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 28, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel

Jews, chess, Alaska, homicide detectives, criminals, boundary mavens, messiahs, Yiddish, Eskimos, rabbis, ex-wives, sons, fathers, cousins. That is the synopsis of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel. The story takes place in an Alaska where the Jews have been relocated to a settlement in Sitka, an island. They have formed a Yiddish Alaskan culture, but it is all going to go away with Reversion, when the United States takes the territory back and relocates the Jews again.

Meyer Landsman is a homicide detective who discovers a dead body and a chess game in a room at the hotel he lives in. Landsman is stymied when his new supervisor, ex-wife Bina Gelbfish, flags the investigation as closed. He decides to do some investigation on his own, despite having only nine weeks before the Sitka police department is disbanded as part of Reversion, when the Americans take over.

Landsman and his partner and cousin Berko Shemets discover that the body was that of Mendel Shpilman, the son of a local Verbover rabbi, Heskel Shpilman, who acts suspiciously on hearing the news. Landsman and Shemets do some more investigation before Landsman is shot as part of another case. When he recovers, he is suspended for harassing Rabbi Shpilman. So he goes north, finds out a link to Mendel Shpilman and his own sister Naomi, who died in a plane crash a year earlier. Landsman ends up at a rehab facility on native lands, run by Jews. He runs into Rabbi Shpilman's attorney and nearly gets killed before he is rescued by the local sheriff, an old friend.

Landsman and Bina reopen the investigation and eventually discover a radical Jewish group that plans on taking action in Palestine to bring about the end times. The story circles around, pulling in chess players, the local boundary maven, American agents, and Berko's father.

I found the story hard to get into at first, but it soon paid off and became very interesting. I think some of the difficulty was listening to the difficult names and the narration, which was really excellent when I got used to it. The story is a variation of a detective story, and Landsman is a typical detective. He has a troubled home life and not that many friends. He is good at what he does, but that doesn't really matter since his job will soon be disappearing. He dislikes having an unsolved mystery in his own hotel.

The theme of the messiah who can heal everyone but himself entwines with the story of Landsman who solves everyone's problems but his own. There is also the parallel stories of the Jews and the natives, who both vie for power and control over land that they eventually lose to the Americans. And there are many interesting characters, not the least of which is the dead Mendel, who we learn about through all the people he has touched. There's also the boundary maven, who keeps maps of strings set up so that Jews can use a loophole and get around Sabbath rules. Berko is half Jew and half Eskimo, and has deal with a father he despises. In fact, the whole city seems to have a personality that Chabon brings out. The dialog is snappy and incisive, alternately funny or pathetic. Part detective story, part personal redemption, part commentary on Jewish Messianic thought, it all comes together as a great piece of literature, a solid A.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Prophecy Forgotten

I bought a copy of A Prophecy Forgotten, by M. B. Weston, from the author at Dragon*Con. It's a fantasy about a nation of guardian angels called cherubians. The main characters are Gabriella, a young cherubian on her first tour of duty as a guardian angel; Tommy, a seven-year-old boy who is her charge; and Davian, a member of the elite RSO, the group of cherubians that explores enemy territory and takes on dangerous missions.

Tommy is a rambunctious boy who causes Gabriella a lot of trouble. He has to deal with a mother who sees him a way to get child support and kids who beat him up at school. Gabriella fights off mornachts, the enemies of the cherubians who try to take over humans who have gone hard and given up hope. The cherubian country of Elysia has been fighting a war against the mornachts for three thousand years.

When Tommy visits his father for Christmas, Gabriella has to turn into a human to save him after he falls into a river. Then she falls and hits her head, losing her memory, and stays with Tommy's father Jim and his family for a few days. The family is amazed at her attachment to Tommy and her ability to keep him safe, neither of which she can explain.

Meanwhile, Davian, who is leading a team into mornacht territory, gets a message that he needs to return to the city. As he returns, his team is attacked by mornachts and sabers, giant tigers. They barely escape on unicorns, though they lose one of his team. Davian is sent to watch over Tommy, where he soon finds Gabriella under attack from mysterious cherubians, including Picante, Tommy's temporary guardian, and Snead, one of Davian's men. Snead ends up dead, and Picante ends up escaping, and Gabriella ends up with her memory back and turning back into a cherubian.

When Davian returns to Elysia, he finds that the Souther Command Tower has been attacked by mysterious foes, leaving the southern front open to attack. Back at the capital of Ezzer City, he finds that the army has been sent elsewhere due to rumors of another attack. Davian deals with treachery and loss, but finally manages to save the city. Unfortunately, he has to fight his friend Eric, who betrays him and the city.

There is more to the plot, but it is mostly pretty simple. It is known that there is some sort of treachery or secret from the beginning. The identity of the traitor is a big surprise, but there's no preparation of it, so it seems unrealistic. In a way, that's an unfair charge, because you don't want to telegraph your surprises, but you have to make them believable at the same time. That was one of the problems I had with the Harry Potter books, that the identity of the bad guys was often a total surprise, so that it was kind of a cheat. But it is hard to buy the main character's protege would turn traitor. Especially for the nebulous reason that he and the others don't want to keep protecting humans but want to go for an all-out war that they see the politicians as too weak to fight for.

Another problem I had is that the characters are too one-dimensional and just too good. Davian is a great warrior and the best at everything he does. He has no negatives. Likewise, Gabriella is a great archer and a great protector. The only character who has any depth is Salla, the nemesis of Davian and his boss Zephor, who takes antagonistic positions against the two of them and supports Picante, but who turns out to be a good guy. I also thought the dialog was pretty stiff and unoriginal for the most part. The joking often seems fake and stilted, and there are some blatant infodumps. But there are spots where it works pretty well.

The concept is original, and I thought it had potential. It faces the same problem Milton had, heavenly beings fighting a war. However, the cherubians and mornacts can harm each other, and many cherubians die. The idea of watching what guardian angels actually do, and how they relate to each other (for they must if most people have one), is interesting and challenging. Some of it worked, but it general I found the style a little flat and plain. The world, which has a little depth, is mostly full of cliches. It's not nearly as full a world as it could be. One doesn't get the sense of history, even though there are conversations about the past of the city and the ancient prophecy. (The ancient prophecy involves a child that will put an end to the three thousand year war, and Davian believes Tommy is that child.) The most interesting parts of the story are the parts between Tommy and his father Jim and Gabriella. The rest of it, though it should be exciting, don't summon any enthusiasm. I'll give the author a B-, for the effort, and the great concept.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Gripping Hand

Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's The Gripping Hand is a sequel to The Mote in God's Eye. It starts about twenty-five years later. The Empire of Man has been through some changes.

Kevin Renner, the sailing master in the first book, has been working as a pilot for Horace Bury, the Arab leader of the trading league. Both have been secretly working for naval intelligence, keeping an eye on rebel (outie) activity, while looking out for any sign that the Moties might be escaping from their system. After a diversion where they settle a dispute with a Mormon breakaway system, they talk to Buckman, the astronomer to studied the newly forming star near the Mote system. Another astronomer has declared that the star will form earlier than believed, and they realize that the Moties fed them false information, because when the star forms, it will create new Alderson points to travel out of the Mote system.

Renner and Bury travel to Sparta to speak to Rodney Blaine, nor Lord Blaine, and his wife Sally, who run the Blaine institute, where they study the Motie problem. After a lot of discussion and disagreement, Bury gets permission to visit the blockade fleet at Murcheson's Eye. They end up taking Bury's private ship and following two other navy ships to the area where the new Alderson point will form. They discover that the star is collapsing and creating the new point. When they follow to the new star, the excitement begins.

Ships begin traveling from the Mote system through the new point and into the new star's system. The Empire's ships manage to stop some and capture others. The captured Moties ask to speak to Bury, surprising him. It turns out the Mediator was trained by Bury's original Mediator, and is familiar with the Empire. She tells them that she represents a group called the Medina Traders, from the outer parts of the Mote system. Mote Prime is at the end of a cycle and in chaos. Other groups are vying for controls of the new Crazy Eddie point, what they call the Alderson point.

Meanwhile, the Blaine's daughter has traveled through the points and into the Mote system. Her ship is captured by rival Moties and taken apart. Eventually she and her friend Freddy are reunited with the others. Renner, now acting commodore, orders Bury's ship and the navy ship back through the point to the new system. A chase ensues through the new star system, back through the new point, and to the old point where they go through to the Eye, and the ships that follow get destroyed by the blockade fleet.

Much of the book switches between space military tactics and negotiations between the Empire representatives, the Medina Traders, and other factions of Moties. There are new elements to consider, given the fractured nature of Motie civilization. If the Moties escape outside their system, their ability to efficiently mine resources and their need to continually reproduce means they could spread throughout the galaxy. Renner and the others must negotiate with the Moties while hiding all the details about the Empire's power and dealing with shifting Motie alliances. They do have an ace in the hole: a modified parasite that subdues the Motie breeding urge.

The plot is a little less interesting than the first book, and the characters less engaging. We do learn about alien culture, but there aren't any interesting revelations this time. Most of the story is taken up with the details of tactics and negotiations. There is a little drama in the interaction between the characters, notably the female reporter who comes along. But mostly the story is a little flat, lacking the drama of the first novel. The most interesting points were where the aliens and humans first interact, but those parts are short and swept aside for spaces chases. Somewhat disappointing, it still earns a B-.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Choke is by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. It is the story of Victor Mancini, a young man whose mother is dying in an institution. To support her, he has dropped out of medical school, started work as an extra at a colonial theme park, and conned people into "saving" him (and sending him money) when he fakes choking at restaurants. He tells in flashbacks how his mother would pull him out of school and take him on wild adventures, only to be caught and thrown in jail until she gets out and finds him again.

Victor is a sex addict. He goes to a location where there is a sex addict support group, but only to pick up women who are sex addicts. They have sex in the bathroom or other places nearby. He likes the women who get out of jail to go to the support group, because when they are done they go back to jail and he doesn't have to deal with them anymore. He also likes the attention he gets from the people who "save" him in restaurants, so it's not just about the money. He says he gives his saviors the benefit of feeling important, but really it's about the attention he gets from them, to take the place of the love that he doesn't get from his mother.

At the nursing home, Victor meets Dr. Paige Marshall, who says she can help his mother if he has sex with her. For some reason, he can't bring himself to do it, even when she throws herself at him. His mother is delusional, and usually won't speak to him if he greets her ad himself. So he has taken to greeting her as one of her defense lawyers, and they talk about Victor like he isn't there. It's a sort of therapy or role-playing for the son who wants to understand his mother and himself. He plays therapist to his mother while getting his own catharsis from talking about himself. Dr. Marshall offers to translate his mother's diary, written in Italian, for him.

The colonial theme park is full of more misfits that Victor can relate to. Many are often drunk or high. They have to stay "in character", and are punished with the stocks if they come to work with earrings in or wearing sneakers. Victor supports his best friend when he continually ends up in the stocks, wiping his nose for him and keeping kids from throwing things at him.

In many ways this is a novel about identity, about a young boy in a man's body trying to grow up after having an aborted childhood. He assumes a different identity for his mother. For the other mentally ill women in the nursing him, he assumes different identities for them: their ex-husband, an abusive brother, the man who killed their dog. For one sex addicted woman, he plays as a rapist for her. For his job, he becomes a colonial misfit instead of a twenty-first century misfit. His childhood was robbed by his mother, who drove him around to different places, filling his mind with useless facts about secret codes in public announcements. He's not even living his own life, but living exclusively for his mother, despite not being able to have a real relationship with her.

The core of the plot is Victor's dealing with his mother's growing dementia (she cannot swallow food, so needs a feeding tube) and coming to grips with his own obsessions. In an interesting metaphor, Victor's best friend develops an obsession with collecting rocks. It's a completely useless activity that turns into something that can take over his life, Victor's life, and Victor's home. When Victor's kicks his friend out, the ends up taking his rocks and making a house out of them. It's a nifty transformation of turning a useless or harmful obsession into something constructive. Like the rocks, Victor collects useless sexual experiences. Like the rock house, he must come to build something meaningful from his obsessions.

In the end, there are surprises revealed about Victor, his mother, and Dr. Marshall. Victor ends up with at his best friend's rock house with dozens of other people who had seen Victor on the TV news and recognized him as the man they had saved. Everything starts to unravel, and Victor has to make a decision about his future, in effect rebuild himself from the pieces.

The novel is at times hilarious and at times depressing. The author has a cynical, dark view. He makes the fake rape scene turn out hilarious. The dialog and narrative are dark, incisive, and witty. The sex scenes are very explicit and often downright dirty. I enjoyed watching the characters interact. It's a story of how a troubled man wakes up, stops being an obsessive nuisance, and makes a decision to have a different life. Even though it was a little hard to get into at first, it ends up a pretty good novel, worthy of an A-.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Modern Scholar: History of the English Language

I picked out Michael D. C. Drout's lecture course "History of the English Language" because I have enjoyed his other courses on fantasy and science fiction. I also have a strong interest in language and history, and I regret not taking the English history class in college when I was an undergraduate.

The professor starts with an overview of linguistics in general, including phonics and sound changes. He talks about understanding language as a communication system that links symbols or signs to their meanings. And he talks about different kinds of syntax. The two basic kinds of syntax are analytic, where word order defines meaning, and synthetic, where sentence meaning is formed through suffixes or prefixes added to words.

I really appreciated the linguistics lesson, and it proved critical to understanding the changes to English over the centuries. English started with the Angles and Saxons when they invaded the island when the Romans moved out. The language was closely related to Germanic. The Angles and Saxons brought different dialects to different parts of England. Old English was a synthetic language and the grammar had gender. There were no silent E's--all the E's were pronounced.

When the Danes invaded in the 900's, the new language meant a lot of changes in order to communicate. Old English became more analytic, and lost the dual case, leaving just singular and plural. After the Norman invasion, French was spoken as the language of the courts and law. Many whole realms in English became French, such as law, culinary, and finance. But it wasn't until 1204 when the French ties were severed that the languages started to blend and become Middle English.

The change from Middle English to Modern English meant the loss of "thee" and "thou", which is still causing problems to this day. More importantly, the Great Vowel Shift changed the pronunciation of many words. Vowel pronunciation moved generally forward in the mouth. This change happened quickly, and by Shakespeare's time, the language and pronunciation had largely settled down. There has still been a huge addition of words to the English language, but the syntax, grammar, and pronunciation has stayed largely the same.

I was fascinated to learn that modern American accents are closer to an historical pronunciation of the 18th or 19th centuries than British accents today. The professor also talks about different dialects and how there is an accepted accent in each culture, along with more flavorful accents that people will use to show solidarity.

The lecture was one of the best I have listened too. I learned a lot about the English language, and removed some of my misconceptions. I enjoyed seeing and hearing the same passage in Gothic, Old English, and Middle English. At times I felt he moved too fast and could have used more examples for word changes, especially from Middle English to Modern English. But overall it's an A.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Gentlemen of the Road

I picked up Gentlemen of the Road because it looked like an interesting short book, and it was written by Michael Chabon, whom I had heard good things about. It's an adventure story that takes place in the mid 900's AD in the south Caucasus mountain range, near the Caspian Sea.

Amram is a large African ex-soldier who carries an ax called "Defiler of Your Mother". Zelikman is a pale Jewish Frank and a physician, who has a long thin sword and wears black. They travel together and work as hired swords, or swindle fellow travelers in staged fights. After one such fight, they end up in the company of Filaq, a young man who is a prince of Khazar, a country of Jews. Filaq's father has been murdered and his position seized by an usurper, Buljan, and he is being taken to his mother's family. When his protector is killed, the two travelers decide to take him to his destination, despite the youth's multiple attempts at escape.

When they get to the young man's relatives, they find the place already sacked by Buljan's soldiers. Filaq escapes again, this time with Zelikman's horse Hillel, and they go after them. They help a soldier named Hanukkah, and track the warriors who captured Filaq. When Amram is also captured, Zelikman follows them to a city where the warriors fight off the attacking Northmen. Zelikman heals many of the warriors and townspeople, and Amram, now freed, help Filaq energize the army to march against Buljan, who has allowed the cities to be sacked.

They march to Atil with a growing army. They face intrigue when they reach the city, and are surprised by Filaq's true identity. Amram is captured again, this time by Buljan. Zelikman saved him in the nick of time, and they manage to come up with a scheme to get rid of Buljan and return Filaq to power.

The story, though short, is full of little twists. The dialog is witty and incisive. The characters certainly are well-drawn, and they definitely have a strong background that comes out and influences their actions. The cities and the roads between them are lively and fascinating. I'm sure the author did a good bit of research to give the story such a realistic feel.

I particularly enjoyed learning about the geography and culture of the period. Elephants play a central role in the story, as do politics and economics. Zelikman's fondness for an elephant proves to be an important element. He is known by his love for his hat and his horse, as Amram is known for his ax and his search for his missing daughter. The inclusion of different languages is a realistic touch. The main characters speak different local languages, and it affects how they interact. It's much more realistic than a world where everyone speaks the same language. It's a compelling adventure story, almost like an episode in a larger chronicle. It deserves an A. I will be reading more Chabon soon.