Book Reviews This is where I'll be reviewing books I've read. This page will hold the current review, and there's another page for reading any other reviews I've done. I'll link to, so that you can buy a book straight away if you wish.

My intent here is to have some fun (all the world's a critic, right?) and, in the case of computer-related titles, to warn people away from books that don't merit being purchased. This latter case is important in my view. I buy quite a few computer books, and some of those purchases I regret: a book's contents, accuracy, style, whatever, make me wish I'd spent the money on something else. And given that these books are $30, $40, $50, or more, it's worth hearing from a disinterested third-party that such and such a book is a waste of your hard-earned cash and/or time, or that, on the other hand, that you should rob the piggy bank to go buy it.


digtype.gif (10974 bytes)   Digital Typography by Donald E. Knuth

This book is amazing and exciting. It is a collection of essays and papers on the subject of computers and typography by Don Knuth (he of The Art of Computer Programming fame). In these essays, Knuth expounds on good typography and what it means to have computers do the typesetting of papers and books. The essays do tend repeat themselves a little (after all they are collected from various publications and talks and cover some of the same ground) but nevertheless you are filled with a new vision of what makes a book well typeset.

He starts off with a lecture from 1996 which details his involvement with typography from the beginnings to the present day. The first editions of his magnum opus (the aforementioned The Art of Computer Programming) were typeset by proper typesetters, men who'd been apprenticed into the printing trade and knew instinctively how to set the type to produce the best results. The first proofs of second edition of the second volume was most disappointing to Knuth (the typesetting was not up to the previous level, mainly because Addison Wesley no longer used the old Monotype machines that had been used to typeset the first editions of the three volumes). Knuth had just been introduced to high quality digital typesetters where the image of the page on film was produced by digital means, and he resolved to spend a few months writing a typesetting program so that his second edition of volume 2 could be digitally typeset using one of the new machines. It took him several years and the end result was two programs: TeX and METAFONT, together with the Computer Modern font. All subsequent editions of his books were typeset with TeX. The second essay discusses also how to form type mathematically (by use of straight lines and curves) so that it looks good. This essay had some fascinating looks at some mediaeval attempts to do the same.

The third essay draws you in deeply by discussing one subject in about 90 pages: the problem of how to break paragraphs into justified lines. My own exposure to the subject had been through simple ASCII text editors, such as those produced by the company I work for. Since the type is monospaced, the easiest thing is to break paragraphs into lines, each line at a time. The vast majority of word processors and desktop publishers still work this way. But for Knuth this wasn't good enough: too often there would be a line with large inter-word gaps following (or followed by) a line with small inter-word gaps, causing the overall end result to look bad. Instead, he devised an ingenious method for breaking a paragraph into lines, a whole paragraph at a time. He shows the problems created by the older version and then shows the way that TeX works. And, blow me down, the latter are certainly much better. 

The fourth essay is on how to typeset left-to-right languages together with right-to-left languages. Something I'll admit to never having considered.

At this point we're about a third of the way through the book, and I was completely hooked. The remaining essays touch on how difficult it is to design the letter S; meta-fonts; his attempts at designing a pleasing font with METAFONT; the design of the AMS Euler font; creating halftone images; and the initial specification document for TeX. There are numerous other small essays on TeX, METAFONT and typography. Several essays show the effects of changing the fonts in the text subtly and in different ways.

Throughout the book, Knuth writes very well and is completely engaging. I've been fascinated with typography ever since I was seconded to The Times in London for a short period when they were switching over to digital typesetting. This book has increased my love for well-typeset books (I just love the fact that this book uses the proper ligatures for fi, fl, ff, ffi, ffl throughout) and my insight into modern computer typesetting. If you've ever wondered about typography, if you've ever played around with the fonts that come on your computer, if you've ever wondered about the process of typesetting, this book is a must.

And yes, the entire book was typeset with TeX using METAFONT fonts.

EndureLove.gif (12328 bytes)      Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

A fascinating, incredibly well-written book about love in all its guises, and the title itself providing us with a provocative duality: long lasting versus tolerating or living with it.

The book starts on a high pitch, cinematically almost: an idyllic picnic in the Oxfordshire countryside turns into a horrible battle to save the child occupant in a hot air balloon from death. Four men grab hold of the balloon to try and stop it drifting off into some power lines, but a sudden gust of wind shakes them off bar one, who eventually falls to his death. The prose is teasing throughout the first chapter, McEwan giving us glimpses of what is about to happen through the narrative of the main protagonist as he struggles to tell and to come to terms with what happened.

After the accident, the narrator, Joe Rose, a well-known science writer, is plagued with doubt about what happened. This seems antithetical to his own life and articles in which he explains scientific topics in terms of black and white with no grey messiness. Either it is or it isn't. Then he's plagued by one of the other almost-rescuers, Jed Parry, who, in the brief time they met next to the dead man, has obsessively fallen in love with Joe with some rather creepy religious overtones.

There follows a stalker type tale as Jed phones Joe up, sends him daily letters, follows him. But McEwan goes much further than this. He shows the relationship between Joe and Clarissa, his common-law wife, breaking up from Joe's viewpoint and from Clarissa, in emotion-numbing detail until you want to shout at them to talk to each other. He shows Joe descending into paranoia, where the nice well-defined science world that he inhabits is replaced by something more ancient. No one believes him that he is being stalked by Jed; Clarissa, at one point, even states that Jed's writing is similar to Joe's (leading me to suddenly think that maybe Joe was schizophrenic or something). Jed remains an aloof character, we only get to know him through his letters to Joe, great epistles of religious and emotional mish-mash.

The types of love McEwan explores are many: between man and wife, stalker and prey, man and God, mother and children, woman and children never had, man/woman and their work.

I found the novel gripping reading. The first chapter on the ballooning accident is so well done, the description of the events so thrilling, it's almost worth reading the novel for that alone. A lot of the troubles that Joe and Clarissa went through struck very close to home for me, heightening the effect of the prose and narrative. And, boy, can Ian McEwan write. Beautiful, beautiful descriptions abound throughout the book. Well recommended.

SummerGods.gif (11572 bytes)    Summer For The Gods by Edward J. Larson

The subtitle for this book is The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. Seems a bit heavy, huh? Well actually no, it isn't. Ostensibly this book is about the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee; about the clash between two heavyweight orators called Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution; about the triumph of Fundamentalism over Science. In fact, Larson neatly paves the way to the trial, showing with meticulous research the state of American society at the time, the beliefs of ordinary people versus the intelligentsia, the reasons for forcing the trial to take place, the birth of the ACLU, and so on.

My emotions when reading about the trial itself were unbelievable-after all we've all seen the play or the movie Inherit the Wind-but the actual trial was way more interesting. Impartiality had nothing to do with it; all the way from prayers being read before each day's proceedings to the judge attending a Sunday sermon by Bryan. As Darrow was to say afterwards, the defense knew they were going to lose, they were instead looking ahead to the appeal.

Larson doesn't stop at the verdict, and moves on inexorably into the aftermath, with Bryan dying unexpectedly within a week and the appeal going awry. He criticizes later historians, whether academic or popular for getting details of the trial wrong and perpetuating myths about it. He touches on Lee and Lawrence's play Inherit the Wind and the subsequent movie starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, and shows how they distort - in the interests of art and entertainment it must be agreed - the happenings at the trial.

Throughout Larson shows the effects that the trial (and subsequent trials like Epperson vs Arkansas) had on the American Constitution and on more modern interpretations of it. This was very interesting to me; I have always had the feeling that the Constitution was fixed and unchanging, whereas in reality it is not. It is interpreted according to the times we live in. He also shows the changing viewpoints of not only the Fundamentalists (Bryan believed, for example, that the days in Genesis were ages; nowadays young-earther creationists believe that a day is a day), but also of the Darwinists.

All in all, well recommended; in fact, I read the book in a weekend. Larson writes clearly and well and no wonder this book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History.

SongStone.gif (6292 bytes)    A Song of Stone by Iain Banks

Iain Banks is a Scottish author of some repute. He writes both mainstream fiction with the Iain Banks moniker and science fiction in the space opera vein using a middle initial M: Iain M Banks. I've been a fan of his work for a long time. Both sides. A Song of Stone is his latest in the standard fiction line, and, boy, is it a hard read. Hard in the sense of you don't really have a liking for any of the characters and so you don't really end up caring one way or another to what happens to them.

The book is set in some war-torn country (never specified, although I imagined it to be England in the very near future). Refugees are fleeing to a safe haven, including the owner of a castle and his wife/girl-friend/incestuous partner. They're stopped by an army patrol, recognized as being high-born and are forced to return to the castle. The patrol's leader is a young woman, her soldiers vicious thugs. There follows a litany of horror and terror described in the first person by the castle owner, as the patrol take over the castle and ruin it.

At a first read-through, the story is incredibly puzzling. You are meant to dislike the narrator (he can't even remember the surname of his butler when he dies, is Banks having a dig at the upper class?). He regards his female partner as purely a sex object, or does he? The female lieutenant seems the most likeable in a sense: she has a job to do and has been doing it for so long one gets the impression she's inured to all the suffering and couldn't give a toss about anybody except her precious soldiers. The castle (the entire story is a song of its stones) ends up getting trashed, its irreplaceable contents are vandalized, it is set on fire. Is Banks saying that the only things which endure are not pain and suffering but stones? I'm not quite sure.

The prose, as usual for Banks, is very well done. You are carried along with the writing. There are dazzling descriptions on every page. The entire book is completely original and riveting. Yet, it seems hollow, pointless, by the time you finish it. Recommended if you like Banks, otherwise read Complicity for a flavour of what he can do.

cosm.gif (11201 bytes)    Cosm by Gregory Benford

The blurb on the cover makes mention of Timescape, his very satisfying science-fiction novel (I've read it a couple of times now) about ordinary scientists doing their work and discovering a new and hitherto unknown physical principle. Cosm promised the same, and so I was anxious to read it. Unfortunately, the plot just didn't ring true this time. In Timescape, the scientists were ordinary and just happend to stumble on a new physical discovery. They didn't do anything out of the ordinary, they just did their job, and for a while you were carried along hoping that they would succeed in their endeavours, but suddenly with a twist you realized with horror the ending.

Cosm, as I said, faltered somewhere along the line. I was annoyed right from the start because I knew more than the main character. Well, sorry and all that, I only read New Scientist but even so. I would expect a physics professor to have some inkling of cosmology and the big bang and the first three minutes and all that. Especially one who is using a Collider. But, no, when an experiment goes wrong and a weird and wonderful shiny sphere is produced, and finally someone comes up with the idea that it's a new universe, the main character has to have it all explained to her. Obviously Benford is explaining it to his readers, but this was lame.

The sphere was whisked away from the Collider, put into a lab and experimented with (some interesting viewpoints here of how a scientist goes about his daily work). Various theories were proposed and tested. It turns out that time in the new universe, the Cosm of the title, was accelerating exponentially compared with the time in ours. At which point I started to think about whether there was going to be a Big Crunch; not the characters though. They found they could see into the Cosm and saw black holes being formed and growing; again the characters didn't worry about their viewpoint into the new universe falling into a black hole. Why, for heaven's sake? I did, but these genius profs didn't? Oh come on.

All in all, the book was a fairly good read, but it just didn't have the same satisfying feel of Timescape. The plot problems were just too much for me though.

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Copyright (c) Julian M Bucknall, 1998  E-mail me if you've any comments about the site.
Page last updated: Thursday April 09, 1998 16:45:50