who as the book's title suggests sometimes go so far as to tape shut their windows, symbolically "shutting out the sun" and, by connotation, the rest of Japanese society. Mr Zielenziger uses this issue as a springboard into a discussion of Japan's wider malaise, grazing omnivorously across such topics as the declining birthrate, the popularity of designer brands, high suicide rates and poor political and corporate governance.

Mr Zielenziger's argument is that social pressures which ensure conformity have stunted innovation and expression, creating an anomic collection of depressives whose only comfort is found in owning the latest from Louis Vutton. Fun fact: One marketing company is quoted as estimating that a staggering 94 percent of Japanese women age 25-29 in Tokyo own one or more LV-monogrammed accessories.

The country's only choice, Mr Zielenziger affrims, is to "undertake fundamental reforms and social adjustments to ... empower the individual, ecourage more risk-taking, flatten hierarchies and induce its people to integrate more effectively with the outside world."

This is too simplistic. Would becoming more American really be the panacea for all that ails Japan? How, for example, are we to take the lament that Japanese invest only 11 percent of their savings in equities, "instead of entrusting the funds to a foreign manager at Merrill or Schwab"? Yes, that would've turned out well. Likewise, I'm not convinced that having "only 40 percent" of large Japanese companies adopt US-style governance is necessarily a bad thing.

To be fair, the depth and breadth of Mr Zielenziger's research clearly puts it a step above most lay accounts of Japanese culture (end notes! a bibliography!). At the same time, this is no scholarly text, and Mr Zielenziger is careful to allow the Japanese to speak for themselves through numerous interviews. This approach makes for a highly entertaining, at times fascinating, treatment of a topic that could easily have been as upbeat as a funeral dirge.

However, the seriousness of his research is sometimes undermined by his breathless prose and excessively credulity at some of his interviewee's statements. Japan's society carries "a dark and destructive seed" we learn, but alas hopes that Godzilla will emerge from it go unrewarded. Much of the chapters on hikikomori is filled with new-age psychobabble of the "I used my son to get back at my relatives" vein. He is also far too glowing in heaping praise on South Korea, which he holds as a paragon of all that Japan is not--despite the fact that the former remains a tightly-lidded, export-fired pressure cooker of a society, much like Japan. Mr Zielenziger's obsession with the role of Christianity in Western culture is unfair to our own humanist and rational traditions, and makes you doubt his reading of Japanese psychology.

Are suicides, fewer babies and sluggish growth the price to pay for stability, order, safety and trains that run on time? I don't think there is a definitive answer, but the question is surely worth more consideration that Mr Zielenziger gives it here. Despite his many insights then, what you get out of his book depends on what you bring in.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Solid Writing, Phantom of a Plot

TITLE: Stalin's Ghost
AUTHOR: Martin Cruz Smith

5/5 "Staypuff Marshmallow Man"; 4/5 "Christmas Past"; 3/5 "Flying Dutchman"; 2/5 "Casper"; 1/5 "Patrick Swayze"
SCORE: 4/5

Ghosts are said to be the uneasy souls of the dead, and in Martin Cruz Smith's Stalin's Ghost, "Uncle Joe" plays a role akin to that of Hamlet's father--never on stage, but always present. The device works well in developing the characters, but the central mystery is too insubstantial and crowded with sub-plots to truly grip.

There are surely few twentieth-century figures who merit an eternity or two in purgatory more than Joseph Stalin. His rule of the Soviet Union from 1922-1953 was so murderous that he is one of the few people who can be honestly compared to Hitler without hyperbole. In the first half of his rule an estimated 5 to 10 million Soviet citizens had been starved, frozen or worked to death in the Gulags or simply shot. The second half saw Stalin lead his country to victory in a war with Nazi Germany so staggeringly bloody, it makes even Eli Roth puke (possibly out of envy).

Yet despite being 50 years in his grave, he still has influence in Russia, thanks to his usefulness as a symbol and an excuse for all manner of sins. Stalin's reputation continues to divide people--ruthless but strong leader, or pathological murder?

Moscow police investigator Arkady Renko, the hero of five previous novels by Mr Smith, is struggling with the spirit of Stalin rather more literally. Stalin may be safely dead and buried, but there's been a spate of incidents in which riders on the Moscow metro claim to have seen him at one of the stations. The case has deeper resonance for Renko, whose father was one of Stalin's generals during the war.

A separate train of events is set in motion when Renko's partner, detective Victor Orlov, finds out someone on the force has been offering their services as a paid assassin. The snag is the prime suspect, Nikolai Isakov, is not only a hero from the Chechen war, but also a candidate for a far-right political party whose adopted mascot is--you guessed it--Joe Stalin.

The connection between Renko, his father and Stalin is ironically when the book comes most alive, and Mr Smith deftly interweaves the investigation with flashbacks to Renko's childhood, and the shadow hanging over him due to his parents' suicides (WHO reports that Russia's suicide rate is three times higher than the US. Don't say you never learn anything on Amazon). We also get more background on Zhenya, Renko's 12-year-old ward, and his lover, Eva Kazko, both of whom appeared in 2004's Wolves Eat Dogs. Indeed, Stalin's Ghost is the first of the Renko novels to feel like a proper sequel, and it is all the richer for it.

Alas, although I do so enjoy the Renko books, but I must admit the series is starting to show its age. The ghostly mystery and its link to Isakov is far too obvious and easily resolved, leaving Mr Smith to pad the book out with meandering storylines that add little to either character or story development. Speaking of age, Renko must be well into his fifties by now, and I can't entirely block visions of Roger Moore circa Moonraker whenever I read the book's action or sex scenes.

The amount of punishment Renko absorbs is also a little eye brow-raising. The poor man is, at various points in the story, garroted, stabbed, buried alive and, most improbably, shot in the head at point-blank range. The operating and recovery scenes read like they were lifted straight out of a medical text, and this is easily the book's weakest section.

That said, wry, sardonic Renko remains an engaging reading companion, but my wishes that the man be granted a little rest seem doom to be dashed. Renko is set to return in "Three Station" in 2010.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Artifact of a Literary Cargo Cult

TITLE: Return to the Hundred Acre Wood
AUTHOR: David Benedictus
PUBLISHER: Dutton Juvenile

5/5 “Wrath of Khan”; 4/5 “Terminator II: Judgment Day”; 3/5 “Shrek 2”; 2/5 “Ocean’s Twelve”; 1/5 “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”

Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh and all their friends are back for more adventures in this loving recreation of the tone and setting of the original stories. Sadly, it's almost the inverse of the charge of the Light Brigade - It's Pooh, but it isn't magnificent.

"Return to the Hundred Acre Wood" is billed as the first sequel in 80 years to A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories, but of course it isn't. Thanks to the magic of Disney, anyone born after about 1970 has been positively deluged in books, videos and toys bearing Pooh's beaming, beatific face. How can he "return" when he never left?

Ah well, author David Benedictus and the trustees of the Milne estate would rather you forget the decades of Disney marketing, and return to the kinder, simpler, "classic" Pooh. Pooh does not wear a shirt, Tigger does not bounce on his tail, and Piglet is a lovely forest green. Mr Benedictus presents us with 10 new Pooh stories that are more an act of homage than work of children's literature. The question is not really whether he succeeds, but how badly he fails.

You see, as far as most book lovers are concerned, publishing an "authorize sequel" to a beloved classic tends to rate on the literary respectability scale somewhere between ghost writing and necrophilia. There's always the suspicion that the author is lacking in talent, imagination and scruples. Sequels to classics as varied as Gone With the Wind, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Peter Pan have been met with scorn, derision and outright hostility. It isn't "necessary", fans grumble, not "respectful". The author must walk a fine line: Too much imagination smacks of adolescent fan fiction, too little, of plagiarism.

Mr Benedictus falls fairly firmly on the "too little" side of the divide.

Is the book necessary? What a rubbish question. Of course not. But then, how is Shakespeare "necessary", unless you have a draft or an especially wobbly table? Certainly, the appeal will largely be limited to British and Anglophile purists of a certain age who despise the Disney Pooh as precisely the Wrong Sort of Bear, who like all redshirts should be disposed of quickly. Mr Benedictus and the illustrator, Mark Burgess, are at pains to recreate the look and feel of Milne's originals, and in this they have largely succeeded.

Is it respectful? Heavens, yes. Mr Benedictus is positively self-flagellating in his devotion to Mr Milne. The new stories excel in following the form of the classics, but it often feels like hollow mimicry, a kind of South Pacific cargo cult pining for the 1920's. There's the same capitalization of Important Words, the same energy devoted to doing Nothing, the same idyllic world--cricket and crosswords are as exciting as this gets. But all in all, it succeeds in being merely pleasantly bland, a bit like a digestive biscuit.

Partly, I suspect, this is because of a difference in perspective. Mr Benedictus is over 70, nearly twice the age Mr Milne was when he wrote the originals. And the stories a grandfather tells his grandchildren are inevitably different from those a father tells his son. There's less adventure, more warmth and fuzziness and "In all the world, you are the one and only, incomparable Winnie-the-Pooh"-ness. The humor is of the "Spell it" "I-T" level, rather than the wry wit of the original. Mr Benedictus's one foray into new ground is the addition to the cast of Lottie the Otter, which goes about as well as you'd expect, in that Mr Benedictus has the sense to keep her appearances to a minimum.

The truth, alas, is that Mr Milne is dead, even Christopher Robin Milne is dead, and we shall not see their like again. Attempting to recreate the magic only underscores its absence. I appreciate the thought, but I'd much rather find something new that makes me feel the way I felt when I first read Winnie-the-Pooh, than sit here and pick at the loss like a hole in my childhood.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Utterly original, utterly crude, utterly hilarious

TITLE: Neither Here Nor There
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson
PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial

5/5 "Snogging a blonde Danish backpacker in Bangkok"; 4/5 "Soaking in an open-air hot spring in the Japanese alps"; 3/5 "Driving the Great Ocean Road in a rented car with two mates from uni"; 2/5 "A weekend in Singapore during the summer"; 1/5 "Crowds and bad fish at Mont St Michel"
SCORE: 4/5

Travelogues of Europe have been around since the Roman Empire, so if you want your book to attract even the smallest iota of attention, you've got to be either a fantastic writer, or have a startlingly original tale to tell. Bill Bryson knows how to write, and more importantly, how to write a travel journal utterly different from any you've read before.

Mr Bryson's secret is his discovery that, as any journalist will tell you, people aren't all that interested in travel or foreign parts; people are interested in people. And in Neither Here Nor There, the person Mr Bryson gives us is himself, a former newspaper journalist and editor with a taste for neoclassical architecture and draft beer, and a sense of humor that is caustic, expletive-laden, scatological, even prurient at times, but never less than screamingly, hyperventilatingly funny.

It certainly isn't the most complete guide to Europe out there. By his own admission, Mr Bryson's itinerary is impulsive and random rather than methodical. He bypasses Europe's second-largest and most bull-trampled nation, Spain, as well as virtually all of Central and Eastern Europe, though in fairness these countries still lay behind an Iron Curtain that was only just beginning to lift. His 1990 journey starts off in Hammerfest, Norway, to see the northern lights, then skips down to France, and meanders to Turkey via Germany, Sweden, Italy, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, among others.

This route breaks little new ground, though Mr Bryson assuredly deserves kudos for visiting the top of Norway in the depths of winter. He travels mostly by rail, but sets himself no gimmicky limitations, and isn't above jetting off somewhere if the weather proves unappealing. Others may try hiking the continent or roaming it on a unicycle, but Mr Bryson gets around fueled by beer and irritation.

Nor is the book especially informative regarding the things to see and do. Mr Bryson visits the requisite churches and museums, but rarely in elaborate detail, talks to the locals no more than necessary, and seems far more content to simply amble about the neighborhoods and parks and take in the atmosphere. The funniest parts of the book are Mr Bryson's frequent reminiscences of his childhood in Iowa, and of his two previous trips to Europe in 1972 and 1973. Otherwise, the energy of the book comes from Mr Bryson's catalog of complaints, discomforts and misadventures.

This is precisely what makes Neither Here Nor There such a great travel book. Mr Bryson completely strips away the romance of travel, and save Angelina Jolie, none of us look our best naked--especially not if we're still wearing our socks. In his almost masochistically honest account, you feel that Mr Bryson strikes closer to the actual experience of travel rather than the ideal; the frustrations and fatigue, the queues and queue-jumpers, rude waiters and cabbies, small hotel rooms and large restaurant bills. Readers looking for more genteel fare should try Paul Theroux or maybe the adaptations of Michael Palin's BBC voyages (I love the man, but his idea of interview technique is to say "Fantastic, great" to everything).

To be fair, Mr Bryson speaks almost rapturously of some places he visits, such as Copenhagen, Capri and Hamburg. But Mr Bryson the writer is at his best when Mr Bryson the traveler is at his worst. In lesser hands this would come across as mere whingeing, but it's never less than achingly funny to watch Mr Bryson wallow in his own misery.

By now the book is dated, of course, but in a way, this only adds to the enjoyment. Neither Here Nor There forms a neat snapshot of Europe at the end of both the millennium and the cold war. Mr Bryson talks of prices in francs and marks and lire, where now there is only the euro. It is sobering to read of Mr Bryson's stay in Sarajevo, knowing that two years later the city, along with the rest of Yugoslavia, would plunge into a horrific civil war that gave us the term "ethnic cleansing". His time in Sofia, Bulgaria, gives a hint as to why the Communist system collapsed.

His decision to end his "European" voyage in Istanbul raises an issue that is contentious once again. In 2006, Turkey's talks to join the European Union were once again frozen. Where does Europe begin, where does it end? What sets it apart as a distinct region? It's instructive to note how easily Mr Bryson moves about the continent despite knowing, at best, just one language. Neither Here Nor There suggests what binds Europeans together is their ability to embrace travelers to their nations and tenderly, gently, lift the traveler's cheques out of their jacket pockets.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Grand Master at the Top of His Game

TITLE: Wolves Eat Dogs
AUTHOR: Martin Cruz Smith

5/5 "Maria Sharapova"; 4/5 "Pavel Chekov"; 3/5 "Dolph Lundgren"; 2/5 "Rasputin"; 1/5 "Ivan the Terrible"
SCORE: 5/5

On November 1, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, outspoken critic of the Russian regime and former KGB officer, drank a cup of tea at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in London. Floating in his cup was the subatomic version of a pipe bomb packed with ball bearings--an estimated 10 micrograms (the size of an ambitious speck of dust) of polonium 210, a radioactive substance over 250,000 times more toxic than cyanide. In three weeks Mr Litvinenko was dead, almost certainly poisoned by another former KGB man who shared Mr Litvinenko's table at the Pine Bar.

All this is a true story. And truth, so the saying goes, is stranger than fiction--unless, of course, fiction has already anticipated truth by a good two years. It's a testament to Martin Cruz Smith's insight into the way modern Russia functions (or more precisely, the way it doesn't) that his 2004 novel Wolves Eat Dog is almost eerily prescient in anticipating many of these events.

Wolves Eat Dogs is the fifth book in the series of novels featuring Russian police investigator Arkady Renko. From the start with 1981's Gorky Park, the Renko books have been as much about the cancers eating away at Russian society as they have been about the cynical, saturnine investigator. The conceit of having a thriller set on the metallic side of the iron curtain could have died with the cold war, but Mr Smith has kept the series fresh by bombarding his hero with events that mirror Russia's own deterioration through the past two decades. There are the Soviet era novels (Gorky Park and Polar Star); the Yeltsin revolution one (Red Square); the fall of the Communist bloc one (Havana Bay).

Wolves Eat Dogs is the corporate oligarch one, and starts with Pasha Ivanov, one of Russia's newly-minted billionaires, leaving an indelible impression on the Moscow pavement after reaching it rather directly and messily from his high-rise apartment balcony. A wolf like Ivanov makes enemies on his scrabble to the top of the pack, and Renko suspects something other than personal demons was eating away at the man. There is, for example, the question of why Ivanov had a mountain of salt in his closet. Renko's persistent probing irritates his superior, prosecutor Zurin, who would rather get back to the business of being bribed by Ivanov's successors. When Ivanov's business partner also turns up as a corpse near Chernobyl, Zurin seizes the opportunity to rid himself of his subordinate and dispatches Renko to investigate.

The remainder of the book largely takes place in the Exclusion Zone, a 30km no-go area surrounding the ruins of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Radiation from an explosion at the plant's reactor number four on April 26, 1986--by far the worst nuclear disaster in human history--killed about 50 plant workers and firemen in a matter of days, and released a cloud of toxic dust that continues to make the region uninhabitable 20 years later. Mr Smith's books draw power from the setting more than the plot, and with the Exclusion Zone he has tapped a source of skin-tingling unease and slow-motion dread. How odd that we have such an atavistic fear of such a twentieth-century invention. Yet there is no denying the menace felt in Mr Smith's description of the concrete sarcophagus entombing the remains of reactor number four, like a band-aid over a hole in the universe.

It's an environment that brings out some of the best in Mr Smith's writing since Gorky Park. Mr Smith's talent lies not only in his acute observations of Russia and its environment, but also in his mastery of the gallows humor this setting produces. Wolves Eat Dogs is easily one of the funniest books you will never laugh at.

A few minor quibbles. Readers of other Renko books will see familiar patterns developing. His ongoing feud with his superiors is wearing thin--surely the man would have been transferred, demoted, or just plain, old-fashioned shot by now. The central mystery isn't much of one, and the reader is left with more of a howdunit than a whodunit--and even then, is given no clues to go back and shake your head at the author's craft. The endings, too, have become slightly formulaic, and one simply waits for Renko to be rescued from Certain Death at the last minute.

Ah, but these are minor quibbles indeed. Who killed Ivanov? Who cares! In Mr Smith's hands, Renko's search is not about the journey, nor even the ending, but rather how one faces it.