The magician’s assistant

This book was the Reading Club assignment for January 2019.

The magician’s assistant, by Ann Patchett, is a family story under odd circumstances. Set around the same time it was published (1997), it touches topics that were part of the life of many, although not part of the mainstream news at the time: violence in the family, how life differs in small and big places, homosexuality, and AIDS.

It’s told from the perspective of Sabine, the best friend, assistant, and wife of Parsifal, a homosexual man that lives with Phan, his partner. Sabine and Parsifal marry when Phan and Parsifal are diagnosed AIDS so Sabine can inherit their state. She is in love with Parsifal.

Upon Parsifal death, Sabine is shocked to learn that his family is alive, despite what he had told her. They are from Alliance, a small place in Nebraska, and want to visit Los Angeles, where Parsifal lived, to get a sense of how life was for him. Sabine agrees and tours them for a few days, in the hope of discovering why he hadn’t told her the truth. Through this tour, you are acquainted with the main characters. It’s like a warm-up before the real match.

Parsifal’s family turns out to be fine people, and the tragic event that made Parsifal break with them is revealed to Sabine. Fast-forward: she’s invited to a wedding in Nebraska, which she agrees to attend as an opportunity to connect with Parsifal’s childhood and find some rest. So we now have Sabine embedded in an environment so different to hers: a small town with little to do and few opportunities to reinvent yourself, a conservative society, and a family that had struggled (and still is) with domestic violence. This is the real match. We have now a vessel (Sabine) to cross the river of understanding: in one shore, a liberal society where you can be whatever you want; in the other, a conservative community that pressures you to be like the others.

The story ends with the liberal Sabine realizing that the only way that conservative family can break the vicious loop they find themselves in is by providing them an escape hatch. Perhaps this is also the message Ann Pratchett wants to convey: let’s be less judgmental and more empathetic.

This book is beautifully written. The rhythm is slow but steady, with enough details to fill your imagination but not too many to get in the way of the story. The use of magic as a second thread and the dreams to feed us information was great. It is a straight story, doesn’t have many layers to it. To a modern reader, it may feel perhaps a bit dated and certainly stereotypical in some ways (Nebraska, anyone?), but if you consider the time it was published (1997) I think it was actually a very brave book to publish.

Forest Dark

This book was the Reading Club assignment for December 2018.

This is a character-driven story. Jules and Nicole are successful by most standards: they are wealthy, well-known, and have family and friends. They are also suffering an inner transformation. Jules’s parents have recently passed away and that event is the catalyst that pushes him to reconsider his life, put an end to his marriage, and give away his possessions. Nicole is a writer that’s suffering a block that has lasted for too long and has triggered an irreversible inner change. They’re both non-practicing Jews living in NYC and visit Israel as part of his longing for something else in their lives.

Chapters alternate Jules and Nicole. Jules is written in the third-person while Nicole is in first. Nicole’s part feels like a stream of inner thoughts at times, like a diary: raw, unconnected, unpolished, and without a clear place in the story. Jules’ is a bit more focused, but still rambly.

The plot has some under-developed areas and dead ends. I think this is intentional. Based on how well some parts are written and some vivid and rich scenes, I don’t think the author lacks the ability to write a novel. To the contrary, it felt like a sort of a meta-layer to the story, a post-modernist experiment to subvert the implicit reader-writer contract. The reason I think this is because, in the story, Nicole is fond of Kafka, and the fact that Kafka’s work was published after his death (although he wanted it buried because he considered his work incomplete) has a big role in the story; to the point that she plays with the idea that someone else has heavily edited Kafka’s manuscripts and created Kafka’s mythology. It leads me to believe the own Forest Dark is a little unfinished on purpose.

I’d say this book isn’t for everyone, I’d recommend a little research before reading. Although I tried hard to engage, the ratio of words that contribute to the story VS words that sound smart but are empty was remarkably low for my taste. It ended up being a little more experimental than I like.

They came like swallows

This book was the Reading Club assignment for November 2018.

William Maxwell published this book in 1937, and I’ve read it +80 years later. One of the things I liked about They came like swallows is how the story builds on the use of simple words and ideas, how it doesn’t need complexity to give the scenes a sense of fear, warm, or excitement. It just describes what’s happening, it is honest and beautiful writing, it isn’t pretentious but real. Perhaps that’s why it aged well.

From the perspective of three males -husband and sons- we are told about the accounts of a middle-class family in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century – specifically in the Autumn of 1918, in the middle of the Spanish flu.

We’re introduced to the story from the perspective of the little Bunny, an 8-year old which comments on the adult world from his perspective. Then goes Robert, Bunny’s big brother, which I was prepared to hate after reading the first part – what I’ve got instead was a nuanced teen with his own struggles. Finally, the circle is closed with James, the father. Through the perspectives of these men at different stages in life, we learn what the author has to say about life, which is well captured by the title: swallows come and go, so does life.

This book has many angles a reader can enjoy: domestic realism, a historic account of the effects of Spanish flu at the beginning of the century, etc. One that I haven’t seen talked about is feminism and matriarchy. I believe you could read this as an homage to spouses and mothers of all times, but also as a plea for stopping offloading work to them, as for Elizabeth is the one that does the emotional labor, plans the future, and takes care of the house. I don’t think that was the intention of the writer, but the fact that she doesn’t get to say anything but through the voices of the loving men around her is just the perfect metaphor to channel that kind of message.

The ones who walk away from Omelas

This short story was, in 1974, the recipient of the Hugo and nominated for the Locus. I was intrigued by the title by a long time, but it was only after watching the documentary about Ursula K. Le Guin’s life and work that I learned that The dispossessed was how Ursula reacted to this question: where do the people who walk away from Omelas go? I was bound to read it.

It took me half an hour to finish it. I haven’t read yet any of the Earthsea stories but there is no magic or dragons in Omelas, so I’d guess this is more of a Hainish taste. Being already familiar with the plot, it lacked a climactic moment and the story didn’t spark any more thoughts than I had already given to the topic when I first learned about it. It’s probably wise to avoid related material about short-stories you want to read if you don’t want them to be spoiled, but the advice is particularly true for this one. I wish I hadn’t read anything about it.

I still liked how it’s built on simple language and a raw metaphor anyone can relate to. Reading it helped me to consolidate this idea of Ursula being not a novelist but an anthropologist who happens to be interested in fictional societies. Writing stories about non-existing societies was her way of researching a topic, live with the locals, and explaining to us what it was like living in that world.

The anthology I bought includes an intro commentary by the author about how she came up with the Omelas word which was also fun and humanizes the way I picture writers work.

The girl on the train

This book was the Reading Club assignment for June 2018, the last before the summer hiatus.

This is a thriller that builds slowly. Rachel is the main character, she’s a depressed, mentally unstable, and alcoholic woman that can’t cope with having lost her husband to another woman. Megan is also lost and has her own difficulties to find anything that fills her in life. Anna is a housewife and mother whose life goals are fulfilled.

Like in a jigsaw, we’re presented with partial and unreliable information about what’s happening to each one of them, which helps to build and keep the narrative tension. Through the story, they face different facets of emotional dependency, abuse, or personal struggles with life. There are some scenes that I particularly liked it because they embody so well one of the themes that give shape to the zeitgeist of our era: Rachel, in her daily train trips to work, invents any kind of stories about the people she sees through the window; their lives are always happier and out of struggles. We know that’s not true, but she doesn’t have that information. This made me reflect on our interactions through the so-called social networks and how they can be so much detached from the real ourselves in so many ways.

At times, I was so dragged to the story, that I even found myself reading while walking to board a plane.

The kite runner

This book was the Reading Club assignment for May 2018.

Lately, I felt the urge to read fiction again, after a long time focused on tech and non-fiction. I was also looking to widen my perspectives and stay away from sci-fi for a bit. I found an English Reading Club ran by the neighborhood public library, and The kite runner was the first reading since I joined. Actually, a friend of mine had lent me the book many years ago, but I had forgotten most of it. It seems unfair that I did because the second read has left me very moved.

The book’s central character is Amir, born from a rich Pashtun merchant in the Kabul of the 60s. The first third of the book pivots on the relationships with his father and his Hazara servant during his teenage years. After the Saur revolution, the family flies to America and we are introduced to how was life like for Afghani immigrants, but also how our beloved character transitions to become an adult. The book’s third act goes back to Afghanistan, but to a different one, as it is set up after the Ismalic Jihad that ended up with the Taliban ruling the country.

Because I had already read the book I didn’t expect it to be able to generate so many emotions as I went through it. I was so wrong. In the beginning, I had some trouble to like it, and Hosseini’s way of expressing Amir feelings felt a bit pretending, but every time he focused on a particular plot, I felt engaged again. Certain scenes were a lot more disturbing than I remembered, to the point that I had to stop a couple of times, take fresh air, and make myself aware that I was living in a totally different reality than the books – that’s something I don’t experience in many books. Having to deal with my father’s death last year struck all kind of emotions and relived conversations as well – in a way, I think that helped the book to have more impact on me this second time, and reminds me that there are books that hold healing power if read at the proper time. Finally, I couldn’t help but think that the Amir and Hassan friendship is a metaphor for Afghanistan as a failed state during the many wars that beat the country in the 1974-2001 period. It seems to me as if Hosseini was trying to say that the country cannot be at peace until the Pashtuns and Hazaras are equals.

I’d say The kite runner is a book about guilt and redemption, a father-son relationship, and perhaps the main window to Afghanistan culture for most westerns. I think the book fares well in each of those.

The pleasure of finding things out

This was the first book listening experience that I’ve actually finished. Sean Runnette‘s voice was adequate for setting the tone and rhythm – actually, sometimes I felt I was listening to Feinmann himself!

Having read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!What Do You Care What Other People Think? and some other papers/videos, most of the stories in the book I already knew, but it had some new material that made it interesting nonetheless. This is more mathematical/physical intense than the others, probably because it’s mostly focused on the scientific and less in the human Feynman – but also because many chapters are directly transcribed from conferences he gave. It’s also worth noting that, unlike the other two, this book was published without Feynmann intervention: it’s published 10 years after his death.

If I had to choose only a Feynman book I’d choose Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann! It’s better edited and has more variety. Then, if you are hungry for more, What do you care what other people think? contains new stories. I liked this one, but I doubt it’s a good introduction to Feynmann lifestyle, work, values, and character.

Code simplicity

 

I’ve just finished the book Code Simplicity. It presents a framework for thinking about software development in the form of laws and rules. It’s short but comprehensive. From my experience, the laws and rules hold true. I think the book has value as an overall perspective of what’s important in software development, and there are some chapters that are really spot on: for example, the equation of software design – something that I’ve already included in my glossary and plan to expand.

Code Simplicity doesn’t intend to land the laws and rules to something actionable, though. I’m at a point in my career where I’m focused on consolidating and reflecting upon how to achieve simplicity in software design – that means that I crave for specifics so I can compare them with mine.

As a cross-recommendation, if you are interested in learning about the laws of software development in a manner that is actionable, I’d suggest reading the Beck’s trilogy: Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change, Test Driven Development: by example, and Implementation Patterns. Those three books make a great combination of macro-forces (at a project level) and micro-forces (at a coding level) in software design. They were fundamental in consolidating my experiences as a programmer, so I’m highly biased towards them.

Hat tip for the Code Simplicity recommendation: Nikolay.

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