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.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Letter to a Christan Nation

Sam Harris is an author who writes on atheism and religion. Letter to a Christan Nation is his epistle to fundamentalist Christians.

Harris touches on the logical problems of faith, but the main thrust of his argument is that Christianity is not inherently moral. If morality is defined as dealing with human suffering and happiness, then it has nothing to do with modern religion. Modern Christianity is more concerned with saving a few blobs of cells than curing devastating religions, and more concerned with making sure people don't have "sinful" sex instead of protecting them from STDs or unwanted pregnancies. As such, religion is more focused on its own fantastical description of God and the afterlife than the real life suffering in the world.

Harris also compares Islam to Christianity, and points out that a Christian looking at the Muslim faith will see it as irrational and without any basis in reality. In truth, Christan fundamentalists are much closer to Islamic fundamentalists than any liberal Westerners.

The book gets an A-. For its shortness, under 100 pages, it does a pretty good job of hitting the main points with modern religion.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Shadow and Claw

I have defined three main points on the line to describe book series.

First is the series that is really one big long book, broken into pieces. The Lord of the Rings is the best example of this type of story. It's one big arc, and the individual books don't make much sense by themselves. (A season of the TV show "24" is an example of a TV show like this.)

On the other end of the spectrum is the series of books where each book is a distinct story and separate from the others. The characters usually remain the same, and often the setting, but other than that each story can be picked up and read all by itself. The stories of Horatio Hornblower are like this. You can read one and it is a complete story, with only a little bit of back story to pick up along the way. I imagine the James Bond series is like this too. (Most TV shows are like this, especially sitcoms--with the occasional multi-episode to-be-continued show. The old "Star Trek" episodes are a classic example.)

In the middle of the continuum is the series of books where each book is a complete story, but also is part of a bigger story arc. These are rarer. The best example I can think of is the Harry Potter series. Each book as a particular plot, but the overal themes and threat of Voldemort are always there. (Many modern TV shows like "Buffy" or "Battlestar Galactica" are like this. The first Star Wars trilogy is a great example.)

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun falls into the first type. It is a series of four books, which was republished as two books recently. Shadow and Claw comprises the first two books of the series, Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Conciliator.

The book takes place in the distant future, when the sun is dying and humans await the coming of the New Sun. The story is about Severian, a member of the guild of torturers. He is assigned to help take care of a young woman named Thecla, a noblewoman imprisoned as leverage against her sister and the sister's lover, a rebel. Severian falls for Thecla, and when she is destined for torture and death, he gives her a dagger to take her own life. Now an outcast, he is sent to a city in the north to be an executioner.

Severian doesn't make it out of the city before he is challenged to a duel by an armored warrior. A woman named Agia helps him pick the flower for the duel, and they pull a woman named Dorcas out of a lake. He survives the duel, and his opponent turns out to be the brother of Agia, and they had conspired to kill him and take his sword, since he wouldn't sell it. He ends up executing Agia's brother, after the man is convicted of murdering innocent bystanders at the duel. Before leaving the city, Severian and Dorcas act in a play put on by a man Severian met a few days earlier. And Severian realizes that he is carrying the Claw of the Conciliator, an ancient relic which Agia stole and slipped into his bag.

The second book opens with Severian executing a woman in another city. He is nearly killed by Agia and her cronies. Separated from Dorcas and the players, he travels with his new friend Jonas to the House Absolute, the residence of the Autarch, the ruler of the empire. On the way they join the band of the rebel who is with Thecla's sister, and Severian takes part in a ritual to eat Thecla's flesh and take her memories. The rebel gives him a mission to complete at the House Absolute. Severian and Jonas are captured and taken to a large detention chamber in the House Absolute, but with the help of Thecla's memories he manages to escape with Jonas. Jonas finds a device that transports him far away, after Severian learns he is really a machine with a man's face.

Severian runs into a man while wandering through the huge house, and realizes that the man is not only the man he is supposed to meet but he is actually the Autarch himself. He later finds Dorcas and the other players on the grounds, and the put on the play for the nobles at the house. Later they are separated, and Dorcas and Severian end up witnessing a witch calling forth a dead man through time.

I enjoyed the story, and am enjoying the second book (or third and fourth books). Severian is a barely likeable character, being a torturer who has committed the offense of giving his "client" a painless death. Being a first person narrator makes it that much more intriguing. He grows with the story, and comes to have the personal mission of returning the Claw to its rightful owners. Gene Wolfe has a way of making an outlandish plot seem reasonable, like the way Agia keeps cropping up to find Severian, or how Severian keeps finding Dorcas.

The sense of reality is keen throughout the story, and it's almost like it really is translated from a future text, as Wolfe implies in the appendix. He uses arcane and made up words, links the complex parts of society. It really feels like the culture he is describing is really millions of years old, with ancient technology and long lost epochs. I'll give the book an A. I am really enjoying the strange plot and the futuristic setting.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Journeys of the Great Explorers: Columbus To Cook

Journeys of the Great Explorers: Columbus To Cook is part of the Modern Scholar series. It's by Professor Glyndwr Williams of the University of London.

Professor Williams traces the great voyages that made history. Columbus, who first discovered the New World. Columbus died believing that he had found Asia, because that had been his mission and he had staked his entire reputation on it. He was a great navigator, as were many of the explorers.

Magellan was another great navigator, and a Portuguese who worked for the Spanish. He sailed west around South America and across the Pacific, dying in the Phillipines before his ship made it back to Europe. Also covered are de Gama and Drake, and finally Cook.

Much is discussed about the state of maps of the period, and how many believed the world was smaller and Asia closer, or believed there was a large continent in the southern hemisphere to balance those of the northern hemisphere, or that there was a river passage through Africa to the Indian ocean, or that there was a northwest passage north of North America to the Pacific Ocean. This last proved most tragic, as hundreds of men and dozens of ships were lost in the harsh arctic winters after being trapped in the ice.

The professor also goes into a good amount of detail about technology and adversity. Diseases, especially scurvy, ravaged the early voyages. Scurvy was blamed on "sea air", and it was not until James Cook's voyage in the 1770's that a reliable preventative was discovered (lime juice was preferred). Also, a reliable means of determining longitude wasn't available until precise chronometers were developed. The Solomon Islands, discovered in the 16th century, couldn't be found again because the maps placed them thousands of miles to the east.

I'll give the lecture a B+. The professor's voice isn't as entertaining as others in the series I've listened to. I appreciate the detail, and could have used much more. But overall, the lecture led me to want to hear more about the great sea voyages of history.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


I listened to Saturday, by Ian McEwan, over the end of December and beginning of January. It's the story of one Saturday in the life of Henry Perowne, a London neurosurgeon in his forties. The book has in the background the impending invasion of Iraq and a cargo plane that makes an emergency landing after a fire breaks out, leading to an investigation into terrorism.

Henry wakes up early one Saturday morning, sees the fiery plane, doesn't call the authorities, makes love to his wife, eats breakfast with his son, and heads out to the gym to meet a colleague for a game of squash. On the way to the gym, he is sidetracked by an antiwar march, and ends up in a minor auto accident. The driver of the other car ends up attacking him and trying to mug him, along with two cronies. Henry manages to escape with only a bruise and make his squash game. But only after noticing that the man, Baxter, has a neurological disability and trying to convince him he can help. This embarasses Baxter.

Henry continues on his day, playing his squash game (though getting irritated with his colleague for arguing the final point and finally beating him), visiting his mentally impaired mother, sitting in on a rehearsal of his eighteen-year-old son and fellow musicians. Occasionally he thinks he sees Baxter's red car.

The conflict finally comes into view in the finaly third of the book, when Henry's family comes home, including his college age daughter and his grumpy father-in-law. Baxter shows up with a knife and an accomplice, threatening the group and making vague demands. After smashing the father-in-law's nose and forcing the daughter to undress, he gets the daughter to recite some of her poetry. After this he is enthralled, so amazed by the poem that he has a complete change of heart. Henry and his son manage to incapacitate Baxter, the accomplice runs away, and the police come, making everything fairly normal. But Henry is called in to operate on Baxter, and he decides to do it because he feels guilty for abusing his position as a doctor to get away from Baxter the first time, and feels that the whole evening was somehow his fault.

I was not terribly impressed with the book as a whole. The first two thirds is very slow and quiet, without any conflict except for the auto accident. There's some philosophical ruminations, but they're not that deep or interesting. Henry is an upper class bourgeious man with pedestrian interests. He has no capacity for appreciating poetry or art, and little for music as well. The extended metaphor is that Baxter is incapable of appreciating his social position, or operating meaningfully in society, due to a genetic malfunction; Henry is unable to fully appreciate his daughter's poetry, or his son's music, due to his genetic makeup. However, the comparison is pretty thin, and is covered up by a lot of extraneous story. We learn a lot of Henry's history, and the story of his daughter's and father-in-law's (a famout poet himself) falling out. But throughout the first two thirds of the book I kept wondering what the book was really about. And I still can figure out what the whole point of the discussion about the Iraq war was all about, unless it was to show how wishy-washy and weak Henry's opinion's about the war are.

I was teetering between C+ and B-, up until the last chapter and a half. The last bits make the rest a little more interesting, though it still felt like a lot of fluff. I'll settle on a B-. It's not as good as the hype led me to expect it to be.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Crime and Punishment

I finally got around to reading Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, in December 2006. It took me about 4 weeks to read it. It was definitely worth it.

The novel tells the story of Raskolnikov, a law student in St. Petersburg. He decides to commit a crime, the murder of a old woman who is a greedy pawnbroker. He also kills her sister, a mentally deficient woman. After his crime, he becomes ill, staying in bed for days, wandering around the city in a stupor, being cold to his mother and sister and friends. The color yellow figures prominently throughout the story, signifying sickness.

There follows a cat and mouse game. A police officer named Porfiry calls Raskolnikov to his office, where he discusses the murder and possible motives and suspects. Raskolnikov becomes more and more agitated. He believes he knows that Porfiry is toying with him.

There are intertwining stories of Raskolnikov's mother and sister, who have come to St. Petersburg to visit the sister's fiance, whom Raskolnikov immediately dislikes. There is also Svidrigailov, the sister's former employer who made a pass at her and who has come to St. Petersburg after his wife mysteriously dies. And there is Sonia, a young woman who has turned to prostitution because of her drunk father and deathly ill stepmother. Raskolnikov helps carry the father to the family when he is struck by a carriage, and the man dies with his family. There is a huge drama with the stepmother and her fellow tenants and landlady, and the dinner she wants to serve at the funeral.

Eventually, Raskolnikov confesses to the pious Sonia, who encourages him to confess to the police. Finally he does, goes to prison, where Sonia follows him, and comes to truly repent.

The moral force of the book is Raskolnikov's rationale for commiting the murder. He tells Sonia at first that it was for the money. He is poor, but that explanation is just an excuse. The real reason, as he tells her and Porfiry discusses with him, is that he was putting to the test a new philosophy. He believes that he can be beyond the law, like Napoleon, who can wage war and change laws to his pleasing and be worshipped by millions. If he can be above mortal law, then he could start by murdering a woman who is a leech on society. He rationalizes that he is doing good by removing her, though the murder of her sister bothers him more.

The story brings up some interesting moral questions. Where does the law come from? If a ruler overthrows an old order and creates a new order, hasn't he still violated the old order? Can the law require the death of an individual? How can war, the murder of thousands or millions, be glorified, but a single murder be regarded as illegal? These questions intertwine the fabric of society, and their answers decide out man is to survive alongside other men.

There is also a politcal dimension. Characters in the novel discuss a nascient socialism, and its role in eroding traditional values. One of the more ridiculous characters espouses a political view that many basic societal values.

I see Raskolnikov's trouble as at least partially psychological. He suffers from a bit of megolomania. He is not very attached to his family, and sees them mostly as a way to get money. His only route to atonement is through Sonia's love. It is this love that turns the story into a personal story of redemption, at least of sorts. Raskolnikov can also be compared to his sister's fiance, who turns out to be an evil manipulator when he tries to frame Sonia for theft. He also compares to Svidrigailov, an interesting figure who comes to St. Petersburg in search of a wife, does some drinking and womanizing, tries to force himself on Sonia, gives a young woman and her family a lot of money, gives money to Sonia and her stepsisters and stepbrother, and even gives money to Raskolnikov's sister before killing himself. All this even as he knows Raskolnikov's secret, having listened to his confession to Sonia.

I'll grade it as an A. It's easily one of the most striking and influential novels ever written, certainly in the top ten. The goings on of Raskolnikov's personality and rationalizing are dramatic. The side stories complement the main story well.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Modern Scholar: Greek Drama

Greek Drama is an installation of the great Modern Scholar series. I listened to the 7 CDs of 14 lectures. The lectures gave a great overview and in depth analysis of early greek drama.

The professor covers the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes. From my earlier readings of the plays, I wasn't aware of the depth and complexity of the plays. Of course one must know the background of Greek myth, and especially the Trojan war. The lecturer goes into great detail of the events in the background. He also discusses the political background, and the cultural and religious significance of the plays.

The lectures are a strong A. I was already interested in Greek drama before, so that may have affected my enjoyment. It may not be for everyone, but even those not familiar with greek drama can appreciate it.