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, September 29, 2008

The Family Trade

In The Family Trade, Charles Stross has created an alternate reality story where a similar Earth with a different history exists alongside our own, and only members of a certain family can travel between worlds. The alternate Earth has an older feudal civilization in the same place as modern day Boston and New York.

Miriam Beckstein is a journalist who loses her job after she and her assistant Paulette uncover a money laundering operation involving their employer. After her adoptive mother gives her a package of belongings from her birth mother, she accidentally shifts to another world while looking at a design on a locket. Despite the headache, she manages to return to the regular world.

After a brief trip to the other side for reconnaissance, Miriam is kidnapped and taken to the other side. There she learns that she is the long lost heiress to a fortune and a title in the family. The family profits by moving other-side trade goods through the real world and moving drugs safely through the other side. She meets her uncle Duke Angbard and her cousin Roland, and finds out that there are elements of the family who would not be happy with her return, and others who would happily see her dead. She starts a sexual relationship with Roland and they begin to fall for each other.

Miriam decides to cooperate with her new family, but uses her new credit line to get cash, buy cell phones, and make contingency plans. She hires Paulette as her helper. She is required to travel to a different city to be presented to the king. While there, she encounters several attempts on her life and that of her companions. In the end, she escapes with one of her companions to the real world, and makes her way out of the clutches of her family.

The story is an interesting concept done fairly well. There are some good plot developments, and the concept seems well worked out. Miriam's new family is extensive and full of rivalries, but she realizes she has little choice but to join the game. Yet the narrative seemed a little less exciting than it could have been. Sometimes Miriam is just a little too smart and knows too many of the answers. Her family is intriguing, as are the maids-in-waiting and other associates on the other side.

The book is definitely the start of a story, and not a complete story in itself. The ending is not a true ending, and barely a cliffhanger. But it is an interesting start. I think the variables of different family members, switching between worlds, and dealing with jealous royalty has some good potential. B.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Modern Scholar: Masterpieces of Medieval Literature

Masterpieces of Medieval Literature is a Modern Scholar course by Professor Timothy Shutt.  The professor details the great literary works of the Middle Ages.

He first covers the works of the Germanic north, stories of bleak conflict and unflinching steadfastness and dedication to one's fate.  Then he discusses Anglo-Saxon literature and Beowulf.  Beowulf is one of the great historic epics and he gives it a great treatment.

Then he goes over the works of the high Middle Ages, including Celtic works and the history of the Arthur legend.  There's a lot of good stuff here, including chivalry and the Holy Grail.  He discusses in detail the story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  It's a story rich in symbolism and imagery.

I enjoyed listening to the different stories of the Middle Ages.  There was a good overview of the influence of the works.  One regret is that he barely touched on Chaucer and Dante.  But it did leave me wanting to read the works of Chaucer.  This course was a good experience.  A-

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Last of the Mohicans

I remember studying early American literature in college but I hadn't had the chance to read James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans until recently. I finally picked it up at the library and finished reading it last week. It is an insightful view into American history, and a stirring story.

The book centers around, Cora and Alice, the two daughters of Munro, the officer in charge of the British forces at Fort William Henry. Major Duncan Heyward leads the young women to the fort with the help of a Huron named Magua, also known as Le Renard Subtil. Magua leads the party into a trap and they are helped by an American hunter named Hawkeye and his two Mohican friends. Hawkeye and his friends manage to escape when the others are captured, and they come to their rescue. The group barely makes it to the fort through the advancing French army.

When Munro receives word that he will not receive reinforcements, he negotiates a deal with the French general to let them retreat. However, the Indian allies of the French are too bloodthirsty to let their enemies go and attack the retreating soldiers and their families. Cora and Alice are captured by Magua and taken north to the Huron lands. Heyward and Munro travel with Hawkeye and the Mohicans to rescue them again.

When they reach the camp of the Hurons, they use trickery to rescue Alice. They escape with her to a neighboring camp of Delawares, allies of the Hurons, where Magua has left Cora. Yet Magua follows and convinces the Delawares that Cora is his rightful prize. When he leaves with her, Uncas, the younger Mohican, follows with the Delawares. In the final fight, Uncas cannot save Cora from Magua.

The description of pre-Colonial life is fascinating, from the landscape to the Indians to the soldiers. Hawkeye is clearly the central figure: his actions lead all the others, and the rest look to him for leadership. Munro is nearly incapacitated with grief and lets the others lead him around. But Hawkeye's knowledge of the wilderness, and more importantly Indian ways, is what helps them the most. He is an interesting character because he is both a man of action and a man of words. He represents a kind of amalgam of civilized and native worldviews.

The action is pretty exciting throughout the story. From the start to the end their is suspense about the fate of the party. They are lost, betrayed, attacked, penned in, captured, rescued, and captured again. There is a lot of drama between the daughters and their rescuers, the French and British generals, and the Indians and the Americans. The relationship of the natives is complex. The Delaware associated with Uncas are nominally allied to the French but have decided not to fight. There are alliances and schisms. The book is a fascinating study in the events of the war and the powers behind it. But it is also a great adventure story and drama, highlighting the troubles of a small band of Americans and their friends.

The language is a little flowery for modern tastes. The style is closer to Shakespeare or classical works, using latinate words and long sentences. It takes a little to get used to, especially in dialogue from an uneducated scout. But in the end it won me over. It's a great story and an American classic. A

Thursday, September 04, 2008

If Republicans were honest

This is not really a political blog, but I've had the urge to get out this message after reading about some of President Bush's snarky comments. I have wondered if there was a way that Republicans, who are not fond of Constitutional rights, could give up their own rights instead of taking everybody's. Thus I came up with this.

The Republican Contract with America, 2008

I, the undersigned, do hereby grant the Republican Party the following rights:
  • You may tap my phones or read my emails, without telling me, whenever you think you need to
  • If I am suspected of a crime, or just look suspicious, you may torture me on the basis of wild allegations
  • You may tax me as much as you like, unless I make over $250,000 a year
  • I will not demand any services for these taxes, as all this money must go for the military, at least what is not sent to China
  • If you cannot pay for your government programs, you may take out loans in the name of my children and grandchildren
  • You may promote your One True God (tm) as a government sponsor
  • You may start wars in my name, to defend my access to oil
  • You may keep me from making private decisions about my body and my life, if you think you know better
  • If I am a woman, you may have complete access to my womb to ensure I comply with your personal morals
  • You will protect me from the menace of health insurance that is affordable and provides equal access
  • You will protect me from having to think about two men or two women getting married, in order to protect my marriage
  • You may lock me up as long as you want, without being bothered by lawyers or judges, as long as the President is really sure I'm a bad person
  • You may keep a secret government, using signing statements, secret meetings, secret courts and the "unitary executive", so that I need not be bothered by the details of government
  • You will make sure only the important parts of the Constitution are followed
  • You may keep any science out of our government or schools that does not promote party ideology or that offends my deeply held superstitions
  • You will ensure that if government is broken, it will stay broken
  • You will ensure that I do not have to pay for the pollution that I create
  • You will protect me from inappropriate books, music, movies, and web sites
  • You may ensure that my right to profit is not superseded by notions like public health, safety, or fairness
  • Above all, you will protect the flag as a symbol of our country, because it is more important than the people it represents
The above list does not exclude any other rights that Republicans see fit to take from me in the name of capitalism or freedom.

The American citizen

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha is a philosophical novel based on ancient Indian philosophy. Siddhartha is a young seeker of wisdom and understanding who leaves his home and his father to be an ascetic. He searches for truth with his friend Govinda. Together they life a poor life of fasting and meditation. When they meet the holy man Gautama, Siddhartha decides that he has nothing to learn from teachers, and leaves to live a different life.

He crosses a river with the help of a ferryman and starts a new life as a merchant. He finds joy in success and riches, and the love of a woman. Eventually he decides to give up his success and start all over again. He reaches the river and ends up staying with the ferryman, who helps him learn wisdom from the river. His friend Govinda shows up for a brief reunion. Siddhartha learns he has a son, but the son becomes rebellious and runs away. The ferryman convinces him to let the son go. Soon, Siddhartha discovers true wisdom in the river, and Govinda returns and sees understanding in Siddhartha's face.

I found the story to be an enlightening narrative of a search for truth. Siddhartha searches through asceticism, immersion in material matters, and communion with nature. He decides he has learned all he can from teachers and must conduct his own search. He goes from one extreme to the other, trying to experience different facets of life. From the river he learns the essential unity of the universe, and that time is an illusion hiding the truth that life exists in all states at once.

There was little suspense or mystery in the story aside from Siddhartha's mission for enlightenment. Other than Siddhartha, the characters are all elements of his education, only developed so far as to help him learn about life. As such, it is weakened as a narrative. Yet is still excels as a story of enlightenment. B