You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Lest one get the impression that this entire blog will be raves about books, this will be a review of a book that I was not that impressed with. First let me say, Eragon is quite an accomplishment considering that the author, Christopher Paolini, was 15 years old when he started writing it. The book I wrote when I was 15 and 16 was pretty unreadable. Paolini shows a lot of potential, and his next series is likely to be much better.

Now let me check off the cliches:
1. Main character is an orphan living with an aunt or uncle. Check.
2. Mysterious friend turns out to much more than he seems. Check.
3. Main character has hidden magical powers that start to manifest. Check.
4. Sinister forces appear in the main character's hometown and cause trouble. Check. This kicks off the main conflict.
5. Heroes traipse across the map on a long journey, seemingly knowing where their destination is but often backtracking. Check.
6. Orc-like enemies destroy entire towns in their rampages, including women and children. Check.
7. Magic sword. Check.

The true question of what I think of a book is answered by whether I plan to read the sequel. In this case I don't. There wasn't enough original in this story to merit reading any more in the series. I suppose the book would seem fresher to someone who wasn't familiar with Tolkien, or Anne McCaffrey.

(Warning: spoilers below)
Quick synopsis:
Eragon is a boy who lives with his uncle and cousin. He finds a dragon egg and it hatches, the dragon bonding to him. The sinister forces come searching for the egg and kill the uncle, then run away. Eragon's friend, Brom, turns out to be much more than a storyteller. Brom's history unfolds over the first half of the book, as he is very secretive. Brom helps Eragon find the people who killed his uncle, taking him to one town and then another. The bad guys ambush the two, Brom is killed, and Eragon is rescued by another mysterious guy named Murtagh. Murtagh and Eragon travel some more, and Murtagh rescues Eragon again, this time from a prison of the emperor's. They race to the hidden city where the empire's rebels live, taking an unconscious elfmaiden with them. There they make a last stand against the emperor's secret army of orc-like monsters.

The characters are broadly drawn. Eragon is the only one with any real depth, known mainly for his love of his hometown and valley, and his desire for revenge. We never see more of Murtagh other than anger. Brom is basically Eragon's search engine: he has all the answers, or can find them, but he's quiet about what it all means. This does create some suspense, but I think it's a little overplayed. Eragon's dragone, Saphira, has more potential, but she's not more developed than an animal. Actually I think my favorite character was the talking cat.

My biggest problem with the plot is that the characters seem to be moving around the map as if they're pulled along by the author's strings. First this city, then this city, now let's go here. Eragon wants to find the sinister ones who killed his uncle, but why? Does he intend to kill them? He does a pretty poor job of it, and the result (being ambushed and nearly killed, getting Brom killed in the process) is pretty predictable. Why do they then travel towards the emperor's stronghold? Is it so Eragon can get captured and find the elfmaiden? And why do they travel to the hidden city? It must be so that the author can get them where they can help defend the city. In Saphira, Eragon has a great weapon that he can use to get himself out of trouble (they can communicate telepathically), but he never calls her at the right time. Also, I was a bit put out when Murtagh, who helped get Eragon to the secret city, is imprisoned there, and Eragon takes two days before going to see him, and has to be reminded that he's there! They just spent weeks in the desert together and Murtagh saved his life twice! Some thanks.

Brom teaches Eragon some basic lessons in magic, but when he's gone Eragon is reduced to trying random things, and lucky for him they work. It seems like too much of his success depends on luck, and not enough on thought or ability.

A few things stand out. Like the hidden city, which is remarkable in its scale. But its people are vague, and we never get a real impression of what living there is really like.

I'll give the book a C. It deserves its status in the Teen section of the library, and it's been pretty popular among that set.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

About the title

I discovered the play on words in "you are what you read" wasn't quite as original as I'd thought after I created this blog. But I haven't found any other elucidation of the concept anywhere else.

Like the old saying goes, we are literally what we eat: the molecules in our bodies are made up of the food we eat and the liquids we drink. I was reading a while ago about how children's personalities are formed by their early experiences. Their thoughts and feelings reflect how they are treated by their caregiviers, the toys they play with, etc. They are, literally, what they experience.

In the same sense, all our minds are shaped by the words we read. Every novel, story, article, or blog we read fills our minds with new information, through which we filter everything we read after. Our thoughts and points of view are framed by the thoughts we've created in the past. Obviously there are other sources of information out there: radio, TV, conversations with real people. But the written word provides a critical element of logical, organized thought. It's where we get a lot of our hard facts.

Every time we encounter a new word, it expands our minds. The word eldritch, for example, conjures all sorts of images and feelings based on the particular stories we've read it in. Likewise the word Orwellian means so much more to me after reading 1984. People may have slightly different concepts of what a word connotes, depending on where and when they first heard it or read it.

I've tried to fill my mind with good books; not just stories that are entertaining and fun, though that's important too. Books have to be intelligent, feature smart and complex characters, deal with major adult issues (this doesn't rule out stories with children--some stories about children can have a big impact with adult themes), have an original plot--or at least treat a plot in an original way. They must avoid stereotypes, both in characters and plot devices. I can't tell you how tired I am of seeing some of the same stories over and over. When a character in a TV show or movie gets trapped in a game or simulation (holodeck, matrix, training exercise), I start to roll my eyes. Not again!

Someone who reads nothing but romance novels or westerns or mysteries will fill his or her mind with dead stereotypes, flat characters (or melodramatic characters, which can be worse), and simple themes and concepts. Those minds will be built out of those simple elements. On the other hand, if you read more complex literature, your mind will grow, and it will yearn for more. Moreover, literature builds on itself; many stories are retellings of older tales.

Here's how I try to break down my reading: one part sf/fantasy or other fun novel, one part "literature" or some other well known or critically acclaimed book, and one part nonfiction. This last suffers a bit, so it's really a 2/2/1 split, or more realistically a 4/2/1 split. This is OK though. I figure I read more than the average American, so the fact that I read, say, four nonfiction books a year instead of twelve still leaves me four ahead of most.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Cory Doctorow's first two books

I'll say this about Cory Doctorow the guy can write. Some writers are known for their plots, some for their characters, some for their detailed settings. Cory Doctorow is simply a great writer.

I recently read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and liked it so much I decided to read another of his books, Eastern Standard Tribe. They are both fairly light science fiction. Both relate a tale of a male protagonist facing a conspiracy against him. In the world of Down and Out, death is obsolete, and people have “whuffie” accounts instead of bank accounts. Whuffie is basically a measure of esteem from your peers, and a high whuffie can get you just about anything. The main character, Julius, lives in Disney World's Magic Kingdom as part of an Ad-hocracy that has taken over the park. He becomes afraid that a rival group is trying to take over his favorite ride, the Haunted Mansion, when he is killed and has to be restored from a backup.

Doctorow really brings life to his world, and his characters are full of emotion. The elements of paranoia and jealousy add a lively flavor. But the writing takes flight with the descriptions of technology and the concepts behind them. Like the cochlea implants and subvocalizers that enable people to communicate quietly. Everybody is “online” all the time, like a super-extended version of the Internet.

The conceit in Eastern Standard Tribe is that cultures of the world are divided by time zones, and their circadians, and members of some tribes work as secret agents against the interests of other tribes. Art is such an agent, working in England for the Greenwich Tribe but really subverting their efforts in favor of the Eastern Standard Tribe. The story alternates between flashback and Art's problems in the insane asylum he's been stuck in since his coworker betrayed him in order to sell a great idea they'd been working on to a different tribe. The concepts aren't as earth-shattering in EST, but it's still a great read. What's most interesting to me is Art's work as a user interface consultant. Basically he re-engineers products so that they're more usable by consumers. The technologies he explores all promote connectedness. In Doctorow's worlds, people are brought together through more and more networking. For example, Art's big idea is to let drivers' car stereos talk to one another and download music wirelessly as they drive.

Both these protagonists become alienated from the world and have to grasp for ways to re-connect to their life. Julius after his restore, Art in the insane asylum.

These books are just over 200 pages each, and they're quick and easy reads. It's like you took an 800-page novel and condensed it to the 200 best pages.

Links to the books:

In the beginning...

For a while now I've been thinking I should keep a log of all the books I read, including some notes and impressions of the books. I finally decided that I could do that in a blog, so this is my attempt at blogging the books I've read. I'll also include some other observations about books, reading, writing, and anything else that comes to mind.

My intention is that this blog will be about 60-70% book reviews, 10-20% about reading or writing in general, and 10-20% personal stuff.

About that personal stuff.....I've been trying to do more reading lately, over the last year or so. I found that for a while I was watching a whole lot of TV and playing video games, both of which can eat up whole blocks of time. (I still remember playing StarCraft into the wee hours of the morn.) I still watch some TV, but not nearly as much as I used to. When the 3rd season of 24 started two years ago, I told my wife to start watching it but that I didn't want to get sucked in, since it would be a ...well... 24 hour commitment. Ah, I didn't last very long, and I ended up watching the whole season, and the 4th season, and have started watching season 5. Thanks to our DVR (and I almost can't watch TV without it) it's a lot easier to make sure you don't miss an episode.

Anyway, when I started turning off the TV, I started reading more (and writing, but that's another story). Part of the challenge of this became finding good books to read. I've found that the power of a good reviewer is not to be underestimated. Not that I think I'm a good reviewer, but I've definitely got some thoughts to get out there. If you can find a reviewer who you respect and who you tend to agree with, then that can be as good as gold. Spending twenty minutes reading a review can be a good way to make sure the next book you read--which can be a ten to twenty hour investment--is worth it.

A note on my expertise. I did study English, with a creative writing emphasis, my first time around in college. I went back to get a CS degree and now I'm database administrator. I didn't feel like I got as much as I should have out of those English classes, even though I made A's and B's. I think that if I were to return and study literature again it would make a lot more sense. I am by no means an expert on books or literature. I just hope to be able to come up with a few good ideas here and there.