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.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Expounding on the subject

A link I came across on the subject of reading and books, related to the blog's title:

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Fortune of War

The Fortune of War is the sixth book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. Jack Aubrey takes his surgeon friend Stephen Maturin and a few other shipmates on a voyage back to England from the Spice Islands. When the ship catches fire, a few of them end up on a boat, trying to make it to the South American coast. They are finally rescued by the Java, an English ship. Soon after, the Java gives chase to the Constitution, an American ship. The Americans have just declared war on England (the War of 1812).

When the ships engage, the Java is defeated, and Jack and Stephen are taken as prisoners. They end up in Boston as POWs, and Jack ends up in a mad-house because of his injured arm. Stephen meets the woman who wouldn't marry him, Diana Villiers, who's involved with an American man.

Most of the book is taken up with Maturin and his attempts at evading American and French spies. We see a bit bolder and more daring side of Stephen in this book. We also get to know Diana more. She is attached to a man who is an American agent. Also they meet with Mr. Herapath and his girlfriend, who escaped from the Jack's ship in the previous book. Somehow Stephen and Jack have to get out of the city before they are prosecuted by the Americans or killed by the French. There is another great ship battle to end the book, much anticipated throughout the story.

While the spy story is good, overall the book is not quite as good as some of the others in the series. It's still captivating though, especially the Java's chase of the Constitution, and the intrigue in Boston. It's got a good balance of sea life and action on the land. I'll give it a B+.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Song of Kali

I'm not a huge fan of horror, but I am a big fan of Dan Simmons, so I knew I had to read Song of Kali, the book that started his career. I enjoyed his novel Carrion Comfort a lot, and his Hyperion novels are some of my favorite science fiction.

Simmons conjures a visceral sense of place, a setting that exudes fear, dread, and despair. The city is Calcutta, India, and Bobby Luczak travels there to bring back a manuscript from a poet who was believed to have died eight years earlier. He decided to take his Indian wife with him in case he needs her help translating, and they bring their infant daughter. He goes through some cloak and dagger stuff to get the manuscript delivered to him.

Every chapter begins with a quote from an Indian writer about Calcutta, describing the city as a bitch, a whore, a murderous beast. The description of the city is the most vivid I've ever read. The tone of the story is set by the filth in the streets, the naked children running around, the men defacating in alleys, the raw sewage in the waterways. The worst part of the city is the Kapalikas, a death-cult that worships Kali, the darkest avatar of the Indian gods.

The tone is set by several things. One of Luczak's editors telling him about his trip to India where he found a boy who had been sacrificed at a new bridge. Confusion and crowds at the airport. A strange man named Krishna who meets them at the airport. A woman who claims to be the missing poet's daughter.

Things get more mysterious when Krishna takes Luczak to a coffee house late one night to hear a student's story about the Kapalikas, his initiation into the cult, having to procure a body for Kali, and the rite that follows. One of the initiates doesn't survive the ritual. The story culimates as Luczak, already with the manuscript, convinces someone to allow him to visit the poet in person.

I don't think I've ever read such a captivating account. The city seems alive, or almost undead at times. The theme of death and decay is all around, including visits to a morgue and a crematorium. More happens after the visit with the poet, but I wouldn't want to give away the best parts. The novel does finally find a hopeful note at the end, and Luczak resists the pull of Calcutta. This book gets a solid A.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

RSS feed

I just discovered the RSS feed for this blog is:


Monday, August 14, 2006


At 1130 pages, The Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is the longest single book I've read. It details the struggle during WWII to keep Allied communication secret through cryptography, and to break the codes of the Germans and Japanese (referred to as Nipponese in the book). The story follows Sgt. Shaftoe, a marine in the Pacific who gets transferred (after some heriocs) to duty in Europe as part of a secret operation; Lawrence Waterhouse, a mathematician who quickly works up the crypto ranks; and his grandson Randy Waterhouse, who sixty years later is a programmer and engineer who works on crypto systems as part of a small company he owns with a few of his colleagues.

The subject of cryptography during WWII is an intriguing one, and Stephenson ties it to the modern day uses pretty well. Randy Waterhouse's company is involved in setting up a modern vault or "crypt" in an island nation to house private data, and also to store electronic currency. Both of which require high-level elaborate cryptological protections. Some detail is spent on the facts of cryptography, which I found very interesting. What I found most fascinating was the description of how the Allies tried to hide the fact that they had broken important enemy codes. In order to keep a secret that the codes had been broken, they had to either act in a way that they hadn't been broken, or provide a "cover story" for why so many German ships were getting sunk. (Of course, there's much debate among the Germans as to whether the codes were broken). So, Sgt. Shaftoe ends up on several missions where he's planting false evidence of spies and false codes. This is dramatized by the chapter where his superior officer must leave a code book for the Nazis to capture, but the officer is the only one who knows about it, so everyone else thinks he's really a Nazi agent.

The story of Randy Waterhouse (presumably set in the nineties) gets a little bogged down with the details of the company's operation, it's setup, and the lawsuits filed against it by a tycoon known as the Dentist (actually he used to be an oral surgeon). For me it was the slowest part of the book. It does have a decent payout though. Also the parts with Randy's personal life were a little slow, but they tied in to the overall plot eventually.

I really appreciated the level of detail of cryptology and cryptanalysis, and could have used more. It might be too much for the average reader though. Really there's only a few parts. Some detail is given on Lawrence Waterhouse's development of a digital computer, using mercury in pipes, in order to crack codes. Also mentioned are Alan Turing, whom Waterhouse studies with in school, and their colleage Rudy, who ends up working for the Nazis. It makes the story personal when they talk about breaking Nazi codes that Rudy had invented.

(OK, side note: I was nearly half way through the novel when it came to my attention that the book was written entirely in the present tense. I would have thought that this would be more distracting, but it works well. I think part of the reason for writing it this way (though Snow Crash was also written in the present tense) is because of the threads of the story being decades apart.)

The basic plot boils down to one thing: gold. And lots of it. The theory is that the Japanese buried tons of gold in the Phillipines toward the end of the war. The code that Waterhouse tries to break at the end of the novel is related to the gold; he can tell because of other information he's put together involving mining engineers and the like. He believes if he can decode the messages, then they will reveal the location of the buried gold. Decades later, Randy comes across the messages and tries to decrypt them. Also involved is a German submarine and its captain, Shaftoe's girlfriend and young son, that son's daughter (in the nineties) and her growing relationship with Randy, Filipino thugs and Chinese bureaucrats who want the gold, a Japanese mining engineer (and buddy of Shaftoe's) who ends up as Eisenhower's assistant, and good dose of horniness.

Grade: A. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in crypto or WWII. Plus, any story involving the pursuit of large quantities of gold is captivating. Stephenson can really write, and gives a solid picture of character, as well as a superb sense of place.

Friday, August 04, 2006


I picked up Everyman, by Philip Roth, because I needed to find an audiobook to listen to and it looked short, and I just finished listening to The Plot Against America. Everyman deals with the protagonist's aging and death.

One thing that bugs me about listening to a narration of a book instead of reading it is that some things are just not clear in the narration, but might be clearer in the text. I couldn't grasp the main character's name, and was cursing myself for not being able to remember it. Then I read in a review on Amazon that the protagonist is not named. Well, that's why I didn't know his name! Even though it's an understandable device, it's gets a little distracting when I start trying to think of what the main character's name is.

The story starts at the character's funeral, and then narrates his life. While his brother is always healthy, he himself is sickly, especially for the last couple decades of his life. The sickness is a clear warning of his mortality, which he broods over in the final years of his life. It casts a pall over his relationships. He almost wants to blame his brother for being the healthy one.

He goes through three wives, cheating on at least the first two. His sons from his first two marriage don't want to have anything to do with him, though his daughter from his second marriage is still close to him.

Moving to a retirement community just makes him depressed, since he's around old and sick people so much. He gives up teaching art after one of his student's kills herself. He even hits on a young female jogger who jogs by his neighborhood every day, only to find she changes her route afterwards. This is pretty ballsy for a guy almost old enough to be her grandfather. The narration makes it sound like his words are a suprise even to him, which is an odd thing to think about. Really, I think it shows his will is not as strong as his desire.

For a reflection on a life, it's filled with the wives and children he hasn't been there for, his mistresses he would rather be with, but nobody he's been good to. He never reconciles with anyone. There's really nothing in the life to be proud of. That's what makes him less of a true Everyman. I think most people, while having some regrets, would have more positive things in their lives. The negative is definitely something that someone worried about their mortality would brood on. But I would hope it wouldn't end up a dominant mood.

I enjoyed the scene with the gravedigger at the end. He speaks to a man digging a grave at the cemetery where his parents are buried, and asks him about digging and filling in graves. It really brought focus to the theme of mortality in a vivid way.

An interesting book, a real brooding on mortality, though not quite up to its potential. I would give it a B+.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Desolation Island

Patrick O'Brian never ceases to amaze me. His nautical adventure books are not only fun to read but full of such great detail. I finished listening to the audiobook of Desolation Island last week, 11 CDs, about 12.5 hours.

This is the fifth book in the Aubrey/Maturin series, and it starts in England at Jack Aubrey's home with his wife, children, and mother-in-law. Soon he assigned to command the Leopard and take it to Botany Bay, carrying prisoners there. And Maturin is given an intelligence assignment regarding one of those prisoners, a pretty young American woman who just happens to have been friends with the woman who broke his heart.

On the way across the world, they endure a plague which kills a third of their crew, a chase from a Dutch war vessel, and losing the ship's rudder to an iceberg (along with a good part of her hull). And Stephen finesses the female prisoner into revealing information, and further, planting information with her that she passes on.

There's no big gun battle in this story, but the suspense is still great. I hadn't really considered the chase as such an important element of suspense. I usually think of the chase in regards to the car chase in movies, which can be very hackneyed. But a warship chase is something else! The Leopard plays a little with the Dutch ship, and tries to hide in the night, but nothing seems to work. There is already extra pressure due to the ship being undermanned. Then more pressure is added with a huge storm with gigantic waves, threatening to capsize both ships. Jack is surprised that the ship will give chase in such bad weather, since it means they likely will sink the Leopard instead of capturing her, but it makes for a great sequence.

The island in the title is one where they end up beached after drifting rudderless for what must be weeks. Apparently it's a real island, and the description of the flora and fauna (through Stephen Maturin's eyes) is extensive. Islands (and ships) are a great way to focus the action in a narrative. The action is limited to those who are on the island or ship.

I've already started listening to the sequel. This book definitely gets an A. It's a great nautical tale of high seas adventure, with fine detail, from the ships to the crew to the island. And also a good bit of humor, bringing out the traits of the main characters.