My top 5 books of 2011

Last year I attempted to to read 26 books in 52 weeks, but unfortunately life got in the way and could only manage to get through 16. This year I contemplated doing the same challenge, but figured I’d just read as much as I could and not look for a goal, but I managed to read 16 again this year anyway. Oh, these are my favourite books that I’ve read this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were published this year:

5. Between the Assassinations

Between the AssassinationsAravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations was the second book I reviewed this year and I was really pleased with his second output.

The book features a series of ‘day in the life’ stories from people of (fictional) Kittur, India, shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. With that lens it looks at many issues including: caste, sexual disease, drug problems, political corruption, the influx of villagers seeking a better life in the city, and much more.

As with many of the books that really speak to me, this one has very strong characters whose stories stick with you long after you’ve moved on from their tale.

4. Fall of Giants

Fall of GiantsIt seems like I’ve only read the biggest books by Ken Follett; first there was Pillars of the Earth, then World Without End and now Fall of Giants. Each of these were either a bit less or a bit more than 1000 pages, so they weren’t all that fun to read on public transit, but they were all very well written.

Fall of Giants is a fictional story based on history and takes place during the 13 1/2 years leading up to the First World War and it’s end. Each character introduced in the book cross paths at one point or another, whether it be an American diplomat coming to the aide of two Russian slum-raised teenagers, or Ethel the former housewife of Earl Fitzherbert of her village rising up in the political ranks and making an adversary of him in the process.

3. The Given Day

The Given DayWhen I saw The Given Day by Dennis Lehane I immediately picked it up. I’d read two of his other novels, Mysic River and Gone Baby Gone and really enjoyed his writing style. This one was a bit different though – still set in Boston the others, but this time in the 1930s.

The novel follows the two main storylines. The first is that of Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer; the second follows Luther Lawrence, an African American man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The two become intertwined as we see them separately take on issues of unions and race. Lehane does wonders with mingling the two lives and his writing is full of imagery and the words jump off the page to take you back in time.

2. Steve Jobs: Biography

Steve Jobs I managed to get through Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson rather quickly (for my standards) and just posted my review for it a couple days ago, so have a look:

Review of the Steve Jobs biography

I was thinking it would make a great movie. Do you think any director could do it justice and live up to Jobs’s standards? There was a movie called The Pirates of Silicon Valley in 1999 and it starred Noah Wyle as Jobs. I haven’t seen it but I think this biography would make a bit more of an interesting story since so many of Jobs’s friends and enemies have spoken up about him. I also think Christian Bale would make a great Jobs.

1. The Help

The Help

The Help is set in the 1960s and looks at the issue of race relations in Jackson, Mississippi. The premise is ‘Skeeter’ a white woman is looking to the maids of the city to help her write a story from the point of view of ‘the help’. You just have to do a Google search and you’ll see it’s a book that has gotten as much flack as it has praise.

One interesting news article from September says Stockett stole her identity for the character of Aibileen. Her name is Abilene Cooper and she was the maid to Stockett’s brother for 12 years. Much of the similarities are the same, but the case was thrown out.

I feel at the very least the book is a great starting point for race discussions.

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Review of the Steve Jobs biography

Steve Jobs“This bio is sh–!”

That’s all I could imagine Steve Jobs saying if he had read the biography he commissioned Walter Isaacson to write. Since I’m not Steve Jobs, I’d say it was an amazing read, though it could’ve benefited from a bit more editing.

While growing up I remember using Apple products in school, from the Apple II in Grade one, to the Macintosh throughout the rest of elementary school, and once again when I went to college. What I wasn’t really familiar with was the man behind those machines. Sure, I’d helped poke fun of Steve Jobs and Apple, and when I turned 180 degrees on that, I watched every product unveiling from the iPhone onward, but I never looked into the type of man he was, so this biography was quite the read.

Steve Jobs paints a picture of a man who is a quagmire. He was a narcissistic perfectionist who could bend people to his will and still garner deep respect and admiration. He was extremely emotional, often crying in public when happy or hurt, but callous when criticizing others for their work. There are countless stories of Jobs verbally abusing employees when they couldn’t come up with a design that he envisioned. He would catch them in his “reality distortion field” and get them to complete projects in unthinkable ways.

To further add to the quagmire that is Jobs, his personal life is equally odd. He speaks extensively about his personal life, with stories of him experimenting with LSD, strange dieting, traveling to India for months to seek enlightenment, and not stepping up to the plate to father his first child Lisa, among other things. We see a man who is a product of his generation, a bit of a hippie searching for inner peace, but also someone so cold as to not recognize his own daughter as his. The closest we get to an explanation of the reasoning behind why Jobs was the way he was, is through Isaacson’s interviews with others saying that he was trying to cope with abandonment issues at birth. It’s strange because Jobs was raised by loving parents who did nothing but make efforts to see him succeed. For all I know he did, but I’d like to have seen Isaacson press Jobs more about his feelings toward his birth parents.

For someone who is lauded as one of the great technology minds, Jobs was never really an expert at anything. He had this innate sense of how things should be, and worked off the genius of people like Steve Wozniak, designers at Xerox and Apple designer Jony Ive (and many others) to make the great products that Apple is so known for today. Each one of those that worked with him says that yes they did the work, but that wouldn’t have been possible without Jobs pushing them to do the unimaginable.

Throughout the book I couldn’t help but think that I was happy Jobs was never interested in running for public office. Imagine him as President of the United States? I’m pretty sure he’d rival, if not be worse than some other notorious world leaders of the past. Luckily he was focused on changing the world through computers, not politics.

As I mentioned at the top, the book could have been given an extra round of editing. There is a lot of repetition, especially in the latter half that became distracting at times. If it wasn’t for that, I would have given it a perfect score, but instead I give Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson a 4.5/5.

Justify the iPad for me

Apple’s iPad recently went up for pre-order in Canada and many early adapters and Apple Fanboys (and girls) clicked that button to make sure they had their new device on May 28. I was not one of them.

I’ve been torn about this thing since it was first announced. I quickly threw it in the want pile, because I sure don’t need it. It’s a sleek device that, with WiFi or 3G access, you can find your way with Google Maps, show off your family pictures, watch movies, go on the Internet, read books…etc. The list goes on, but all those things are available on the iPhone/iPod! It’s less portable than an iPhone and I’d be kind of scared taking that out on the TTC.

Many would buy the iPad for reading, and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the reading actual books. The tactile feel makes a difference, and I’d be worried if something happened (or in the future another bright and shiny device is released) and I couldn’t access my books anymore; where would my library be then?

Another big factor is before the new year I bought a MacBook Pro. I simply can’t justify the cost of buying a half-computer, which the iPad basically is. I’d much prefer my laptop over the iPad simply because I can multitask (though I know that will be added this summer), I’d like to print documents and sometimes I need to use DVDs.

Until the day comes when this kind of device is not a supplement to actual computers, I can’t see myself justifying the purchase.

What is it about that iPad that draws you to it? Have you made the pre-order or are you having trouble justifying the purchase, like I am?

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