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, May 27, 2008

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a novella by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It entwines several different narratives surrounding the murder of a man in a small town on the Caribbean coast of South America. The story is narrated by the man's friend many years in the future as he talks to the people involved and how they failed to stop the murder. Though the outcome is certain, there is still suspense as we revisit the different points where the murder could have been prevented but never was.

Santiago Nasar was murdered by two men for despoiling the honor of their sister Angela Vicario after her new husband returns her to her home on their wedding night. The family is shamed, and Nasar is killed the next morning. Even though the brothers walk through the town telling everybody they will kill him, most people either don't believe them or didn't care, thinking it was an honor killing. The few people who tried to stop them couldn't find Nasar to warn him.

We hear different people's stories as they cross paths with Nasar or the Vicario brothers. His mother misinterprets a dream that may have been a bad omen. The chief of police takes away the brothers' knives, only to have them retrieve some more. Each story

I was struck by the stark contrast between Nasar, the Arab man who had grown up in the town, and Bayardo San Roman, the stranger who comes to town and marries Angela Vicario in a matter of months. Roman's magical charisma quickly charms the whole population, whereas Nasar is still distrusted as an outsider. The whole story is told with the background of an expected visit by a bishop, who instead only passes by on his boat. It's a telling symbol of the near misses, and the last chance for grace that Nasar loses.

The different story lines provide a full accounting of the critical events on that fateful day, yet everyone's story is a little untrustworthy. Several people wouldn't have minded seeing Nasar dead, so downplay their knowledge. Together, they provide a compelling story of competing yet complementing points of view. A-

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a story told from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy named Christopher. It is a mystery focused on Christopher's discovery of a dog that has been murdered and his attempt to solve the murder. He imagines himself following in Sherlock Holmes's footsteps, an appropriate role model since Holmes is very logical and Christopher sees the world in a very logical way.

We follow Christopher as he questions his neighbors about the crime. He soon angers his father, who doesn't want him bothering people or getting into other people's business. But Christopher is relentless, soon digging up family secrets. After a falling out with his father, he sends himself on a train ride to London. This is a big step because strange people and unfamiliar places are very stressful for him, and he doesn't understand much about the world. But he bravely keeps moving forward, and ends up both disrupting his life and making it more full.

The narration by Christopher is very engaging. He does not understand how other people work or his own emotions, so every scene is presented with logic and facts. He doesn't even understand that other people don't always understand him. For a while we get to live in his ordered world and then see it torn apart in devastating ways.

The relationship between the adults surrounds Christopher, and we watch as he learns about them. I found his family very believable. His father has done as well as he can to deal with his special needs, but still it's not enough. At its heart this is a family drama as seen through a different mind.

I enjoyed Christopher's comments throughout the story about how he sees the world. He is functioning enough to write down his thoughts and explain his point of view. There are certain irrational behaviors he has, such as disdain for the colors brown or yellow, that he tries to provide a rational explanation for. But it is still a thin veneer over purely emotional reactions. He has to deal with being touched, which is uncomfortable for him and most autistic people. One of the most poignant parts is that he won't even allow the people closest to him hug him. There are other interesting touches, like his use of primes to number the chapters, or the references to Sherlock Holmes. This was an entertaining and insightful read. A-

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Earthclan contains two great David Brin novels: Startide Rising and The Uplift War. The world is hundreds of years in our future, where man has joined galactic civilization with seemingly hundreds of species and clans vying for power. To gain influence, all species engage in the practice of uplift, the process of endowing pre-sentient species with full sentience. The practice is so ingrained that many of the galactics believe that humans could not have evolved to intelligence on their own and must have had a secret patron race.

Startide Rising tells the story of the crew of the Streaker, the first space ship run by neo-dolphins, a race the humans have uplifted. Some of the crew are humans sent to keep an eye on the client race. The crew has made a discovery of ancient ships which attracted the attention of other galactic races eager to manipulate the find to push a fanatic agenda. The ship ends up stranded under the ocean of a minor planet, with the galactics fighting a battle in space for control of the Streaker.

The crew faces challenges getting the ship out of the water and away from the planet. They know that they would get blasted if they just fly away. One of the men comes up with a plan involving one of the fallen alien ships. On an island, some of the crew make a discovery of pre-sentient beings, which would be a benefit to humans if they can claim them as client species. Meanwhile, there is dissension on the ship along racial lines. Certain neo-dolphins of one of the species believe themselves superior. Captain Creideiki is seriously injured when one of his crew lays a trap for him. The crew is separated an unable to communicate when the new captain forbids any transmission. Finally, some of the humans and dolphins catch wind that there is trouble and manage to make it back to the ship, bringing the situation under control. The rebellious crew are given a small ship and sent to the island to wait for the Streaker to get away. Finally the ship takes off, evades the enemy attacks, and escapes from the system.

I enjoyed this book. It had a good mix of action, suspense, and psychology. There is a lot of detail about the different species battling for control of the humans. The neo-dolphins, while having distinct personalities, all display traits of their species, namely playfulness. There is an interesting relationship between the human crew and the dolphin officers, since the neo-dolphins as a race are clients to the humans. The story illustrates some of the problems with uplift, since some of the neo-dolphins are susceptible to reverting to a pre-sentient state, or in the case of the mutineers, succumbing to baser instincts such as violence. In the end, the humans and neo-dolphins come together to escape.

The Uplift War tells a parallel story about a world called Garth, a colony of humans and neo-chimpanzees. The planet is invaded by the bird-like Gubru, a belligerent race aligned against the Terrans. While all the humans are isolated on islands or in hiding, the neo-chimps are left in charge of the main port city of Hellenia. Robert, the human son of the mayor, escapes to the wild with his friend Athaclena, the daughter of the Tymbrimi ambassador. The Tymbrimi are a race closely allied with the Terrans, often playful and full of tricks.

Robert and Athaclena set up a sort of resistance to the occupation. Fiben, a neo-chimp pilot, helps them but ends up being captured in Hellenia. There, he and a female chimp named Gailet are groomed to become spokes-chimps so that they can be coerced into choosing the Gubru as their new patrons in an uplife ceremony, thus stealing prestige from the humans. But Fiben manages to escape and make it back to Robert.

The Tymbrimi ambassador leaves a false hope behind for the Gubru as a trick, and as a result they waste time and resources looking for Garthlings, creatures of myth that supposedly survived the previous devastation of the planet. We watch the Gubru leaders fight for superiority in a game where the ultimate prize is the molt and turning into a queen. Finally the uplift ceremony is held, and to the pleasure of the Tymbrimi and many others, a great surprise is revealed.

I thought that this book was a little slow in the middle after a great start, but it quickly picked up and became quite engaging. The part where the Gubru force Fiben and Gailet to become speakers for the race is intriguing and suspenseful. Fiben is by far the most developed character in the story. In many ways he is a prototypical member of his species. He is proud to be able to speak and think, but is conflicted about his past and his fellow chimps who are not as capable as he. He is capable and smart and a natural leader, but also self-effacing and not arrogant.

Together, these two stories provide complementary views of uplift and the society around it. Both the neo-dolphins and the neo-chimps have certain skills and certain drawbacks. The races of the galaxies are varied, and most are portrayed as cutthroat. The stories are fun, entertaining, and intellectually stimulating. Together they are a B+, with a slight preference for the first, Startide Rising. While I am not immediately reading the next books in the series, I am keeping them in mind for future reads.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sailing To Byzantium

Sailing To Byzantium, by Robert Silverberg, is as story in a distant future where the population of Earth has dwindled to a few million and there are only five cities. The cities are destroyed and rebuilt for the amusement of the citizens. Automated humanoids called temporaries populate the cities and provide the service and entertainment.

Charles Phillip is a man from the Twentieth Century brought to live with the citizens. He and his lover Gioia travel through the different cities and enjoy lavish parties. Charles is distraught when Gioia disappears and he finds himself with a citizen woman name Belilala. He comes to understand that Gioia has left him because unlike other citizens, she is mortal and will eventually die. He learns from a man that he is not a citizen but a visitor, and he will die also. Though he realizes that Gioia has shunned him because he reminds her of her mortality, he seeks her out in all the five cities. When he finds he they finally reconcile, and he convinces her to also be made into a visitor, so that she can be remade and have a sort of eternal life.

Reading Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium", which the story is modeled on, helped me to gain a better appreciation of the story. I enjoy stories that have ties to other literature; they help to expand the universe of the narrative. The story was simple but had a solid science fiction premise. It is basically the story of one man's love for a woman, and the woman's turning way and final embrace of him. I enjoyed the description of the setting. The different cities were interesting.

This story deals with a common theme in science fiction: what should humans do when they have reached such a technological supremacy that they no longer have to work at all. These humans have created an environment of pure entertainment. They have become somewhat decadent, enjoying shows and spectacles, but not creating any real art or technology. The story places a twist in Charles, the man who is both a proxy for the reader from the Twentieth Century and an anomaly due to his mortality. So it becomes a personal story of two people facing their mortality and overcoming it through technology. B

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Nutmeg of Consolation

The Nutmeg of Consolation, by Patrick O'Brian, takes up where The Thirteen-Gun Salute left off. Captain Aubrey and his crew are stranded on an island in the South China Sea, with no hope for rescue. They have built a small boat from the lumber of their ship that broke up in a storm. But before they can get off the island they are attacked by native islanders and have to use all their wits to survive.

They take a boat that other islanders arrive with, and sail to Batavia, the nearest port. There, the governor gives them a ship that had been put underwater to get rid of the plague. Jack names the ship the Nutmeg of Consolation, after one of the titles of the sultan in the previous book. They take the Nutmeg out in an attempt to trick the Cornélie, the French ship also in the same waters, into an advantageous battle. They end up overwhelmed and the Cornélie gives a long chase. Just as the Cornélie is about to catch up with the Nutmeg, they spy the Surprise, commanded by Tom Pullings. The Surprise captures the Cornélie's crew after the Cornélie starts sinking.

Jack Aubrey takes over the Surprise and sends Pullings away with the Nutmeg and the prizes he has captured. They then head for Sydney in New South Wales. There they resupply, try to connect with former shipmates, and Dr. Maturin gets in a swordfight. Jack has to throw his weight around as an MP in order to get a response from the local officials. Everybody is appalled at the condition of the people living there.

Dr. Maturin and Reverend Martin visit a friend at his cousin's house. They travel around the countryside to see the local fauna, especially a platypus. Dr. Maturin wants to bring his former assistant Padeen, but Jack insists he has had enough trouble with the local authorities and refuses to allow any escapees. Finally at the end, Dr. Maturin discovers he is a father (when a sailor congratulates him on the news), gets stung by a platypus, and finds himself back on the ship with Padeen after all.

I enjoyed this book more than the previous book. There was more sea action, especially the exciting chase. Having a ship sail after you and take potshots always makes for good suspense. The story starts off with a bang with the fight on the island. As usual we get to see a lot of interaction between Jack and Stephen, and the conversations both on board and on shore are interesting. They were able to connect with Pullings and the Surprise, which had been a loose end. We get to see Stephen try his best to help his friend get out of the prison colony and also enjoy being a naturalist. It's a good installment in the series. B+

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Modern Scholar: The Incas: Inside an American Empire

I've always had an interest in pre-Columbian American societies, so I picked up a copy of The Incas: Inside an American Empire at the library.

The professor gives an overview of Inca society before the Spanish conquered it. He traces the different cultures in the empire. The Incas were a people with a population of about a hundred thousands who came to dominate ten to twelve million people on the Pacific coast and Andes mountain range in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Incas had only formed their empire for about a hundred years before the Spanish took it over.

There was not a single Inca culture but many cultures that the ethnic Inca conquered or assimilated. They formed their empire through conquest, diplomacy, coercion and bartering. Force was generally a last resort. First they would try diplomacy or bartering. If necessary, they would destroy a city to make it an example for others. They often had trouble keeping the defeated populations in line, and had to deal with rebellions. Because of this, they came up with a vast system of resettlement, moving troublemakers away and dividing them. As many as one million people were relocated to other parts of the empire.

The empire was divided into four corners, northwest, northeast, southeast, and southwest. The coastal areas were very dry, and the highest areas were rocky and unfit for farming. There was a lot of fertile land in between. The Incas created a system of roads and way stations to help control the empire.

The Inca king was believed to be descended from the gods. He ruled with the help of his wife, his mother and his ancestors. The dead kings were believed to still be present, and their remains were brought out for ceremonies. The kings had to deal not only with rebellious populations but also coups from their own family. In fact, part of the reason the Spanish could defeat an empire of millions with less than two hundred soldiers was because the king had recently won a civil war against his brother, and the Spanish were able to play one side off another.

The Incas developed a system of labor tax from their subjects. Men and women would gather in elaborate ceremonies where they would feast and dance, and then be assigned labor duties for the year. A farmer would be required to provide for himself and also provide a certain amount of goods for the empire.

One of the biggest tragedies of the New World is how much of the incredibly fine artifacts was destroyed or melted down. The Incas had statues made of pure gold that the Spanish melted down to finance war. Also many religious artifacts were destroyed because the Spanish believed it was related to devil worship.

The professor does a good job to describing what we know about the Inca despite there being no written records during the empire. All knowledge about the Incas comes filtered through Spanish accounts, often decades after the conquest. There will always be a mystery about Inca civilization because of this. The archaeological record is improving though. The lecture course illustrates a rich history. B+