[Book] Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

sh5Title: Slaughterhouse-Five

Author:  Kurt Vonnegut

Genre:  Black Humor, Satire, War

Rating: 8.5/10

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five is sometimes called the spiritual successor to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It is a comparison that feels both instinctive and inappropriate; the latter revels in the comically absurd while the former in the existentially outlandish. In fact, at first glance, that both books examine the tragedy of war seems to be a thoroughly insufficient condition for such a comparison. What truly connects the two books is the soul-crushing emptiness that lies at their heart; Catch-22 spends countless pages mocking the nonsensical, pointless bureaucracy of war before ultimately soberly acknowledging its tragic consequences, but as Vonnegut himself states in his semi-autobiographical work – there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Slaughterhouse-Five focuses on the thoroughly unremarkable life of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier, who later becomes a prisoner-of-war, and later still is one of the relatively few survivors of the firebombing of Dresden. It features elements as outlandish and strange as time-travel and aliens but these elements exist only for the purpose of establishing Pilgrim’s, and by extension Vonnegut’s, world-weary philosophy: everything that is, has been and will always be; our feeble attempts to change it mean nothing at all.

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[Book] Catch-22 – Joseph Heller (1961)

c22Title: Catch-22

Author:  Joseph Heller

Genre:  Black Humor, Satire

Rating: 8.0/10

The glorification of war has a long sordid past, stretching all the way back to the days of Homer and the Iliad. The masses’ rejection of war and the exposure of its horrors have relatively less storied histories but are well-established nonetheless. Joseph Heller’s dark comedy classic, Catch-22, lays bare a third, far more mundane element – the mind-numbing inanity and jaw-dropping pettiness of war. Set in the dreary final days of World War II, when the war was almost as good as over but not quite, the novel focuses on one Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier whose sole aim in life is to live as long as he can. Unfortunately for him, his job requires him to fly regularly into extremely dangerous enemy airspace and his countless attempts at getting out of the army are rebuffed by his archenemy – the eponymous Catch-22. In its first incarnation, the catch states that asking to be grounded from flying dangerous missions is the sign of a rational mind, since only crazy people would willingly fly such dangerous missions – however, anyone certified crazy can apply to be grounded and not fly the missions. The beauty of this bureaucratic atrocity is lost on neither Yossarian, who grudgingly grants it the respect awarded to a worthy foe, nor on the reader, who will see it manifest in numerous forms throughout the book.

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[Book] Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1932)

bravenewworld_firsteditionTitle: Brave New World

Author: Aldous Huxley

Genre: Dystopian Fiction

Rating: 9.0/10

The allure of dystopian fiction lies in its ability to conjure nightmarish possibilities from its readers’ worst fears, while yet allowing those very readers to reassure themselves, when they put the book down, that their own reality could be so much worse. The power of the very best of dystopian fiction lies in the niggling discomfort that its readers carry with them long after they are done with the story, and indeed, long after they have forgotten its characters and plot. It is the discomfort created by realising that the gap between that nightmarish fantasy and one’s own reality is not quite as wide as one might have liked to believe. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which by some measures is the very first in the genre, is insidious and nuanced in ways that its successors never quites captured. The appeal of Brave New World comes from the complexity of its characters and the originality of its setting but its longevity comes from the hard-hitting questions it asks us about our relationship with the very concept of happiness and the price we are willing to pay to achieve it.

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[Book] Mistborn: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson [2006]

Title: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Published:  July 17, 2006

Rating: 8.0/10

What happens when a lovable criminal crew like the one in Ocean’s Eleven is tasked with taking down the evil Empire from Star Wars? You get the plot of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire and it is every bit as absorbing as it sounds. The book follows Vin, a street orphan with untold potential as she is pulled away from the harsh street life to a world of revolutions, intrigue and criminal activity. However, Mistborn isn’t just about mixing two very different genres together; in fact, that’s just the simplest way I have of introducing the otherwise layered and complex world that Sanderson has created. The book challenges some of fantasy’s oldest conventions, and when combined with Sanderson’s unique yet accessible world makes for an amazing opening to what promises to be an excellent trilogy.

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[Books] 1984 – George Orwell

1984Title: 1984

Author: George Orwell

Genre: Political fiction

Rating: 8.5/10

There is little I can say that hasn’t already been said about the political and cultural impact of George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984. Such is the stature of Orwell’s masterpiece that even today, almost 70 years since the novel’s publication and 30 years from the bleak future it depicted, the term ‘Orwellian’ is still routinely used to describe draconian laws and societies. There is much to say about the way this novel, more so than any other in the last century, has shaped the way the layman perceives his government but those essays have been written by authors more knowledgeable and insightful than myself. Yet, in focusing so heavily on the novel’s merits as an anti-totalitarian manifesto, its merits as a literary work sometimes lay forgotten. As a story, 1984 is a simple but unforgiving one; there is scare little optimism to be found in Orwell’s oppressive vision and the then-future world the novel depicts is just familiar enough to be deeply unsettling.

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[Books] Sway – Ori Brafman & Ron Brafman

SwayTitle: Sway

Author: Ori Brafman and Ron Brafman

Genre: Non-Fiction

Rating: 7.0/10

Have you ever been on full tilt? Have you ever wondered exactly how you screwed yourself over by making a series of inexplicably and uncharacteristically poor decisions? Authors Ori and Rom Brafman think they might just have found the keys to unlocking the secrets of just why people famed for their rationality make incredibly irrational decisions or why everyday, all over the world, people make mistakes when they really should have known better. Their book, Sway: The irresistible pull of irrational behaviour, attempts to pull back the covers and break our bad decisions down into the various psychological forces, or sways, that influence us into making these decisions. It is extremely easy to underestimate the power that these forces have over us, especially if we are not subject to their pressure at the time, but ask anyone who has been under the extreme psychological duress that often accompanies a tough choice and you might see a different sort of pattern emerge.

At its heart, Sway attempts to be nothing more than an introduction of sorts to these various unseen psychological gears and buttons being pulled and pressed whenever we make a decision. It does not pretend to be a close examination of the psychological theory behind the six different types of biases it presents: the diagnosis bias, the commitment bias, loss aversion, value attribution, the procedural bias and group conformity. The Brafman brothers explain each sway individually, giving a simple, layman-friendly explanation of what these things are and substantiating these explanations with compelling examples. Each sway receives its own section and the sections are tied together by the overarching question of what were the various factors behind one of the more peculiar accidents in aviation history. The examples themselves are explained well and are drawn from a variety of fields and people, from finance to anthropology, and are, for the most part, backed up by hard numbers. These case studies are the cornerstones of what makes Sway so enjoyable; they demonstrate the ubiquity of the concepts discussed in the book but also keep the book from getting mired in more academic discussion. That said, there are times where it feels like the simplicity of the case studies doesn’t allow the authors to discuss the wider context of the problems that they are applying the concepts to. For instance, the value attribution bias discusses, among other things, how it affects the way we choose our significant others. By neglecting to mention the multitude of other factors involved in such a decision that the experiments quoted did not take into account, the authors end up weakening their own case. This happens to varying degrees throughout the book but since the book does not attempt a serious academic discussion of these topics, such oversights can be rather easily forgiven. One might also find that certain sections feature studies and experiments that deal with sample sizes that are far from convincing though, once again, it seems a little severe to take the authors to task for it.

Unsurprisingly, many of the sways discussed in the book are sound very familiar to people once the authors explain them. We can quite easily recall times that we have made decisions similar to those featured in the case studies and Sway essentially helps us put names to the familiar faces of psychological biases. There are typically two types of responses to this book: one set of readers will take this information in but accept these biases as natural and thus, will not seek change while the other set of readers will experience a knee-jerk reaction and swing all the way to the other extreme, seeking to ruthlessly stamp out every hint of psychological bias from their decision making. Both parties might be missing the point, however; Sway isn’t a self-help book, not really. It is not presenting these forces as something purely negative – in fact, the authors note that quite often, these forces all for much more efficient decision making and give us a peace of mind that is all too easy to take for granted, with the caveat that there are small handful of very specific type of situations in which those force can become detrimental. Perhaps it would be best to use the knowledge that the Brafman brother shares as tools for analysis and adjustment rather than a reason to totally revolutionize the way we make decisions.

[Books] Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)


cloudatlasTitle:
 Cloud Atlas

Author: David Mitchell

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Rating: 6.5/10

David Mitchell’s ambitious third novel, Cloud Atlas, is the literary equivalent of a set of Russian Dolls. In structuring the novel as a series of nested stories, Mitchell painstakingly takes each layer of the Doll carefully apart before trying, with more enthusiasm than expertise, to glue them back together. Mitchell’s penmanship is just about all the stories share with each other and in that diversity lays the novel’s primary allure. With settings as bewilderingly disconnected as colonial New Zealand and dystopian Korea, and with an equally varied cast of characters to boot, Cloud Atlas is really a series of short stories masquerading as a single novel – a notion that is particularly hard to dispel given that the stories each have their own tone and, incredibly, genre. That is not to say that the six stories are totally disparate but rather that there is only the thinnest of threads tying this whole endeavour together. As one might expect, the quality of the individual stories varies – occasionally within a given story itself – but it is to Mitchell’s credit that there is unlikely to be a consensus on which story is considered the worst or the best.

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