Some of my favourite booksCopyright by Karim D. Ghantous 1999 - 2002
This is not a comprehensive list but includes several books which I found stood out among the rest. These are the ones I'm more happy to recommend to anybody and everybody. They are not necessarily the best books I've read, but I wouldn't always recommend the best books as many people just wouldn't get as much satisfaction as I do. For example, V. by Thomas Pynchon is a beautiful novel but perhaps is too rich or difficult for a lot of readers who prefer page-turners like Jurassic Park. That's why Jurassic Park is on the list and V. isn't. More books will be featured in the future.
Note: This list won't be maintained for the time being. 03/10/2003
Empire Building | The Soul of a New Machine | Peyton Place | The Cuckoo's Egg | Silicon Snake Oil | Jurassic Park | Dune | Field of Thirteen | The Shining | Return to Peyton PlaceEmpire Building by Garry Jenkins
An enthralling narrative of the Star Wars story. You really can't put this down, it's that intense. Star Wars is one of the most influencial works of art this century. If you're going to find out about how it was conceived and painfully born, you may as well do it in style.Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple by John Sculley (with John A. Byrne)
It's fully into the human story, so only devotes a couple of pages to the technology of sound visual effects, and although it concentrates on Star Wars it has a substantial introduction which includes Lucas's childhood and early movies.
It starts off with Lucas's life as a boy in Modesto, California. He was not the outgoing type in his youth, and asides from some time cruising around the streets of the town at night with his friends, still is a reserved and private person today. He spent a lot of spare time reading comics, watching programs on TV like Flash Gordon, drinking Coke and eating Hershey bars. He was a dreamer for sure, and as the world was to find out in 1977, all that time spent fantasizing produced one of the most exciting movies ever made.
The narrative includes THX 1138 and an account of the making of American Grafitti. The main part of the book goes through all three Star Wars movies. If you're like me, you'll want to read this book more than once. The second time I read it was when I was feeling rather down. Somehow I knew this book would cheer me up. It gave me some hope during those bad few days (don't worry, nobody got hurt or died!). This book is the best cheering-up medicine I've yet encountered.
Empire Building truly tells a most fantastic story in a fantastic way. It was published during or just before pre-production of The Phantom Menace. This actually adds an extra bit of punch to the end of the book. You have been taken through a most extraordinary journey with one of the world's most interesting people, and the mention of a renewed journey of three more movies leaves a spark of wonder that stays with you well after you return the book to the shelf. Read the blurb.
I have read this 579 page book three times. Or maybe four. Every time I think of this book, I get a nostalgic flashback to the romantic days of the early eighties, although back then I was only in lower primary school, knew only about Atari 2600s and probably saw one Apple II in the maths classroom.The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder (won 1982 Pulitzer Prize)
Sculley wasn't the best CEO Apple ever had, as he ultimately didn't understand the microcomputer despite being chief for ten whole years. But the story he tells, particularly when he was still at Pepsi, is enchanting. No wonder I had re-read it so many times.
Sculley occasionaly flatters himself and his company. For example, he puts down other, arguably better PCs like Commodores as 'toys'. And he was too pie-in-the-sky about certain ideas he had which culminated in the premature Newton.
Certain mistakes that Sculley made were pretty bad, considering the foresight any idiot would have had in certain situations. And you definitely end up greiving how Apple let itself be steered by its unstable ideas and people, especially Steven Jobs. But the scope and sense of adventure of Sculley's side of the story is definitely worth our attention. The narrative is rich, and you can feel the bright California sun, the optimism Apple had and ultimately the fascination it leaves you with. Read the blurb.
ISBN N/A - out of print
This book gets a lot of flack today by some critics. I was talking to a friend about microprocessors and to make a point I brought up this book. He said with quiet sarcasm, 'Oh, so you bought that one copy'.Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
It's about Data General's attempt to build a 32-bit minicomputer to compete with Digital Equipment Company's VAX, released in the late seventies. It took DG engineers two years to get it done - and they almost didn't make it. What they did make was a pretty good piece of engineering, with few compromises, to be compatible with their 16-bit machines.
Maybe nobody reads it today, and maybe some don't give it much credit, but it is one heck of a read. It's not a book for technical people (unfortunately for me) so it really could be about anything. But the way the story is told, including the alternation between characters and the computer's development, is fantastic and very intimate.
The story begins with an unusually understated and modest enginneer, Tom West, doing an impressive job on board a sailboat in rough seas. The book concentrates on West, the key element in DG's crack team of engineers, and it's through him that we are taken on this most fascinating journey.
At the end of the book, when the finished product, the Eclipse MV/8000 is shown to the industry press, the final glimpse of West in all of his mysterious humility and modesty intrigues you further, hoping the book to go on. You get the feeling that what went on was not just the designing of a computer but a journey of almost spiritual importance; and you understand that a computer is not just a tool but a beautiful machine of great complexity and magical seduction. Read the blurb.
This novel caused a sensation (and spawned a sequel, of course) in the late fifties when it was first published. But because the sensation had to do mostly with repressed sexuality and the dark undercurrents of a small town community, it became a bestseller.The Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll
Naturally, as with all popular and great books, this one (as well as its sequel) was turned into a motion picture and a series on ABC. There were no less than 514 half-hour episodes.
The novel begins a few years before the Second World War. The protagonist is Allison MacKenzie, a 12 year old girl who has much potential yet because she is shy and withdrawn may not get a chance to use it.
We enter this apparently tranquil little town in the late summer. We get an introductory look-in at some of the townspeople and where their concerns lie. It is from page one magnificently written. Sensually, you are instantly taken deep into the soul of Peyton Place, the small town with its own imported European castle (how this castle got there is not a trivial matter, either).
On the surface you are presented with an apparently benign religious division, with a Roman Catholic Church at one end of the town and a Congregationalist Church at another. Then there is the division of poor and not poor, and those not poor are also divided into levels of power and money.
The poor don't have much time to think about everyone else, and when everyone else talks about the poor, it's an attempt to put the problem aside and forget about any injustices that might be happening. After all, as everyone keep saying, as long as 'they' pay their taxes, they aren't hurting anyone. Not only does the middle class try to ignore the poverty problem, but they try to hide their own evils and ignore those of their neighbours.
There are moments of tragedy, sadness and terror, but few moments of joy. This town is no picnic area. We get a few pleasing triumphs and one or two moments of true happiness. But even if this is a work of fiction, it cannot cover up the bad things that crawl underneath the surface of rigid and self-repressed societies and occassionally erupt to the surface with devastating consequences.
Inspiration for Twin Peaks and a dark and candid reflection of our society that is relevant still today, this novel will stay with you for the best part of a lifetime. Read the blurb.
Clifford Stoll is an astronomer who gets work in Lawrence Berekely Labs, dealing with the computer system which academics all over the university use for their research. One day he sees a small error in the accounts. All 75 cents of it. A little bit more investigation shows that something is a bit fishy here: a very sneaky and dangerous hacker is using the machines as a decoy and hiding place for his long term mission to get as much sensitive information from US government computers as possible.Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll
This blows up over the next year of Stoll's life to include calls to and visits from the FBI and CIA; a disrupted professional and personal life; conflict with his superiors; and the foundations of a career in computer security.
Stoll is matching wits with one tough opponent. It's a gruelling and serious game. The story unfolds beautifully and is narrated candidly and is very entertaining. The best attribute about this book is that you get a pretty good look into Cliff Stoll's life during those 12-odd months while he tries to catch the villain. It's often amusing and sometimes downright funny, like the episode with the microwave oven (and this guy is supposed to know his technology!).
There are some very important lessons in this book, not just about network security but about the way humans interact with computers.
Some of you who have seen the German movie 23 will notice that Stoll had an indirect experience with the subjects of that film - the Chaos Computer Club. And however justified the conspiracy theories in 23 are, Stoll concentrates on the immediate tasks at hand: trying to convince his employers that spending time watching the hacker is worth it; sorting out his relationship with his girlfriend, Martha; dealing with the FBI, CIA, NSA and other government and military establishments who call each other by weird names like 'the northern entity' and 'the F entity'.
An absorbing book with personality, it is just as relevant today as it was in 1990, when it was first published. Read the blurb.
If you thought progress was a simple concept and that information technology, including the Internet, is the best way forward, then think twice. Not only is IT not the magic wand for all our conceivable problems, but it can cause worse problems whose only solution is to hit the 'off' switch as fast as possible.Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
This book could have had a subtitle like 'welcome to the real world where huge promises made by almost as huge IT coporations don't actually work'. Stoll brings down the earth the promises made by IT companies and the sometimes gullible public and shows why in some cases they don't work and even cause more problems.
He gets to the heart of the matter by showing how blind we can be to fundamental issues that have nothing to do with computers. He shows how our method of dealing with the important issue of education is often to throw as big a pile of computers at it as we can afford at the expense of reason and common sense. Underneath this pile of rapidly obsolete silicon and empty promises we are blind to the real needs of people.
Instead of taking his son to the nearby aquarium to learn about marine life, a friend of the author buys the young boy a CD-ROM where he can spend hours clicking and scrolling and watching full-motion animations all in the comfort of his bedroom.
Computers were supposed to help people enjoy life more, to leave the mundane tasks to the machine so mothers and fathers could go home earlier each day and spend time with their children, cats, vegie garden or train set. What computers have actually done is make life more complicated in some ways. An example given is of an academic who has to waste time learning about new software when he could otherwise be working on more important things.
Stoll discusses in a solid yet entertaining matter. Everything that he brings up, from the questionable gains in faster computers to the intuition of a computer-less Chinese astronomer, is thought-provoking and revealing, yet no matter how stupid some of our policies towards computers are, you don't end this book on a depressing note. In fact, you come out feeling better for the author's expose on the often deluded computer industry because you, even as an individual have the power to protect yourself against the false and empty promises of modern high technology. Read the blurb.
What a ripper of a novel this is. Truly one of the greatest works of popular fiction. This is not a run-of-the-mill bestseller. It became a bestseller because it deserved it, not just because a whole lot of people bought it by default or for a boring plane trip.Dune by Frank Herbert
So what's the big deal, 8 years later? Well, this is one blockbuster that does not tire after a few years, unlike a tatty old paperback that has seen too much action for its own good. This book draws you in from the very first page, the introduction. The headline is simply 'The InGen Incident'.
This absorbing, documentary-like narrative sets the groundwork for the action to follow. In fact, the intro is written in retrospect, as the 'incident' already happened. The novel proper is mostly what the InGen incident actually was. But as soon as you begin the first chapter, you're already drawn in and you're not looking back.
Each chapter is headed by an imgage of a fractal, gradually increasing in size and complexity before each chapter. Below the fractal is a comment by Ian Malcom. His first comment, under the first iteration (stage) is 'At the earliest drawings of the fractal curve, few clues to the underlying mathematical structure will be seen.' Whatever else you want to say about Crichton, he definitely thinks up the most awesome narrative devices.
The framework of many of his books makes the movies made from them seem a little tired. This novel of Crichton's is quite different from his others in its tone. The Andromeda Strain was very tense and it put you at an uneasy distance from the characters. This certainly is a great effect, but not something everybody would like.
Jurassic Park, most likely because of its subject matter - dinosaurs - appeals to almost anybody and everybody. If you're old enough to read, you'll love it. Unlike novels by Dick Francis or John Grisham, this book has appeal to younger readers (not that young readers, and I mean primary school children, haven't read Crichton's other books). But not because it's written down to a lower intellect. In fact there are many concepts that children may not fully appreciate. Maybe the younger readers will like this book even more the second time around when they're older.
Jurassic Park is one of those novels which you take to bed and never want to put down until morning - only because you have to get to work or school. It got the whole world excited twice, the second time being the release of Steven Spielberg's motion picture adaptation. I have read it twice and intend to re-live it one more time. Even if you read it only once, you'll remember this thrilling novel for years ahead. Read the blurb.
The 1981 printing of the paperback starts off with a typographical error: 'It was a week before they left Arrauis.' Of course you don't realize it's a typo until you see the name again - Arrakis. That's probably why nobody bothered to fix it for so long.Field of Thirteen by Dick Francis
After that shaky start the foundations of the story begin to form. We start with the Atreides 'royal' family as it were - one of which later becomes the main protagonist. The Emperor, Shaddam IV has ordered that the House of Atreides take rule over Arrakis, the Desert Planet also known as Dune. The incumbent caretakers of Arrakis, the House of Harkonnen led by the nasty Baron, have ruled over Arrakis for decades.
The point is that Arrakis is the only source in the universe of the spice melange, which gives those who consume it power to see into the future - prescience. This is the most desireable substance of all, with more profound value that gold or silver has for us today. Naturally, the Harkonnens wouldn't just give up fiefdom of such a source of wealth, and Duke Leto, head of the Atreides smells a trap.
At this crucial time, a prophecy made by a class of women seers about a messiah figure may be realized. It is these two narrative threads that somehow converge and drive the story forwards.
Dune is separated into three parts of narrative plus several appendices, which add greater depth to Herbert's complex saga (in fact, Dune, as complex as it is, is the first of five novels). If you've read George Orwell's 1984 you will appreciate the effectiveness that appendices have.
There are no chapters, but at the beginning of each new section or scene there is a excerpt from one of the several scholarly, reflective works of Princess Irulan, the emperor's daughter. This is a fantastic device that Herbert uses, prefacing the sections of narrative with pieces of works written long after the events conveyed in the novel have come and gone.
Although not as punchy as a simple 'Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away...' the device is stronger and more thought provoking, as well as being just an emotional trigger. While you read the actual story, you have in the back of your mind a wistful curiosity about who this princess is and whether she will figure in the coming action or not (in David Lynch's screen adaptation of the novel, Irulan was played by the dignified and beautiful Virginia Madsen).
Herbert gives us something different from the usual sci-fi offering by basing a lot of language of his worlds on ancient languages like Arabic, Hebrew, Latin and even a touch of German. We have a Kwisatz-Haderach, Muad'Dib and Missionaria Protectiva. You get a deep feeling to the story's situation because you can relate all these lingual styles and their connotations between the rich culture of Earth's ancient world and the imagined universe of Dune.
There are great interactions and relationships between protagonists here, not least of all the scheming, villany and betrayal that accompanies no only the characters in Dune but sadly in real life, in any scenario where watching your back is a necessity as brushing your teeth. But then Dune is a reflection of our reality, and there's very little romance in the core of either.
But the author does more than draw allusions from our history and plant them into his story. By the time you finish reading the first appendix, it all comes together beautifully and you understand Herbert's implications perfectly.
Unlike Star Wars, Frank Herbert constructed his novel to show the reality behind conflict: it's not about good vs. bad plain and simple in the real world, and nor is it so in Dune. Because most people are fickle, wicked and scheming, taking a principled stand behind one party or ideal is for many not a clear cut decision. In reality, especially in organized institutions, one's enemies are closer than one flippantly assumes, a point which Herbert uses to compelling, even tragic effect. Read the blurb.
In Field of Thirteen, Francis had given us 13 short stories, eight of which have been previously published (one under a different name). Those appearing again have been updated where necessary (laptops for typewriters, etc.) and the new ones show us that Francis is as consistent as he is just plain good.The Shining by Stephen King
What seems to be missing from many of his novels ironically is ever-present in each one of these thoroughly enjoyable page-turners. The narratives roll along freely and after finishing one story you can't wait to start the next one.
Francis has shown us that he is at his best with the short story. Some of his novels leave you with a feeling that nothing happened, you haven't learned anything. Or that they seem to plod along, maybe indicating that they would work better as short stories.
To his credit, we've waited for two long for this treat from one of the world's great veteran authors. We can only hope that he'll give us more of the same sometime soon. At least he should consider the novella form (of around 20,000 words or so) instead of the novel (70,000+) and perhaps give us a volume of four or five of these every 12-18 months. Francis seems to write better scenarios when h's constantly invigourated by new ideas. It seems that when he sticks with one story for too long, it stagnates in his imagination and doesn't feel fresh by the time you've gotten half-way in.
If you like on story before bed or before work, and don't want to bother remembering the thread of a whole novel, then a prescription of one of these stories each day is as good as you'll get. you get the usual brilliant characterization, scenarios that always provoke your interest and sometimes quite intense action. Many of these keep the tension from the first paragraph to the last, making it virtually impossible to stop in the middle of the story. Francis is only happy to relieve the tension or satisfy your ever-increasing curiosity in the last paragraph, and only then can you put the book down and get some sleep until the next evening when you once more pick it up and start a new one.
There are a couple of moments show up Francis's flaws as a writer. As an author, a creator and designer and shaper, he's as close to ideal as you're likely to get for his genre and intended audience. But as a writer, and we're talking now about the precise bonstruction of sentences and sue of specific words in specific places, he has a few annoying traits. In one story he makes a single object that should be taken for granted into a quaint, unnecessary distraction by showing a complete lack of understanding about it (Tom Clancy did the same thing in The Hunt for Red October - see if you can spot it). And he seems reluctant to use the 'F' word which would be fine if he didn't create a need for it. And in one story he did create the need for it, but covered it up in a supposedly clever way in the manner of an all too serious, rich schoolboy who tries to be too quaint (that word again!).
A small word of advice for reading these stories. A small, introductory epigraph precedes each story, which you should read after the story, not before as Francis would have you. You know that Francis is the author of these works - you need no preface, no precedent, as you're going to read all of the stories anyway. And the preface to the book as a whole can be read after you read all of the stories. Despite the minor yet persistent flaws in Francis's writing, each and every one of the stories is beautifully written and will hold your interest on every page. Read the blurb.
An excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe's story 'The Masque of the Red Death' precedes one of King's finest novels - a book so surprisingly good you'll soon ignore the simplistic 'horror' tag that most of King's books sport. It certainly is a frightening tale, and sometimes deeply so. But it's also a warm and human one which you'll remember for a long time to come.Return to Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
Poe had been almost purely gothic, basing his stories on mood, atmosphere and ideas. Whereas Stephen King, perhaps surprisingly, writes very complex, deep characters that are at the heart of his novels. The Shining is not just breathtakingly creepy, it's sad and moving; you empathize and even sympathize with all the characters - particularly young Danny Torrance.
Five years old, not understanding too much about life, he nonetheless is gifted with precognition, the ability to see the future and to read people's minds - shining.
What he sees can be as simple as knowing where to find objects his parents thought were lost, to forseeing the horrible events that he, his father and his mother are about to be dragged into.
King may call his work the 'McDonald's of literature' but his writing is far beyond the shallow pulp of lesser novels. He has the ability to grip you; you never want to leave the book, you want to go on reading all night... were it not for the blood-rushing creepiness that he leaves you with after the lights go out and the night goes quiet.
The main reason for this is simply the richness of his characters. You care enough for them that you feel every ounce of confusion, pain and discomfort that they do. You can even relate to the events because they could easily be the cause of psychological frustration, deeply embedded metaphorical horrors that torture us all, sometimes strongly.
But Danny's shine is no metaphor; the visions he dreams - even in the middle of the day - are no hallucinations. And when the worst of them start to come true he starts to realize just how real they are.
The book starts off in a way that betrays the almost unbearable tension that will eventually follow. Jack, Danny's father, is briefed about the hotel he is about to look after as caretaker in the approaching winter. Having changed owners and having re-opened numerous times under suspicious circumstances, it's finally beginning to make a profit.
Jack needs the job, and despite the fate of the previous caretaker and his family, Jack plans to take his wife and son with him for the long winter stay. And slowly but intensely, the narrative unfurls to the climax that seems so agonizingly slow to materialize.
This book is so absorbing that even with other potential distractions around you, you will have your brain furrowed in this story - so much that while your eyes are glued to the page, your heart will often tremble. If you think this longish book will last you a week, maybe two, forget it: you'll have it finished in a long weekend. Pretty good going when you think that other, smaller books may last you six or seven days.
But most other books don't make demands like this. You could take this to the beach, start reading it, and never touch to the water. You'll be reading this one all day.
King describes and explains with intimate and even crude detail, using what he thinks is necessary but no more. He makes you bond so much with the characters that you feel their pleasures and vulnerabilities deep inside you.
The use of an extract from Poe's story shows how strong that author's work still resonates through the dozen and more decades that have passed since it was first published. Much more ambiguous than King's vehicle for it, Red Death adds yet another layer to The Shining's haunting plot.
Curiously, if King was influenced by Poe, then Stanley Kubrick was influened by both. Kubrick made a movie based on The Shining in the early '80s. And recently he completed his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. In that film, there is a sprinkling of King's book. No doubt that Kubrick was more than moved by the novel he so masterfully arranged for the screen more than fifteen years before.
It's a shame that King thinks so little of his literary abilities. Not only will you remember the pages of this novel after the lights go out, but for years to come. You cannot help to feel for the characters. Yes, their fear, terror and pain are yours. And so are their tears.
So Red Death had an ambiguous ending. And it's interesting to reflect on whether King might have cut his story short, leaving us wonder whether the Torrances will meet the sad and awful fate of previous patrons, or somehow through Danny's perception escape it.
But as we have it, there is an ending to The Shining. And the only criticism that could possibly be held against this book is that as the climax approaches, we wonder if the mystery and fearful terror just becomes familiar enough to lose some of its edge. But this is just a passing thought: the story never goes near a flat ending. In fact, the ending - and the story as a whole - is touching enough to make you never want to leave. Read the blurb.
You've heard the sayings, 'the sequel is never as good' and 'the book is always better than the movie'. Return to Peyton Place is in fact a good novel, but like most sequels it does not match the qualities of the original that made it such a fantastic story.Back home
Allison MacKenzie, the protagonist of Peyton Place is again the focus of this story. Very early in the piece she gets a call from her New York agent and he tells her that her manuscript has been accepted by a small but distinguished publisher. And that's just the start of the dramas to come.
The sequel focuses more on Allison's career - and also on selected characters - and thus has less of the scope of the original. One of the great things about the first book was that it went very, very deep into almost every aspect of life in the small town. It was told in such a way that the readers' emotions matched the scale of the novel's outlook. Yet just as in the first novel, Metalious begins with geography, with the weather. Again, the environment is almost a character; with good reason, as weather and climate affect us more than many would care to assume.
But here, it's more of an extention of the first book rather than a continuing exploration. And overall that is not a bad thing. Metalious had created some characters that after only a short while you truly felt attached to and in her sequel she succeeds in the way she brings them back. To have them back at all: that alone would certainly be cause to read the new book.
And as the scope is less broad, this novel is suitably a little shorter than the original. Perhaps a bit of a shame that it wasn't longer, but Metalious has shown good judgement nevertheless in not risking more action which may just be repetitive or bog the story down. One wonders how many significant changes (if any) she made at the suggestion of her editor - because after all, her main character will no doubt have to face the same thing with her novel.
Metalious's style is not as sophisticated as that of John le Carre's for example, but despite that she is a great storyteller. You might wonder, though, whether the fact that this book has less scope and detail and complexity is partly due to the author somehow rushing through it. It's as if she didn't want to take too much time writing a novel as finely weaved as her first one. But it's not as if what's there feels like it's a rushed job.
Metalious has an indirect style of describing events. You go along with something that seems not to be heading to any sure outcome, and later you learn of the final, summarized result through other characters. Not that this is bad - in fact it works quite well assuming that the author wanted to keep this novel a bit shorter than the original one. If she didn't describe events through other characters, we'd probably still get a summary but from the narrator's point of view.
Where Peyton Place was a great novel, the sequel could be accused of being almost a soap opera, seeing as the author chose to focus on fewer characters and in a little less detail. But this book is not merely a soap.
In a soap opera, the details don't matter as much as how people react to them and what they do as a consequence. Metalious knows what she is writing about, although she hasn't exactly spent ten years of active research finding out, unlike Tom Wolfe would do.
It's not right to demand that good literature be heavy winded and have little or no action lest it take away from the long-windedness. The first novel was a perfect blend of mood, dialogue, characterization and action. This one concentrates more on people and what happens to them, but the quality is still evident. Maybe it's just because we're drawn to these characters as a follow-on from the first novel, but this is a novel where you definitely care about the characters (or at least some of them).
Because of that, it's a little disappointing to see Metalious's dialogue a bit too 'homely' or contrived in places, particularly where the Rossi family is concerned. And sometimes the characters speak action where it could be either more subtley put or described in another way. The ending, though not disappointing, still could have been better. Phillip K. Dick, author of the greatest sci-fi you could ever read had the same problem: fantastic stories, great ideas and a not-so-fantastic ending.
Return to Peyton Place won't move you as strongly as the original novel, but nevertheless you still feel for the characters and you know you won't forget them after the last page is read and the cover closed for the last time.