Learning Java

Rating: 3/4 (Covering a lot of depth and breadth, this is a good book to dive into Java)

The last time I worked with Java, the programming language, was in my undergraduate semester in 2000. I distinctly remember learning the basics of the language and AWT (or was it Swing?) to create a program that drew various kinds of fractals. This month I was back in bed with Java, the language now in version 6. Everything seems to have changed about Java in these past 10 years. With improvements in virtual machines (VM), compilation, garbage collection, addition of Generics and an awesome IDE (Eclipse), Java is today a fast language to learn, program and execute.

I looked around to find a book that would introduce me back to Java. I tried Thinking in Java (4th Edition) by Bruce Eckel and found it simplistic and excessively verbose. Also, it is beyond me why Eckel does not number his book chapters! In his interview, Java demi-god Joshua Bloch suggests the book Java Precisely (2nd Edition) by Peter Sestoft for a terse introduction to Java. Despite it being published by MIT Press, I found this book to be poorly written and the typesetting ridiculously bad to even take it seriously. Finally, I settled on the O’Reilly book Learning Java, now in its 3rd edition, written by Patrick Niemeyer and Jonathan Knudsen. This book, though quite hefty, fit my needs perfectly and I came away discovering a lot about Java.

I found the first 8 voluminous chapters of the book the most useful, since these deal with introducing the language, types, classes, objects and Collections. The rest of the book deals with core classes, threads, I/O, networking, Swing, JavaBeans, applets and XML. The book is quite hefty, weighing in at ~950 pages! The book dives pretty deep into the details of the language and in my opinion, would be comfortable only for readers already familiar with C or C++. Unlike the earlier two Java books I tried, I liked the pace, the content and the writing style of the authors here. Small executable code samples litter the book and can be downloaded from here and executed with Eclipse.

The only problem I had with this book was the high number of errors I discovered while reading it. That was quite surprising, the book coming from the O’Reilly stable and having undergone so many editions! Still, I recommend Learning Java as a good introduction to Java. It is written not to be just an introductory book, but has enough depth and breadth to live on as a handy reference book on Java.


The Negotiator

Rating: 3/4 (A decent hostage thriller by Forsyth, though a bit drawn out)

The Negotiator by thriller writer Frederick Forsyth was one of the few books a friend gave me when he left Singapore. I had not read any books by Forsyth, but he has always been very popular among my bookworm friends, especially for his book The Day of the Jackal.

Though written in 1989, the plot was surprisingly pertinent. In the book, a new USA president named Cormack takes charge, bringing radical changes. He even extends an olive branch to the Russian president Gorbachev, and they agree to cut back drastically on arms. Cormack’s moves irk the conservative crowd in USA and they devise a devious plot to take him out of power. Cormack’s son Simon who is studying in London is kidnapped. Thus enters Forsyth’s hero Quinn, the most famous hostage negotiator in the world. After a nail biting hostage negotiation, Quinn is able to get the son released. Just when he thinks he has won, Simon is killed gruesomely and it is upto Quinn to figure out who did it and why.

The Negotiator is quite a good read. The people and places are well researched and this provides a stable grounding for the plot. Most of the book, right through Simon’s kidnapping and his hostage negotiation by Quinn are edge-of-the-seat exciting to read. It is the last part where Quinn tracks down the killers that is drawn out and boring. All in all, The Negotiator was a decent read and I would not mind reading The Day of the Jackal after this.

Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics

Rating: 4/4 (A cracker of a book that gives insights into the Manga culture of Japan)

I admit to having a quite a bit of enamour for Japan, its culture, food, language and technology. So, my travel around Japan last year was very exciting and I came away all the more impressed and influenced. A major part of Japanese culture is Manga (Japanese comics) and Anime (Japanese animation). In the months following my Japanese trip, I have been slowly, but surely, getting into reading and enjoying Manga. Due to the availability of thousands of Manga series in every genre imaginable, it soon became inevitable that I would pick up a book to learn more about these comics itself. Browsing the many shelves of books on Manga in the university library, I picked the 1986 paperback edition of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics by Frederick L. Schodt.

Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics is an incredibly informative and fun filled read! Frederick writes for an audience who have a taste of American superhero comics, but know nothing about Japanese comics. The origins of comic art lie deep inside Japanese history and reading about Manga gave me deep insights into Japanese culture. Japan was quick to master the art of making paper and later woodblock printing. Thus, the Japanese masses have had access to art and comic art in particular for a long time. It also helps that all kinds of humour, self deprecating, sexual and body, are acceptable and enjoyed by the Japanese public. Manga really took off after the end of World War II, when after witnessing decades of intense violence, Japanese were disgusted with war. With a strict culture at school and workplace, the masses found the perfect outlet for their emotions in reading comics.

Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) is clearly the pioneer of modern Manga. He took inspiration from the framing, camera angles and screenplay of Western movies. These comics were initially aimed at kids and were serialized in weekly comic magazines. The magazine format gave Manga creators freedom to write long stories, which their Western counterparts could not. Manga soon captured the hearts and minds of teens and adults, both men and women. This lead to an explosion of comics of every kind, comedy, slice-of-life, romance, science fiction, historical, sexual, sports and even educational. Manga is today the world’s most popular comics, with Manga magazine production in the millions every week! The Manga industry is growing even today, garnering new fans outside Japan. Manga series which are hits are compiled and released as volumes. With the advent of animation, now they are also converted to anime series for TV and movies.

This book is not mere text, thankfully, every page is peppered with relevant Manga art, covers and photos. The book has a foreword from Osamu Tezuka himself, who in Japan is called Manga no Kamisama (The God of Comics). The book ends with a delicious 96-page appetizer of the best Manga ever produced, translated into English. This includes Hi no Tori (Phoenix) by Osamu Tezuka (popularly referred to as his life’s work), Borei Senshi (Ghost Warrior) by Reiji Matsumoto, Berusaiyu no Bara (The Rose of Versailles) by Riyoko Ikeda and Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) by Keiji Nakazawa. I found Phoenix and Ghost Warrior deeply intellectual and thoughtful. Though a bit dated, since it was published in 1983, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics is a cracker of a book and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know about Manga and its influence in Japanese culture.

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